Like most parents of young kids, James Langton of Fort Myers has mastered the art of seeing like a fish—you know, each eye going in a different direction. Thank goodness for that because 4-year-old Gus has dashed one way toward the astronaut suits and rocket-building station, and 2-year-old Owen toddles in the opposite direction, to a giant game apparatus positioned just outside the “Race to Space” exhibit.
Langton, a police detective, is groomed for caution, but he also believes in giving his boys space to roam and explore. That is why the dad has trekked from Fort Myers to the Golisano Children’s Museum of Naples, C’mon, where he can safely let Gus and Owen take the place by storm. Which they do, in typical preschool fashion—a few minutes at Race to Space, a few in the banyan tree, a few at the fish pond, a few more at the Produce Market, where Owen likes to push a shopping cart and play cashier at a kid-sized register that beeps when he waves plastic food items in front of the scanner.
“Scan the cheese,” Langton encourages. “You can do it; you’re a big boy.”
A few feet away, another little boy shouts, “Mommy, I finished!” His mom glances at the timer on her cellphone. “Forty-one seconds,” she replies, and he prepares for his next dash. His mom catches another visitor’s grin. “Everything has to be timed,” she says.
For five years, C’mon has been delighting young visitors and their families—more than 720,000 of them. The museum was born in a dream—quite literally—back in the early 2000s, took about a decade to fund and develop, and opened in March 2012 to great fanfare.
“I think when the museum first opened, it was probably the most anticipated opening of any business that the county has ever experienced,” says Karysia Demarest, the executive director, who joined the C’mon effort early in its inception as a volunteer CPA before taking over the directorship in 2013. The founders had projected they’d serve 50,000 to 75,000 people a year. At the high end, that would have meant some 375,000 people by the five-year mark.
The line stretched around the building the first day, and staff tallied some thousand visitors by closing. The same happened the next day, and the next, and the next. Three months went by before anyone was able to catch a breath.
Things are somewhat more regulated now, and the staff knows when to brace for onslaughts, spurred by bad weather, school closures or end-of-week, mom-is-tired mornings.
But even if operations appear to be “settled,” the museum as a whole is not. This is not a bad thing (well, it was during the tumultuous learn-as-you-go first year), but rather a reflection of a philosophy of continual refinement. Exhibits change as parents offer feedback (Why is the toddler space at the top of the stairs?) and staff members watch kids’ reactions to different exhibits (green construction = boring; ice-walled igloo = awesome).
At the five-year mark, C’mon’s directors are ready to make some more big changes and are tiptoeing around the delicate conversation of replacements and restorations. Children’s museum exhibits last an average of seven years, Demarest says. In Naples, the tidal wave of kids “loved” the stuff to death within three.
“That validates how great a desire and a need there was for this,” Demarest says. “(The exhibits) are at their useful life, but we just came off of a $30 million capital campaign to build this. To go back to the community and say, ‘You know what, we need another $10 million because we now need to redo it…’—we are very cognizant of that.”
The next wave of designs will have markedly different attributes from the first. Before we talk change, let’s talk about the birth of this kids’ wonderland five years ago and the very different kind of education it offers—even if neither children nor parents realize the learning strategies embedded in the exhibits.
The mother of C’mon is the mother of a little girl who tragically died of bacterial meningitis at 13 months. About a year after losing Bianca, Allyson Loos dreamed the two were reunited, and Bianca was guiding her around a children’s museum.
“I have never had a dream like that again. I woke up and I felt compelled to start a museum, and I have no idea why,” Loos says. She recruited five friends to make the vision a reality, and the women delved headlong into the project. Just like parenting, they had no idea what to expect.
“I had no business starting a museum,” Loos reflects on a recent afternoon last summer. “But it just came together. It was just meant to be. The right people came together.”
Along the way, the founders picked up some of the community’s most influential philanthropists—Simone Lutgert, who spearheaded fundraising, Ralph and Shelly Stayer, and the museum’s namesake, Tom Golisano, who offered a $5 million matching grant in 2009 to kick-start stalling donations. It worked. The money rolled in, and the 30,000-square-foot building began to emerge on the grounds of North Collier Regional Park (the museum leases the land for a nominal fee but receives no county operating money).
