Guide | Using play in interpretation - Museums Association

Guide | Using play in interpretation

Play is often overlooked when planning interpretation, but it makes exhibitions more appealing
Jo Graham and Anna Salaman
Preston Park Museum created an interpretative playscape for a temporary exhibition on costumes

Play is a useful interpretation approach often overlooked at the exhibition planning stage. Visitors increasingly expect enjoyable hands-on experiences as an integral part of interpretation – and play can provide this. Play appeals to a broad range of people, not just families.

Incorporating play makes exhibitions more appealing to families, boosts dwell time and means repeat visits are more likely. Play is inherently interactive and doesn’t rely on reading, so content becomes more accessible. As a result, visitors remember their experiences as fun.

In his 2012 paper, The Importance of Play, David Whitebread identifies five types of play, three of which are helpful for interpretation.

  • Play with objects

Exploring, sorting and making are open-ended and sensory. Visitors could explore catgut, wood and horsehair via a display of musical instruments.

  • Pretend play

This is imaginative play, often involving role play and story-making. It ranges from tea sets and train sets to shop play and puppets. Families could create shadow puppet shows in a natural history gallery, for example, or run a pretend market stall in an exhibition about a town.

  • Games with rules 

Tabletop games with rules are intuitive and appealing. Games such as bird bingo or Top Trumps, for example, will help families connect to ornithology collections. You can also make card and board games. It’s great for motivating people to read snippets of information about specific objects.

Identifying opportunities

Play is not always appropriate for serious or adult-related content, but most exhibition themes can be explored playfully. As play is about making meaning, it works best with key messages that children can connect to.

Play works best when it is near to the relevant display (for example, placing a basket of percussive instruments next to a large painting of a procession or a storm at sea).


Think about:

  • The rhythm of the visitor experience: dotting play stations around an exhibition can work well, as it integrates the play with interpretation for other visitors.
  • The equipment: put things out and observe how they are used. The best equipment offers variables to experiment with and compare; enables multiple players; can be used in many ways; and leaves room for the imagination.
  • Self-guided play versus facilitated play: a skilled facilitator can encourage connections between the play and the exhibition content.

Where do I start?

Including play opportunities in interpretation need not be costly. Observing gallery visitors is revealing and helps to inform future planning. Even trying out small things makes a big difference.


There are differences in the ways in which children play at different ages, so it’s helpful to plan for this.

For families with under 5s try:

  • Exploring tools such as magnifying glasses and torches.
  • “Let’s pretend” play – especially role play.
  • Making and building.

For families with primary-aged children (five- to 11-year-olds) experiment with:

  • Different kinds of making and creating opportunities using a range of materials or objects to take apart and put together.
  • Small-world play such as doll’s houses or puppets.
  • Card and board games.

Children can play on their own but they also enjoy playing with adults.

There are several ways in which museums can support this play:

  • Use gallery text to prompt thewadults or feed them useful information.
  • A simple “I spy..." label signals to families that they can play in the space together.
  • Position seats so that adults stay part of the play.
  • Provide enough materials for families to play together or alongside each other.
  • If space is a challenge, then consider letting visitors carry play resources with them.

Anna Salaman is a cultural heritage learning consultant. Jo Graham is the director of Learning Unlimited

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