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By Mady Stanley on

Early Years and Learning: The Value of Play in Science Museums 

The Science Museum Group are working on a collaborative research project which explores how to support early years audiences with science objects in our museums. Madeline Stanley reflects on the work so far and on the importance of play in early years learning and object engagement. 


Early years (EY) audiences are very important to the Science Museum Group (SMG). With our mission to inspire the next generation of scientists, inventors, and engineers we recognise that to be able this, we need to start with our very youngest audiences.

We want to support and enable children to have meaningful and positive experiences with science, technology, engineering, maths (STEM) from an early age, and to help them to feel, as they grow up, that STEM is something that they can be a part of.

One of the ways that we can achieve this, as a science museum, is through the power of our collections. SMG holds over 7 million objects and within that is endless potential to captivate and inspire young children’s minds. We recognise that EY children have their own unique ways of exploring the world and more specifically museum objects, and we wanted to learn more about that so we could help engage them in our collections.

With a unique partnership of practitioner and academic research expertise, SMG and the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Pedagogy (HHCP) at University College London (UCL) have worked together to help close the gap in knowledge and experience across the museum sector on young children’s engagement in science related museum objects.


This research project is focused on object-rich galleries. These galleries are spaces that host lots of objects in them and have very few hands-on or interactive elements. In another sense, these are spaces that have not really been created with EY children in mind.

Despite not being designed for EY audiences, we know that these galleries do have great potential to bring science alive and engage young children with STEM.

However, to tap into that potential we recognise that there are barriers to engagement in these spaces for younger children.

These galleries can seem like they have unwritten rules which do not provide adults and children with obvious permission to be playful. Adults themselves can feel unconfident in how to engage or behave in the space and facilitate object engagement experiences in a way that’s meaningful for EY children.

This research project has been working to address that, and is focused on creating more equitable approaches to engagement that will help us support more young children, and their adults, in accessing and enjoying our museum objects, and to inspire more young children to be more playful with science.


The most important people involved in this research are of course the participants!

Over 260 young children aged between 4 to 7 years old and 280 adults in family and school groups have participated in the research at the Science Museum.

A young visitor, held in a grown ups arms, holds a blue square shape with google eyes up to a glass cabinet. Inside the cabinet is a large wooden "draw like" object with multiple square shaped drawers.
Visitors takes part in the Hungry Shape Monster game and are hunting down squares in the Science Museum for their ‘monster’ to eat

A wide range of engagement activities were developed to test with the EY children to help us to explore how they helped to engage them with our museum objects.

We also wanted to better understand what object engagement looks like with this audience – What do EY children say and notice about objects? What do they do when surrounded by them?

18 different object engagement approaches were developed.  This included storytelling’s with objects, child-friendly object displays, self-led resources and hands-on activities designed to be done on-gallery, as well as many others.

There was so much that we learned from being able to test such as a broad range of engagement methods, but some of the key findings include that:

  • Children are attracted to a wide range of STEM objects, including objects that are not familiar to them.
  • Children are motivated to engage with objects when they have elements of choice and control in how to engage with it.
  • However, there is a need for structured support for object engagement that involves the accompanying adult/s.
  • Creativity and imagination are important when creating and designing object engagement experiences for EY.
Large google eyes were attached to various glass cabinets to give the gallery and objects a more playful feel.

Googly eyes were also a big feature of this research project and I think a big finding has been that sticking googly eyes on pretty much anything makes it more engaging and exciting!

Testing in partnership with the EY audience has helped us to understand so much. Without them and their fantastic input, we would not have been able to build up the depth of insight which has led to 2 research papers around EY and object engagement, to date.


One of the exciting and rewarding aspects of this project is that it made sure to include the voices and opinions of young children in the research. We used equitable and creative evaluation methods such as helping children to draw their feedback responses as well as write or verbalise them. This has ensured that we were making and testing things that children, as young as 4, directly had a say in and reflects their needs, wants and expectations.

An example of drawn feedback given by a young person taking part in the research.


Play and playfulness has been crucial to this research project because we recognise that children learn through play – and play is a powerful learning tool to support EY audiences when engaging with our museum objects.

Because of that, we wanted to be able to measure the playfulness of our object engagement methods and used ‘The 5 Characteristics of Playful Behaviours’, that has come out of research undertaken by the Lego Foundation.

Having a shared understanding of what play looks like meant that we could use play as a framework to develop and test all the prototypes we made. This project has instilled  a very deep appreciation of play as a learning tool and has re-affirmed that play is not an act that is adjacent or opposite to learning – but is in fact the behaviour that you see when children are very engaged in a learning process.


This research side of this project is now continuing its work up at the Science and Industry Museum, Manchester and the National Railway Museum, York where greater focus is being placed on testing with community groups as well as schools and families.

The SMG Academy team have also been putting research into practice and have developed a new course on, Exploring Science Through Play. This course supports and inspires KS1 teachers, and others working with EY children, to facilitate playful science engagement experiences both in, and beyond the classroom.

We are also developing a suite of new resources for younger children that will support  playful engagement with science and museum objects.

You can read more about the initial research findings from project in this published paper – Supporting young children’s learning from science objects: the importance of play on gallery


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