Two children standing in front of a castle with an explorer pack. One is wearing a jester's hat and using binoculars. The other has a hand puppet. A second hand puppet and a tambourine are beside the pack.

It’s every family’s hope that their days out will be full of fun and making great memories. My brief from Historic Environment Scotland was to investigate ideas for activities to help families make the most of their visits, and to try them out.

Background Research

Historic Environment Scotland sites already cater for families with quizzes, interactive features in exhibitions, some games and costumes, plus events. But there was an appetite to extend this by investigating three new ideas; ‘backpacks’, ‘an activity cart’ and ‘outdoor games’.

Of the three ideas, backpacks had the most research available. I found 25 sites that have backpacks. Mainly these were museums but there was also a woodland, a castle, botanic gardens and an arboretum. I read guidance notes published online by the V&A London for museum backpacks and studies into family visits and family learning dynamics.

This led us to decide to:

• Choose a maximum of six activities.
• Choose activities with a range of target ages
• Choose things a child can start to use immediately without instruction
• Cater for the whole family, not just children.
• Include exploring tools
• Encourage creativity, art, imagination
• Balance active learning with play

Our pilot activities

Our plan was to develop the three different ideas then try them out in different combinations at three castles; Craigmillar, Tantallon and Blackness.

A red drawstring bag labelled Explorer Pack in front of a castle building.

Explorer Backpacks

We decided that the backpacks would be one per family and the contents would appeal to a wide range of ages and activity preferences. The logo and colour would be distinctive.
We settled on the following contents:

• Binoculars
• Wind up torch
• Jester hat
• Puppets
• Musical Instrument

The contents card is designed to put parents at ease. It lets them know how many items they need to keep track of (not too many) and gives inspiration on how to use them based on what we wanted to help families do at the sites; Play, Imagine and Explore.

The Activity Cart

A key aim of the cart was to communicate a ‘family friendly’ message to visitors to the site. We worked with Old School Fabrications to design the cart. It had to:

• Be visually appealing and exciting for families
• Give a sense of ‘something going on’
• Be easy to wheel about an open, grassy site
• Hold flexible contents
• Be able to be left outside

A wooden cart containing art equipment parked under a tree in a castle courtyard

Activities we provided for testing at Craigmillar were:

• Make a crown
• Colouring-in
• Make a shield
• Building blocks

Outdoor Games

The aims for the outdoor games were to give families enjoyment and increase the amount of time they could spend at the sites. We chose to develop:

• Quoits (built to our specification by Old School Fabrications)
• Skittles; easier than the quoits for younger children
• Noughts and crosses; a more strategic game

Two wooden quoit games placed in the grounds of a castle.

Evaluation and Feedback

We offered the backpacks at Craigmillar, Tantallon and Blackness Castles through the summer, the Activity Cart at Craigmillar Castle and the outdoor games at Craigmillar and Blackness castles. We asked everyone who signed out a backpack to give us feedback when they returned it, and we held on-site interviews at Craigmillar.

Key Findings

All the families who gave feedback were extremely positive about the games, cart and packs. Families with children up to 12 and even teenagers found the packs to be a positive addition to their visit. Parents felt the packs really increased their children’s engagement with the site and were fun and exciting. The binoculars and torch were the most popular items, but all the items were mentioned as a favourite by somebody.

Visitors told us they felt the packs really contributed positively to their experience. Families came out wearing their crowns, with colouring and shields to make at home, and with stories to tell of who had been best (and worst!) at each of the games. There was a lot of laughter in the feedback interviews – and that has got to be the best measure of success.

We are now looking forward to extending the activities out to other sites for the 2019 season. Did you try any of these activities this summer? Tell us what you think in the comments below.


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Guest Blog

From time to time we have guest posts from partners, visitors and friends of Historic Environment Scotland.