Play time - Museums Association

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Play time

The museums that are using play to engage younger visitors
Childhood Exhibitions Play
ToyLikeMe, part of the Toy Box Tales series, by Kate Read and Beth Moseley, on show as part of Play Well at the Wellcome Collection, London ToyLikeMe / Beth Moseley / Kate Read

Attitudes towards play have changed dramatically over the years. Its value and importance in a child’s upbringing has diminished in recent times, but a series of exhibitions and initiatives across the museum sector is set to put play firmly back on the agenda.

The Wellcome Collection, in London, opened its Play Well exhibition in October, while plans for the ongoing redevelopment of the V&A Museum of Childhood, London, put play at their core. This summer, a Tate Modern course will explore the subject as part of the Tate Intensive Programme, looking at the value of play in reshaping museums and galleries.

Play may be taking on a renewed importance to the museum and gallery sector. Yet, in the wider world, particularly in education, it has been sidelined. Concerns are growing that this is contributing to a crisis in creativity, with young people not equipped with the right creative skills for today’s world.  

Helen Charman, the director of learning and national programme at the V&A, says play is under siege. “We assume that we know that play is important, but when we look at how it has been marginalised, we are at a tipping point,” she says. “We need to be much more explicit about learning through play in the lives of our young people.”

Sam Bowen, museum development officer for Kent and Medway for the South East Museums Development Programme, is a long-term advocate for inclusive play and specialises in special-educational needs and disability (SEND) engagement in museums. 

“Play is essential for childhood development,” she says. “All mammals play.  Through play, we learn social skills, how to communicate, our sense of self, how to relate to others and the rules of interaction and boundaries,” says Bowen. She adds that it affords us skills in how to explore and take risks, but believes there is less freedom for this in today’s world.


Play for play’s sake

Charlotte Derry, play consultant and founder of the Playful Places Network, says: “We are influenced by educational development and using play for learning, but it is just as important for its own sake.”

Wellcome’s Play Well (until 8 March) explores play through pedagogy, historic toys and games, art and design. The team collaborated with a local primary school on various aspects of the exhibition design to make it feel playful and tactile. It is not, however, an interactive experience.

Children play in Manchester, 1969. One of a series of photographs by Shirley Baker in the Wellcome Collections Play Well exhibition Shirley Baker

“We are making a case for play in our attainment-based, risk–averse society,” says co-curator Shamita Sharmacharja. “At a time of concern around issues such as childhood mental health and obesity, we want to examine the importance of play in aiding development,” she says. “What happens if you don’t get that opportunity? What kind of adult does that create?”

Bowen believes museums have previously been reluctant to embrace play because there is a misplaced belief that it has to be boisterous. During the 1990s, as the sector started to become more family and child friendly, many institutions turned to interactive displays and exhibitions. 


But they generally focused on pressing buttons, which could limit their scope. Laura Bedford, head of programmes at Kids in Museums, which was set up in 2003 to improve provision for families and children in museums, says adding a layer of playfulness makes institutions more accessible for all generations. 

“We always see adults playing with the hands-on stuff,” she says. “It doesn’t just have to be for children.” 

Positive memories

Enjoying museums in this way helps to generate positive memories for children and their families, says Rebecca Oberg, strategy lead for play and early years at Eureka! The National Children’s Museum. 

“We have embedded learning and play in everything we do at Eureka!, but visitors just want a fun day out,” says Oberg. “We went through a phase where we focused on communicating the importance of play to families, but we found parents did not want to be told that.”

Consulting with families to understand what they want from a museum is a good place to start, says Bedford, as well as observing them in the museum to see what interests them. “Try different things out and gather feedback,” she adds.


It can be achieved by thinking differently about your collection and themes, says Bedford. Using trails with activities or having a room with loose parts are simple initiatives to get started with. “Museums should not feel that everything has to be a formal learning experience,” she says.

Playful Places founder Derry says museum staff should check house rules on what’s permitted. “Long-standing rules on whether a chair can be used are inherited but there is no longer a reason for it.”

Making sure the whole museum team understands the value of play, and a playful attitude is also vital, says Oberg. “Investing in staff development can make a big difference, as it can help staff and volunteers to understand the importance of letting people play,” she says. “Understanding play cues, for example, such as eye contact or being offered something, means they know when to join in.”

A toddler paints with her father at Leeds City Museum

Building staff confidence

Play consultant Derry works with a range of venues, including Eureka!, which is a part of the Playful Places network, on training. “Our events aim to build confidence in staff that they can work playfully, and understand what play is,” she says. “Training can be a real game-changer. Coming together and talking about play as a part of that is important. It will help them adopt a playful disposition as a team.”

South East Museums’ Bowen believes we need to move on from the idea that museums are static. “Museums are a safe space and can be used for ever-changing conversations,” she says. “We must give ourselves permission to be less stuffy and be open to a playful attitude.”

