Nature Discovery gallery for Under 5’s is now open!

At Manchester Museum, we have been redeveloping our Nature Discovery gallery as an imaginative space that encourages young children to lead their adults through an object rich exploration of the natural world. Young children will be able to search for creatures, create fantastical stories based on the natural world and immerse themselves in a series of habitats.

‘The Den’ provides a cosy reading area, with animals playfully hiding around the tree trunks.

‘The Meadow’ is full of light and colour, with plants, butterflies, insects and underground animals for children to find.

‘The Treetops’ showcases a variety of birds from our collection for children to spot.

‘The Forest’ is a beautiful and enchanting 3D paper ‘story book’ art installation, developed in collaboration with artist Helen Musselwhite. Between the paper cut trees, children and their adults can glimpse a variety of animals, from small insects to large creatures, highlighting the beauty and diversity of the natural world.

We will be using the gallery to continue to develop our programmes for young children and their families, including; Baby Explorers, Magic carpet and our Big Saturday family programmes. There will also be an opportunity to develop new programmes for Nursery and Reception classes visiting the museum and to offer professional development sessions to support self-led explorer visits. Please check our Early Years page for updates.

Elaine Bates

Early Years coordinator

A British (Baby) Invasion

Many Americans go to Great Britain to see Big Ben, or tramp through Downton Abbey-type manor houses or to hopefully catch a glimpse of William and Kate. I went for the babies! As the Manager of Early Learning Programs at the Dallas Museum of Art, I am always searching for ways to strengthen our programs for early learners.Photo 6

More than a year ago, I stumbled across the CultureBabies blog, and I was so inspired by what was happening in museums in the UK for children 0-2, I knew I had to see it in person. While many museums in the US offer a variety of programs and classes for toddlers and preschoolers, classes actually focused on babies seem to be harder to come by. So I wrote a grant, sent a few emails, packed my bags, and a year later, made my way to Manchester for some babies in museums research.

I was thrilled to have the opportunity to observe both a Baby Explorers session at the Manchester Museum and a Baby Art Club session at the Manchester Art Gallery. Museum staff and the class participants were all so welcoming and willing to share their experiences with me, I felt right at home. And I quickly fell in love with how both institutions use sensory play as a vehicle for encouraging babies to explore their world while also modeling meaningful ways for caregivers to interact with their children.

I was especially struck in both sessions by how ordinary objects became things of beauty. In the metal sensory play area at the Manchester Museum, metal bowls, spoons, whisks, and kitchen containers were transformed from utilitarian utensils into light, reflection, and shine. I observed one mother shining a flashlight through a metal object, and watched as her baby focused on the light and reached for the object as the light reflected around her. The next minute, the baby was waving a whisk through the air, experimenting with its weight and feel.

Photo 1

At the Manchester Art Gallery, babies were knocking over cardboard boxes, burrowing into mounds of fabric, playing in a bowl of flour, and clanging metal spoons together. There were shrieks of delight, lots of happy babbling, and adults and children giving themselves completely over to enjoying play.

I saw tremendous value in both programs for adults and babies. For the adults, these classes seem to give them permission to leave behind all the usual tasks that build up in a day, and allow them to simply enjoy being with their babies. The adult-child interactions I observed as an on-looker were definitely sweet, but even more importantly, were contributing to positive social-emotional growth and language development for the children. Caregivers also leave these sessions with ideas for how to use everyday materials at home as playthings, learning that items as simple as a wooden spoon and a bowl of flour can provide endless entertainment and valuable open-ended learning opportunities for babies.

But perhaps the greatest outcome of these baby classes from a museum educator point of view, is that the families create strong relationships with the museums and see them as valuable partners in the journey of raising a child. At the Manchester Museum, one little girl has been attending the Baby Explorers class for the past few months with her foster mother. When I observed the class, she attended for the first time with her new adoptive parents. It was truly beautiful to see this little girl so confident in her surroundings, sure of herself as she crawled from one space to another, even as she adjusts to a new family and home life. The adoptive parents too were warmly welcomed into the museum family and appreciated the observations museum educators were able to share about their new daughter.

I came back to the DMA inspired and ready to try new ways of playing and learning with babies in our own galleries. Earlier this year we officially took our first “baby steps” into the world of museum programming for infants and launched a new class just for children 0-24 months old called Art Babies.

