Before becoming a mother, I have to confess, that I didn’t think a lot about what very small children would find entertaining on a day trip to a historic monument or a stately home. I just thought that babies would sit in the pram or on your knee having a jolly good time and not be much of a problem, and my little one did exactly that when he was still a baby. Now that I have a toddler on my hands its a different story. What I’ve come to realise over the last few weeks and months is that toddlers want to engage with anything and everything, and an active child like mine will not be fobbed off with a pram ride! What I didn’t realise is that most attractions had also struggled with the notion of an over excited toddler.
Its great that children in general are being thought of more and more and given ways to relate to history and enjoy our rich heritage, certainly there is much more for children to do than there ever was when I was a kid. However the multitude of glass, sharp edges and in one instance two foot drop on to a loosely fenced off mosaic floor did not make for a very relaxing day out when your small child is just getting the hang of walking! Displays were also generally too high and too complex to engage him. There are however some examples of museums and stately homes getting it so very right for our curious little explorers and I’d like to share those experiences with you.
On a recent trip to Swereby Hall, just outside of Bridlington on the North Yorkshire Coast, I was very impressed with what was actually a very simple way to engage a one year old in history. On the first floor of the house there was a very simple nursery display. The room contained a small bed and chest filled with period toys (minus the sharp bits and tiny bits to choke on!). My little boy was in his element playing with all of the lovely spinning tops and wooden horses, I’m pretty sure he thought he was at play group. It was however a lovely way to bring heritage into a language that he could understand and for a good half hour he experienced the world as a privileged child did over a hundred years ago. It had the added benefit of giving him somewhere to safely play watched over by one parent whilst the other zipped round the rest of the exhibition!
The second example was at Hull and East Ridding Museum, which houses the history and archaeology collections. At the beginning of the museum in the deep history part of the display is a representation of what it would have been like under the sea when the first animals where evolving. The room is filled with mirrors and fish hang from the ceiling creating the illusion of being under water. My child happily stared at this mesmerised by what looked like a vast expanse of water filled with fish. There was also lots of fossils for him to touch and feel the differences in texture and shape. Again although I know that the context of where he was and what he was actually looking at where lost on him being able to engage him, even a small amount, with history added to the enjoyment of the trip both for him and us!
These experiences begin to raise the question in my mind about whether engaging very small children should be given greater attention and if there are enough places providing multi sensory experiences which can cater for the very young (as well as be engaging for larger demographics). Do more of us need to get on our hands and knees and look around our exhibits and think about what dangers there may be to a toddler and what simple extras could be added to keep them entertained and informed? For example could more places provide toys and themed areas that small children can relate to? More objects that are baby friendly that out little monsters could craw/walk over to and pick up, chuck, chew on etc? Boards on the wall at ‘toddler hight’ that they could push buttons on, spin wheels on, put balls into? A lot of these things could be adapted to most family heritage attractions. I would be interested to hear other peoples thoughts and experiences on this.