Melissa Maynard Heritage

Play or playful?

Wicker basket filled with soft toys and a book

I’m a strong supporter of play and playful experiences in any and all settings. When undertaking my vocational play worker qualification I used my museum experiences of family programming, Forest School and our heritage holiday club as evidence for children’s development and learning through play. In the decade (and more) since then there have been papers and text books written about play in museums – for which I am very grateful for.

“Play is freely chosen, personally directed, intrinsically motivated behaviour that actively engages the child.”

Davy & Gallagher, New Playwork, 2006

There are many forms of play out there and the scholars will argue amongst themselves the true definition. The types of play that may be of it’s most important to my work can probably classed as playful or play-based learning and guided play.

A few years ago I came across the Regio Emilia Approach and it peaked my interest as there are many similarities with heritage education and how the environment and ability to discover and explore are key.

A summary of the Reggio Emilia Approach by Sprout Schools

“In play it is as though [the child] were a head taller than himself. As in the focus of a magnifying glass, PLAY contains all developmental tendencies in a condensed form and is itself a major source of development.”

Lev Vygotsky

Taking a playful approach

My first foray into playful interpretation was at Chiltern Open Air Museum. I’d inherited an amazing learning and event programme where I got to work in a large number of historic buildings (including cooking over an open fire in an 18th century cottage), work with living historians, reenactors and volunteers and there was a dressing up area for the children with traditional games to play.

At the time, the one place I always thought was a waste was the empty back bedroom of the 1940s prefab. We tried display boards, we tried display cases, it was just (dare I say it?) boring. So, with our team of young volunteers, I transformed it into a bedroom.

One of our (older) volunteers donated his childhood bed, my uncle donated his childhood horsehair mattress and we used a combination of replica and original toys. So what made this special and different from all the other period rooms at that museum? Well it was the first one where there wasn’t a chain across the doorway and that visitors were actively encouraged to go in, touch, try on and play.

What did I learn?

A playful approach to museums can have a brilliantly amazing impact on visitor enjoyment and engagement with our collections and stories. It’s something I’ve recently done at Belton House, creating a simple playful environment as part of the Percy the Park Keeper programming this year.

Guided play takes two forms

One of my favourite forms of play in heritage learning is guided play, which takes two principles:

  • Providing objects or experiences that enrich the environment and promote aspects of the curriculum/collections/site/heritage. In Reggio Emilia terms this is the third teacher.
  • Scaffolding the play experience by adults becoming a co-player who asks thoughtful questions, comments on discoveries or encourages further exploration.

Do remember that play is child-led, once you provide instruction on how to use an object or equipment provided it changes from play into an activity.

My top tips for playful experiences

Blankets, books and knitted mushroom rattles provide a soft, safe space for babies and toddlers to explore.

  1. Identify a safe space for play.

This is the children’s space, it has some stuff in it and they can use it, or not, in imaginative ways.

It also needs to be large enough for exploration and physical movement – how many children might be using the space at any one time?

2. Choose objects and equipment with a high play value.

Can they be used in multiple ways? Imagination is your only limit!

Tables with different activities provided, on the left miniature world play with loose parts and on the right different puzzles.

3. Play is child-led.

Don’t worry if the space and ‘stuff’ isn’t used as you planned it because they probably won’t – that’s fine as the children are playing and learning (of course if there is a danger to safety you would step in).

4. Have a team member available that the children can invite into their play – and remember to observe the playful nature of the space.

A wheelbarrow full of Percy the Park Keeper’s friends and info sheets – the friends join in the miniature world, climb shelves, hide in plant pots … the wheelbarrow travels as it’s wheeled around the space.

Final thoughts

I remember creating a trail around the house a few years ago and I put out a wig and asked if visitors could “strike the pose” of one of our flashiest portrait subjects. A few weeks in and I was chatting to a volunteer who told me that they had to keep telling adults that it was for the children to do. So remember play or playful, whatever we call it, isn’t just for the children – everyone can have fun!