Photo 4

Art Babies differs from other baby tour programs in the US in that we focus on caregiver education and adult-child interactions. This isn’t a tour just for grown-ups who can bring along their babies if they like. Neither is it a class just for babies, with caregivers sitting in the background. We share tips on what types of art appeal to babies, offer suggestions for how adults can interact with very young babies when in an art museum, and then get out of the way and allow for family time in the galleries.

Over the past year, we’ve looked at abstract expressionist paintings and pretended to paint squiggly, Jackson Pollock-like lines in the air with the babies as the “paintbrushes.” We’ve searched for animals in the paintings and filled the galleries with growls, meows, and barks. And we’ve twisted and wiggled our bodies in a baby yoga session inspired by several of our Hindu sculptures. Over the coming months, I hope to incorporate some of the ideas and strategies I gathered from my new friends in Manchester and add a sensory play element to the class. So stay tuned for the DMA’s version of the British (baby) invasion!

Leah Hanson Manager of Early Learning Programs Dallas Museum of Art


Culturebabies at Babies in Museum Conference 4th November 2014

Culturebabies have been invited to speak at the next Babies in Museums workshop ( organised by Kids in Museums ) on November 4th 2014 at Kensington Palace , London.

Elaine Bates, Early Years Coordinator from Manchester Museum will be attending on behalf of the Manchester partnership ( Manchester Museum, The Whitworth Art Gallery and Manchester Art Gallery) to deliver a 5 minute blast and workshop at the conference:

Raising the profile of Museums and Galleries as brilliant spaces for young children and their carers (Top tips!)

We know that museums and galleries are great places for babies and their carers! They are great social spaces for making friends, contributing to wellbeing and supporting language and communication development . But what can we do to raise the profile of this work within our own organisations, with parents, with other professionals and funders to ensure that we have more babies in museums?



Where: Kensington Palace

When: 4th November 2014, 10.00-15:30

Cost: £82.50 **Early Bird Rate** Take advantage of our Early Bird Offer (it’ll be going up to £95 soon)

Culturebabies at Talk to Your Baby Conference London

Just to let you know that the Manchester partnership has been invited to speak about our programmes for babies at the forthcoming ‘ Talk to your Baby’ conference organised by the National Literacy Trust:

Monday 6 October at the Royal National hotel in London

Ronan Brindley, Head of Learning at Manchester Art Gallery and Elaine Bates, Early Years Coordinator at Manchester Museum will focus on babies’ communication and language development within the context of museums. To book a place , please follow the link below:

Reflections from Sightlines

Catherine Reding from Sightlines initiative, ( a national early years charity promoting and supporting a creative and reflective approach to early childhood education, shares her observations after spending an afternoon with us.

On 5th April I spent a wonderful afternoon visiting Baby Saturday, part of Baby Art Club, at Manchester Art Gallery.

A studio space in the gallery was transformed into an exploratory play-space for babies and their carers. Artist Naomi Kendrick has created an interactive installation titled invasion of the soft, inspired by Joana Vasconcelos’s current exhibition in the gallery. Soft fabrics with a wide variety of textures, feathers, balls of wall, flour and bubbles had been arranged so they can be explored.

Artist and musician Najia Bagi has made a musical mobile for the babies to explore. The structure is made of bamboo and has a variety of different, mostly metallic objects, hanging from it at different heights. These objects make different but related sounds. The objects include bells, wind chimes and spoons.

Najia welcomed babies and their families into the studio, where they were able to freely explore and play with the installation and sound sculpture. One of the most striking features of the afternoon was the calm atmosphere, even when the room became more populated. This was aided by the subtle use of music – Brian Eno playing quietly – and light – nearly everything was white, with careful attention paid to light and shadow effects.


Being together in play

I noticed many beautiful interactions between adults and babies, promoted by the carefully chosen materials and the calm atmosphere. This photograph shows a boy and his mother who were both very interested in their reflections in the mirror. I could see how fascinated he was, and how he watched and imitated the expressions on his mother’s face. I noticed another mother playing with her daughter, gently swinging and bouncing a suspended ball of wool.

Many families enjoyed going inside the den area, and playing games hiding underneath pieces of cloth. A variety of textures of fabric were available, and some parents thoughtfully removed their children’s socks and shoes so they had the experience of feeling these with their feet as well as their hands.

Both children and parents enjoyed sharing their delight in exploring flour, feeling it with their fingers, sprinkling it on one another and sifting it back into the bowl, and on themselves.