Pip Simpson, the director of design, estate and FuturePlan (capital development) at the V&A, is clear that even after the redevelopment of the V&A Museum of Childhood is completed in 2022, it will continue to evolve. “We are used to museums having all the answers, but this [V&A Museum of Childhood] is iterative,” she says. “We won’t fossilise, because we are part of a bigger cultural picture, and we can’t expect to open and everything be perfect.”

Play has been at the heart of Eureka!’s mission since it opened in Halifax, West Yorkshire, 28 years ago. Oberg says it has developed, public attitudes have changed, and although the definition of play has remained the same, how it is communicated that has evolved.

“The biggest change has been other museums becoming more family focused,” she says. “Younger children have not always been welcome. We were focused on six-year-olds and over when we opened, but changed strategic direction in 2000, and opened two early-years galleries.”

The revamped V&A Museum of Childhood will feature three new permanent galleries – Play, Imagine and Design – and a temporary exhibition space. The collection is central to the plans for each new space (see p29).

“We know from our research that guided play is the most effective,” says the V&A’s Simpson. “We are setting up parameters to help visitors play and to encourage more collaborative play. The collection will be at the heart of that, but there will be spaces to play all the way through. The symbiosis between the collection and play is critical.”

Jose Esteves De Matos, a co-founder of De Matos Ryan, the architect that has led the redesign of the build, says being playful means allowing space for play to happen. He says: “Exhibition design can feel like a treadmill – you move along from one thing to another. You can’t play on the move, but it does not have to be as explicit as a room with toys. How different things and objects are placed can instigate playful behaviour. We want it to be intuitive and unstructured, guided but not prescriptive.”

This principle of gently guiding visitors will begin in the museum’s new central space, called the Town Square. It will have clear signage that aims to help visitors decide how to shape their journey through the galleries. “It will be laid out so that kids will understand it, but in a way that gives them a sense of agency over their visit.”

The multi-purpose Town Square space will also be key to the museum’s role as a hub for the diverse local communities. “We want to bring together communities to encourage dialogue and social interactions,” says Simpson. “Playing is how you get to know people.”

While museum provision for younger children and families has significantly improved over the past 20 years, there is still work to be done around how to engage older children and teenagers. At the redeveloped V&A, exhibits for this age group will concentrate on games and gaming, with an adapted version of Minecraft, as well as offering the opportunity to design a game.

Kids in Museums’ Bedford says more consultation is needed to find out why older children stop engaging. “Do they want something digital? Or will they come because something is not digitally focused? Does it help if they know what they will do when they get there or if it is time limited?”

Eureka!’s Oberg says the museum made a conscious effort to re-engage its nine- to 11-year-old audience in 2016. “We are looking at why they stop coming,” she says. “Is it because they came when they were young and want something new? Or is there not enough tech?”

For the V&A’s Charman, this cuts to the core of why getting play on the agenda is so important, with Generation Z (those aged between about nine and 24) facing an increasingly fast-paced and complex world.

“They have so much passion and energy, and a drive to construct change,” she says. Fears are growing, however, that the current education system will not equip them with the right skills. “We have got to roll our sleeves up. If we aren’t meeting the needs of young people and young audiences, then what are we doing? What we do and don’t do is what counts. It is our gift to be responsive.”

Caroline Parry is a freelance writer

V&A Museum of Childhood

The two-year project is being overseen by design agency Agents of Change (AOC), which is  working closely with the curatorial team on the details of each gallery.

For AOC co-founder Geoff Shearcroft, the museum is a rare opportunity to look at how to combine play with objects that will be behind glass. It began testing new ideas and displays through an Open Studio, which launched in September.

The Imagine Gallery will be immersive and will change in response to different stories, says Shearcroft. The Design Gallery will be more like a studio, with a focus on everyday objects and exploring processes.

The Play Gallery is the one proving most challenging, as the designers try to find the balance between allowing children to “creatively misuse” space without causing problems. “We are keen to ensure it is not a playground, but nor should it be a classroom experience,” says Shearcroft.

Many ideas are being tested, such as grouping objects by colour or texture, then building on that with sensory displays outside the cases. “If the objects in a case are squishy, should the surface around the case be squishy?” he asks.

There is also an idea to incorporate the traditional sandpit into the gallery by evolving it into a sand table, running at different heights alongside the cases of objects. “We are testing how that can be meaningful,” says Shearcroft. “Maybe there should be props in the sand to dig for. We are also researching different types of sand.”

Elsewhere, there are plans for tabletop toys and all types of games. Props and facsimiles of museum objects are likely to take on a more significant role throughout the galleries.

But Shearcroft says there is an understanding that these must be of a higher quality and will need refreshing more often. The team is also considering the height at which objects and interpretation should be placed, as a six-year-old’s horizons are different from an 11-year-old’s.

Labels will be used to add a layer of narrative and storytelling, and will aim to match the age and approximate height of the person engaging with them. This could be a single, large word at the height of a four-year-old, who is just learning to read, or full text at adult height.


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