Understanding Play-based Learning – The Whitworth

The Whitworth, Manchester (Image provided by The Whitworth)

What is meant by play-based learning?

First of all, it’s important to understand what we mean when we refer to play. Initially, when we think of play, we might assume that play is at odds with learning, that these are two distinct concepts but play has actually long been recognised as a vital part of social and cognitive development in children. Indeed, even as far back as 1933, renowned Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky remarked that “play contains all developmental tendencies in a condensed form and is itself a major source of development.” Play is therefore not necessarily time-off from learning, it can in fact be, and often is, learning in itself.

The Reggio Emilia Approach

With these ideas in mind, the Reggio Emilia Approach encourages the learner to take a direct role in their own learning; to investigate and explore objects, people, and the environment around them, and to be guided by teachers, educators, and parents, not to be instructed. It’s this revolutionary approach to learning that inspires the PLAY sessions at the Whitworth. 

PLAY Studio

Prior to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, Lucy organised and developed the PLAY Studio sessions. Currently unable to run due to government restrictions, these sessions are planned to resume as soon as the gallery is allowed to reopen and relax social distancing measures. The sessions do much to replicate conditions typical of the Reggio Emilia approach. The aim is simple, to provide enriching and stimulating environments in which under 5s can engage in learning by interacting with people and objects around them. Importantly, PLAY Studio is divided into two development groups; non-walking babies and then walkers to five. Lucy finds that this division by development stages is necessary due to the different cognitive abilities and requirements respective of each stage. 

Above: The Garden Studio pictured with opened doors onto the Art Garden (Image provided by the Whitworth)

For the non-walking babies, sessions are usually held in the centre of a gallery on an assortment of rugs and cushioned materials. As the babies aren’t at the stage where they can freely walk around the galleries, they are more or less contained within this space while still being surrounded by the colours and shapes of the art that surrounds them on the walls. In this sense, the gallery serves as a sensory space in which the babies can interact with each other, their parents and to an extent the collection.

Timing plays an important role in the PLAY sessions for two key reasons. The first is that in line with the Reggio Emilia Approach, children are viewed as full of potential and their own decision-making process should be respected. Having rigid structure and timings imposed on children can therefore provide inhibitions or obstacles to their development. The gallery combats this by running the sessions as drop-in every Monday from ten in the morning till three in the afternoon. This can give the child more agency and freedom over when they would like to start and stop playing. 

The second reason pertains to accessibility. Children can be unpredictable and their routines are not always the same. For example, if a small child or baby comes to the gallery with their parent but they are still asleep in their buggy, then the parent can walk around the gallery or have a cup of tea in the café and join the session when they’re ready to. This can really take some of the pressure off parents when trying to fit their attendance to the sessions into their busy schedules.

Similarly, the nature of drop-in allows for parents and guardians who may speak English as a second or third language to access the session with ease. There are no telephone calls or complex booking systems, nor is there any formal instruction or sing-a-longs, meaning that if the parent is not confident in speaking English then there is little pressure to do so as the very nature of the sessions mean that you don’t really need to speak. Lucy best explained this by saying:

“You come in, you play with paint, clay, or other materials with your child and then you can just leave. It’s almost like you’re communicating through the language of play rather than having to communicate in a spoken language and this really helps us to diversify our audiences as language can be a huge barrier to accessibility.”

PLAY Live 

It’s no secret that the coronavirus pandemic has forced museums and galleries to adapt their programmes to cope with restrictive social distancing measures and downright disruptive lockdowns. Lucy and her team were of course not immune to this but instead seized upon the opportunity to adapt their sessions online. Lucy noticed that while there was an overwhelming response by museums and galleries to supplement learning for students in primary school, secondary school and college, there was little available to supplement the loss of pre-school and nursery age learning. Of course at this age, there isn’t any vital coursework or exams that the children would miss out on but what they were missing out on was both a sense of community and belonging that preschool can provide, as well as the environment for early social development. 

