Wednesday, 23 July 2014

"If you're happy finding treasure, clap your hands!" - Under 5's archaeology session at The Ashmolean - Mary Cook

I love working with under fives and their families. I enjoy that everything is so new to them:  you can watch new discoveries in the process of being made.  They are often completely unguarded about showing how they feel. It is also a lovely time to work with their parents too – they are enjoying firsts with their children and their enjoyment is also unusually visible in trusted settings.   So working with this audience placed me firmly in my comfort zone. 

 As a Trainee you are being closely observed throughout the process and this is a little nerve wracking.  The setting is still new and the open drop-in nature of the event is a little different to my previous experiences of working with families, so I certainly was not complacent.   I was also conscious that the Ashmolean Museum has been long listed for the Kids in Museums Family Friendly Award.  At the Ashmolean  the group is open to all under fives from tiny babies and at this time of year it extends to visiting children who are over five attending with younger siblings.  All need to be able to be involved at their own level.  Being a parent too, I also had ambitions to ensure parents made discoveries and never felt bored. Finally, it was based on the theme of archaeology.  This is a wonderful theme for us at the Ashmolean with so many fantastic objects and stories from archaeology to share, but would I be able to enthuse young children and their families about that?  How many of my audience could even say “archaeologist”?  This event linked in to the national Festival of Archaeology

Fortunately for me there is a standing format for the under fives Big Dig event – three paddling pools each one full of a different type of materials – sand in one, packaging peanuts in another and shredded paper in a third.  In each pool a range of items.  From here the development of the session was up to me. 

 I know how much young children love animals and familiar plastic toy animals went in. The resulting mix included a range of safe non-choking hazard, robust objects of a variety of sizes, colours,  textures and shapes wooden pots, metal boxes pseudo objects such as a plastic sword next to real antler etc.  At tables we put paper and coloured pencils should any one wish to draw what they found.  We needed a second activity and for this I chose making clay animals like those in the Aegean World Gallery.  

Against one wall we put down mats and on these large trays and paint brushes – this created a child height lab for investigating, cleaning and sorting finds just like a real archaeologist.  Setting up the room I admired how neat and tidy it was.  I took a photograph. It did not look like that by the end of the session. The children had a lot of fun!

What surprised me most was that children happily put their finds into the shared lab area.  There was no snatching or not sharing and a real happiness in discovering together.  No one was left out.  Babies tended to stay digging and not move from there, the older children gravitated between dig and lab space and there were many interesting discussions between the older children – they were in a real state of flow – fully engaged throughout. One of them announced to me early on “I want to be an archaeologist”. I was happy to tell him he had come to the right place.  Another told me he had found an antler – we  had borrowed this from our Anglo Saxon handling collection and yes it was an antler.  “But how do you know its an antler?” I asked.  He was a little annoyed with the question but he patiently explained “I know it is an antler because I have seen a Reindeer Antler and this one is a lot like it” Good answer.  I told him that is just what an archaeologist does, they figure out what they have found based on what they know of similar items.  The ambition to help under-fives celebrate archaeology was going very well indeed. 

In the next room there was an opportunity to make with clay using cutters. A family with a baby sat him on the table where he played with the plastic shapes enjoying shape and texture while his sister experimented with what happens when you pour water on clay. “Ugh! Its slimy!” she said. Around the room a lot of people were finding out about the properties of clay, how to create texture with tools and what they did or did not like.  Images of clay bulls from our collection were on the table.  “Mine  is much better than that one” one of the children told me. “I’ve made three hedgehogs” said another “They are a family” 

Next it was time for the optional tour.  Most of the room emptied to follow me up to the Aegean World Gallery  where we took a look at the picture of Arthur Evans and saw some of his amazing discoveries. We used the song “If you’re happy finding treasure clap your hands” to process that we too had made discoveries downstairs and like him we had to sort them and clean them.  Together we looked at some of the objects he might have needed on a dig – the trowel, his sketchbook, tin mug and plate for camping out .

The children liked taking things out of the bag and loved the throne room and wall art – so much shape and colour. We moved in to the Near East gallery where we toured past the Archaeological Tell model and sang “One little finger” all about pointing – adapting it to point at objects in the gallery.  We also sang head shoulders knees and toes next to the skeleton before a lucky dip of the foam skeleton jigsaw.  The eldest to the youngest all enjoyed this and parent feedback at the end of the session was particularly positive.  
I can’t wait to do the next one, but I also like the idea of a more horrible histories approach to the Knossos archaeology with an 8+ audience . . .   The image of the bull which inspired our clay creations would be familiar to some of the parents from the Theseus and the Minotaur Myth.  It appears frequently in the Aegean World Gallery. This tells the story of archaeologist and former curator of the Ashmolean, Arthur Evans.  He was inspired by the ancient story of the Minotaur to look for the real Knossos Palace and discovering it.  Thinking about my audience, decided they  were a little too young for the horrible histories end of that, I decided to focus on the throne room items, wall art and clay cow models rather than child eating minotaur or Labyrinth rescue.  

Later on talking with one of the parents about that decision, he thought his three year old would love the story since it has scary bad guy and a daring rescue.  We discussed just how grim Grimm’s fairy tales had been – would any parent share an unexpurgated version now?  The conversation ended with him asking more about the gallery and deciding to come back to see it again with his family.  I was also happy to tell him I had read a reasonably child friendly version published by barefoot books.  I include this moment because I think its a really undervalued aspect of under fives learning in museums in general.  Parents crystalise approaches to creative parenting, you will often hear them say “we could do this at home” and it gives them time consider their values, bond with their children  and play together when they attend events like these. It’s not just children who are learning.

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