Everywhere you look in the Florida Children’s Museum, there is something colorful, fun and exciting to see or do – from a giant sculpture of Blinky the Alligator, the reassembled flying dragon made of toys moved from the Kentucky Street building, and an indoor playground to a small theater, sound-wave generator, and even a place to play dress-up – complete with brand new costumes.

While Bonnet Springs Park is hosting its grand opening extravaganza Oct. 22 and 23, the Florida Children’s Museum, located at Bonnet Springs, will host its grand re-opening on Nov. 4 and 5, with donor openings Oct. 24-28 and member openings on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1.

LkldNow received a tour from the museum’s partner, The Carol Jenkins Barnett United Way Children’s Resource Center, which shares the building and the fun.

“Our goal is to create strong, happy, healthy children in our community,” said Gretchen Ceranic, director of United Way’s Success By 6, an umbrella of programs to help nurture families.

Workers reassemble the Florida Children’s Museum flying dragon

Success By 6 is working to creating a community in which all children, “by the age of 6, have the mental, physical, social, and emotional foundation needed to grow into healthy, productive members of the community,” using resources provided by private businesses, government, religious groups, educators, and health and human service organizations.

The resource center provides support for parents and caregivers of children aged 0-6, as well as for expectant moms and dads. It will utilize spaces in the museum and offer a variety of paths to help families become successful, including:

  • Pre-birth classes
  • Parenting classes
  • Monthly developmental screenings
  • Tutoring
  • Financial stability classes
  • Supervised visitation
  • Healthcare navigators
  • Peer support groups
  • Breastfeeding support groups
  • And age-level groups

Jenkins Barnett, daughter of the late Publix founder George Jenkins, started Success By 6 in 1995 to help children become proficient readers by the third grade, which can be an early indicator of lifetime achievement. In 2001, the Family Fundamentals program began.

In a video recorded before she descended into Alzheimer’s disease, Jenkins Barnett encouraged people throughout Florida to join her and her husband Barney Barnett to help children learn to read. Jenkins Barnett passed away in December.

YouTube video

“We so strongly believe that the future of our state rests in the hands and minds of our youngest that we are personally giving $3 million … to launch an early literacy initiative in 10 Florida regions,” Jenkins Barnett said in the video. “Our goal – to ensure that more children are reading at grade level by the end of third grade. This is about our communities, our state, and, most importantly, our children.”

Barney Barnett gave an alarming statistic: “Our state has a sad truth — nearly a third of all our public school third-graders struggle with reading and in many cases can’t read at all. Sadly, these children will be four times more likely to drop out of high school.”

A worker measures wallpaper in the resource center classroom.

The Carol Jenkins Barnett United Way Resource Center is on the south side of the building, which is white and adorned in primary colors. It faces Bonnet Springs Park’s Great Lawn and neighbors The Depot Restaurant and Ice Cream Shop. A receptionist will greet resource center patrons and to the right is a supervised visitation room for parents to play and read with their children. A facilitator will not only supervise the visits but also model appropriate interactions and reinforce positive behavior. Free books and resources will be available.

Workers on Thursday morning were hanging colorful wallpaper in a large classroom tucked into the rear of the space. This classroom will offer learning stations for:

  • Circle time
  • Story time
  • Music and Movement
  • Art
  • Housekeeping
  • Science
  • Math and Manipulatives
  • Writing

Statistics show that the resource center’s programs are needed: 27% of Polk County’s children live in households that receive public assistance, which can be an indicator that a child will struggle in school. The resource center notes that “children who start behind, usually stay behind.”

In addition, nearly half of Florida’s voluntary pre-kindergarten students are not ready to start school.

“If children don’t develop properly when they are young, they are more likely to drop out of school, go to jail, become a teen parent and/or require government assistance,” the resource center’s website states, adding that the results are higher taxes and less personal safety. “If we don’t take action now, we will continue to create a permanent segment of society who cannot participate fully in community life.”

Other programs the resource center works closely with include:

  • ReadingPals – a statewide early literacy initiative that matches volunteer mentors with students from Voluntary Prekindergarten (VPK) to third grade who may need extra help for at least an hour a week.
  • Born Learning – a public engagement campaign that helps parents, grandparents and caregivers explore ways to turn everyday moments into fun learning opportunities.
  • Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library – provides children with a free new book every month through their fifth birthday. Thanks to local sponsors, nearly 17,300 books were mailed to area children in the 2020-2021 school year.
  • Master Teachers – provides intense on-the-job training for childcare paraprofessionals.

In the Florida Children’s Museum, an indoor playground called The Watermelon Gallery uses a colorful fruit and water theme to engage the imaginations and bodies of children, from infants to 6-year-olds, as they climb, explore and play.

A Black Box theater will help budding performers learn their craft.

A worker hangs the Black Box Theater sign.

Upstairs, older children will learn about grocery shopping at a mini-Publix and how the citrus industry works.  A green-screen room will show kids some of the secrets of video production, while classroom spaces provide a place for artists to create.

Tickets to get into the Florida Children’s Museum are $15 per person. Children under 2 years old enter for free. Discounts are available to seniors, teachers and their families, military personnel and their families, EBT Snap cardholders and AAA members.

Annual family memberships to The Florida Children’s Museum start at $120 and include one adult and one child. Each additional qualifying family member is $20 and include a spouse, children, partner, household members, grandparents, nannies or sitters.

Families utilizing the CJB/UW Resource Center enter for free.

Kimberly C. Moore is an award-winning reporter and a Lakeland native.  She can be reached at kimberly@lkldnow.com or 863-272-9250.

SEND CORRECTIONS, questions, feedback or news tips: newstips@lkldnow.com

Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to LkldNow in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at kimberly@lkldnow.com or 863-272-9250.

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