What are the ingredients for a successful Under Fives museum visit?

A summary of my keynote paper at ‘Freedom to Explore’ conference in Hull, September 2017.

Last week I gave keynote paper at ‘Freedom to Explore’ as conference organised by Humber Museums Partnership as part of their Arts Council funded project Under Fives in Museums. I have been collaborating with Humber Museums throughout this project. The keynote was about a piece of research I carried out with colleagues at MMU, Lisa Procter and Christina Macrae during the last year.

The focus of this research was how families experience the museums of the Humber Museum Partnership. HMP were particularly interested in thinking across a range of their sites, and also to understand how experiences of museums changed over time for young children, from a first encounter to a point at which a building might be familiar, and particular kinds of meanings and practices become attached to being in that place. It was also hoped the research would offer some broader generalisations, or directions for thinking and working, in terms of young children visiting any or all museum sites regionally. No matter what kind of museum, in what kind of context – what are the possibilities for children being in these spaces, and how can museum staff maximise these possibilities?

We used a mixture of observations and participatory methods for working with young children and their grown ups in three Humber museums sites: North Lincolnshire Museum, Streetlife Museum of Transport in Hull, and Sewerby Hall in the East Riding.


So how do young children and their families experience these museums? And what are the wider implications of this for other museums?

Part of the purpose of this research was to indicate the directions museum practitioners could be thinking in, in order to identify what is unique, meaningful or filled with potential in their museum, from the point of view of young children and their families.

In relation to this, key findings and questions include:

Our observations show that children and families build up layers of knowledge over repeated visits to museum spaces over time. How can repeat visits be encouraged (i.e. through regular ‘playgroups’ etc.)?

Is it ok for a child to roll around on the floor? As adults we are very prone to always thinking that language is the most important vehicle for learning meaning-making, but we must remember that children learn through and in movement.

Modes of engagement in museum might be different for adults and children, for example children might want to move quickly at times when adults want to stop and natter. Familiarity with a museum seems to support families to be more comfortable with these differences. In particularly children’s autonomy to decide where to go and at what pace seems less fearful for adults as they too become more familiar with the museum spaces.

Wayfaring (movement coupled with perception) can be viewed as the primary form of engagement. The observations included many examples of children figuring out how spaces connected to others and routes between them. Over time, they were learning how to navigate the mystery of the stuff that they were encountering.

The tactility of the stuff (objects and architecture) of the museum space was bound up in children’s wayfaring and navigation. Architectural features that may be seen as a barrier could be seen as an opportunity, such as the grand staircase in Sewerby Hall, which seemed to engage children through its weight, texture, sound, scale.

Objects and architectural features that are at a child’s scale and therefore missed by adults, such as a small cubbyhole or a hole/crack in the floor, are an important part of children’s experiences of museums. Perhaps it is ok if adults and children don’t see the same things because of their position/scale.

The floor tended to be a more significant part of the museum for children than it did for adults. How can we think more about the role that floors can play in the design/curation of museum spaces, such as placing objects under glass in the floor, considering changes in floor materials to mark changes in pace/activity, abstract floor stencils, and so on.


What are the ingredients for a successful Under Fives museum visit? 

The question ‘what are the ingredients for a successful museum visit?’ was asked by Sarah Hammond during our collaborative meeting in Hull and based on our research, we offer the following suggestions.

The incidental

Often when museum visits felt meaningful and deeply engaging for families and children in the study, the incidental or unexpected lay at the heart of what was happening. This led us to ponder “How can the incidental be part of our core mission for under-fives in museums?”. A valuing of the incidental can create a sense of tension, because it is difficult to plan for, or guarantee, or measure. It may mean a move away from an outcomes focus for children’s museum visits, and a focus instead on the experience of ‘being’ in the museum. This has implications for how museums communicate the value of museum visiting to parents and to early years practitioners. It requires a move away from the measuring or evidencing of a learning outcome, to other approaches such as, for example, sharing observations of these incidental moments with parents and practitioners, giving them care and attention, making notes or using photography or other visual methods to try to capture these moments.


Moving between a range of different kinds of spaces, and in and out of experiences that were familiar / easy and experiences that were unfamiliar / mysterious / hard to understand, emerging repeatedly as a key feature of museum visits for the children and families in this study. Museums could consider how to ensure a diversity of spatial experiences for families, including enclosed spaces, opportunities to move up and down, long corridors, empty spaces, things to encounter at different levels, small cracks in floors/holes in walls, enclosures at different scales, and on so.


Repeated visits with young children to the same museum space bring a great deal of benefits. Adults seem to see more value in the incidental, parents become more comfortable as they start to learnt the rules of engagement for the museum, and see their children develop certain rituals and practices in the museum spaces.

The rituals developed in relation to objects and museum spaces are sometimes examples of ‘the comfort of things’, in that they are partly about familiarity, and also partly about touch and the actual contact of a thing held. Such rituals seem to engender a feeling of contentment. How could we promote the value of returning to the same museum over time, while also recognising that different parents feel comfortable in different museums?

Museums could develop strategy to promote the value of both repeated visits, and the development of repeated actions or rituals during these visits. Again, recognition, valuing, recording and developing a language to talk about these practices, would have a strong effect on shaping how families and museum staff think about young children in museums.

Movement (and learning)

Children experienced the museums through their movements through them. The importance children placed on elements of the architecture of the museum, such as the stairs, windows, corridors and open spaces, illustrates the significance of movement in place for young children’s experiences of museum visiting. Although young children’s movement is generally considered to be a physical skill, in our data, movement was about much more than the physical. It acted as a mode of learning, of communication, of memory making, and of play.

When we turned to the EYFS, we could see how many of the things we observed during this study connected to the EYFS outcomes, but we were also aware there was so much more going on. Resisting offered a reductionist and potentially impoverished account of the richness of young children’s experiences in HMP, we wondered how museums could re-narrate the EYFS outcomes, through the qualitatively different experience of being in a museum (rather than a classroom). Would a focus on movement support the ways in which we are attending to the incidental, as opposed to outcomes? If we consider thinking to be in children’s movement, then perhaps movement undergirds all the ‘prime’ areas of the EYFS. In which case, because movement and place are different in a museum compared to an early years setting, this is the starting point for the case for why early years settings might want to use museums; not because ‘the same’ outcomes can be achieved through  museum visit, but because something different is made possible.

Sharing a vision for young children in museums

The findings of this project are important because they take as a starting point children and families’ own experiences of museums. We aimed to start with what happens for young children in museums when visits unfold in the moment, rather than any pre-conceived idea of value or learning. Many of the findings require a reconceptualization of why young children may visit museums, and what a successful museum visit looks like.

In terms of sharing and communicating about this vision, both within the museum sector and to family audiences, we recommend museums consider:

How could we raise the profile of the things that are special to museums, such as movement, incidental encounters, unique spaces and objects etc?

Starting with place, movement, objects and the opening up of unknown possibilities for what might happen when young children encounter museums, we align ourselves with Hillevi Lenz Taguchi (2010) when she writes “it is impossible for us to know what might be possible for a child or student to learn, to know or become” .

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