Jill Walker, Headmistress of Prince’s Gardens Prep School, talks to Absolutely Education

Schools in London are fortunate in many respects – not least for their easy and free access to world-renowned art galleries and museum visits. My school in Kensington, with half a dozen institutions on its doorstep, may be luckier than most – but every school in London and the Home Counties can, without too much difficulty, arrange to have their pupils stare at mummies, tremble before dinosaurs and wonder at any number of Picassos, Titians and Turners. 

I have spent many years observing hordes of young children excitedly descend on exhibits, pressing buttons and lighting up displays, and after a few minutes rushing on to the next one, instantly forgetting what had excited them only moments before. After an hour or two, it’s time for lunch then onto the bus to be back at school for 3.30.

It’s an exhilarating and exhausting experience for children, and hardly less so for teachers and parent volunteers, who of course have spent hours planning the visit to ensure it proceeds as smoothly as any trip can with 20 or 30 over-excited children. But is it really educational? What long-term benefits can children derive from an experience that can be more overwhelming than stimulating?

The fact is that as wondrous as museums are, they can also be too much to take in. Young children in particular tend to switch off after 30 minutes or so even if they find the exhibits initially captivating.

“As wondrous as museums are, they can also be too much to take in”

Giving them more material to absorb risks quelling their enthusiasm with information overload.  So what should schools and parents do? The key is to make exhibits in museums and art galleries extensions of the curriculum, not adornments to it. Parents should find out what children are currently studying at school and choose a single object that exemplifies that element of the curriculum. Get children to research it before they visit, then afterwards ask them to review and evaluate what they have learnt. Back in the classroom, they can explore the idea in more detail in collaborative projects.

Let me give you an example. The Science Museum is home to the Miss England speedboat, which was once the fastest boat in Britain and reached a top speed of 92mph when it raced in 1929. It was captained by a colourful character, Sir Henry Seagrove, a thrill-seeker who had already set the land speed record in his car, Golden Arrow. But as diverting as Sir Henry was, he is not the object of the lesson. The purpose of the lesson is to get children to understand speed. How did Miss England achieve such speed? Her powerful aircraft engine helped, but what else? Look at her shape? What materials were used? The boat floats because ‘upthrust’ from the water balances the downward force from the weight of the boat. Let’s show how this works by standing facing each other and pushing, hand to hand, to see how a balance of force can stop you falling over… and so on.

At Prince’s Gardens Prep, we have called this ‘our living curriculum’ and as the name suggests it’s designed to bring learning alive by using the public treasures available on our doorstep in a clearly defined way for explicit educational outcomes. Every child, from nursery through to Year 6, will have the chance to visit a museum or art gallery at least once a week to study an exhibit and learn from it. I appreciate that such frequent visits aren’t an option for many schools – or every parent. But our approach is. 

Our capital’s museums and art galleries are awe-inspiring places – but for children, especially young children, to get the most out of them we should focus a little less on the wonder and awe and a lot more carefully on what precise lessons their exhibits can teach us. 

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