Many children’s museums, Demarest says, begin as community redevelopment projects. They start small, often in storefronts, and gradually grow into bigger, more prestigious spaces.
“We didn’t do that,” she says. “Let’s open the Louis Vuitton of all children’s museums. What they determined early on is (that a small-scale project) wouldn’t have worked here. It wouldn’t work in this community. I can’t say I disagree with that philosophy. Trying to open it down in East Naples and grow it from there … it wasn’t gonna happen.”
Instead, the founders sunk $25 million of donated funds into a brightly colored, architecturally distinct building—much like a little kid determined to outshine his older brothers and sisters.
“If you want to have the respect from the beginning, you have to build a respected place,” says Beth Housewert, the director of play and learning.
The museum offers two floors worth of interactive exhibits, in addition to an expansive outdoor play yard. They reflect the input of countless community focus groups. There’s Mother Nature’s house, introducing Florida-born kids to the four seasons. There’s the ABC Toddler Lot, now downstairs, replacing a green construction exhibit that didn’t resonate with kids who were already well-versed in the idea of reduce, reuse, recycle. There’s a hall designated for traveling and temporary exhibits like Race to Space, an art studio, a maze where kids can learn about the Everglades, a WGCU Curious Kids Room for older children (No parents allowed!).
Exhibits hold multiple purposes. The Produce Market, for example, lets children practice real-world skills like grocery shopping. It’s adjacent to The Farm, where they learn all about Southwest Florida crops. The trolley encourages pretend play and also fine-motor skills. Race to Space prompts kids to learn about propulsion and aerodynamics by building paper rockets; encourages family interaction; and, of course, spurs imaginations with astronaut suits and planetary murals. That exhibit, incidentally, may become the first traveling exhibit designed and built by C’mon.
Child development research drives the designs. Consider the Toddler Lot. From the outside it looks merely like an enclosed play space for barefooted little ones. Look more closely. There’s a mirror, for example, strategically placed at the highest pull-up bar so babies can (1) practice standing (2) begin learning principles of balance, weight shifting and spatial awareness, and (3) see their reflections to encourage their emerging awareness of self.
The exhibits universally are designed to develop the “executive functions.” There are eight—impulse control, emotional control, flexible thinking, working memory, self-monitoring, planning and prioritizing, task initiation and organization. It’s the idea of, “No, you can’t hog all of the trains at the trolley table,” Housewert says.
“In school, (lessons are) content-based,” she explains. “When they’re here, we’re more focused on executive function and really creating a solid foundation for children to tackle school and to tackle life. Those children who have really strong executive function skills have been shown to have better graduation rates. They have been shown to be successful people further in life because those are the skills that you scaffold off of for everything else in life.”
But if you ask a kid, the place is all about fun.
The mom checking the timer for her son is Miracle Woertz of Naples. With her are track star-in-training Ronan, who is 6; 4-year-old Bronson, who is shadowing his big brother; and 8-year-old Arden, who is in a bright yellow dress on this overcast first day of summer vacation.
Arden happily agrees to play tour guide because she’s an aspiring young writer and can think of nothing better than helping out a grown-up writer.
“I have to show you my favorite part first,” she says, leading the way to the museum’s Family Resource Library.
If you are a bookish kind of kid, this is nirvana. Titles ranging from picture books to early readers to chapter books line the shelves. Giant stuffed animals sit on cushioned benches, and a puppet theater in the corner invites hours of storytelling.
“My name is Princess Hyacinth,” Arden says, slipping a puppet over her hand and changing her voice to a wavering falsetto. “It’s a very unusual name, but I’m named after a flower and so I’m fine with it.” Hyacinth lives in a castle made out of books. She has many friends, including Marina the Mermaid, who lives in a palace near the wreckage of the Titanic where she discovers many wonderful treasures.
Woertz peeks in to make sure little writer has not hijacked grown-up writer and then reminds Arden that she is now 8—a milestone at C’mon because she can now visit the kids-only WGCU Curious Kids room, designed for ages 8 to 14.
