Puddles are littered all over the floor and feathers float through the air. One toddler is cautiously playing with the toy boats in the paddling pool in front of him while a slightly younger child is trying to immerse herself in the water, head first. Small groups of toddlers are testing out the trays of water which are scattered around the room, each with an array of materials which can be experimented with in the water. It is Monday at the Museum of London Docklands, and one of our weekly ‘Little Mudlarks’ sessions for under 5s and their carers is in full swing.
Around the classroom, splashing can be heard and sleeves and faces are drenched with water as little tin foil boats float in our paddling pool. It is slightly chaotic with 15 under 5s and their carers playing together in one of our classrooms. But it is without a doubt very, very fun for both adults and children alike.
One child throws handfuls porridge oats into a tray. He squidges and squashes the oats until the water turns cloudy and there is a gooey sludge along the bottom of the tray. ‘Very good! It’s just like the porridge we had for breakfast, do you remember?’ one mother reminds her child. Another toddler and her carer are listing the colours of the different feathers that she is adding to her very special ‘soup’. In both of these cases, the adults and the children are fully engaged in their play; but most importantly, they are working together and are communicating with each other while having fun at our museum.
When I first speak to people about the Family Learning and Early Years Programme at the Museum of London, it is not unusual for people to think I spend my time playing with children and cooing at babies in a museum. It is easy to underestimate the benefits for the families who participate in these sessions. Playing is the primary way in which young children learn. While they are exploring and experimenting, children are not only acquiring practical skills but they are also becoming more independent and confident in their surroundings. What better surroundings to do this in than a museum where sights, sounds and displays are created to inspire and awe?
One of the main purposes of these sessions is to help children communicate with others and for carers to learn how to confidently communicate with children. All of our family and under 5s sessions have been developed to initiate and stimulate connections between children and their carers. It is our goal for children to become confident in their learning and to also encourage adults to actively participate in their children’s play. Ultimately, we want to encourage adults to then implement this in the home learning environment and to keep learning outside of the museum. We also hope that families will begin to recognise museums as safe, unique venues which they can explore together as a family and which they will feel comfortable returning to time and time again.
There is no one simple formula which will accomplish this. Instead we use a variety of sessions and activities to engage children in different types of learning to appeal to all learners. Sometimes this involves puddles and porridge, other times not. However, we are sure that our sessions are fun and that they are always learning experiences for everyone involved.