Fun and Games at the Museums

Not just a place for old relics – a new festival plans to exhibit the priceless potential of Northern Ireland's museums for ages 0-5

If you have toddlers, then a trip to the museum probably isn’t high on your agenda when it comes to keeping them entertained. What if they damage something valuable, or make a bit of a racket? Museums, surely, aren’t for babies and pre-schoolers, who are more concerned with playing and running around than brushing up on their local history…

Indeed, research conducted by the Northern Ireland Museums Council (NIMC) shows that most parents and guardians think museums aren’t very welcoming of the under-fives. They’ve also discovered that many people don’t realise they even have a local museum on their doorstep, which they can enjoy for free.

The NIMC is hoping to change such misconceptions, however, with the launch of their very first Playful Museums Festival in February. Aimed specifically at children under five, the programme will run for four weeks, with a whole host of activities to enjoy – and all for free.

Thanks to £99k of funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), the festival will have everything from baby sensory activities, right through to gallery trails and storytelling with songs. The aim is to engage both young children and their parents/guardians with the museums and also, to support early development and learning through fun activities.

As Paul Mullan, head of the Heritage Lottery Fund NI says: 'Museums and young children are the perfect combination. One group has a treasure trove of material and the other has creative, inquisitive, open minds ready to explore.'

'The activities are all very specific to each museum,' says programme coordinator, Beth Frazer. 'So everything will be very unique. Each museum will have different themes and they’ve chosen things in their collections which they think will be suitable for the children and will give them extra learning and insight. They’ve thought up some great ideas.'

With 17 museums taking part in this, the pilot Playful Museums Festival, the NIMC is keen to continue the event into the future, on an annual basis. Meanwhile, in preparation for the month-long initiative, they’ve been working with five museums since last June, delivering various activities before the official programme launch.

'We’ve also been offering training across the museums sector in activities and workshops and evaluation for an under-five audience, as we hadn’t worked with under-fives before this,' says Frazer.

'Basically, we realised through our visitor profiling that there’s a misconception that museums aren’t for the under-fives. Parents thought they maybe wouldn’t be welcome in the museum. Most of the visitors so far haven’t visited the museums before because they didn’t think it was a place for children of that age.'

The events and activities that will subsequently take place across Northern Ireland include Crafty Cosy Corners, Storytelling Adventures, Baby Massage and Yoga, Playful Art, Playful Music and much more.

'There’s something on every day,' says Frazer. 'There’ll be drop-in areas, crafts and gallery trails and some of the events are also bookable, for those who want to do that.

'We just want people to try it and see. I think they’ll be surprised. We’re trained now in our understanding of early years’ development and learning, and how the projects can help the children. For example, we do a lot of repetitive work, which is good for their memory. The programme is designed to encourage early years learning and development but most of all - it’s fun.

'We’re hoping that through the project, children will come with their parents at a young age and we’ll start a new generation which will keep visiting and making the most of their museums.'

Baby Cafe

The Playful Museums Festival is also a great way to highlight the rich resource of museums that are scattered throughout the country, adds Frazer, raising their profile and indeed, further validating their work.

Professor Elizabeth Crooke, chair of the NIMC, adds that the festival 'not only supports local museums in developing services for a new audience, but enables museum staff to increase their knowledge and confidence so the benefits of the programme will be sustained in the future.'

With children aged 0-5 set to enjoy all sorts of fun in February, the NIMC is also looking at other groups of children who they can develop programmes and activities for.

'We’ve also identified a gap for children with additional needs,' says Frazer. 'We don’t currently have any specific programmes for special needs children, so we’re hoping to do that in the future.'

The Playful Museums Festival runs from Wednesday, February 1 until Tuesday, February 28 at museums throughout Northern Ireland. The official opening event will take place at Carrickfergus Museum on Friday, February 3 at 1pm, with everyone welcome to attend. For more information, visit or find the Northern Ireland Museum Council on Facebook.

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