Researching Children Under 5 in Museums – Part 5: Immersion vs Activity in Exhibition Spaces

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For the past year, the Humber Museums Partnership under 5s team have been collaborating with Abi Hackett and Lisa Proctor on a project to discover how young children experience museum space. For an introduction to this project check out Part 1.

By analysing the common themes from our observations we identified four key areas for enhancing the experience of families with young children in museums:

I have also outlined some of the observations we have made around each of these themes and how these have informed our practice and programming.

Immersion vs activity in exhibition spaces

As part of the under 5s project, we are all looking at developing our spaces to better cater for families with young children. Using the APSE resource allowed further explore children’s agency in how we structure activities.

We identified rituals and habits as being important for many young visitors, particularly those who visit sites regularly. At one museum a dad told us that his toddler ‘always makes me come in here to see the polar bear when we’re in town. He won’t let us leave until we’ve done it.’ We discovered that identifying collections that appeal to under 5s and building marketing and activities around these can be more meaningful than trying to tackle the whole museum or develop a structured activity.

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This summer we launched the ‘Humber 5 Things’ campaign. Through this, we offered families simple prompts to engage with our collections and spaces. Many of our ‘5 things’ were gathered through observations and consultation, identifying objects or actions that children already loved, and sharing them with all family visitors. This has been really effective way of providing for families with young children. It was low cost, and did not involve any alterations to our spaces. The open ended activities allow families to spend as much time as they like completing them, and a page at the back leave space for drawing and recording the visit. You can read more about ‘Humber 5 Things’ here.

We are now continuing our work with Abi and Lisa to undertake a project exploring the way families with under 5s experience our own museum spaces. We are eager to identify the strengths in our buildings and collections, and develop a series of guidelines for museum practitioners make their spaces more accessible for under 5s. Keep an eye out for updates!

Dr Rebecca Kummerfeld, Learning Manager

Researching Children Under 5 in Museums – Part 4: Dwelling

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For the past year, the Humber Museums Partnership under 5s team have been collaborating with Abi Hackett and Lisa Proctor on a project to discover how young children experience museum space. For an introduction to this project check out Part 1.

By analysing the common themes from our observations we identified four key areas for enhancing the experience of families with young children in museums:

In the next blog posts I am outlining some of the observations we have made around each of these themes and how these have informed our practice and programming.

Dwelling

Learning officers noted the importance of spaces for families to dwell in several different museums. Using the Embodied Social section of the APSE resource, we discovered dwelling spaces promoted family relationships and intergenerational engagement with the museum or setting.

In one museum, cosy spaces were created with rugs, cushions, soft seating, alcoves and tents. These spaces were clearly marked out as places to dwell and families were confident in sitting down and relaxing together. These are often spaces for quieter contemplation and stories. We observed many inter-generational interactions in dwelling-spaces as parents and grandparents sat with small children to read stories or play with soft toys.

In our new under 5s space at North Lincolnshire Museum, we have incorporated a number of dwelling spaces. Our ‘under the sea corner’ has soft mats, cushions and soft seats. It is furnished with treasure baskets, mirrors and fabric for free play and exploration. This was designed as a safe space for babies. We often see parents seated at the side as their babies explore. Toddlers also enjoy peaking into the mirrors and experimenting with the fabric while their parents sit on the soft seating nearby. It is a space where children can play independently, with the safety of knowing their parents within reach.

A cubbyhole cut into the bottom of our storage cupboard, and lined with soft cushions has become a space for climbing into and hiding. It offers children a place to dwell on their own, a break from the adult gaze. We frequently observe children reading books or playing quietly on their own in this space.

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The archaeologist’s Den is a cosy space that families choose to dwell in together. The textured canopy, soft rug, cushions and a basket with books and soft toys invites families into the space. This is a space that we see more intergenerational interactions. Families seem to spend time here together, all engaged in reading or playing.

These three different dwelling spaces have resulted in different dwelling experiences for our visitors. We have noticed that many families spend more time at the museum than they used to now they have comfortable spaces to dwell. We are now thinking more about how to develop more dwelling spaces throughout the museum.

