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How to lead playful museum programmes

How to lead playful museum programmes


Today I’m exploring play in museum education practice. How can we create and lead playful museum programmes? How can we bring more opportunities for play into our guided tours and educational programmes??

I was inspired for today’s post by our new theme in the Slow Looking Club. Every two weeks we have a new theme and right now we’re exploring play as the focus for our slow looking. We’re looking for depictions of play and playful approaches in art, but also how we can adopt a playful attitude to slow looking when we’re out and about.

This led me to thinking about how we can be more playful in our programmes when we are with visitors (of all ages, not just children) and incorporate more meaningful opportunities for play? 


What comes to mind when you think of play?

We all know what play feels like but the definitions that I’ve read don’t seem to cover the breadth of feeling that play actually generates. It feels a bit to me like trying to define something that is constantly changing its shape and form.

In general, play can be defined simply as engaging in activity for pure enjoyment and recreation. It’s a purposeless activity that brings joy and pleasure. 

This means that when you’re playing you’re not thinking about being productive, accomplishing a goal, winning a match or improving yourself. It’s very much about being immersed in a moment-to-moment experience with no ulterior motive other than enjoyment. 

Play can be structured and unstructured. Structured play will have some rules or a framework to it, whilst unstructured play or free play will be (ahem) much freer.

In the museum when you’re with an educator, you’re much more likely to be engaged in structured play – i.e. it’s in a defined space, there’s a start and end time and it’s likely that directions or guidance are involved. 

Play sometimes needs rules, but flexible rules that allow for creativity. Game designers Katie Salen Tekinbas and Eric Zimmerman describe play as ‘free movement within a more rigid structure.

And Elliot Kai-Kee says in his book Activity-Based Teaching in the Art Museum that ‘every situation and every object presents a system offering different potentials for the free movement of play. Every art object offers itself up as an opportunity for play within and around it’.

He mentions that some museum professionals might be reluctant to endorse the idea of museums as playgrounds especially if the idea is associated with frivolity. Some people, after all, see museums are serious places. But, he says, if play is defined as exploration and inquiry, both things that we advocate strongly for here, then museums are what he calls ‘prime spaces’ for play

Play is not limited to physical activity either, there are lots of different types of play: from social play (playing with others, taking turns, cooperating and collaborating), constructive play (arts and crafts, music and building things), fantasy play (using imagination, role play, dress up) amongst others.

When we were little, play was central to our lives and to our development. Children use play as a way to learn new things, explore our surroundings and to get to know ourselves and others better.

As we become adults, we play less. We may still play for fun – playing board games or a game of tennis or doing an activity to relax and unwind – but even then, we may do those activities without a spirit of playfulness. We tend to think that play is for kids and that we can do more productive things with our time. 

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” — George Bernard Shaw

Play is very productive (and important) for anyone and at any age. It helps us to stay happy, remain optimistic, stimulate the mind and imagination and keep our social-emotional skills sharp. 

So, now that we’ve looked at what play is, we’re going to explore how we can offer more opportunities to engage with play in the museum for all ages – and especially for adults. 


Before we start, let’s see if we can narrow down the qualities of play that we are looking for. From all my research, it seems that the following qualities come up time and again: collaboration and connection, enjoyment and joyfulness, empowerment and meaning as descriptors or qualities of playful experiences in the museum. 

It goes without saying that a museum experience that has all these qualities is also varied – i.e. you will work in a variety of different ways, working individually, in pairs, small groups and as a large group and that you will offer participants a variety of different activities or multimodal strategies for each artwork too. This is the foundation for the playful approach and the suggestions that I’m going to share next are the activities or strategies that you’ll use to achieve this.


So here are some suggestions for creating more opportunities for play when you’re with groups in the museum:


Museums are ideal spaces in which to play. And in guided tours or educational programmes we offer some key playful components – such as exploration, observation, discovery and experimentation.

