Engaging family groups through intergenerational play

Cambridge Science Centre (CSC) is at an ambitious stage of its story, asking questions fundamental to the whole sector including “what is a science centre?” and “who is it for?”

Cambridge Science Centre (CSC) have been finding novel ways of exploring the impact they can have across the Cambridge region. With the funding from STFC they created STEMtots community hub; a pop-up science centre embedded within a community outside of their usual sphere of influence. Transforming a vacant shopping centre unit on the outskirts of the city, they have worked to attract parents and carers of young children to visit, free of charge, for exploration and play in a safe and welcoming environment. Visitors to the community hub experience rotating weekly themes that incorporate STEM skills and intergenerational play-based learning is encouraged. This is linked to higher level topics, such as STFC science for grownups to engage with, aided by “what’s happening here?” cards that describe the real-world applications of the STEM content and skills, including the role of play in child development. CSC science communicators are also a vital part of the picture, facilitating this learning by providing extra games and challenges, guiding play, and discussing contemporary research with adults.

The STEMtots pop up hub in Grafton Shopping Centre, Cambridge

A research-led approach: This innovative project was born from ongoing conversations with communities though CSC’s charity and local authority partners, uncovering the need for engaging and hospitable community-based locations for parents of young children in central and north Cambridge. Particularly prevalent were the voices of young parents and those from lower income groups who reported struggling to find free family-focused opportunities to engage with their children. Within these new community hubs, the CSC team continue the research, finding out from visitors what they want from the space, and of course what impact a visit or visits has on them and their young children.

An unanticipated yet significant outcome was the importance of this opportunity for parents to better understand their own children. Numerous visitors remarked to staff that they rarely observed their child engaging in social play and interacting with STEM content. One individual noted that they had “underestimate[d] what a 14-month old might enjoy or engage with” and added that they would “not be afraid to explain things happening around”, suggesting the child would now receive more opportunities to learn about the world. Other visitors highlighted the sense of safety within the space and the intention to incorporate more science play at home. This demonstrates that the space and activities provided parents and carers with valuable insights and confidence to engage their children in science topics.

I didn't realise how sociable my child is!

CSC staff noticed shoes came off when visitors felt comfortable and when they planned on staying for a longer visit.

CSC’s success in meeting a community need and creating an inclusive and attractive space is clearly demonstrated by how many visitors they get simply due to word-of-mouth. Visitors consistently have mentioned to the team the lack of similar spaces for young children in Cambridge, appreciating the centre’s role in facilitating time spent in the city, in promoting social interaction between children and amongst the parents and carers.

Legacy Impacts: This project plays into bigger and longer-term plans of CSC. STEMtots community hub has taught the team a lot about what they can offer communities by embedding themselves into community locations, and they have plans to continue with this in the same and new locations. The relationship with the Grafton Shopping Centre where STEMtots was hosted also provides opportunity for legacy, with Grafton management interested in transforming their mall, possibly to include spaces for start-ups businesses and playing a new role in the community. CSC’s success in the donated unit could provide evidence for them and malls across the country to learn more about this opportunity.