The South Carolina Aquarium is zeroing in on its prime market — preschoolers.
A new Kids Coast play area for toddlers, which is part of an expanding preschool education program, was released for action Friday morning. It's an enclosed area on the second floor, by windows overlooking Charleston Harbor, with soft sea creatures for children to climb on or listen to stories or lessons.
"It's our single largest demographic," S.C. Aquarium CEO Kevin Mills said of preschoolers.
About 60,000 toddlers, accompanied by adults, visited last year, he said.
"That provides us with an enormous opportunity to open their eyes to the natural world and to set them on the pathway to environmental stewardship," he said.
The play area was built with part of a $150,000 grant from the PNC Foundation, which is funded by the PNC Financial Services Group, the parent company of PNC Bank. The grant will also pay for an expansion next year, including a room for nursing mothers, according to aquarium spokeswoman Bethany Kelley.
The grant will also allow the aquarium to expand its traveling preschool Rover program. Staff have been visiting childcare centers throughout the state to reach children who otherwise might not have access to a scientific curriculum, Mills said. PNC had already contributed $75,000 to those efforts.
The aquarium's focus on children coincides with PNC's $350 million PNC Grow Up Great early childhood education initiative, according to Rebecca Quinn-Wolf, the bank's director of client and community relations for the eastern Carolinas.
"We are proud of the work and the impact the Aquarium is having in the early childhood space," she said at the ribbon cutting Friday. "This will create a permanent home here in the aquarium for our youngest learners."
Jim Hansen, PNC Financial Services Group's regional president, is on the aquarium's board of directors.
"PNC believes that science is an integral part of early childhood development and that achievement in our community happens when we work together," Hansen said in a statement.
PNC Bank, one of the biggest lenders in the country, operates 10 retail branches in South Carolina, including one each in downtown Charleston and Mount Pleasant.