In Teaching in the Art Museum: Interpretation as Experience, Elliott Kai-Kee and Rika Burnham expand upon this idea of interpretive play. They suggest that  interpretation itself becomes a mode of play as it ‘allows for the continuous emergence of unexpected insights and interpretations‘. They say that artworks ‘play to an audience’ by acting on them and catching their attention, and making us wonder out loud.

When we’re with visitors and we’re discussing artworks or objects, we’re playing with ideas; there are surprising discoveries and insights throughout the discussion. This back and forth, investigation and exploration of an artwork using thinking routines, open-ended questions and wondering is play itself. It’s a joyful experience, and everyone in the group enjoys the process as much as any conclusion we might reach (if any).

This is play as a way to learn about art. And it’s all the more enjoyable because we’re doing this as part of a group. 

When we create engaging discussions in the museum on our programmes, we’re encouraging and engaging in what I  like to call collaborative play. When we interact with others to discuss an artwork or object we are entering into this collaborative play together; it’s sociable, enjoyable and supported and guided by a museum educator or guide. 


When we take the time to explore something more slowly, to appreciate its beauty, notice the small things and be present in that moment, we are engaging in slow looking. And looking can always be playful. It doesn’t have to be static, silent or still.

As I explain in my guide How to Look at Art Slowly there are so many ways that you can play with looking and use different ways to look as an entry point into exploring that artwork.

These different activities (there are 30 in the guide) are in essence playful – whether they are encouraging looking by movement, by observation or by writing. It’s getting you think about the act of looking and what you can do to see more.

To take in the whole picture and not miss a single detail. And how doing this can be fun. Noticing more helps to make what you’re looking at more interesting – even if at first you don’t think there is much to see, over time the details will reveal themselves.

Indulge in some playful slow looking with your groups and share with them a variety of ways that they can look at art, objects and indeed anything – skills they can take with them when the museum visit is over and they can playfully use in their own lives. 

Photo credit: Jeff Koons, Balloon Dog (Blue), 2021. JEFF KOONS STUDIO⁠

Bringing the senses more fully into our programmes invites more opportunities for play. This reminds me of the recent incident in which a porcelain “Balloon Dog” sculpture by artist Jeff Koons was accidentally knocked over by an art collector and shattered on the floor of a gallery.⁠

The shape of this artwork literally invited play. If you haven’t seen it, it looks exactly like a balloon animal – the kind you would get a children’s birthday party. This sculpture invites curiosity and touch (as soon as you look at it you’re wondering what it is made of or how it might feel like if you touch it).

And this reminds us that we need opportunities in museums to use more of our senses (not just our visual sense) in a place where touching is often not allowed. So making opportunities for other senses to come into our programme would invite more opportunities for play.

Think about how you could bring objects that visitors could touch to replicate the feel of an object that they can’t touch. You could bring fabrics, metal or wood to represent something that is on display.

Or think about how you might use the imagination to invoke the sense of hearing – what might you hear if you stepped inside this painting? Or touch? Or smell?

Be playful and think of opportunities to bring in more of the 5 senses into your programmes. 


Use thinking routines to provide some flexible structure to your play in the museum and to encourage participants to use their imagination, follow their curiosity and wonderings.

Start with See Think Wonder as it’s a core thinking routine suitable for use with all kinds of objects and materials. See Think Wonder provides a simple scaffold for your thinking – starting with observation, moving on to interpretation and wondering.

Look at objects that have a sense of mystery, that you don’t know all the answers to, ones that you’d like to ask your participants to explore and to discover and to see where their thoughts take you. Read Learning to Love ‘Boring’ Objects through slow looking  for some inspiration on how to work with hidden and untold stories & with an object where we simply don’t have all the answers.

Or try Beginning Middle End – imagining the possible stories that may have come before or after a scene in an artwork. This one really gets the imagination going. If you want, you can have your groups tell or act out their stories in dramatic ways too. You could also use Creative Comparisons to encourage metaphorical and creative thinking. 