Noticing this gap, Lucy and her team launched PLAY Live, online sessions delivered through the video conferencing application ‘Zoom’. Like the PLAY Studio sessions, the focus was on play, art, and creativity utilising different activities such as painting, sculpture and weaving. This time around though, the children and parents were encouraged to use materials and objects they found around their own homes. The aim of this was to demonstrate that play can be simple and cost-effective while also being highly valuable to a child’s wellbeing and development.

Top: PLAY Live for under fives, Bottom: PLAY Live for babies born under Covid-19 restrictions (Images provided by The Whitworth)

Split into the same developmental categories as the PLAY Studio sessions, PLAY Live has been a massive success. Back in early January 2021, at the height of the lockdown, one PLAY Live session for babies born under lockdown restrictions attracted an incredible two hundred and fifty participants. Likewise, for the two to five age range, a staggering total of five hundred and fifty people attended one single session. Since the government’s roadmap out of lockdown has slowly eased restrictions, these numbers have reduced but there is still appetite for the online sessions and the gallery is currently exploring ways in which the sessions could possibly be delivered in a hybrid format; in order to increase accessibility for those who cannot or do not wish to physically attend the sessions upon their return to the gallery.

Breaking down stereotypes

The PLAY sessions play an important role in changing traditional views of art galleries. Everyone brings their own perception of what a museum or gallery is to them when they visit and to many visitors today, an art gallery is a quiet place, for reflection and contemplation. There’s nothing wrong with this, on the contrary they are fantastic places for this type of experience but it’s not the only type of experience that should be offered to visitors. While toddlers and babies aren’t exactly usually the quietest type of visitor, it’s their lack of inhibitions and preconceptions of what an art gallery is that allows them to express themselves in this way and while this may not be the typical form of engagement one might associate with an art gallery, it is still engagement nonetheless.

While occasionally there are complaints that on Mondays the galleries can be noisy, on the whole, visitors love to see children interacting with the spaces and the collection. In fact this can actually put visitors more at ease. If a child can freely look at a painting and say what they like about it free of judgement, then why can’t an adult? The importance of sharing these spaces with children is therefore vital and Lucy further explains that: 

“The Early Years audience are a really important audience, they’re the next generation of gallery goers. Their visit is just as valid as other people’s visits to the gallery.”

The PLAY sessions demonstrate that while babies and toddlers can sometimes be noisy, these spaces belong to all visitors of different shapes and sizes and should be shared as such.

Building bridges

It’s a known problem within museums and galleries that there are many different types of barriers to accessibility for different types of people and different demographics. Online and virtual sessions as we’ve seen can aid accessibility, reaching people who are unable to attend the gallery. However, the means in which to access online content shouldn’t be taken for granted. While access to the internet has been consistently growing for some time now, it’s estimated that 4% of households in the United Kingdom still do not have consistent internet access. A further related barrier is access to expensive devices required to access online sessions such as computers, laptops and webcams.

Taking a step back before that initial engagement to understand what potential barriers there are to access is vital. Lucy stated that: “Sometimes you’ve got to rely on partners to be able to bridge those gaps between you and community groups.” Recognising and identifying a potential access barrier is the first step to resolving it. Lucy has noted a direct correlation to these women accessing these sessions and going on to engage with other online sessions; therefore demonstrating that carefully navigating that first step of engagement is crucial to securing long lasting partnerships with harder to reach audiences and communities.

Concluding thoughts

It’s evident that play-based learning in museum and gallery settings is highly desired by children and parents alike and can provide an array of benefits to both parties. Indeed, despite traditional views of museums and galleries being quiet places of contemplation, they can in fact be utilised as dynamic and engaging environments for play-based learning. Furthermore, with careful consideration, play-based learning (particularly online sessions) in museums and galleries can allow people who may not usually come to these places, to experience them for the first time and in many cases encourage their return. For museums and galleries it looks like play, is definitely here to stay

Useful links:

Final question for you…

Have you ever experienced play-based learning in a museum or gallery setting and if so, what did it look like?

Feel free to answer in the comment box below.

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