15 questions with Florida Children’s Museum CEO Kerry Falwell

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Photo provided by Kerry Falwell. | Graphic via 6AM City

Kerry Falwell is the CEO of Florida Children’s Museum, a hands-on space for children, formerly known as Explorations V Children’s Museum. We sat down with Kerry to ask her our burning questions about the museum’s past + future.

Q: Tell us your name, title, and something you want people to know about you.

A: My name is Kerry Falwell. My title is Chief Executive Officer of the Florida Children’s Museum, formerly known as Explorations V Children’s Museum. I am the proud mom of a 10-year-old boy, Zachary. Together we’re learning about Tourette’s and what it means for a kid who’s a little different from everyone else.

Q: How did you get involved with the museum?

A: I was working as the Director of Education and Community Partnerships at the Glazer Children’s Museum. I was ready for the next step professionally, and we came over to play as a family. I was taken by how intentional the play was. The magic was happening, and it was happening organically. I needed to be part of that.

Q: Describe a day in the life of a children’s museum CEO.

A: Right now, it’s a lot of going out to the construction site, seeing what’s happening, picking out countertop colors, and checking paint samples.

I’m probably going to be on a two-hour call with the exhibit designer, talking about safety protocols and inclusion aspects, but there’s always time to go out on the floor. I like to spend time with the guests. That’s always my favorite part of the day.

Q: Convince a friend to move to Lakeland in 15 words or less

A: Lakeland is an emerging city that is having a lot of fun figuring out what they want to be.

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Watching the sun set on Lake Mirror is Lakelander 101. | Photo by LALtoday, Graphic via 6AM City

Q: The coolest person I’ve met in Lakeland is _____.

A: The first person I met that I was totally blown away with was Bump Galletta. My second answer is the folks who come up to me and say “I loved playing in the museum when I was five” or “my kids grew up there.” Every day, someone comes up and tells me a memory, either of them as a child or taking their children or grandchildren there. It means everything to me.

Q: Can you give us any hints about what will be happening in the old location?

A: The building has had a rich history over about 95 years. It was The Kress Building, then, the county bought it and it was the county courthouse. There are two jail sales in the basement. There’s an elevator in the building with a three-digit serial number, which means it was one of the first elevators installed in the country.

It’s a really incredible piece of history, so it was very intentional by the board’s executive committee to find a partner in the sale of the building who could preserve the history of the building. It will be well loved. It is someone who knows the importance of what they’re getting.

Q: What element of the new museum are you most excited about?

A: I’m most excited about seeing how people curate their own experiences in this new space. We listen to the community very purposefully; one of the things that we heard loud and clear was that they didn’t want intimate play environments to go away. We’re creating a fluid transition between when a child’s learning on their own, which is called free play, and when our educators are stepping in and doing some guided play.

Q: What’s happening to your old exhibits?

A: There are three things coming with us. The fire truck and the sheriff’s car, those were hand-built by the first responders they represent. The third thing coming with us is Dot, our dragon of toys that hangs in our lobby. Our [new] lobby was specially designed so that Dot could come with us.

The new Lakeland History Center has identified pieces that they want to take into their collection of pieces of Lakeland history. Some [pieces] will go into our storage, in the hopes that they’ll be repurposed down the road.

Q: What impact do you think the museum is going to have on children?

A: This exhibit is opening right as a significant body of research is being published. Research is showing that guided play has the greatest impact on a child’s ability to retain knowledge. When you introduce a children’s museum environment and guided play, a child’s ability to understand a concept increases exponentially. I’m concerned with getting them interested in staying curious. We want them to continually ask questions, and we want those questions to elevate.

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We’re excited about all of the new exhibits. | Rendering courtesy of Florida Children’s Museum

Q: Tell me about the new programs that the museum is offering.

A: We have a black box theater that’s just about 4,000 sqft. We’re hosting The Florida Dance Theater as an artist in residence. Presenting performing arts, theater, and visual arts to young children in age-appropriate and developmentally-appropriate ways is going to be a major expansion of something we’ve been doing for 30 years.

Another part of our programming you’re going to see is our partnership with United Way of Central Florida. You’re going to start to see intentional partnerships in this intersection of social services and early childhood education. You can’t serve a child without serving their entire ecosystem.

Probably the biggest change in our programming is our ability to do environmental and outdoor education. We heard everyone loud and clear – they wanted safe educational outdoor play, and so just under 8,000 sqft is the Harrell Family Charities Front Yard, an enclosed outdoor play space for kids. That’s where we’re going to talk about everything from horticulture to environmental engineering to safe, healthy outdoor play and risk taking. There’s an area where we’re able to properly display our fossil collection so we can talk about what is under our feet in Florida. That’s been powered by Mosaic, which is an extension of our partnership.

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The Harrell Family Charities Front Yard (see Blinky in the corner?) | Rendering via Florida Children’s Museum

Rendering via Florida Children’s Museum

Q: Speaking of the outdoor space, we love Blinky here at LAL. How did he become the image that you wanted to use for the 100-ft outdoor play structure?

A: I wanted to create a large sculptural element that kids gravitated towards, something that would become iconic and represent Florida. I was doing a partner tour, and there was an alligator on the side of the road. I got a napkin out and sketched an alligator and went back to the office and said, “What if we made this the size of the semi truck?” We called him “the 100-foot alligator,” and it never went away.

Because I’m not from Lakeland, I was educated by Bill Tinsley, an enormous visionary for Bonnet Springs Park. Back in the day, when the actual Blinky was alive and it was time to move him, they called a young Parks and Rec guy to wrangle him up and take him out to the preserve, and that was Bill Tinsley. So, it’ll be a beautiful play structure for kids and it’s gonna get them really excited about healthy risk taking, but it’s also my very subtle thank you to Bill.

Q: What’s one thing you want every Lakeland parent or grandparent to know about the new museum?

A: Every child will guide their experience differently. This is a place to explore, a place to make mistakes. There’s no intended outcome, just enjoy the process.

Q: How was the museum designed with inclusivity in mind?

A: We spent about $500,000 in additional dollars trying to make it as inclusive as possible. We worked with national experts in autism education and local leaders in various disabilities rights. We worked with CARD, the Center for Autism and Related Diseases, to become an autism-friendly business.

Q: The museum is going to incorporate all five senses. Which of these is going to provide the most unique learning experience?

A: We were called Explorations V when we were founded in 1991, for the five senses. For 30 years, we’ve been designing all of our programming around sensory learning. When you walk into a new space, there are different sounds that you hear. There are physical pieces, like a vibrating bench, so if hearing is not your strongest sense, you can still sit like Beethoven used to and feel the vibrations of the music.

Q: What makes you laugh?

A: My son and kids in general. They’re the greatest.