Arden’s eyes sweep the room—a medley of crafts, board games, art supplies, percussive instruments, Legos and computer terminals. Jonas Brothers radio plays over the sound system. Arden is drawn to the sewing table, a favorite of young visitors, where floor specialist Zey Sivri and volunteer Kylene Munn have laid out the materials for little monster plushie dolls. Arden picks two pieces of felt, green and blue. She’d like to sew a souvenir for each brother.
“I wonder if I can sew or draw little clothes on. That would be so cute,” she muses.
Sivri and Munn nod in agreement. “The kids can be really creative in here,” Sivri says. “And it’s nice that they can express themselves without their parents watching over them.”
Arden reaches into the button jar and selects mismatched eyes. She chooses light pink thread, and then tries poking threaded needle through the buttonhole. “I have no experience sewing a button,” she declares.
“Feel your way through to the hole,” Sivri encourages.
“I did it!” Arden exclaims after a few tries, drawing the needle through one hole and then returning it through the opposite.
She’d unknowingly just helped C’mon meet one of its goals: to promote new experiences and new discoveries with every visit.
In order to keep the place fresh and vibrant, C’mon staff had to make some tough choices.
In 2012, the newborn museum had the aspirations of an adolescent one—offering dozens of birthday party packages, workshops, special programs. “We were hemorrhaging cash,” Demarest says. Upon accepting the directorship, she chopped $1 million out of the budget, including eliminating 10 positions (which her predecessor had also recommended). The board, she says, was divided and the staff stressed.
But board members, Demarest says, trusted her to stabilize the place. In September 2013, cash flow turned positive. Today, the building is paid off, operations have been in the black for three years, there’s money in reserve, and the administrators have gradually built and expanded programs such as homeschool days and sensory nights for children with special needs. Since opening, C’mon has generated $3.2 million in admissions revenue and successfully landed $1.5 million worth of grants.
“All of our executive directors were here at the right time in their careers,” Housewert says. “We had awesome fundraisers and design visionaries to get us started. … Now Karysia is the one who is going to take us further.”
“Further” means making different choices as exhibits get refreshed and refurbished. Original installations, Demarest explains, were built by out-of-town designers at tremendous cost and without easy or affordable ways to repair or update them. The museum is now working with a Florida-based designer who will make new exhibit components easier to swap, fix and revive.
“Further” means adapting to a changing (and aging) audience. The next big overhaul will take place on the second floor, where the directors want to install a “Makers Space” for older children to invent, create and explore concepts like engineering and design. Ultimately, they’d like to see a separate building for teens. They’re planting the seeds for that idea because, as the founding members discovered, such dreams take many years to become reality.
“We want to keep growing with the kids,” Demarest says.
Loos, C’mon’s visionary, no longer has young children; her son, Bianca’s older brother, is now in college. But she continues to delight in what the museum offers to the next wave of young children and the community’s ability to bring to life an institution unlike any other in the region.
“I like that we’re a cultural facility where I would like to think that even individuals who have never been to a museum feel welcome and comfortable,” says Loos, whose children—even Bianca in babyhood—had loved museum visits. “When children are comfortable, that’s when they have the best capacity for learning.”
C’mon’s top five tips for making your visit great
Play alongside your child
This is your opportunity to be a kid again and help your children on their learning path. Having quality time with your children helps their brains develop emotional control, mental flexibility and many other executive function skills.
Show your child it’s OK to explore and try things that you may not have done before. Go into it with the idea that each new challenge brings a new discovery … or lesson learned.
Let your child be your tour guide
Whether they have been to the museum before or not, following their lead is best way for them to find their own zone for success.
Bring your school-aged children, too
They love to practice their independence and expand their social skills in the Curious Kids room, volunteer to accomplish scholarship hours and become a great role model for younger visitors.
Bring your imagination
Kids sometimes have new ways to learn or play—go with it, try out something new! Each time they take a risk, their brains are making new connections and building frameworks from their own trial-and-error experiences.