In episode 45 of The Art Engager podcast, I talk with voiceover artist and actor Samantha Boffin. In that episode we discuss how we can use improv as a way of being more playful in the museum.

Samantha mentions that as children we used to improvise all the time through play but as adults we get fearful about doing it. So, one way we can bring back this spirit of play is to bring more games into our programmes in the museum.

This could be through improv games (and Samantha lists a few in that episode, such as Narrative, Colour, Emotion and line-by-line stories, so do go and listen to it) or using something like ‘Yes, and..’ as an observation game as I talk about in episode 59

And bear in mind that you can turn any activity into a game to introduce more playfulness. I love setting a timer with groups and asking them to compete in teams to see who can find the most details in an artwork. It’s really helps the groups to focus and is a lot of fun. 


Next we’re going to look at movement-based activities to allow more play in a museum. When I mention movement or embodiment in museums there is sometimes a frisson of apprehension. But, as I discuss with museum educator Rachel Ropeik here, movement can mean many things.

It can be as simple as copying the posture of a figure in a painting. Or answering the question ‘what does this artwork ask you to do?’ And using movement rather than words as the response.

It can be ‘stepping inside’ a figure in a painting and then acting out a full narrative about who that person might be and what they might perceive, know or care about.

With movement, it really helps to know your audience and choose your movement activity accordingly.

Movement can also be a way of looking at objects in museums – from sitting down to standing up or even lying down too.

It doesn’t have to be complicated and it certainly doesn’t have to involve pretending to be a tree as you might have done in drama class at school…

You need to take into account who the group are, and what they will feel comfortable doing (and what you will feel comfortable facilitating).

I once took part in a workshop that I’ve never forgotten where we had to choreograph a dance to a painting that we were assigned to accompany some music. I was really nervous about it at the start but got really into it as we got talking about what we might do. So bear in mind that people do surprise you.  


Drawing, sketching, doodling and scribbling can all be used to create more opportunities for play when you’re with groups. Always start with the end in mind – what is your goal for using drawing as an activity? If you’re using it for slow looking as I explore here, then you’ll want to emphasise that this is an observation exercise and not a drawing exercise. It’s not a test of how good your drawing skills are, it’s a test of how to use your eyes.

This will help to allay any fears about not being any good at drawing. In that episode I’m sharing some thinking routines that you can use for slow looking and drawing and sharing how you can get over any drawing apprehension too.

Likewise you can use drawing as a mindfulness activity as we explore in episode 61 with Karly Allen. You can use viewfinders too to focus on specific details to draw. 


Creative and reflective writing can also inspire play in the museum. Throughout the ages, looking at art has been a unique way of finding inspiration and creativity. Art is a frequent source of inspiration for many writers and poets over the centuries. And it will work for your participants too.

Is writing play? Yes, of course – it depends on how you set it up.

Bring in the collaborative play aspect I was talking about at the beginning and create collaborative poetry from a word bank of nouns and adjectives about an artwork.

Or develop characters from portraits or compose dialogue or write speech bubbles.

You can also do individual imaginative writing, or make journal or diary entries or write postcards home.

These are all ways that anyone can invite more playfulness into their museum experience through imagination, curiosity and creative expression. 


The last suggestion is to use card packs as prompts and provocations for your group, introducing an element of chance into the proceedings.

I have a selection of different types of card packs (some are specific to artworks or museums and some are just general card packs) that ask questions, offer quotes or statements. You could ask a group member to pull a card from the pack and then invite the group to discuss possible answers.

Here’s a couple of examples:

‘Look for something round, something blue, something irregular’

‘Close your eyes and listen. What does art sound like?’

Look for a strange piece of art. Give it a new title that creates a different meaning’

‘Imagine you are a sculpture. Create a shape’ 

These cards containing questions, prompts and statements introduce the unexpected into your programme. You can use them how you want but they certainly introduce more fun and playfulness into my programmes!


If you’re interested in using thinking routines, I’ve just updated my Ultimate Thinking Routine List . There are now over 120 thinking routines together in one place.