I saw a baby girl and her granddad played a game with bubbles that was delightful to watch. Using a desk fan as a propellant, the granddad sent the bubbles flying across towards his granddaughter who watched, entranced, pointing at the bubbles. Once the bubbles had gone, she looked at her granddad expectantly, waiting to see if he would send more. Both granddad and granddaughter were joyfully absorbed in this game for many minutes.


Light and space

Qualities of light were thoughtfully used, through use of window blinds, OHP projections and twinkling lights which could be picked up and held. One baby girl was very interested in the lights, picking them up then putting them around herself.

Reflective silver card on the floor and hand-held mirrors gave the children the opportunity to see themselves in different ways. One very important element of the installation was the space to move – I observed a father and son, both on their knees, moving and playing together in an almost dance-like way.


Playing with sounds

Najia’s sound sculpture consisted of a suspended bamboo frame hung with metal chimes, spoons, beaters and a central cymbal. The whole structure could be moved by holding onto the bamboo and shaking it, or individual instruments and objects could be explored. The sounds created were gentle and magical. Some children played around the edge, others laid inside, and some stood up in or next to the sculpture.

Najia and I talked about the difference between hanging the objects rather than placing them on the floor. We thought that when they are suspended, the inherent capacity for swinging and moving in a particular trajectory presents itself as an invitation to the children. Hanging objects also defines their place in relation to other objects and the way that they can move, which is different to placing them on the floor.

We could a see huge interest in reaching for the instruments, for example in this young girl, watched delightedly by her mother, whose expression shows her captivation with the cymbal. For her, I wondered if the beauty of the cymbal, with its shiny metallic moving surface, was the main attraction at this point.

Often babies would listen and watch intently as adults made sounds to them. This baby girl was very interested in the sounds being made above her. A few moments later she explored the chimes herself, feeling and moving them with her fingers.


Time, space and attention

During my experience at Baby Art Club I was reminded of the three elements of Time Space and Attention which underpin Sightlines Initiative’s Developing Environments of Enquiry framework. Young children and their families had plenty of unhurried time here. They were able to become absorbed in what they were doing together, without the feeling of being rushed. The space was inviting and encouraged curiosity and interaction.

Looking around the room, there were attentive babies and adults everywhere. I saw children’s attention directed to finding out about the exciting world around them, and how they could affect it with their actions. Nowhere did I see children with ‘short attention spans’; occasionally I did however see a parent try to move their child away from something they were absorbed in and onto something new, presumably because they the adult wanted a change.

I saw how important it was for the children to share their experiences with others. I noticed how they looked out from what they were doing, wanting to be seen and validated by a supportive adult, one who shares in their joy and excitement, and playfully participates in their quest for making meaning.

What is art?

During the afternoon Najia and I talked about our perception of ‘art’ and ‘the everyday’. We could see that both adults and children were taking time to experience everyday objects in ways other than their conventional functions: feeling the soft texture of flour, delighting in sounds of spoons and their reflections in mirrors; they were together in the world of play rather than that of just function. Through this context of playful, open-ended encounter, creative possibilities opened up to both the adults and children. They found what I have heard educators in Reggio call ‘the extraordinary in the everyday’.

I believe this is one of the great opportunities that ‘art’ can give us: encountering things in new contexts, taking time to wonder and feel what this means for us.

The significance of the environment

At Baby Art Club I saw many lively and beautiful interactions between babies and their families, and their mutual delight in exploring the materials around them. The encounters with the installation were unhurried, spacious and open-ended, full of life and meaning.

I wondered what the impact of the experience was for parents: perhaps they were able to see and be with their children differently in this environment?

One father told me, “It’s really different here to the usual places. The colours – they’re not all bright – it’s great. It feels calm. I might just come and hang out here myself.” A mother told me that the time she was spending here with her daughter was very special to her.

These comments led me to think of how this place can be seen in such stark contrast with many environments which are created for children, which are often busy and noisy, full of primary colours and plastic toys.

The babies and families of Manchester are very lucky to have such a wonderful resource on their doorstep: long may it continue.

Making music mobile


Musician and artist Najia Bagi talks us through the development of her musical mobile for Manchester Art Gallery’s Baby Art Club.

