What was your play pilot?

We wanted to observe encounters between parents and children, exploring how they respond to using physical materials and how we could safely offer this during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The sessions were aimed at families with under 5s, but of course, all family members were welcome to play!

The team began with lots of ideas about facilitating sessions inside our family or collection spaces, as engagement with the collections is a focus for us. However, we had to consider the broader implications on an already delicate balance of new one way systems, visitor journeys, exhibitions tours and staffing. We also monitored booking trends for any indoor activities we offered. Understandably, families were favouring outdoor options.

Some of these constraints were discussed at the 1:1 mentoring session with Penny Wilson and Charlotte Derry. We concluded that we would take the Play Shorts trials outdoors where we could take inspiration from the planned outdoor installation of Museum of the Moon by artist Luke Jerram. We felt the inflated Moon, seven metres in diameter, suspended between an avenue of giant Wellingtonia trees would prove to be a dramatic and inspiring location for play, fun and imagination!

After discussion, our team selected a range of open-ended objects and resources influenced by the artwork and our past experiences with young visitors. We were keen that the activity have no prescribed outcome and that the bag of ‘goodies’ should simply be a starting point for play.

Based on our Forest Club model, we created six individualised bags containing a range of shimmering fabric, flexible mirrors, foil rolls, sturdy tubes, convex and concave flexi squares, stretchy foil tubing, torches, cleaned tin cans of various sizes and a range of joining resources, such as pegs, tape, elastic bands and string.

The plan was to offer a socially distanced space along the avenue, around the Moon, for single family bubbles to play. We did not want a prescribed outcome, but the space and time to ‘just be…and play’.

We drafted a play prompt sheet that could act as a starting point for those that might need it. It included questions such as, ‘If you lived on the moon what would do all day?’, ‘Imagine what you might find up there?’, ‘Can you spot any animal faces on the moon? How did they get there?’, and ‘Can you howl at and moon and do a moon dance?’

Unfortunately, due to adverse weather conditions, the Museum of the Moon was unable to happen and so we had to readjust our plans again!

We decided to host the sessions as planned but located them within our Forest school area. This meant we could manage, observe and facilitate the trial within an already fairly relaxed environment.

What would you consider your level of experience in creating playful interventions in museums prior to the project (1 being the least experienced and 5 being the most)?


Why did your organisation choose to do take part?

Our aims were to:

  • re-engage under 5s and their families who had been isolating during lockdown
  • offer experiences that would encourage confidence in being out of the house again
  • find out whether play sessions might support social engagement, opportunities to be imaginative and creative in a safe space
  • observe new audience behaviours and understand what types of activities families were looking for
  • experiment with the kinds of activities we offer in the future
  • develop models that promote wellbeing, confidence and acknowledge children’s need to play
  • use learning to inform our internal thinking
  • use evidence and feedback from the project to elevate the status of play
  • be able to articulate these approaches on good practice and theories of play
  • learn from peers and mentoring expertise
  • develop a COVID-19 safe model.

What did you achieve?

We took the risk of using materials during period of nervousness surrounding the use and sharing of resources. We worked out measures that could enable families to encounter resources in a way that made everyone feel safe.

The parents we talked to were interested in the idea of the project, in open-ended play and welcomed the chance to take part in something that felt ‘normal’. We were able to have informal and relaxed conversations about the project. Parents and children had the opportunity to discuss their thoughts and contributed their ideas. They felt their input was valued and appreciated the opportunity to influence future programmes and approaches we might develop.

We were able to observe parents and children. We noticed parents were keen to try and direct the play at first. At times, they perhaps wanted an ‘outcome’, but after a short while, parents tended to step back and the children definitely led and directed their own games and play.

The children who took part explored the materials in a variety of ways, but commonly they:

  • approached the materials confidently
  • seemed comfortable with the set up
  • did not need adult direction
  • felt able to spread out and use wider space to experiment.


This experience will help us shape future activities and development of playful spaces across the site.

Lessons learnt

This was an extremely challenging period of time for all cultural organisations. Members of our own team were furloughed during the project and this ultimately resulted in additional difficulties realising our initial plans.

Due to the extremely unusual situation we found ourselves in, we had to work with an even more agile and fleet of foot approach. We learnt that we could continually adapt our ideas to take account of changing guidelines in order to offer an enjoyable experience for children and families.

Whilst learning teams are generally used to improvising and thinking on their feet, this was an even greater test!

It was interesting to reflect that we had used the Museum of the Moon as inspiration for the materials and the play prompts. Had the Moon been present we would have introduced it as part of the play, talked about it and may have directed the play a little more than the children would have done naturally themselves. Although it would have been a wonderful installation, we felt the sessions were still successful in their own right.

We learnt that families were happy to book timed sessions in order to feel comfortable and work within safety measures. We have become more confident with managing this approach and recognise positive outcomes for the team and visitors.

We have found families have been fairly resilient, if we demonstrated we had taken reasonable measures and taken care with activities they were eager to partake.

We are considering how we can use this model inside the collections and in engagement areas of exhibitions.

Sharing good practice and approaches with peers during the project was really beneficial, particularly through this period. Supporting colleagues to find ways to navigate the organisation and safety measures entailed in setting up activities.

We are embarking on a refresh of our family Discovery room and will take this learning and approach forward into the design.

Top tips

  • Don’t be afraid to think big!
  • Simplicity is often the key, facilitating opportunities for children to revisit the same materials can give time for them to find their flow, become confident and engaged.
  • Include key colleagues in your plans to support logistics, get on board with the approach and realise the big ideas.
  • Endeavour to involve members of different departments in the organisation when planning activities in order to have everyone on board with your approach.
  • Include opportunities to stand back and observe; allow yourself time to take new perspectives on your spaces.

Emma Butchart, Learning and Diversity Manager,  Compton Verney

The Play in Museums in a Socially Distanced World project was made possible by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

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