Announcing a new Special Issue of Children’s Geographies journal; Young children’s museum geographies; spatial, material and bodily ways of knowing

We are happy to announce that a special issue of Children’s Geographies journal, dedicated to research on children in museums, has just been published. The guest editors are Abigail Hackett, Rachel Holmes, Christina MacRae and Lisa Procter from Manchester Metropolitan University. The papers all present research and ideas around what happens when children 0-8 years visit museums, what their experiences might be like, how the action can unfold, and some theories that are helpful for considering these kinds of events. In addition, the papers grapple with the practical implications of this research for museum learning professionals, families and teachers.

Children’s Geographies was the perfect journal for the special issue, as the authors of the papers all share a concern with the role of materials, the body, movement and place in children’s realities. These aspects of children’s experiences of museums have thus far been under-theorised, and in bringing them to the fore, we intend to both build on, contribute to and disrupt theory and practice with regards to children in museums. We hope that this special issue will act as an impetus for further thinking and collaborating in two ways;


  • Children in museums as learners: a contested idea?


In the last twenty years, learning in UK museums has gained a much higher profile, and become a well-established and dynamic field of practice. The most significant body of work on families in museums draws on sociocultural perspectives, with an emphasis on cognitive learning as evidenced through talk. Several aspects of children’s museum visiting are not well served by the domination of this approach, for example, the embodied and spatial nature of museum visiting, the tacit ways in which museums may feel meaningful to children, and the vibrant materiality of the museum itself. The consequence of this has been that children in museums are almost entirely framed as ‘little learners’ (Kirk, 2016).

Whilst we do not contest that museums can facilitate children’s learning, we are interested in approaches that might offer a less instrumental approach to interpreting what children do in museums and why museums might have meaning for children. These approaches might include a particular emphasis on place, the body, sensory experience and materiality, aspects of children’s museum visiting that adults may struggle to codify, or represent, or rationalise. We hope the papers in this special issue make the case to researchers from museum studies, childhood studies and children’s geographies interested in children in museums for the potential that broadening the theoretical scope beyond socio-cultural / language / learning perspectives offers for thinking generatively and generously about young children in museums.


  • Museums as a space of interest for children’s museum geographers


As under theorised para-public spaces, museums offer rich potential to advance the field of children’s geographies. They can become the focus of communities and offer inter-generational dialogue and yet at the same time are spaces whose use, particularly by children, that can be contested and controversial. One of the most interesting things about museums from the point of view of children’s geographies is that they tend to offer distinctly different environments compared to children’s everyday places (homes, communities, schools, parks etc), for example in terms of scale of the buildings, atmospheres, collections, objects, use and unwritten rules of engagement. The contrasting materiality and discourses of museums compared to other aspects of children’s everyday lives offers rich potential to support a holistic understanding of how children experience and make sense of both familiar and unfamiliar spaces.


We hope that this special issue will act as an impetus for further thinking and collaborating between researchers and museum professionals, firstly by disrupting the conflation of children in museums with narrowing notions such as learning and talk, and secondly by highlighting the rich potential of museums as a space of interest for the field of children’s geographies. We look forward to seeing how children’s presence in museum spaces could be further theorised, disrupted and reinterpreted by this field.



Book contract announcement and call for case study chapter proposals

We are happy to announce we have signed a book contract with Routledge for an edited book called Working with young children in museums; weaving theory and practice. The editors of the book will be Abigail Hackett, Rachel Holmes and Christina MacRae. We have some free slots available for case studies on working with young children in museums – so this is a call for proposals to write a case study.


The aim of the book is to address a significant gap in the guidance available to museum practitioners with regards to working with very young children (0-8 years) in museums, galleries and heritage sites. Research looking at the experience of young children in museum is in its infancy, whilst across the UK museum sector, there is an increasing interest in working with these audiences. Through our research, and events we organized for museum sector (in May 2017 in Manchester and in May 2016 in Sheffield), we are aware there are exciting possibilities for putting new theories and ideas to work in museums in order to further develop and support the excellent work already taking place for young children in museums and galleries.


This book will diverge from the dominant socio-cultural learning models that are generally employed in museum learning literature. These models, which have in the past tended to focus on talk as evidence of cognitive learning within family groups, are ill-suited to conceptualizing the experiences of very young children in museums. This is because, for a baby, or a 2 year old, or a 5 year old, museums are intensely sensory, embodied experiences. Different approaches to thinking through the experiences of young children in museums, with a focus on the body, movement, experience of spaces are beginning to emerge in the research literature, but have not yet been widely shared with the museum sector or explicitly connected to practice. This book will outline these theories and their usefulness for conceptualizing young children in museums in an accessible way for a practitioner audience, as well as connecting these theories to practical examples of programming in a range of museum, gallery and heritage sites, through a series of contributed case studies.


