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By Andy Lickley on

Museum learning activities to get the whole family involved

Andy Lickley, SMG Academy Programme Leader, shares his experiences of developing workshops for families which helped to support everyone to get involved at the National Railway Museum.

Getting the whole family involved in learning activities can often be a challenge. It’s an all too familiar sight to see the grownups of the group pushing the youngsters to the front and taking a step backwards. Sometimes so far backwards they end up in the queue for coffee. 

When it comes to learning activities, adult members of the family are often not considered and are not made to feel like they can get involved. 

Our museums cater for a broad audience spectrum, but our activities don’t always cater for that same board spectrum.

At the National Railway Museum, visitors range from nostalgia seekers, reminiscing about the past, to toddlers, developing a passion for the railways for the first time. 

So, what is family learning? 

Family learning is an activity that intentionally engages all members of the family for the widest educational benefit and empowers adults to support their children’s learning. By engaging the whole family in our activities, we are given an opportunity to achieve our mission to inspire futures.  

group friendly activities  

We ran two activities with the aim of getting the whole family involved.  

Build a bridge involved building a bridge out of limited resources which could be found in the home and putting it to the test on a vibration plate that we dubbed “the earthquake machine.” Could the bridge remain standing throughout the earthquake test?

Make it! LEGO challenge saw groups take part in five 3-minute building challenges, including: making a vehicle; a new invention; a robot. The aim of this activity was to encourage creative thinking.

Both activities were created without the need of finding a right answer and only using materials which were familiar to the audience as it could be found in their homes.  

Getting everyone involved

To get the whole family involved there were key things to address, such as how to:

  • Eliminate the fears of adults feeling out of place, and giving them permission to join in.  
  • Create a relaxed and safe atmosphere.  
  • Encourage teamwork and collective problem solving.  

The Learning staff were an incredibly important ingredient by acting as facilitators rather than presenters. Usually, when delivering a presentation or a workshop, they are viewed as the expert and are expected to know all the answers. Instead, we wanted the groups themselves to learn and be curious together, rather than immediately ask a Learning team member for the right answer. 

Being curious, asking questions and problem solving are all key skills for careers in the STEM industry and important skills for everyone to develop.  

The role of a facilitator is important to help participants come to their own understanding by helping to spark conversations between groups and ask a series of facilitating questions. In an instance that someone’s bridge collapsed on the earthquake machine they would ask open questions such as “what do you think went wrong?” “Which part of the bridge do you think was the weakest?” 

These questions are not only fundamental questions that engineers are asking themselves every day, but they helped kickstart creative problem solving so they could come to their own conclusions. 

It cannot be understated how important the facilitator role was. They helped to create the relaxed atmosphere by being warm and welcoming and providing a pressure free environment around the activities.  

We created a space for both activities with a single entrance so we could control visitor flow and visitors could see everything that was going on. With the single entrance adults were able to see others taking part, reducing the fears of them feeling out of place, and the learning team was able to speak to everyone entering.

This helped communicate what activities were on offer and gave adults in the group permission, and confidence, to be active participants.  

Traditionally October half term is the busiest school holiday for NRM, and this one was no different with over 8000 people taking part in our activities over the 9-day period. 

We took the activities out of the busier hotspots and ran them in a quieter and calmer space in the museum, which helped create a calmer, more relaxed atmosphere.  


The benefits of the whole family interacting with the activities was immediate to see. It was incredible to see intergenerational family groups laughing, learning, and enjoying spending time together. Usually, you see grownups become fidgety after several minutes and often attempt to move their children along. Not seeing that was a fantastic change.   

I will leave you with a quote which I believe summarises what we set out to achieve. 

When asked how they made their bridge strong a child responded with “We put all of our ideas together.” 

You can read more about our experience engaging families in our ‘Top tips for engaging families’ . 


Have you run or seen any examples of activities where the whole family has been involved? We would love to hear about them in the comment section below. 

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