When Alex, Naomi and I met up to plan Baby Art Club we started talking about what sounds and frequencies babies respond to, what movements they like to make and what shapes provide stimulation. We’ve noticed that babies seem to particularly engage with instruments that are suspended on strings from washing lines in the studio and how this promotes movement as well as sounds. I decided to extend this idea and create a musical mobile. 

I wanted to make something which looked beautiful and simple and which sounded peaceful, but I wasn’t sure which instruments and sounds would capture babies attention. Naomi and I went on a research trip to Forsyths music shop in Manchester, where we enlisted the expert help of Naomi’s son Jackson 
in testing the percussive instruments there. It was surprising how 
much weight Jackson could lift, and how quickly he learnt what to do 
with an instrument to make noise. 

I then went to Johnny Roadhouse, another music shop in Manchester. The 
staff there were absolutely brilliant and I left that day with bags of 
inspiration, 20 individual Morris dancing bells and a cymbal, among 
other things! 

The next part was really exciting. After buying 20 teaspoons, some 
cane, 3 wind chimes and a host of other metallic and “soundful” 
objects, me and my stepdad built the frame and drilled holes in 
everything so that the objects could be suspended. After lots of drilling and threading we had a frame that was a pyramid shape, with lots of holes in it to suspend things from. 

When I installed the mobile the day before Baby Art Club, I was 
thrilled to discover that it looked as clean and pretty as I’d wanted 
it to. It sounded really peaceful and tuneful and importantly it also 
worked with the aesthetic of the rest of the installation which was 
designed by Naomi Kendrick. 

And the babies loved it! They explored the reflective surfaces of the 
cymbal, wind chimes and spoons and experimented with how movements create sound by interacting with their bodies. And because the sounds are so pleasant, parent and baby are spending long periods of time playing with the mobile, which we know improves communication between parent and baby. 

Over the next few months I’ll observing how parents and babies use the 
mobile and use this research to inform which sound making objects I use.   

Mini Moles at Museum of London

Guest post by Cassandra Travares, Early Years Programme Coordinator, Museum of London

At the Museum of London, we have developed a strong Early Years programme over the past few years. Each week we run high quality sessions for babies and toddlers across both museum sites and we have a different focus activity for each of our sessions which explore the different ways of learning. To do this, we alternate between gallery visits, craft activities, messy play, musical sessions and classroom explorations to keep these sessions fresh, exciting and innovative for our youngest visitors and their carers.

Chocolate Sensory Session Brenda Coyle 2013 (2)

Developing these sessions can be extremely challenging, especially when working with babies. Brenda, our energetic session leader, constantly thinks of new and exciting ways to engage babies and their carers. While she uses some of the same elements to encourage the babies learning through repetition, the sessions are kept fresh by incorporating different resources and focus activities. Each week, Brenda proves that this can be done both well and inexpensively as she transforms any number of ordinary items into sensory resources for babies. Sponges, tin foil, torches, scraps of fabric and even hair curlers have become exciting new objects which fully engage the babies.

As one parent said while attending our sessions ‘it makes you interested in doing something new, finding something that you can pull out in your kitchen and make a game with.’

Our Messy Moles session is one of the most anticipated activities of the month. As the name says, these are extremely messy sessions where the babies are encouraged to explore the different textures, colours, smells and even the taste of our messy resources.

As most babies like to explore new things with their mouths, it is crucial that our messy play is done using non-toxic materials so the best way to do this is to use food. Corn flour, jelly, pasta, oats and chocolate have all been transformed from foods to learning tools in this session. Often learning means that the babies fully immerse themselves in our messy materials; it is not unusual to see babies just in their nappies covered from head to toe in flour or jam at these sessions.

Mol messy

Besides being a fun activity, messy play is also an important element in early years learning. It helps children to develop hand-eye coordination as well as gross and fine motor skills. Crucially, they are also taking important steps in understanding the world around them as they explore the different smells, sensations and textures of the resources we use.

While the babies are learning the adults are learning new skills as well. One of our adults attending a babies’ session told us that attending the sessions is ‘teaching me how to interact with him’-and this is exactly the result we want.

MoL parents

It is important that all of our visitors have a memorable and high quality experience when visiting the Museum of London. By offering these sessions, our Early Years programme is helping the museum be an inclusive institution which caters for the learning needs of all of our visitors.

*These sessions are run at the Museum of London by artist Brenda Coyle. For more information on the sessions or to hear more about our programmes for under 5s, contact me, Cassandra Tavares on