Call for case study book chapters

The book will include a number of case studies from museums, galleries and heritage sites working with children under fives years.

  • We are interested in practical examples of work in this area that focuses on bodily experience, sensory experience, movement, the experience of being in different spaces, and on how the experiences of young children visiting museums are different from those of older children or adults.
  • We would particularly like to identify more case studies of museums working with diverse audiences, including young children with disabilities, and young children from different cultural backgrounds (not just White middle class families).
  • The case studies need to be around 2500 words long.
  • The final case studies are due 1st October 2018.
  • If you are interested in being involved, please contact to discuss your idea, by 31st July 2018.



What are the ingredients for a successful Under Fives museum visit?

A summary of research carried out by Abigail Hackett, Lisa Procter and Christina MacRae from Manchester Metropolitan University.

dr abigail hackett

A summary of my keynote paper at ‘Freedom to Explore’ conference in Hull, September 2017.

Last week I gave keynote paper at ‘Freedom to Explore’ as conference organised by Humber Museums Partnership as part of their Arts Council funded project Under Fives in Museums. I have been collaborating with Humber Museums throughout this project. The keynote was about a piece of research I carried out with colleagues at MMU, Lisa Procter and Christina Macrae during the last year.

The focus of this research was how families experience the museums of the Humber Museum Partnership. HMP were particularly interested in thinking across a range of their sites, and also to understand how experiences of museums changed over time for young children, from a first encounter to a point at which a building might be familiar, and particular kinds of meanings and practices become attached to being in that place. It was…

View original post 1,451 more words

Developing child-led pedagogic practice in the Atelier programme at the Whitworth, University of Manchester: An action research project

Louisa Penfold, University of Nottingham

This presentation reports on an action research project that introduced the process of pedagogical documentation (Reggio Children & Harvard Project Zero, 2001) to the early year’s Atelier programme at the Whitworth, University of Manchester. The paper draws on the extensive observations undertaken over a 13-week period including photographic records, video footage, artist interviews and meeting transcripts. Shared analysis and discussion before, during and after each children’s art session were used to generate results and identify how pedagogical documentation – a process that seeks to make children’s and adult’s learning visible – could be used to co-construct gallery programming between children, families, artists, learning curators and the institution.

Key results suggest that pedagogical documentation can be made specific to gallery learning and used to record a wide array of children’s and family’s experiences. These observations can then be used to generate collaborative critical reflection to inform future programme planning. The research confirms that pedagogical documentation is a useful way to support gallery teams in reconsidering assumptions, ethics and practices towards children in art museums. This then allows for practices to become more complex, for that complexity to be made visible and therefore open to interpretation from others. Results also suggest that this process can be used to support the emergence of alternate pedagogies that are constructed from within a specific social, political, cultural and temporal context.

However, a sole focus on social interactions when collecting, interpreting and critically reflecting pedagogical documentation is limited in its acknowledgement of the broader non-human entities (artworks, the gallery space, materials, concepts and curatorial discourse) that shape children’s experiences. Critical reflection on the first cycle of action research therefore points to a broader conceptualisation of children in art museums, one that moves towards what Lenz Taguchi (2010) describes as an ‘intra-active pedagogy.’ This material-discursive approach to gallery learning shifts our attention from:

“…intra-personal and inter-personal relationships towards an intra-active relationship between all living organisms and the material environment such as things and artefacts, spaces and place that we occupy… material objects and artefacts can be understood as being part of a performative production of power and change in an intertwined relationship of intra-activity with other matter or humans (Dahlberg & Moss, 2010: xiv).”

If children explore and construct relations between human and non-human entities rhizomatically (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987) in which learning enters and exists at multiple points, then the reflection of documentation needs to be approached as a diffractive process (Barad, 2007) that seeks to disrupt fixed discourse and practices towards children. Pedagogical documentation can then be used to debate: what does ‘child-led’ mean? How does this term and its subjective understandings support and restrict practices? And how can pedagogical documentation be used to further encourage the development of ‘emergent programming’ in art museums?

Future research will take these questions on board and consider how pedagogical documentation can be introduced to different gallery and institutional contexts.