“Playful (adjective) is done as a form of play rather than intended seriously, or wanting to have a good time and not feeling serious”

Cambridge Dictionary

(c) Melissa Kate Maynard

New beginnings

I’ve been doing some thinking about what learning might look like after the current lockdown in museums, galleries, community gardens and other charities. Although there are a lot of reports and guidance out there, practically and personally the impact of Foot and Mouth Disease in the early 2000s is the only basis that I have to go on. After months of closures then part closure before re-opening, the independent museum I worked for at the time barely made it through. We were left to re-build the audiences and the coffers – and I know that we were extremely lucky to have support from volunteers, trustees, the Friends, local businesses and grant funders to support the hard work and see us through to what is a now thriving charity, and will continue to be through the continued support of the aforementioned.

With this experience plus the support and reports already coming through and the networks that we all have, I know that things will be just as tough in the coming months and years as they were then, however we will grow and thrive again.

An artwork from Lincoln Park Conservatory, Chicago, August 2019, that’s still giving me a feeling hope through this time.

With the new tax year beginning and currently being furloughed, it means that I have time to start thinking and planning seriously for the future. I started a sideline last July as a heritage education consultant and I believe that now is perfect for considering business cases and future planning. So I’ve been considering Paul’s “takeaway” that he passed to me a month ago on our last MRL programme’s residential together.

“If you can help someone, why wouldn’t you?”

Paul Khan

Why do I do what I do?

I truly believe that everyone should have access to the arts, heritage and nature. That, as a medium to help make meaning for ourselves and our society, inspire creativity and critical thinking skills these elements and how we interact with them make a huge difference through small interactions. After this period in our history, they will have an immense importance even more so than before, however what this looks like and our audiences needs will have changed.

Narrow boating on the canal near Skipton.

The collections, narratives and spaces that we are guardians of provide a multitude of ways to engage and support people of all ages and abilities, whether that is in Early Years development, service learning opportunities for young people, lifelong learning or just space to breath and enjoy. They make a small difference in someone’s life that can lead to – well wherever that person goes.

So why do I do this?

To make a difference, no matter how big or small, in someone’s life. A safe space for a family to create special memories, a place where that 14 year old volunteer finds that they’re not the only one who cares about history or art, an opportunity to look at a piece of art in a new way and discover something new or planting wildflower seeds to encourage bees into your garden.

so what do I want to do?

I want to help.

I want to help that independent museum, that community garden, that charity to do what they do best – engage their audiences through experiences and learning opportunities that provide high quality learning environments and engagement with the arts, heritage and nature for everyone.

Through helping to train volunteers, developing learning plans and tours, looking at risk assessments for learning projects, and so much more I know I can help small, independent museums and charities to become resilient and sustainable, rebuild their audiences and continue to provide amazing opportunities for their visitors and learners.

So how can I help you?

(c) Melissa Kate Maynard

What a year …

OK it’s been a while since my first (and last) blog post – ‘flu, Christmas and lots of work has meant that I haven’t prioritised this. That will change!

So I thought that a bit of a reflective piece on my journey over the last year might be in order …

I think that place to really start is with an amazing programme that I’ve had the honour to have been a part of throughout 2019 and the first part of this year – the Museum Resilience and Leadership programme led by Black Country Living Museum and funded by Arts Council England. It was a bit of a surprise that I was even part of it this year as I had been offered a deferred placement and a few days before it was due to start I received a phone call to say that someone had pulled out and I was next on the waitlist – you have 30 minutes to decide. I didn’t even need 1 minute before I said yes.

3 days later it started, an intense residential to kick start the programme meeting the ‘faculty’ and 14 other cohort members. Whilst completely scary to meet that many people, present a 2 minute TED style talk on leadership and amazingly long, thought provoking days it was the perfect way to start our journey. Monthly workshops and an overseas study visit have, I believe, made me think more holistically about museums not just my specialism of learning, visitor engagement & participation but also ‘knowing the numbers’ and how commercial operations work and support the whole. Each month there has been a different venue to visit and inspirational leaders to meet, with something that resonates with my work. Some of my highlights have been the conversations and support from every member of the faculty and cohort who have given support and been a sounding board through challenges, ideas and in setting up as a consultant as well as meeting lots of inspirational and amazing leaders like Elaine Gurian, discussing our ethics, role and limits, and the colleagues I met in Chicago.

