Explorations V Children’s Museum by Eric Mohrman

Explorations V Children’s Museum
By Eric Mohrman

The historic Kress building next to downtown Lakeland’s picturesque Munn Park houses an unassuming community gem called Explorations V Children’s Museum. Polk County’s only children’s museum offers a fun, stimulating, educational environment for local families.

Step inside and the expanse of ground-floor exhibits immediately signals a well-stocked, diverse approach to teaching kids about sciences, art and history. A dragon sculpture made of toys flies overhead.

This is one of three floors of interactive displays for kids up to age 12. They’re curated to inform and entertain while engaging the five senses (hence the Roman numeral in the museum’s name). On the ground level, kids can hop in a police car, fire truck and hot air balloon, play astronaut in a space shuttle, plunge into Earth’s water cycle, put on their own newscast, theater production or piano concert, learn about Lakeland’s swans, and shop in the “Explore Store,” a kid-sized replica of a Publix supermarket, among other things.

The museum, located at 109 N. Kentucky Ave., strives “to provide a hands-on, fun-filled adventure in learning for children and their families,” says Brenda Paul, Public Relations Director for Explorations V. But the museum is more than the sum of its parts, and its effects can transcend an individual visit. The institution commonly plays a pivotal role during the formative years, as Paul explains.

“We are often the very first museum children experience, whether it be the result of a field trip or a visit with parents, grandparents or other adult caregivers. That first experience is monumental in freeing a child’s curiosity and creativity and sparking a life-long love of learning.”

Such experiences have been part of Polk County life for almost a quarter-century now. Founded in 1991, Exploration V has already achieved a multi-generational status.

Lakeland resident Christine Santos remembers childhood field trips to the museum with her school. Now a homeschooler with three girls, ages 3, 6, and 9, she bought a family membership to visit the museum as often as her schedule permits.

She appreciates that all her children become engrossed, even with their age differences. “It’s three floors of things for the girls to play with, so it gives each of them things to do and they enjoy it. It keeps them occupied so long, it’s a little bit of a break,” the mother laughs.

Her girls are especially fond of the lower-level play area and exhibition called “‘O’ is for Oranges, From Seed to Our World.” The sprawling setup lets kids delve into various aspects of the citrus industry. They harvest oranges, send them off through pipes, operate a juice factory, and climb around and slide in a tree house (the latter being somewhat less traditional to working in the citrus business).

“‘O’ is for Oranges” consistently comes in a close second after the “Explore Store” for favorite exhibit according to visitor surveys, notes Paul. The lower level also features a toddler play area and historical exhibits about America, Africa, Asia, and Australia for children at the older end of the museum’s target demographics.

Echoing Paul’s reported exhibit rankings, when asked about her 7-year-old son’s favorite exhibits, Lakeland resident Lisa Royan responds, “He always loves the grocery store and the orange juice factory.” She adds, “There’s a really nice variety there, and even though it’s not a huge museum, they fit a lot of interesting things into it.”

The variety—and fitting it all in—fall under the purview of Eddie Kleissler, Explorations V’s Director of Exhibits and Facilities. He says some exhibitions are designed and built in-house and some are supplied by partners; “‘O’ is for Oranges” came from Tampa’s Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI), for example.

When accepting displays from elsewhere, “There are challenges rehabilitating, altering and integrating these components into our museum, but it is well worth the effort to provide our visitors with new experiences when they return,” Kleissler says.

Temporary exhibitions are also key to providing fresh material. Kleissler tries to bring in two per year, looking for offerings online and through the Association of Children’s Museums and considering solicitations from groups that rent out displays.

He makes determinations based largely on age-appropriateness and relevance to the museum’s mission. Of course, practicalities like the space and funds available factor in, too.

A large-scale exhibit called “Turtle Travels” is slated for 2015. It includes a 12-foot by 24-foot board game to teach children about challenges turtles face, like habitat fragmentation and the international pet trade. It also features a Crittercam showing swimming loggerhead sea turtles, information about turtle anatomy, a crawl-under aquatic tank for close observation of turtles and more.

Dedicated temporary exhibit space is on the museum’s upper level. There’s also plenty of cool stuff to look at, including a children’s art gallery, a giant kaleidoscope and a close-up view of the Dragon of Toys. An array of scientific and puzzle exhibits fill out the floor.

The Adventurer’s Room is upstairs as well, used for birthday parties and other events. Explorations V hosts birthday parties for up to 10 children, even providing a number of themed options.

Royan had her son’s fourth birthday party at the museum. “It was great, we had a lot of fun, all the kids who came loved playing at the museum, and the museum staff was really helpful. Everybody really enjoyed it,” she says enthusiastically.

Explorations V also offers a variety of community programs, such as the themed daily programs that begin each weekday at 10:30 a.m. They’re free to members or included with the $7 admission price.

For example, Terrific Tuesdays focus on fine and gross motor skill development and school readiness for preschoolers, while kids learn about and make healthy snacks on Wacky Wednesdays. Fun Fridays are for exploring creativity through crafts.

Paul points to “After School with the Arts & Sciences” as a great asset the museum offers local families. “The program not only allows students to explore the museum’s exhibits, but also to participate in structured activities presented by museum staff and/or local artists and scientists, as well as receive homework assistance,” she says.

Monthly homeschool sessions are held, covering an array of science and culture topics for homeschooled kids ages 5 to 12. Tutoring and test preparation assistance are also available for students of all ages. They can get help preparing for end-of-course exams, SATs, ACTs, FCATs and PARCCs.

Additionally, the museum offers spring break and summer camps. The latter include Storybook Camp for kindergarten readiness and weekly themed camps for kids ages 6 to 12. More than 60 children participated in the first week of summer camps this year, according to Paul.

While the museum is hard at work serving the community, it depends on community members, private and corporate donors, sponsors, local and state organizations, and volunteers to keep it going.

“Our community continues to support Explorations V through its attendance and membership,” says Paul. She encourages area residents to take advantage of membership, which provides many benefits and “offers families the ability to visit the museum for an entire year for one low price, beginning at $70 per year.”

Explorations V participates in the Florida Children’s Museums Reciprocal Program, so membership also means free admission to other state museums (often with some restrictions). The Children’s Museum of the Highlands in Sebring, Tampa’s MOSI, Great Explorations in St. Petersburg and a number of other institutions all around the state participate.

Explorations V Children’s Museum is an important Polk County educational and cultural institution. To learn more about the museum, exhibits, programs, membership, birthday parties, sponsorship and other opportunities, call 863-687-3869 or visit ExplorationsV.com.