In a previous post for the M+H advisor blog, I wrote about how museums can be a great place for babies to visit. What I didn’t cover then, was how to encourage families with very young children through the doors. Getting visitors, be they families, grown-ups, teenagers, whoever, actually in to the space is one thing.

Keeping them coming back, though … that’s a different beast entirely.

Like many museum educators, my comfort zone was really working with school aged children and older. At this age, they can think, reason and hold a pretty good conversation about the objects or art in front of them if you give them the right tools. Early Years, though? Surely all of this stuff will be completely over their heads, and what if they start crying, screaming and generally making things unpleasant for everyone else?

My fears were those that we hear time and time again when it comes to working with young children. The fact that adults can be just as disruptive is beside the point. It’s safe to say that very little ones were something new to me.

So, who do you turn to when you need advice? The experts, naturally. When I started at Towner, I was lucky enough to be involved in a project called Open Sesame that paired the gallery up with our local children’s centre which enabled the skill sharing and the learning to really take off.

Now, even if the project wasn’t in place, the sensible thing to do would be to get in touch with an Early Years centre to see how we could work together. There’s no reason why this kind of partnership can’t just happen spontaneously without the excuse of a project. It’s one of those things where everyone wins: the cultural venue, the early years setting and perhaps most of all – the local community.

What we can learn from each other?

Working with Early Years Practitioners from the children’s centre has been eye-opening. One of the main challenges of working with under 5s isn’t really about working at all: it’s about playing.

"Working with children isn't about working at all: it's about playing" Photographs courtesy of Towner

Relearning how to play, and how little ones play is key. I know this might sound tricky, but we can all do it. After all, at one point in all our lives we were under 5. Early Years Practitioners do this day-in, day-out and can provide fantastic role models when it comes to interacting with very little ones.

The basics are these: pay attention, respond and be enthusiastic! A little enthusiasm can take you miles, especially with this age group.

As the EYPs shared their skills, so we could share ours in return. We experimented with creative approaches to room layouts, activities and material and over the course of the project were able to radically change the way we all worked for the benefit of the children and their parents.

The exchange between settings goes beyond just skill-swapping. We were able to work in the children’s centre and get away from the gallery trappings. In doing so, we were able to reach a whole new audience. Even though the families were all local, many had never visited Towner despite it being on their doorstep.

Through the association with the children’s centre, the gallery gained a kind of credibility that we wouldn’t have got through working in a different way. We were also able to get to know potential visitors and embed ourselves more in the local community. Likewise, the children’s centre was able to better serve the community by providing them with access to art and culture on their doorstep.

What next?

As with many projects like this, it took a while for the trust to develop. The work with the children’s centre has been going on for about six months now, and as we have got to know the families over that time, we have seen an increasing in the number of them exploring what Towner can offer. The attendance for our weekly under 5s drop-in session has been rising slowly but steadily since the project with the children’s centre began, and best of all, we’re seeing families come back again and again.

We must be doing something right, right? 

This is just the beginning though – the relationship Towner has built with the children’s centre and with the families they work with has been really positive so far and as the Open Sesame Project draws to an official end; we are already talking about all the ways we can continue to work together.

This approach could be taken with any new group you want to work with, but have no idea where to start. It can be as simple as getting in touch and saying “We would like to work with you!” or words to that effect anyway.

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