Young children relish the opportunity to explore new spaces, especially when unusual and unexpected. A growing body of literature about the value of museums and art to the youngest members of the public (Hackett et al., 2020; Wallis & Noble, 2022) encourages museums to welcome such audiences.
This blog post reflects on a series of creative workshops in an art museum in North West England. Arts concepts linked to the Early Years Foundation Stage curriculum areas of learning (DfE, 2021) informed planning. Children investigated shape, light/dark, and sense of self by encountering and manipulating resources arranged across the museum galleries. The intention was to enable children and their grown-ups to explore open-ended and loose-parts resources focusing on process, and not final products, which may seem at odds with a setting celebrating the outcomes of artists’ labour. This was overcome by involving artists to support children through the process of planning their creations.
Inclusivity through independent and collaborative engagement
Encountering differently sized paper, various textures and plasticity, glue, tape and colours, children sustained high levels of engagement while making, creating and re-creating designs and artefacts (see figure 1).
Figure 1: A child and a parent exploring paper
Some immediately knew how to engage with the resources experimenting with various approaches and combinations. Grown-ups were more hesitant stating ‘lack of creativity’ as a reason. However, over time, they too began to fold, unfold, twist, attach and put together creations that increased in complexity. Such moments of intergenerational engagement and modelling of creative activity demonstrated the importance of both independent and collaborative opportunities (see figure 2).
Figure 2: A book about ‘pop-out things’ incorporating the paper explorations of a child and a parent
Similar observations were made when children explored wooden sticks, connectors and fabrics. They created cosy sleeping spaces, washing lines, pirate ships, 2D shapes and sculptures, while their grown-ups asked prompting questions, shared their own ideas or chatted away with others – for many a first after the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns.
Access for all
Participants ranged from babies too young to walk, early walkers, toddlers and pre-schoolers, to older siblings, parents, grandparents and childminders. With an informal structure and focus on process/making, we supported everyone to explore at their own pace and comfort, including participants with different neurodiversity and disabilities. This enhanced belonging, wellbeing and knowledge construction for all, and parents shared their relief to have found an activity where their children could engage (or not) as they wished and not ‘seem’ different.
While the focus was never on learning per se, the museum became an inclusive environment accommodating the learning and developmental needs of all children. This was achieved through the open-ended resources and utilising children’s imagination in how they wanted to lead their play and exploration (see figure 3) – some made sculptures with blocks, threads and pom-poms, or stared at paintings; others ran across the halls chasing shadows with mirrors or flashing torches to highlight animals in displayed artwork.
Figure 3: Children of different ages exploring light, darkness and textures in a tent they have built
Museums as sites for community building
We sought to promote creativity and open the doors of a cultural asset at the heart of the local community where those with young children did not always feel belonging. Many participants had never been to the museum with their youngest children as they didn’t think it was a suitable environment or that they were welcome in a setting characterised by silence and stillness.
‘Many participants had never been to the museum with their youngest children as they didn’t think it was a suitable environment or that they were welcome in a setting characterised by silence and stillness.’
Yet, children brought the museum to life. Their engagement resulted in new possibilities in creative thinking and inclusivity through interaction with exhibits in unexpected ways, incorporating them in play and learning. It was evident that the museum setting fostered curiosity and engagement with art – considered, by some, too complex for young children (see figure 4).
Figure 4: A washing line
The workshops raised questions about the types of participants attending such activities, prompting reflection on how to make offerings more widely accessible. This requires positioning museums as a community catalyst supporting wider engagement with the arts across all ages.
To sum up, the workshops steered engagement with the museum as an inclusive environment. Being surrounded by exhibits and artwork provided new, unanticipated mediums for creativity, including design and awe both in stillness and motion. Children’s ways of being and doing were readily accommodated while participants constructed meaning through loose parts, the museum, their place within it and within their community.
To find out more, see my project report, ‘How I Wonder What You Are’.
Department for Education [DfE]. (2021). Statutory framework for the early years foundation stage. Setting the standards for learning, development and care for children from birth to five. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/early-years-foundation-stage-framework–2
Hackett, A., Holmes, R., & MacRae, C. (2020). Working with young children in museums: Weaving theory and practice. Routledge.
Wallis, N., & Noble, K. (2022). Leave only footprints: How children communicate a sense of ownership and belonging in an art gallery. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 30(3), 344–359. https://doi.org/10.1080/1350293X.2022.2055100