Sharks, slides and child-friendly museums

I went to Bristol recently and saw some of the amazing Science Museum there.  There was lots of brilliant stuff to look at, like the large and interactive water piece that didn’t photograph well AT ALL, but far and away my favorite element was the simplest.

It was a notice board where people of all ages (though primarily children) had posted small cards about their dreams.  I sneakily photographed my favorites.

“I dreamt that I was stranded on an island then my Dad tried to rescue me but he got eaten by a shark.”

“I dreamt I was in a big bath full of purple water and a boy came along and I didn’t like it.”

“I dreamt about sharks.  It was so scary.”  (Jack, aged 4)

“I dream of flying” (Emily)

It offered an unusual chance to not just participate in the exhibits, but to help create them.  Strange coincidences, like the two on shark and the prevalence of dreams of flying, brought a sense commonality to the separate contributions.  It also validated the children’s experiences of dreaming and the subconscious as worthy of discussion, analysis – of bringing into the light.

Almost simultaneously, my beloved and brilliant friend Sarah Zarrow was having her own child-friendly museum experience.  Below is a quote from her:

i went to the city museum (in St. Louis) (, which isn’t really a “museum” in the common sense, but more like a playground for adults and also kids. there’s a giant climbing structure, caves, an in-house circus troupe, a museum of architectural things, and a ten-story slide. for real.

anyhow, i was blown away at how much freedom there was in the space.  there were hardly any rule signs, other than ones reminding you to wait until the person before you was off the slide. everything felt physically safe, but the climbing structure was definitely jump-off-able, and i can’t see something like this ever going over in new york or any other over protective place. in all areas, there were bigger and smaller spaces, which meant that some places were de facto off-limits for adults (even i, as one of the smaller adults there, had a hard time with some of the tunnels). i pushed my physical limits a lot, esp. my fear of heights. almost all areas in the climbing structure were available in less-scary and more-scary ways to get to them (stairs versus wire net….). nothing was marked “for adults” or “for kids,” with the exception of a toddlers-and-guardians-only space. nothing in the gift shop was markedly gendered (at least not that I could see). and i didn’t see anyone get injured, which was kind of impressive–i definitely almost hit my head about a dozen times.

and for some reason, despite the potential for injury, lost children, etc., the whole thing seemed to work. i saw a couple of kid meltdowns (mostly getting to the top of a climbing structure and being afraid to come down), but it seemed so calm, even though by the time i left, it was packed. it was almost shocking to me, after seeing really boring playgrounds where parents STILL can’t let the kids go more than two feet on their own, to kids running around over re-purposed materials, getting lost, etc. everyone was really self-regulating.

also fascinating was the way i experienced total sensory overload, but not in an unpleasant way. there were very few bells and whistles and flashing lights–except in an arcade area with old-fashioned circus-y games. it was more like, i’d walk under an arch about four times, then look up and realized that the colorful things above me were neckties. or that a pole was covered in gears inlaid with colored stones. No tv/video at all. it was clear that a ton of craftsmanship went into the place, but it was super low-tech. one of the funnest looking things was a big open ring with about 200 (i estimate) 1-gallon butter tubs (or similar), a few office chairs on wheels, and a rope swing. the idea was to build up a castle and knock it down. there was a museum staffer overseeing, but he didn’t give instruction–there was just a small sign on the wall with a suggestion of what to do.

i also sculpted a small turtle, but i left it there by accident.

Now, I was lucky enough to be one of those rare and geeky kids who loved traditional museums.  I liked collecting and ordering objects and facts, so could understand why adults would feel the same.  I liked the quiet, the big scale of the buildings, and the explanatory notes – but even at the time I knew I was in the minority.

How amazing it is that there are more museums now that are opening themselves up to the behaviours and curiosities that children bring with them?  And also, in the midst of all these rare and thrilling opportunities, how self-governing it seemed to be?  All those changes in level and opportunities for risk would make many parents and teachers go on health and safety alert, and yet ‘it worked’.

A lot of what Sarah is talking about echoes what one would find on a really good playground – the moveable objects and loose parts, the play offers rather than demands, opportunities for tactile, material exploration, for self-moderated risk and engagement on children’s own terms, and a rich and multi-sensory environment that rewards attention and immersion – all of these things are exactly what we advocate for when it comes to designing inclusive indoor play environments.

To have those high quality play opportunities in a museum environment goes a long way towards demonstrating to children that museums are there for them to take advantage of and that they are welcome.  Even better, it provides them with some of the best ‘loose parts’ of all – new ideas.


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