Engaging Families with SHARE

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Last Friday I headed off to Ely for a training session organised by SHARE Museums East,the museums development network for theEast of England. Although Great St Mary’s is, of course, not a museum, courses like this are an invaluable way to hear about best practice from learning experts and build links with other local heritage organisations so we can learn from their experience.

The course was led by Jo Graham from Learning Unlimited and hosted by Ely Museum.


We focussed on the small changes that heritage attractions can make to welcome families with younger children and promote family learning.

Here’s a quick summary of the main points which I took away from the training day, focussing on simple things that we can do at GSM as we develop our formal and informal learning programmes:

  • A warm welcome and practical facilities such as toilets, good heating and a place for 
    buggies are crucial in allowing families with young children to feel comfortable and able to explore.
  • Clearly signposted information about visiting on the website is key for busy parents.
  • The youngest child’s level of interest often determines the length of a family’s visit – so offering some simple activities for toddlers within the church will allow everyone to stay a little longer and get more from their visit. A small storytelling area with a warm rug, comfy cushions and books could fit easily into the church and be packed away quickly for services.
  • Local families who want to return to a favourite attraction are best served by a rotation of self-led learning activities so that there is always something new, but the retention of old favourites which children will want to return for. At GSM these key attractions might be a magnetic storyboard with figures from medieval illuminations, replica brass rubbings and a selection of dressing-up costumes based on Christian figures in the clerestory…
  • MadonnaYoung children who enjoy heritage attractions have been shown to return to them in later life – so engaging families is essential to cultivate visitors who feel comfortable visiting historic churches in the future.
  • Families typically visit heritage attractions hoping to make memories together and share meaningful activities. We should think about photo opportunities, activities which have components that can be taken home to keep, and open-ended activities which promote active learning and creative dialogue between children and adults.
  • An explorer chest near the entrance can hold simple materials which children can use to engage with the space, such as binoculars, viewfinders, notepads and clipboards, or torches.
  • GSM is a living church with a full programme of services, so sensitivity will be needed as we develop learning materials for younger children which allow them to feel welcome and explore the church, while preserving its essential contemplative and spiritual nature.
  • Play is a type of active learning in itself, and there are many types: exploratory play, pretend play, games with rules, construction play and physical play. Many of these could be incorporated into self-led activities – costumes promote pretend play, drawing fosters creativity, and wooden blocks can be built into GSM’s gothic arches or imaginative edifices.
  • Ely Cathedral houses the Stained Glass Museum, and Ely Museum has a lovely illuminated stained glass jigsaw puzzle (see the last pictures in the gallery below) – I am hoping to make a custom jigsaw showcasing GSM’s own stained glass.
  • One of GSM’s great strengths is our location in the heart of the city – ideally placed for locals to pop in while shopping in town. I hope that by placing unobtrusive activity spaces around the church, GSM will become a welcoming oasis for families who want to catch their breath and encourage their children’s sense of curiosity and wonder in a beautiful historic church.

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