Member Spotlight: KidsQuest’s Putter Bert talks importance of play

Posted By: Sam Jones Member News,
Putter Bert has wanted to open a museum since she was 4 years old. 

As a kid she had a stutter — “I still do when I’m tired,” — and after speech therapy appointments, her mother would always reward her with a trip to the Boston Children’s Museum. When at home, she could be found building forts or playing with mud with her brothers, and eventually as a young adult, studied ceramics in college. 

In short: She has always loved to play. 

So now, as longtime President and CEO of Bellevue’s KidsQuest Children’s Museum, Bert makes an active effort to keep exhibits interesting yet simple; valuable yet accessible. 

In-person, tots can pick, collect, and carry toy apples to the kid-sized tractor, while older kids may problem solve in the machine-oriented “On the Go” room or traverse the two-story atrium climber. At home, particularly during the pandemic, kids could take activity kits and replicate the museum’s crafts and experiments with basic items found around the house. 

“I was quite proud of the fact that we were 70% earned income … Until no one came into our door anymore,” said Bert. “I had raised all this money to pay for a new roof, and the board said spend it anyway you need to stay present … We wanted to make sure that we’re doing the work both inside and outside of the museum.” 

The pandemic brought an onslaught of other changes to KidsQuest — a renewed strategic plan, drastic cuts in staff, and for many, a renewed sense of purpose. 

“Children’s families needed us more,” said Bert. “And for staff, I now know that I can’t just show up when I have meetings. I have lunch with them, and I play with them, and I bullshit with them in the office. That’s how we are … We’re family.” 

Since opening their first Factoria location in 2005, KidsQuest has been through a lot. But after all these years, how have they integrated into the community and stayed relevant? 
Here are some of Putter Bert’s secrets to play-driven success. 
  • SOMETIMES, BATHROOM TALK IS OKAY: “We share the bathroom with the public, we don’t have staff bathrooms, so I hear children talking to their parents and parents talking to their kids. I see parents panicking when there’s a blowout, and we can rescue that … I hear the truth in the bathroom, and I love that.”

  • USING TECH TO YOUR ADVANTAGE: “We put video cameras around the museum and tell the public that we are recording to see how people are using the museum, like if exhibits are in the right place and if we have the right components. It makes us smarter. We are lifelong learners running a lifelong organization, so we want to see what works well and what doesn’t work.”

  • CONTINUITY OF LEADERSHIP: “We are always changing, but my staff hasn’t changed. My leadership team has been here for a long time: 12 to 13 years. So this is why we’re family, and we support each other. Our service motto is that the visitor comes first (not necessarily that they are right), your coworkers come second, and your job comes third.” 

  • FIND THE STARS YOU CAN TRUST: “My team doesn’t need my permission. My job is to go out into the community and grab the shooting star and bring them in. And then, it’s their job.”

  • ALL ABOUT LOCATION: “Over the last 5 years, we’re more at tables that we weren’t at before, and moving downtown really changed that for us. People take us more seriously, and are realizing that we’re not a ‘nice to have,’ but a ‘necessary to have.’”