Parents, volunteers come together to form children’s museum

While the weather outside is frightful, being inside The Village can be so delightful.

Cindy Furr, of Bird Island, uses colored paint markers on the Plexiglas wall with her grandson Dominick at The Village, a new children’s museum in Willmar. Photo by Scott Thoma

Citing a need for a community indoor playground and cultural learning center to combat the harsh winters, three families saw their dreams come to fruition with the grand opening of The Village Children’s Museum on Jan. 29 in Willmar.

“Last fall, a friend invited me to visit the newly opened children’s museum in Hutchinson,” said Paula Smith. “I had three young girls at the time, ages 4, 2 and 10 months. We spend a few hours at the museum, and our kids had a blast.”

On her way back home, the light bulb went off in Smith’s head, feeling a similar museum would be ideal for Willmar.

“I asked a mom what she thought about the idea, and she got excited,” Smith said. “I was excited about it, too. I started asking a few other moms what they thought and I heard nothing but positive feedback, saying they would really appreciate an indoor place for the kids in the winter.”

Because of the growing diversity in Kandiyohi County, and Willmar in particular, the museum would be an ideal venue “for people to connect cross-culturally.” It is an ideal setting for parents and grandparents to bring their children and grandchildren and release some pent-up energy while also learning as they play.

Paula and her husband, Jeron Smith, teamed up with Mike and Noelle Lee as the original business partners and entrepreneurs for the museum project. Not long after, Jayme and Sarah VanBeek joined them.

Paula Smith is the executive director of The Village, while Sarah VanBeek is the treasurer and Jeron Smith is the secretary. In addition, there are six others who are advisory board members made up mostly of spouses and others who invested in the project.

A girl picks out produce at the play grocery store.
Photo by Scott Thoma

“The group of people who have spent hours doing demolition, building, painting, and many other projects is very large,” Paula Smith said. “It has been done completely through volunteers. Some of these volunteers include a few retired men that we know well who were excited about the project.”

There are currently about 10 volunteers who help staff the nonprofit museum and teach classes regularly at the museum.

The building that houses The Village was originally a popular roller rink for many years.

“That location was of immediate interest to us,” said Smith. “We knew that the inside was a wide-open space, and we felt the location would serve Willmar well.”

After an inspection of the inside of the building, however, it was discovered that it was in need of a lot of renovations and repairs.

“It was hard imagining it as a children’s museum,” said Smith. But the Smiths and Lees were in agreement that the project should move forward anyway, and they signed a lease.

The name of the facility is actually two-fold: referencing the old adage “It takes a village” to accomplish a large project, as well as the inside of the 5,600 square foot facility being designed to mimic a small village, complete with various shops and activities.

An overhead view of the front of the museum, including a check-in desk and other activity stations. Photo by Scott Thoma

With Willmar’s escalating diversity in recent years, the idea for The Village is also for children of all cultures to learn and play together in one setting.

“We needed a place for children to learn and play in the winter,” explained Paula. “There just isn’t a lot for kids to do when it’s so cold outside. We have a lot of parks and things to do in the summer, but we felt this was something to keep kids active in the winter months.”

And unlike many museums, there are no “Do Not Touch” signs at this museum; in fact, this museum is quite the opposite.

“Children’s museums are places where kids interact with toys,” explained Smith. “An essential part of a child’s development is exploring and using their imaginations. We’ve created an environment that allows them to do just that.

While most young kids quickly get bored playing with the same toy or activity, there is enough here to keep them busy throughout their stay.

“He just moves from one thing to another,” said one mother about her son. “I can’t keep up with him. He likes everything and wants to be sure that he gets a chance to play with everything before we leave.”

The Village is organized, clean, safe and brightly decorated. There is one paid employee, while the remaining workers are all volunteers.

“We are always looking for volunteers,” said Paula.

Cindy Furr, of Bird Island, heard about the facility and purchased a membership to make the 30-mile trip in order to take her grandson, Dominick.

“He loves it here,” she said while seated at the play restaurant area while her grandson made her a sandwich out of the play food. “It’s really nice and clean, and there are so many things to do. It does look like a little village.”

Many grandparents utilize The Village’s activities as a way to spend quality time with the grandchildren.

“I have as much fun here as he does,” said Furr.

The doctor’s office is one of the more popular areas of the museum. Photo by Scott Thoma

Besides a restaurant that features a large number of play food items and appliances, there is also a doctor’s office, school room, observation deck, construction zone, farming and gardening area, grocery store, soft play area, large tubular slide, activity tables, and an arts and crafts area.

There is also a global learning area where children can learn about other cultures in the world. On the wall are 26 cards that show how to say “hello” in 26 languages.

“We did a lot of research into other children’s museums to learn what to put inside our museum,” said Smith. “We sought input from several families, and came up with some of our own ideas. The kids are free to be a doctor, chef, baker, cashier, construction worker, scientist, explorer, farmer, teacher and more.

And because of the advanced technology in today’s society, children are spending less time expanding their imaginations.

“We wanted to make this a place where a child’s creativity is celebrated,” Smith noted. “They learn to play with other kids. They learn to embrace people of other cultures. And just as importantly, parents learn to enjoy their child’s imagination and even step into their creative world with them.”

Adults or guardians can interact with the children or grandchildren in any of the play and learning areas. Or they can socialize with other adults while their children to enjoy some “free” time.

Several of the items in the museum were purchased from the Children’s Museum in St. Paul.

The majority of the space in the building is used for the museum area. There are two small classroom spaces for adult education and for special events, such as birthday parties.

Exhibits and activities will change throughout the winter months for a “fresh look” and to allow the children a chance to adapt to new surroundings and learn new things.

“We are continuing to pursue grants that would allow us financially to further develop exhibits,” said Smith. “We are also putting together an exhibit development team that will brainstorm and plan exhibits for the future of the museum. We have been connecting with the Children’s Museum in the Cities, as well as the Rochester Children’s Museum. Both of those places have been a huge help.”

Donations have come from businesses, individuals and the Willmar Area Community Foundation, which awarded grants to the project.

Yearly memberships are available, as well as daily admission fees. The facility is also available for birthday parties or special events.

Many preschool groups come to The Village. Field trips and special events are encouraged.

The Village marked its grand opening in January and already has over 50 memberships.

Museum hours are 9 a.m.-1 p.m. on Mondays and Fridays, 3:30-7 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and 2-8 p.m. on Saturdays. The Village is closed on Wednesdays and Sundays.

The Village is located on 1312 Lakeland Drive SE on the eastern edge of town. For more information, call 320-444-7360, email or visit their website at