For me Winnie the Pooh sums up MRL for me with – “It isn’t about who you’ve known the longest. It’s about who walked into your life, said I’m here for you and proved it.”

OK – I started this blog post a few weeks ago and then everything changed and I mean everything!  

I was going to talk about some of the learnings in particular from my MRL journey, I’d planned different blog topics around different subjects – and then Covid-19 hit us all.

Through the last year I found the confidence in myself and my business knowledge and I registered as a heritage consultant. I made the decision to continue in my full time role as a Learning & Community Officer with the National Trust while I found my feet as a consultant. Thank goodness I did – now hands up who’s been furloughed. Yep me too!

It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster to be honest, from thinking that we had a couple of weeks to plan – no one watching the unfolding pandemic could deny that at some point we would close – however I mistakenly thought that we had time. A few days later, we’re going to close in this way and coming up with creative and new (for us anyway) ways to engage with our visitors on the webpages and our social media platforms, to you’re going to be furloughed. It’s for the best for the charity and we can always use the ideas that we came up with in the future in new and exciting ways.

In the meantime, I’m enjoying the #museumathome and all the options for engaging with the arts in all forms online. I’m also looking to the future thinking through what I love about heritage education and how I want to make a in difference in people’s lives. There’s also the love and support from the @GEM_heritage and @MRLprogramme communities as well as many others that’s keeping us all going.

Truly, they are strange times that we’re living through.

(c) Melissa Kate Maynard

Musings from the Group for Education in Museums conference 2019

Hi all,

After a few days at the GEM Conference chatting with colleagues and discussing good practice and listening to inspiring key note speeches and hearing about some amazing projects in the sector I thought that I’d share some key takeaways for me and some twitter links.

What better way to start a new blog?

Deconstructing the conference title by keynote speaker Piotr Bienkowski

So the theme this year was forging dynamic and lasting partnerships with communities and please note some of these takeaways are more of a reminder than a light-bulb moment!

  1. Should we start using the term communities not community to reflect the multiplicity of the community?
  2. We should constantly challenge what communities mean
  3. Who is not in the room and why?
    1. The who means both audiences and team members.
    2. Usually the answer to the why is that the museum/gallery/historic site isn’t doing enough.
  4. Start from zero and be open to other approaches and agendas
  5. Working withby, for our communities should never be an optional add on – they are key
  6. Build reflective practice into everyday working
  7. Always call on your critical friends and use them wisely and in a timely manner throughout your daily work – they’re out there within and outside the Trust
  8. Ensure that our work is not tokenistic and that we build long lasting relationships with trust – it’s not a tick box exercise
  9. The money is the means not the end!
  10. Access preferences are key to meeting audience’s needs not their illness/disability – find out more about the EU funded research behind this at
  11. Grow interdisciplinary practice – bring in external skills – actively listen to, respect and learn from them
  12. Working together:
    1. Invest time at the start to understand US
    2. Map the assets and resources that we HAVE
    3. Find the balance between what WE want and what the GROUP wants – we need to stop hijacking the projects!
    4. Be transparent about budget and outputs
    5. Manage expectations
  13. If it goes pear-shaped –
    1. Be honest
    2. admit what went wrong
    3. hold our hands up and say we will do better next time

The GEM roundups for each day can be found here:

Day 1:

Day 2:

Day 3:

Some other people’s takeaways:

NLHF updates:

Strategic funding framework for 19-24 have the three following priorities:

  1. Community heritage made as accessible as possible
  2. Inclusive heritage
  3. Public involvement

Melissa Strauss’ guidance was:

  • Address local challenges and needs (wider issues ad benefits)
  • Think about ownership and power – “communities see their heritage tidied up and given back to them” this isn’t what is needed or wanted
  • New guidance on community participation is coming!

Culture, Health & Wellbeing guidance:

If you’re interested in ‘youth’ engagement and want to check out an inspirational and aspirational project: Brent 2020

So those are my musings from the inspiring and supportive GEM conference 2019.

NB GEM stands Group for Education in Museums and their website is

(c) Melissa Kate Maynard

The Journey Begins

Thanks for joining me!

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton