Monday, 28 August 2017

Engaging younger children with heritage

This post is part of my 2017 chartership revalidation reflections - I explored how libraries and other heritage institutions cater for the youngest age range.

Since having a baby in 2015 I've got very interested in how heritage "attractions" deal with their younger visitors. Taking a baby to many of them is relatively easy - slings mean you can transport them all over historic buildings easily and safely and most places have baby changes available. Babies are extremely portable and don't really mind where they are as long as they get to eat and sleep! Last year I led all the tours of the 17th century parish library I look after with my baby daughter in a sling. She initially mostly slept through the tours, but later on got rather good at rolling her eyes and theatrical yawns as I was talking.

It isn't so easy with a toddler, although I still lead the tours, now with added commentary from a small person at my feet! Many heritage destinations offer family-friendly activities, but they all seem to be aimed at school-age children, often with National Curriculum tie ins. What we have found is that visiting many of the places we'd have gone to anyway offers lots for a toddler to see and do, you just have to be prepared to do it at whirlwind speed!

In the last week I've visited Tewkesbury Abbey and Osterley Park with my family, and we had loads of fun at both. Small people can get away with doing things that the rest of us can't - such as crawling through the quire stalls exploring every nook and cranny, or lying on the floor to look at the ceiling. Maybe more of us should try these things?!
Looking up in Tewkesbury Abbey
Historic houses offer huge amounts of things to explore - the rooms are so huge compared to the rooms at home, and more decorated. Osterley had a children's tour that involved counting marigolds around the house. My daughter was too small to operate the clicker provided, but we could still look for the marigolds. There were big and little rooms to have a look round. Reins are really useful for easy grabbing when the occasion arises, but easy to tuck in so they can get on with exploring otherwise. Osterley also had sports equipment outside in the park for everyone to try, and, on the day we went, craft activities in the stables area which a wide age range were enjoying.
Heading down the Long Gallery at Osterley Park
A particularly good example was at The Collection in Lincoln, which I visited back in July with my daughter. We had gone intending to see the Battles and Dynasties exhibition, and went in at around nap time, as I was hoping she'd sleep in the pushchair in the semi-darkness whilst I went round. This didn't happen, but she spent the whole time removing her shoes and socks very slowly so I was able to see the whole exhibition. This was encouraging as it means I feel confident now about attending other exhibitions I'd like to see, having not been to any during the year I was on maternity leave. 

The exhibition is well worth seeing, by the way, with loads of lovely rare books, manuscripts and pictures on display - it's on for another week so get to Lincoln! A lot of the material is on loan from various places, including The National Archives, British Library, Lambeth Palace Library, Lincoln Cathedral and Eton College, which must have been a logistical nightmare to organise.

And, quite apart from the exhibition, was the wonderful families area we then went to explore. I don't think I've seen anything quite like it in any museum, but do leave a comment if you know of anything similar. They had a huge emphasis on play and fun, and the area was suitable for babies upwards with soft play available. The play was all themed around the periods covered by the collections held at the museum (such as magnetic medieval pot pieces to put back together). You could play that you were in a portrait, with several backdrops available, including a Roman amphitheatre.

There were lots of books on shelves, freely available for browsing, and everything from baby board books to material suited to older children, all of it on a museum and/or art theme related to the collections. They also allow you to join Lincolnshire Libraries at the museum, so you can carry on exploring books.

Bigger children could borrow themed activity backpacks to take around the museum.

And your portrait might even end up featuring on the wall!

We had a brilliant time, and there are even more fun things to do on the museum's website. Oh, and all the children's things and the main exhibition galleries (not the special exhibition) are free!

This is a fantastic place for engaging children with heritage, and learning that it's lots of fun.

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