Catherine Bradley shares examples of arts events that work for whole families, not just for children
Being family friendly is about being responsive to the needs of both adults and children, making the whole family feel welcome and comfortable, and creating an experience that adults and children engage with together and that both are inspired by.
Horse and Bamboo Theatre have their roots in rural communities and have always aimed to create shows that the whole family can engage with. Working in puppetry and visual theatre helps, as many issues around age suitability are connected to language, but that’s not all it takes. Their shows must present storylines visually in a manner which is engaging for adults and older children, but ensures that the ‘darker’ elements of a story are not frightening for younger children. To encourage families to engage together and allow adults to learn from their children a workshop takes place before each family show. Chief Executive Helen Jackson describes this family-focused activity as “the right preparation for the show as it puts adults into a playful state of mind.” A comfortable and adaptable environment is crucial. At their venue, ‘The Boo’, the staff are key to creating this – there are enough of them to deal with the issues that arise and they are alert to be responsive to these issues. For example if a baby starts crying during a performance, a member of staff will help the parent find a quiet space, then escort them back into the auditorium. There’s a balance to be struck between maintaining the sense of magic of a live theatre performance, while ensuring that adults feel comfortable and unselfconscious if their children make noise. Jackson describes it as creating “a sense of reverence for the performance, but no sense of being in a straight jacket.”
Creating an environment in which adults and children of all ages can explore together is something Manchester Art Gallery has spent a lot of time on. This has included giving adults a worksheet with background information and suggestions of ways to get children of different ages to think about the artworks. A ‘magic carpet’ area on the floor was aimed at younger children and included textured materials for babies to explore and toddlers to make rubbings from. Older children had a table and inks for rubbings, plus a Surrealist poetry activity. Adults are expected to take part and there are no chairs around the edges of the room for them to sit out. In families with children of a wide range of ages, there’s always a risk that younger children might feel inferior, but according to Family Learning Manager Alex Thorp, Manchester Art Gallery has a good solution to this issue: “Sessions are about process and there is no pressure to make an end product, so younger children don’t feel like they’ve failed.”
Being family friendly requires sensitivity and flexibility, and getting it right can be a challenge, but examples such as these show that genuine family engagement is an achievable goal.