Dr Rebecca Kummerfeld, Learning Manager

Researching Children Under 5 in Museums – Part 3: Movement

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For the past year, the Humber Museums Partnership under 5s team have been collaborating with Abi Hackett and Lisa Proctor on a project to discover how young children experience museum space. For an introduction to this project check out Part 1.

By analysing the common themes from our observations we identified four key areas for enhancing the experience of families with young children in museums:

  • Touch (Part 2)
  • Movement
  • Dwelling
  • Immersion vs activity in exhibition spaces

In the next blog posts I am outlining some of the observations we have made around each of these themes and how these have informed our practice and programming.

Movement

Museums and heritage settings can offer children new and different spaces to explore. Observations showed that child led visits can involve running around large spaces, climbing up and down stairs, and repeated movements, getting a feel for a new environment.

In one museum we observed a toddler leading her dad up and down a set of stairs several times, until dad intervened and moved her on to look at new things. One child walked around and around a large elephant skeleton display, over and over. Another child enjoyed looking down from a third floor mezzanine, through the railings to the lower floors. In other spaces we observed children lying on the floor, playing hide and seek, and crawling on the floor.

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Observations suggest that this behaviour is important for families with young children to feel comfortable and confident in museum spaces and shouldn’t be discouraged. We have recently run training for our front of house staff on how to help make our museums under-5s friendly. This included an activity on how young children grow and develop, explaining the importance of movement and exploration. Staff have since reported feeling more confident in welcoming families and encouraging them to explore, move around and make noise.

At North Lincolnshire Museum we have also recently opened a buggy park in our courtyard. This allows families to lock their buggies up and explore the museum with greater freedom. An unexpected result of this has been seeing many more child-led visits. Where before, families would often push their younger children through the museum in their buggies, now they are out and about, dictating the direction and pace of the visit. This also allows greater interaction and discussion about displays. Our new under 5s space has also offered families a safe space where they can confidently let their children move more freely.

Dr Rebecca Kummerfeld, Learning Manager

How we created Museum Minis

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Our new ‘Museum Minis’ sessions for children aged 5 and under have been developed after an exciting period of consultation and information gathering.

Not only did we consult with local families through focus groups but we also spent time observing how other museums run sessions for this age group and chatted with other museum educators about how their early years sessions were developed.

Their advice has proved invaluable as we have begun to develop our own offer for young families.

It was a privilege to observe and hear about some fantastic experiences for young children and their grown ups at six museums across the country.

What really stood out in all these visits was the value of providing genuinely bespoke and unique experiences that families couldn’t have elsewhere. This is the great opportunity we have in museums as we have the resource of wonderful objects and collections.  It was obvious that the best sessions were those that really linked to the museum collection, particularly when part of the session took place on the museum galleries, as these truly provide a unique experience.

This can be a challenge for smaller museums, like North Lincs Museum, where large gallery spaces are not readily available. However is it still possible.  We have already begun to try this out in ‘Museum Minis’ by spending a short section of the session exploring our geology gallery for fossils and searching for an old bath tub to have a sit in.

Gallery exploration did not need to involve hands-on experiences. We noticed at The Fitzwilliam Museum, where nothing at all could be touched by visitors, the toddlers at the session delighted in searching for cups and plates and then musical instruments in the glass cases and in using fabric to dress up like characters from paintings.

The best sessions were also those that encouraged grown ups to be fully involved in the activities moving beyond providing entertainment for children to providing engaging shared experiences for families. A great example of this during a session at The Museum of London was dancing to 70s music. Grown ups really enjoyed dancing with their children, laughing and singing along.  It was lovely to observe the positive responses of the children to their grown ups dancing with them.  We also joined in!

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On a more practical level we gathered lots of advice about how to run and structure sessions. The museums visited all did things differently but there were common strands such as providing a mixture of structured or facilitator led activities and free flow activities where families could choose what to do and how long to spend from a variety of activities.  This model was used in developing ‘Museum Minis’.  Many also used a welcome song or activity that families become familiar with.  We have written our own ‘Museum Minis Welcome Song’ that is proving popular!

