Playful Museums case study: Coventry Transport Museum
Kids in Museums supported 11 museums across the UK to trial new play ideas during October half term 2020 as part of their Play in Museums in a Socially Distanced World project with Charlotte Derry and PlayKX.
Here Anja Keitel-Campsall, Learning Officer - Families, share how Coventry Transport Museum encouraged safe play with its family visitors.
What was your play pilot?
During our play pilot in October half term, we delivered three interlinked projects providing COVID-19 safe play experiences for our visiting families with children aged 1-12 and our staff. While exploring short-term goals, we also consciously developed for long-term change to become a playful museum.
We reinstated our regular holiday programme, adjusting the sessions to adhere to COVID-19 safety guidelines. Over the course of four days we offered four This Makes That With These sessions for age 7+ and four Make and Play Engineers sessions for ages 3+. The changes we made were:
- limiting numbers of bookable online tickets to 10 (1 child and 1 adult per ticket) per session
- making sure individual work and play spaces were 2m apart
- providing individual sets of resources per ticketholder: toolsets, craft packs, selection of big playthings, such as furniture pipes or cardboard sheets
- sanitising or disposing of materials between uses.
We complemented payable sessions with free to loan self-led on-gallery play opportunities. While the development of play boxes and ‘I-Spy’ play trails started prior COVID-19, the removal of interactives and restrictions to our family sessions due to the pandemic highlighted the need for free playful engagement with our museum.
The trails were suitable for ages 2+ and focused on general themes to suit play in all galleries, such as shapes, vehicles, numbers and letters.
They could be handled by children or hands-free by hooking onto prams or bags using a carabiner hook. Being made of laminated card and/or plastic stencils, they could be easily sanitised between uses.
Play boxes: Trunki ride-on suitcases
The final design of our play boxes considered practicalities and COVID-19 safety. Little legs would take two hours exploring the museum and get very tired. The museum’s size prevented the introduction of a potentially heavy and bulky play box, favouring a design that would be pulled and sat on, rather than carried.
We also wanted to give the child agency over their wayfinding and their play. Playthings had to be open-ended, yet, specifically linked to our collection and our Mini Museum Engineers play.
Ride-on suitcases presented a perfect solution and a direct sponsorship request to Trunki succeeded in the donation of 15 Trunki ride-on suitcases. These were suitable for ages 2+ and filled with play prompt cards and three play items, from a selection of a one-minute timer, one metre measuring tape, goggles and random dress-up accessories.
Both the content and box could be easily sanitised between uses.
We felt a need to evidence play(ful) encounters that are already happening in the museum (if any) and develop a routine of observation and reflective practice that is embedded within the organisation.
Aiming to create a map of museum play, we decided on a very simple postcard sized notebook that dedicates one page per gallery for families and staff to note play when observed and play possibilities where noticed. We planned to hand out individual hard copies of the notebook to a minimum of 10 staff members and a minimum of 50 families during October half term.
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?
At the beginning of 2020, our weekly Museum Play Sessions became free, drop-in, all day Museum Play Days. This represented an organisational milestone in becoming a playful place where our family offer is accessible to all families.
With the uncertainties that COVID-19 posed, we feared, like so many organisations, that all our progress would be undone. To remain playful, accessible and positive, we needed a ‘conscious cheer squad’, an expert sounding board for our ideas and practical guidance for COVID-19 safe play in a cultural organisation – all of which was provided by the mentoring project.
What did you achieve?
Our family workshops were delivered safely while maintaining our core ideology of engaging families through open-ended and explorative play experiences:
- Four This Makes That With These sessions – 22 children and their accompanying grown-ups
- Four Make and Play Engineers sessions – 37 children and their accompanying grown-ups.
While gallery interactives remained inactive to keep our visitors as safe as possible, we have extended access to our family programme with free to loan gallery activities:
- Two sets of I-Spy trails
- 15 ride-on suitcases filled with playthings relating to the collection.
A first version of a Play notebook was developed. Hard copies were given to ten front of house staff and, at random, to up to 50 visiting families. To date, we had few returns. However, they offered incredibly valuable, yet mixed, responses ranging from play ideas, feedback on wayfinding and on family specific needs.
We have also:
- used a minimum of five bottles of sanitiser
- spent a minimum of 18 hours cleaning spaces and sanitising equipment to maintain availability of gallery activities
- safely delivered 16 hours of family workshops
- noticed smiles, moments of pride and confidence in our families engaging with the museum.
We were hesitant to limit resources, fearing that this would limit the learning and usual open-endedness of play during our sessions. Running the pilot sessions with limited resources per child reassured us that creativity, safe-distanced collaboration between families and play is still happening.
We are thrilled to have gained Trunki’s sponsorship that supports our free on-gallery play with a fleet of 15 Boris the Bus ride-on suitcases. We remained cautious when we sent our request and committed ourselves to sourcing second-hand Trunki’s should the request not be answered to make this activity happen for our families no matter what.
Less is more
Creating a link to the construction theme of our Mini Museum Engineers session, we initially included a small box containing 12 wooden blocks. Listening to our front of house staff, we found that these were not used, but had to be sanitised nonetheless. Staff time and sanitising process were heavily impacted, affecting the availability of this provision. Together we talked through possible solutions and decided to remove the blocks, which positively impacted on staff and access of play provision for our families.
We designed the notebook with play mapping in mind and decided not to include prompts to promote honest responses. However, a majority of participants hoped for play prompts to be confident in completing the notebooks. Our pilot version resulted in low participation numbers and rarely filled booklets, which often gave feedback on the museum itself instead of play(ful) encounters in the museum. We are improving our notebook by including an open-ended prompt for each gallery to support our play research, as well as a general feedback section to help us improve our overall offer.
- Communicate to realise. Share your random idea with someone who will support you. Then share it with someone who will ask tough questions.
- Listen closely to mentors, colleagues and visitors. Then work on solutions together.
- Don’t overthink it! Sometimes it is the simple things that work best.
- Look at what you are already doing to playfully engage your visitors with your collection, then amend where needed, so it meets COVID-19 guidelines.
- Don’t underestimate the time spent sanitising and preparing of individual resource packs.
- Seeing engaged visitors is all worth it – it might also be worth seeking voluntary help for this part.
Anja Keitel-Campsall, Learning Officer - Families, Coventry Transport Museum
The Play in Museums in a Socially Distanced World project was made possible by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.