Maritime adventures – learning stories of the sea

National Maritime Museum

Sarah Lockwood, Head of Learning & Education at the National Maritime Museum, explains how their unique learning initiatives have inspired and informed younger visitors

For children and young people, a visit to a museum can provide a memorable, immersive experience that fosters curiosity, promotes imagination and helps them make a connection to the world around them. The opportunity for social learning through hands-on play and personal discovery supports skills in critical thinking and engenders creativity.

Britain’s maritime heritage has shaped the world we live in today, and the potential for making personal connections for children is as vast as the oceans are deep. Topics are wide-ranging, encompassing science, history and art. Maritime museums play a unique role in telling the stories of human endeavour. We can reflect the experience of exploration and encounter in our approach and provide a better understanding of Britain’s shared heritage.

Within the Royal Museums group at Greenwich, we take play seriously. Childhood is a fundamental stage of personal and behavioural development. For us, deciding on programme content begins with an understanding of how children view the world, thinking about what is already familiar.

Our facilitated activities enable children to own their learning and direct their own experiences. When children visit with their family group, learning programmes encourage adults and children alike to share knowledge, experiences and skills.

Spaces and display elements created for our younger visitors support the way children learn. They contain open-ended and experiential exhibits that invite exploration and stimulate curiosity.

The collections, themes and site are at the heart of all our child-centred spaces, facilitated programmes and self-directed resources.

They are all designed to create a dynamic relationship between learning and the understanding of heritage – while also being memorable and fun.

Facilitated programmes

National Maritime Museum exhibits
Seventeenth and eighteenth-century ship models – among the most admired of the Museum’s exhibits. Photo: NMM / Casson Mann

For our school visitors, programmes are shaped to meet the needs of the curriculum. For primary school aged learners, we have cross-curricular sessions, supporting core skills in historical enquiry, literacy and language, alongside a knowledge and understanding of maritime histories and their legacies.

Sessions for younger children at the museum include ‘The Captain’s Treasure’, a rummage through the treasure chest of Captain Francis Drake, and ‘Monster Hunt’, an epic adventure in quest of the monsters hidden in the depths of the Museum’s collection.

These sessions involve the development of role-play, imagination, sensory learning and communication skills.

Older children can engage in a full day of activities as a passenger or crew member on RMS Titanic. ‘Titanic: Frozen in time’, developed in collaboration with the Time and Tide Museum in Great Yarmouth, immerses a class of children in the dramatic events of the fateful night of 14 April 1912, as they develop literacy and language skills. Alternatively they can embark on a full-day expedition on our ‘Explorer Day’, gathering the tools, skills and qualities needed to be an explorer as they voyage through the galleries.

Programmes for older students support the history curriculum by encouraging enquiry and critical thinking, with analysis of primary sources for research, and experience to build their debating skills. Topics range across the histories and legacies of our imperial past, examining empire and trade. The sessions investigate the collections on display, refer to archive materials and involve hands-on investigation of objects.

The Cutty Sark provides our most immersive experience. Children can discover life at sea as they hear stories of sailors, learn about the figureheads or go on an imaginary voyage from Victorian London to China. They also have the opportunity to climb into the sailors’ bunks to experience directly a reality of life on board.

We have undertaken several evaluations of how we can best meet the needs of our family visitors. The complexity of a family group, the range of abilities and the various levels of knowledge and understanding require multiple layers of support and facilitation. A year-round programme of facilitated workshops, character encounters, self-led resources and family festivals engage families. These are all inspired by the stories, objects and themes of the Maritime Museum, encouraging exploration of the Museum and its surrounding site, and fostering confidence in its spaces.

For early years, we hold weekly sessions, ‘Play Tuesdays and Toddler Time’, exploring the museum galleries or the Cutty Sark through music, performance and dance.

Families with older children can meet a variety of maritime characters, including James Robson, the cook on board the Cutty Sark, John Simmons, a black sailor telling tales of his adventures with Nelson at Trafalgar, or a female pirate. There are also workshops that help families delve deeper into the collections, using craft, performance, digital skills, backpacks or trails.

Child-centred spaces

World Oceans Day
World Oceans Day. Photo: NMM

In 2013, the National Maritime Museum created a family-friendly space at its heart with ‘The Great Map’, supported by digital and analogue activities. The use of this space was developed in consultation with family groups. ‘The Great Map’ promotes discussion around geography, identity and journeys and acts as a central hub on the ‘Oceans floor’ of the Museum, giving geographical orientation to the surrounding galleries. A digital game using augmented reality provides an adventure and hooks players into the Museum collections and maritime themes. The Museum space has also come to serve as a backdrop for a number of larger scale events, such as World Oceans Day and Chinese New Year. It’s also where many toddlers get to try out their walking skills!

‘Ahoy!’ is the National Maritime Museum’s ‘destination visit’ – our flagship children’s gallery. Opened in 2015, this space was developed in consultation with families, early years specialists and learning providers to meet the needs of children under the age of eight, including full consideration of babies and toddlers. ‘Ahoy!’ provides an inspirational, dynamic setting by combining the development needs of children with the content of the Museum’s collections. Each interactive area treats children as serious learners, and features problem-solving activities that place children at the centre of their own experience. The overall space supports phased development stages for learning through play.

Inspired by the Museum’s collections, the gallery has been designed to be child-centred, with an environment that also appeals to adults for a more stimulating whole family visit. The themes of trade, leisure, navy, migration and exploration have shaped the content, and a dedicated ‘seaside’ area for crawlers and toddlers sits alongside interactive giant ships and small world boat play for older children. The physical challenges of the space are incorporated into the design – structural posts have become a lighthouse, ship’s mast and palm tree. Water appears in the gallery in bubble tubes and through tactile pressure mats. The use of photographs and visual icons from the collection provide a springboard into the wider Museum, building visual familiarity as our younger visitors progress in age and ability.

Interaction in ‘Ahoy!’ is intuitive – the only text provided is there to prompt parents and carers in encouraging their children’s learning. It bucks the trend of digital spaces for children, and supports hands-on, imaginative, social learning. Sustainability was also considered throughout its development, using reclaimed boat chandlery and sustainable materials to evolve with the gallery.

In the summer of 2015, we created a temporary immersive experience for children called ‘Against Captain’s  Orders: A Journey into the Uncharted’ (supported by funding from Arts Council England), which led the way in innovative and transformative experiences for families. Created in partnership with immersive theatre specialists Punchdrunk Enrichment, this was a daring and exhilarating experience that invited children aged between 6 and 12 to join the crew of HMS Adventure and take a secret and empowering journey into the Museum stores. Inspired by the collections and themes of the Museum, this steered away from traditional museum engagement and provoked a transformative human response to the overall experience, mirroring the emotions of exploration, encounter and bravery.

There really is a topic or theme to engage everyone in a maritime museum. Ours is awash with stories – historical, cultural and personal – and every visit by a child should be viewed as an adventure, with familiar touch points and new discoveries to be made. From histories of global significance to the personal storytelling of a female shipwright, maritime museums can spark the imagination, enable new encounters and inspire young minds as they begin navigating their own personal voyages of life.