Barad, K (2007). ‘Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning.’ Signs. 28 (3). 801-831

Dahlberg, G & Moss, P (2010). ‘Introduction by the series editors,’ in Lenz-Taguchi, H. Going beyond the theory/practice divide in early childhood education: Introducing intra-active pedagogy. Routledge, New York.

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F (1987). A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia (B. Massumi, Trans.). Second Edition. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

Lenz-Taguchi, H (2010). Going beyond the theory/practice divide in early childhood education: Introducing intra-active pedagogy. Routledge, New York.

Reggio Children & Harvard Project Zero (2001). Making learning visible: Children as individual and group learners. Reggio Children publications, Reggio Emilia, Italy.

The social and sensory materiality of museum spaces: tensions between learning and play

Professor Bella Dicks is Head of Research at Amgueddfa-Cymru – National Museum of Wales, and a Professor of Sociology at Cardiff University. She presented a keynote paper at our recent Children in Museums event, drawing on some of the data collected from her long term research with museums in Wales. The talk questioned models of learning-through-doing, and suggested that more socially and materially-focused understandings of children’s interactions in museums are needed.

Professor Dicks discussed the challenges of reconciling what children actually do in museums with expectations of learning-through-doing. Taking the model of the science discovery centre as a focus, Bella discussed how exhibit design is often in tension with children’s highly social and sensory interactions – with material objects, technologies and each other. Design envisages the transmission of rational scientific principles, obtainable through simple activation of exhibit effects, or ‘by stealth’ or ‘ambush’ whilst children are unaware they are learning. However, ‘discovery’ spaces work to bring other dimensions to the fore. Far from the picture of harmonious, focused and rational play that appears to be the expectation of interactive exhibit design, Bella’s research suggests that children are busy enacting conflictual, sensory, gendered and ever-shifting peer-relations in their interactions with exhibits. By actively using and responding to the material resources of the environment, they are enacting these social relationships, rather than bringing science to the fore.

You can read more about Bella’s research on this project in this paper:

Dicks, B. (2013) Interacting with….what? Exploring children’s social and sensory practices in a science discovery centre, Ethnography and Education 9 (3): 301-322.

The art of listening

At the Children in Museums event on 23rd May, we thought about the art of listening, and about how we can listen to artworks in museums. It has been said that sound is a more immersive sense than vision, which can separate us from the object of our gaze. Here is a short introduction to Soundwalking, a method for immersion into the sonic environment, with some examples featuring rhubarb, pull-along suitcases and the Amolador of Lisbon. Listen!

Dr Andrew Stevenson, Manchester Metropolitan University


Vibrancy, repetition, movement: reconceptualising young children in museums

Dr Abi Hackett and Dr Christina MacRae from Manchester Metropolitan University presented a keynote at our recent Children in Museums event, experimenting with the potential for new learning theories to better account for young children’s experiences in museums. Drawing on various museum research projects the team at Manchester Metropolitan University have been involved in over the last ten years, the presentation focussed in particular on ‘sticky data’, that is, examples of things that have appeared meaningful to young children in museums but do not seem well accounted for by social constructivist learning theories.

The presentation bean with a proposition; when observing what young children do in museums, sometimes predictable, sometimes completely surprising, researchers and museum practitioners find themselves asking different versions of the same question: what does that mean? Or, to phrase this question in some other ways; what does this behaviour signify? What are these children learning? How successful is this exhibition for this audience? What is the value of children visiting museums? Abi and Christina made a case for drawing on new posthuman theories of learning to better conceptualise young children in museums, particularly, two notions

  1. a decentring of humans in order to understand the role of non-human actants in what happens in museums
  2. an interest in non-representation, that is, aspects of experience which are difficult to rationalise or to put into words.

This keynote together with some of the other sessions at the Children in Museums event introduced posthuman theories have been amongst the first to introduce posthuman theories to museum learning. There is currently little published on posthumanism and museum learning. Museum practitioners interested in reading more about posthuman theory and early childhood education could take a look at some of the following:

Barron, I. and Taylor, L. (forthcoming) Eating and scraping away at practice with two-year-olds, Pedagogy, Culture and Society.

Olsson, L. (2013) Taking Children’s Questions Seriously: the need for creative thought, Global Studies of Childhood 3 (3).

Rautio, P. (2013). Children who carry stones in their pockets: on autotelic material practices in everyday life. Children’s Geographies, 11(4): 394-408.

If you have trouble accessing any of these, please do contact us and we will do our best to help.