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Rules for a Playful Museum

Charlotte Derry sharing the Rules for a Playful Museum at MuseumNext Dublin

Ahead of October’s
Museums, Games and Play Summit, MuseumNext takes a closer look at the Rules for a Playful Museum e-book created by Charlotte Derry in collaboration with Manchester Museum, which was initially funded by the Happy Museum back in 2012.

Historically, museums and galleries have had a reputation akin to that of libraries – places to enjoy art and culture quietly; to be alone with one’s thoughts and to browse artefacts and collections in an orderly manner.

This generalisation certainly isn’t applicable to every institution around the globe, of course, but few can deny that museum settings as a whole don’t have a strong reputation for noise, silliness, anarchy and play. Importantly, though, these are all traits that are valued highly by the emerging generation of adults with short attention spans and a proclivity towards gaming.

Similarly, attracting children through the door – be it physical or virtual – to cultivate the next generation of museumgoers is likely to become ever harder when there are so many other fun distractions online.

In the opening gambit of Manchester Museum’s Rules for a Playful Museum, it is stated “We think protecting children’s right and freedom to play in shared social space is a serious matter.”

And it certainly should be. The benefits of creating playful, creative and stimulating environments are clear and well understood; and they present museums with a wonderful opportunity to attract and engage audiences of the future.

Rules vs freedom: mutually exclusive in play?

The introduction to Rules for a Playful Museum states, “We are inspired by the curious and fascinating set of ever-changing rules in children’s play.”

Of course, the idea of rules may sound prohibitive and restrictive. But we should acknowledge that, in order to create any game or atmosphere of fun and creativity, it is undoubtedly important that a museum takes responsibility for the framework. Indeed, rule number 1 in the guide is to reflect on practices that may “support or constrain opportunities for playing”.

Understanding where rules and restrictions should start and end is a vital aspect of any game or play scenario. And it is no surprise that this is a high on the list of considerations in the rulebook from Manchester Museum.

Similarly, the rulebook suggests that there is value in encouragement: letting children (and their families) know that “it’s OK to play”. This includes demonstrating that museum staff themselves are happy to indulge in play to support the visitor experience. Indeed, the guide asserts that staff play has significant value in relation to workplace enjoyment and better wellbeing for employees.

Perspective is key

One of the most magical things about child play, the rulebook says, is that young people find it so easy to see their surroundings through different filters and appreciate from a variety of perspectives. The example used is how a gallery might be seen through the lens of a mouse, a tiger or a giant.

These simple but effective shifts in perspective are powerful tools that easily transport museum visitors into playful spaces and creative states of mind.

From museum staff passing around toy dinosaur eggs amongst curious kids wandering through exhibitions to the incorporation of a hopscotch on the museum floor, the rulebook helps to demonstrate how initiating play needn’t be costly or labour intensive. Rather, it should engage children’s sense of fun, energy and imagination above all else.

Play for child development

Play-based approaches to learning and childhood education have been established and understood for many years. From first baby classes through to secondary education, nurturing children’s natural urge to play and supporting their exploration of creative ideas can play a significant role in their physical, social, cognitive and emotional development. Play is also central to a child’s drive and motivation – qualities that will aid them throughout life.

We know that play reinforces memory, supports critical thinking and develops a deeper understanding of cause and effect. That’s before we get to benefits relating to motor skills, balance, dexterity and flexibility experienced during physical play activities.

It should also be mentioned that at a time when society is becoming increasingly aware of the challenges faced by children – particularly adolescents – through the advent of social media and other modern technologies, creating places and situations for play and recreation is essential to wellbeing and mental health.

Through the development of creativity, the exploration of imagination and the self-confidence that comes with learning and success in game environments, children can build the resilience and emotional strength needed to prepare them for adulthood.

How museums can embrace play

As the e-book explores, creating a playful atmosphere, museums need to demonstrate a number of qualities. These may include the removal of constraints on playful interactions and behaviour; nurturing play through prompts, installations and resources that lend themselves to play; and even just a positive demeanour amongst staff.

Read the full e-book on Rules for a Playful Museum.

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