Some people might be daunted at the thought of a group of Under Fives being invited to express themselves in a contemporary ceramics exhibition, but here at the Fitzwilliam Museum we saw a challenge and wanted to find ways to support our youngest visitors to engage with the objects on display.

We devised two sessions: one for 0-2 year olds (Baby Magic) and another for 2-5 year olds (It’s Magic). We wanted to provide opportunities for children and their adults to find out more about the Things of Beauty Growing exhibition, and to inspire their own creativity too.

For the younger children we used simple nursery rhymes to put the various vessels in context. We introduced Makaton signing alongside our songs for the first time to maximise accessibility, and also to highlight alongside the many images of ceramicists’ hands at work in the exhibition, that people communicate through their hands as well as their voices.

The babies also had the opportunity to explore a range of vessels in materials both similar to and different from those on display: plastic tea sets, bamboo bowls and fabric play plates. Added to these were boxes and containers and soft, squashable materials to fill them with. The aim of this was to allow the babies to experience the 3D nature of objects, and to support their understanding of both internal and external space in a tactile way.

In the studio, the families were offered clay to play with freely, or to shape using cardboard bowls as moulds. The adults and children worked together on this, producing unique pieces to take home and keep. Other children continued their exploration of shape and capacity of vessels by playing with pots and cups in our sensory pool.

The older preschool children were introduced to the exhibition through a story. Together we told the tale of a baby lump of clay wondering what he might grow up into. The different vessels in the exhibition all tried to explain to him why theirs was the best option: what lump of clay doesn’t dream of becoming an tall, elegant vase; or a majestic charger, or a beautiful bowl that might sit perfectly in cupped hands?

Our studio session allowed the children to make the baby clay’s dreams come true! Some of them helped him to become a vase, or a bowl or even a giant sculptural piece.

In addition, the children were lucky enough to be able to handle some examples of British studio pottery. This was a lovely experience for the group, and the objects seemed to really inspire their own creativity.

We loved the opportunity to introduce families with young children to this beautiful exhibition, and our families relished the experience too: ‘special times’ said one of the parents.

Other comments included:

‘My daughter really enjoyed this session – particularly holding the pots and making with the clay. It was very tactile.’ – Mum of 3 year old

‘Fun, welcoming, inspiring and a great way to spend a morning that is looked forward to by all my children.’ – Child minder of 1, 2 & 3 year old

‘Lovely staff who introduce artefacts & art in a child friendly way, through stories and craft activities’ – Grandmother of 4 year old

With thanks to all gallery & curatorial staff, especially Helen Ritchie, Applied Arts Research Assistant, and also to Alison Ayres and Nathan Huxtable, Studio Artists, for creative support and photography.