Q&A with Leigh-Anne Stradeski

Simon Stephens, 22.10.2014
Eureka! chief executive on museums and children
Leigh-Anne Stradeski is the chief executive of Eureka! National Children's Museum in Halifax. The museum, an educational charity, is for children aged up to 11 years old. The six galleries have attracted more than 6 million visitors since opening in 1992. Next month the museum will release the results of a survey looking into children’s experiences of play.

What were the main findings of your research into child’s play?

We conducted more than 2,000 interviews with children and parents to learn more about the place of play in the lives of children and families today. From the parental perspective, it was really reassuring to learn that play is overwhelmingly regarded as important to their children’s learning and development – not just in school holidays, but all year round.

Parents unanimously see play as helping children to build confidence and develop a range of social and communicative skills that can then be applied to more formal education settings.

We also found that when it comes to outdoor play, parents are very reluctant to give their children the same freedoms that they had when they were young and, although they feel it’s beneficial for children to take risks when playing, by and large parents are not willing to let them engage in the type of play that lets them make independent judgements around risk and danger.

In fact, our research showed that the only route to outdoor play for most children is via the back door into a secure garden rather than through the front door to unbounded exploratory play.

What we learned from the children, however, is that they would much rather be outside playing than glued to the television or their smartphones and computer screens, which is how they’re often portrayed in the media.

Do you think that children are well-catered for in our museums?

More and more I think museums are doing a good job of catering for children, not only through their exhibits and programmes but through their attitudes and approach to accommodating the needs of children and families in their ancillary facilities such as cafes and shops.

Not that long ago the only time the majority of children would experience museums would be on a school trip but today you see families in museums on a regular basis.

Children are the next generation of museum-goers so it makes sense to engage them in cultural experiences at an early age. I think there’s still a gap for the under-fives and most notably the under-twos, as many museums struggle to accommodate the earliest learners, but even here there are some good examples like the Manchester Museum with its culturebabies initiative.

There are still museums that don’t do much to cater specifically for children and families but overall I’ve seen a huge improvement in this area over the past decade.

Is the Brooklyn Children’s Museum still an important model for children's museums worldwide?

Yes, Brooklyn remains a flagship children’s museum and model of best practice, not just in the US but on a global basis. They underwent a significant expansion six years ago that doubled their size and have gone from strength to strength since then, and were named one of the 12 best children’s museums in the US by Forbes a few years ago.

How do you see Eureka! developing in the future?

We have plans to expand both the indoor and outdoor experience at Eureka! in the coming years. Our visitor numbers have been rising steadily for the past few years and are likely to exceed 300,000 this year, and during peak times we’re bursting at the seams so we definitely need more space.

We have a really strong focus on children’s health and wellbeing, the environment, and the connections between human health and the health of our planet.

Last year with support from the Wellcome Trust we opened a new gallery called All About Me which helps children learn about their bodies and why the choices they make about what they eat and the activities they engage in are important. 

We’re currently working on a second phase of this gallery which will explore the role of plants in our lives as food, medicine and products like soap and shampoo. 

We’re also developing a concept for a new environmental exhibition to replace Our Global Garden which is now 12 years old, and as part of that are considering how we extend into our park area to make a seamless indoor/outdoor experience.

The other area we’re continually developing are the opportunities for disabled children and their families to have a fantastic Eureka! experience. This is an audience that is often excluded from museums and other cultural venues due to the many barriers they face, not just physically but socially, financially and emotionally.

For two years in a row we’ve won awards from VisitEngland which recognise our work in this area, and we want to build on this to become as accessible as possible as it is our mission to enable all children, regardless of their abilities, background or circumstances to visit Eureka!

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