The individual activities that made up the sessions ranged from art and craft activities, exploring galleries, music and movement activities to interactive storytelling and messy play. In our new sessions we aim to provide families with opportunities to play in different ways.

We are thoroughly enjoying putting all this research and consultation into action and look forward to developing this work even further in the future.

With thanks to The Manchester Museum, The Castle Museum, York, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, The Museum of London, The V&A Museum of Childhood and The Geffrye Museum.

Rosalind Brian, Learning Officer Under 5s

Researching Children Under 5 in Museums – Part 2: Touch

For the past year, the Humber Museums Partnership under 5s team have been collaborating with Abi Hackett and Lisa Proctor from Sheffield University on a project to discover how young children experience museum space. For an introduction to this project check out Part 1.

By analysing the common themes from our observations we identified four key areas for enhancing the experience of families with young children in museums:

  • Touch
  • Movement
  • Dwelling
  • Immersion vs activity in exhibition spaces

In the next 4 blog posts I will outline some of the observations we have made around each of these themes and how these have informed our practice and programming.

Touch

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The importance of touch emerged as a theme in almost every observation. Sometimes touch can be problematic in museums, as some things can be touched, and others cannot. In many visits, Learning Officers asked: How do we convey what can and can’t be touched?

In one museum we visited everything you can reach, you can touch.  Anything that shouldn’t be touched was either behind glass, far behind barriers or up high out of reach. Things that could be touched were laid out, within reach. This is a model we are working towards now at North Lincolnshire Museum. Objects that should not be touched are in cases behind glass, or behind barriers.  In our Iron Stone Cottage, we have replica and period objects from our handling collection, arranged as they might have been when the cottage was used in the nineteenth century. They are out and can be touched. We find families still need a little encouragement to handle these objects. Signs with prompting questions: ‘can you pour a cup of tea?’ and marketing images of children playing in the cottage have helped families feel confident exploring and touching this part of the museum. Since putting in these signs we have observed many more families playing in this part of the museum.

One country house we visited used a teddy-bear symbol to show that certain objects could be touched. Once families were initiated into understanding this code, it was a clear way to delineate what could be touched. This worked well in the context of a country house, where objects that both can and can’t be touched may be set within reach. For example, in a period room, some items may be replica objects that can be explored, and others may be collections than cannot. A graphic symbol was an effective tool to invite families to explore where appropriate. It is a system that has now been brought in at Sewerby Hall.

The teddy symbols pointed families to ‘cabinets of curiosity’ with drawers of handling objects, books and resources to help children explore and experience the rooms. These also contained a basket at floor level with resources and objects for under 5s. As simple as it sounds, making sure under 5s can reach the things you are providing for them is key.

On some visits, we noticed that the idea of touch was more complicated than putting hands on objects, prompting us to consider: How do we think in a more in depth way about the nature and experience of touch?

In one museum we observed children touching the glass cases in which objects are housed and saying ‘Touched it! Touched it!’. Another child was lifted up to a higher case with a porcupine inside. She tentatively touched her finger towards it, looked closely, then touched the glass with her finger and excitedly proclaimed ‘a spikey one… I touch it!’. Sometimes visual access is enough.

In applying knowledge gathered through these observations, we have developed explorer packs that allow children to explore this expanded notion of touch. Resources offer ways of engaging without touch, but encourage further exploration of objects and spaces. Props such as magnifying glasses have been a useful tool for bridging the gap between touch and sight. A teddy has cards that prompt children to ‘find teddy a place to wash; a place to sleep; a place to eat’, offering an invitation to add or chance the way they see displays.

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Another way we have explored the idea of touch in our own museums is through a small world play area at the Treasure House in Beverley. A felt mat was made to look like the seashore and placed beside an exhibition about the seaside, with large seaside scenes. Baskets with seaside small world play encourage children to explore the idea of playing at the seaside, and gain a tangible experience of the images that make up the exhibition.

Dr Rebecca Kummerfeld, Learning Manager