Explorations V Children’s Museum disguises learning with a lot of fun

Photography by Tina Sargeant

“I am bored.” This time of year, these three small, deceptively simple words can drive any parents to their wits’ end. Your entertainment budget, if it exists, has been stretched to its thinnest by the magic cocktail of theme-park visits, beach trips, vacations, camps, and anything else you’ve concocted to prevent those words from being uttered aloud. As the
hot, humid Florida summer languishes on, so does your family’s increasing irritability. The daily afternoon deluges disrupt pool time; the mosquito bites appear to grow closer together. You could swear that just last week you saw a little bit of your child’s brain start oozing out of her ears as she watched Frozen for the millionth time. Before erupting into a Louis C.K.-style rant about the infinite nature of the human mind, take a short trip downtown to Explorations V Children’s Museum, an organization offering an indoor, air-conditioned, and entertaining opportunity for parents and children to connect through learning.
While most museums are tied to a certain discipline or subject, Explorations V, like many children’s museums, covers many subjects within its walls. Historically, museums have been closely aligned with broad-based educational goals, tracing their roots to wealthy Renaissance scholars’ private studios which were used for housing and studying their collections of natural history specimens, antiquities, and art. Because these often amateur scholars’ interests varied so greatly, no single word could adequately describe the spaces that they eventually showed to visitors and competed to fill with greater and grander finds. Invented to serve this purpose, the term “museum” comes from “seat of the Muses,” the nine goddesses of Greek and Roman mythology who preside over the arts and sciences, ranging from flute playing to astronomy. Children’s museums, in their varied subjects, most closely resemble these scholars’ early endeavors.

If you’ve begun to feel a little uncomfortable with the amount of television your children have watched this summer, or if you want to actively prevent them from losing the knowledge they gained during the school year, engage them in activities that feel more like fun and less like lesson time.

Generally, children’s museums cover such broad ranges of subjects in order to encourage curiosity and playful learning. Careful strategizing successfully incorporates fun, excitement, and educational goals, typically within a decided pedagogical model. Museum staff members understand different types of childhood learning, from infancy to elementary school, and finetune exhibits to serve these different age levels and needs. Additional programming provides further educational opportunities. At children’s museums, the idea is to increase common skills in mathematics, science, and the arts, or help foster creativity and critical thinking rather than educate solely on one specific subject. A more recent goal has become connecting parents and children in active ways, assisting parents in helping their children reach academic achievements.
Museums and libraries, particularly children’s museums, have received greater attention as debates about American education continue to rage and the importance of supplemental educational experiences gains increasing cultural significance. Children’s museums occupy an even greater role in discussions of summer learning loss. While summer may provide
a welcome respite from the daily grind of school, programs, and activities, it often also engenders the loss of knowledge attained in the previous year. Studies show that each summer break can eliminate one to two months of a student’s academic knowledge, if not more. Typically, children whose parents engage them
in informal but educational summer activities, such as music lessons and summer camps, do not suffer the same losses. Summer learning loss also plays a large role in the increasing achievement gap among children from low-income families who can’t afford the time or finances requisite for participation in these opportunities. An incredibly complex issue without a simple resolution, summer learning loss has certainly presented children’s museums with an even greater need to offer meaningful learning experiences to a wide range of audiences.
Explorations V Children’s Museum provides Polk County parents with a supplemental educational resource in their backyard, of particular value when considering the length of the drive and cost of related institutions in Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Orlando. First developed in 1989, a group of volunteer parents and professionals, under the leadership of Krista Yurchak, surveyed children’s museums and created educational outreach activities covering various subjects to gauge community support.
Since opening its doors in July 1991, the museum has aimed to provide “a hands-on, fun-filled adventure in learning for children and their families.” Its name reflects the organization’s goal of engaging its visitors with all five of their senses, leading to a richer experience. Today, Explorations V is housed in Downtown Lakeland’s Kress Building. It contains three floors of exhibit spaces, with the lower floors comprised of permanent installations that stimulate activity, and temporary exhibits in the upper floor that bring new subjects to the region.
Complementing Florida Sunshine State Standards for pre-kindergarten through fifth grade classroom education, the exhibits at Explorations V offer a simple, accessible point for parents to assist in their children’s learning process. Ranging in topics from weather systems to orange-juice production, the displays showcase the history, industries, and activities that are particularly unique to this area. Because of this regional nature, the exhibits have strong potential to help parents reconnect with facts or ideas while out in the community. For example, the information found in a display about Lakeland’s swans provides good talking points for a trip to feed the ducks around Lake Morton. Fun lessons learned while “shopping” in a child-sized Publix can be reiterated on the normally mundane, if not challenging, trip to the grocery store. “Born Learning” stations, one of the many outcomes of Explorations V’s successful relationship with the United Way, assist parents by explaining talking points for conversations that will help their children learn in a relaxed manner, as well as giving further suggestions for how to create daily learning opportunities. Pamphlets alongside each station can be taken home for further study. Of course, the exhibits are also fun! As Georgann Carlton, the museum’s chief executive officer, says, “Children love this place. We hear ‘Wow!’ and ‘Cool!’ and laughter every day. There’s nothing like the sound of happy children — it’s contagious.” Beyond the regional exhibits, special exhibitions give parents a chance to expand their children’s horizons to new ideas. Currently, the museum’s second floor houses a special exhibition about Russian artist Marc Chagall. Small stations at a child’s scale display images of Chagall’s work and explain some of his ideas while providing activities to help children relate. Activities range from trying weaving skills on a miniature loom to using shapes to suggest animals in a composition. Accompanied by plentiful reading materials, adults may gain just as much knowledge about an artist who is sometimes misunderstood.
109 North Kentucky Avenue
Lakeland, FL 33801
While the museum’s exhibits certainly help foster an educational connection between parent and child, its program offerings also support different modes of learning. Daily programs target preschoolers and prepare them for school, engaging them in fun activities to enhance literacy, creativity, and skills in mathematics and science. Funded through Disney’s Helping Kids Shine grant, the After School with the Arts & Sciences program offers low-income children bus transportation to a safe environment in which to complete homework, have a healthy snack, and participate in art, science, and outdoor activities.
Explorations V hosts camps over school breaks, as well as during the summer. Daylong camps for older children center on activities based in STEAM education. Carlton explains, “STEAM Adventure Camp engages elementary children in Foundational Life Skills: working memory, emotional control, sustained attention, task initiation, and organization while
participating in science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics activities, and helps them achieve academic success through targeted tutoring.”
Another summer offering, Storybook Camp, offers school readiness and literacy programs to low-income children registered for kindergarten, primarily increasing vocabulary skills. Not to be limited to children’s programming, Explorations V has also recently begun Financial Fitness for Families classes, funded in part by the United Way, at various locations throughout Polk County. Through this program, free tax preparation is also available from February through April.
If you’ve begun to feel a little uncomfortable with the amount of television your children have watched this summer, or if you want to actively prevent them from losing the knowledge they gained during the school year, engage them in activities that feel more like fun and less like lesson time. Explorations V gives Lakeland’s parents, especially those feeling overwhelmed with taking on this challenge, an excellent starting point in this process. Explorations V can spark conversations and foster a learning environment for your children that will enliven them beyond the walls of school and carry them through the summer.