Informal Online Learning Spaces for Children in Vulnerable Communities

  • Lucia Taeubler


This essay focuses on the exploration to create virtual informal learning spaces in art museums for children between 6 and 12 years. In particular it looks at informal learning in vulnerable communities, such as young asylum seekers, migrants, and refugees but also children who have not been able to visit art museums regularly due to COVID-19 restrictions as formal and informal education spaces moved online. Focusing on the Glucksman Gallery’s pilot programme, which will be launched in Fall 2020, and will bring artists’ prints of the exhibition Viewpoints: Children’s Rights in Imaginary Spaces to asylum accommodation, rural schools, and centers of marginalized communities. We are interested in how picture books and nonverbal illustrations teach children in informal learning spaces, how these spaces motivate and shape children’s lives, and how informal learning in community settings can be achieved beyond the museum walls as well as what challenges we have met in the process.

The data we used includes teacher surveys taken after schools’ physical visits to the gallery (February and March 2020), observational data taken from art facilitators and myself, and interviews with parents and children who participated in the COVID-19 created online learning space Creativity at Home, which incorporated the illustrations.

Children’s Rights Illustrations for a Visual Art Museum

“Recognizing the value in children’s voices and empowering youth to realize their right to participate can have a profound effect not only on children but also on programs that target children.”

—Todres and Higinbotham, 2015, p. 15

Children’s literature and illustrated picturebooks are taking people from a very young age on the imaginative journey to fantastic spaces; to explore, learn, create, and share. Picturebooks inspire children’s endeavours, their wishes, and their hopes. They also transfer knowledge about their strength and creativity, their values toward the world, and they inherit and incorporate children’s rights (Todres and Higinbotham 2015, pp. 3, 207). As a contemporary art gallery on University College Cork (UCC) campus, The Glucksman works to create a space for young people from marginalized communities to foster knowledge, to learn, and to develop creative and social skills (Ng et al. 2018), integrating picturebook illustrations into an art gallery. The gallery’s Creative Agency programme has had a long-term relationship with migrant communities for the last four years to enable them to learn creatively and to foster empowerment. Stephen Weil claimed museums have to start transforming from “being about something to being for somebody” (Weil 1999, p. 229) and have to start to look at the online learning space in order to reach out to communities.

As an example of our work in progress to create a virtual learning space with blended learning opportunities for vulnerable communities, the collaboration between The Glucksman and the University College Cork (UCC) School of Law has to be highlighted. The partnership for the temporary exhibition Viewpoints: Children’s Rights in Imaginary Spaces shows the development from an existing physical learning and teaching space to a virtual learning space in order to stay connected with children, and their families, to create a sense of comfort and to teach resilience through artworks and creative activities. Jonathan Todres and Sarah Higinbotham (2016) state, “Teaching children about their rights helps children transition from mere subjects of adults to partners and participants in their families, communities, and nations.” (p. 15)

The gallery commissioned seven Irish children’s book authors to create nonverbal illustrations of seven sets of children’s rights. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was first established in 1989. The CRC has been created as a comprehensive articulation of rights for children between 0 and 18 years old and is legally binding for states. It includes the right to education, to justice, to refuge, to belonging and being cared for by their families. and to health and protection from abuse and maltreatment. In their publication Human Rights in Children’s Literature, Jonathan Todres and Sarah Higinbotham offer a legal insight into learning through storytelling, reading, and early childhood picture books:

“Children’s literature allows children (and the adults who read books with them) to explore and even grasp the rights of children more fully. This is one of the crucial roles that stories play in our lives: not just showing us what is, but also what can be.” (Todres et al. 2016, p.3; my italics).

As a visual arts museum, we tell stories through artworks, how they are curated, and depict new perspectives to create meaningful moments for visitors, especially children. This led to the decision to focus on seven topics of CRC. The illustrations were digitally submitted to be then temporarily painted onto the gallery walls as large-scale murals. The exhibition invited children to become part of a life-size picturebook, transmitting messages about their own rights, and connected to their own lives as a familiar sociocultural experience which serves as “powerful mediators” for museum education (Anderson et al. 2002, p. 222) (Figure 1). In Todres and Higinbotham (2015) the question was raised how to make children’s rights widely known and how to create resources for communities to teach their children these sets of rights to be valuable. Through a variety of engagement programmes, the Glucksman created physical and virtual spaces for children to learn about their rights, along with children whose access to visual art galleries is usually limited.

Expand Expand Figure 1 Image of The Right to Education by Roisin Hahessy, Exhibition View. Photo: Jed Niezgoda

At first, school workshops were hosted, creating safe spaces for teachers and students to get inspired by the rights, ask questions, create stories, and actively work on an arts project while in the gallery. Second, community groups such as Irish Scouting and young children (6–12 years) living in refugee centres (referred to as Direct Provision Accommodation in Ireland) were invited to participate in an on-site project. Third, due to COVID-19 and the temporary closure of the gallery, online art activities have been established to engage with the exhibition through free downloads and online workshops called Creativity at Home. These three learning spaces are the basis for a more developed online learning space that will feed back to the gallery virtually. We will compare the physical gallery visit through a school workshop with the virtual visit through Creativity at Home, and gather information from collected data.

It is of importance to look at the framework of possible engagement with vulnerable communities, and the design of user-friendly and playful online learning spaces.

Engaging Open-Ended Learning

Environments such as museums and art galleries are social and physical spaces. They flourish through their visitors and their engagement with objects and curated topics to inspire critical thinking. Children, especially in school groups, are one of the museum’s largest visitor groups, and usually in this context their visit is brief and singular, based on the educator’s need to meet the curriculum, or their personal interest. (Andre, Durksen, Volman 2017) They learn in a formal way—as workshops for schools in the Glucksman last for 90 minutes—and will at best go back to the gallery with their family, their peers, or through their own motivation.

Children’s learning in museums is mostly accompanied with a knowledgeable adult (e.g., curator, parent, teacher, artist) or technology paired with hands-on activities related to exhibits or topics. In addition, the engagement between visitors and museum education, in tours, workshops, and talks, nourishes a museum and also the visitor. But how do children learn informally in the museum? We cannot answer this question through one theory, or one particular study. Informal learning, and children’s motivation to do so, is complex. Play can be one answer, shown by Deborah Perry (2012), “those visitors who have the most satisfying and enjoyable experiences are those who feel the most playful” (p. 137). Andre, Durksen, and Volman (2017) speak about interactivity, participative learning approaches and of object-based learning to understand ideas. Revisiting the museum more than once helps build relationships and visitors to become comfortable with the physical space, and the relationship with the educator can be another approach (Andre, Durksen, and Volman 2017, p. 48).

An advantage of working with a community outside of the curriculum-focused school visit, is to focus on “learning to look” through observation, inference, speculation, and open-ended questions and critical-thinking methods (Burchenal and Grohe 2007, p. 112 and hooks 2010, pp. 9, 141). Scon G. Paris (1997) refers to learning as being connected with the visitor’s personal “interests, background knowledge, and emotionally valued topics” (p. 22). Museums offer the opportunity to learn for all children, and create space to engage, which results in better commitment to learning, social and personal development through collaboration, critical aspirations, and academic decision-making for future opportunities and more perspective in general (Ng, et al., p. 1). Falk and Dierking (2000) even refer to museums and other non-school-based environments as “informal or free-choice learning” and as being “qualitatively different learning from that in schools,” which is an approach we adopted at the Glucksman. We also adapted bell hooks’ Teaching Critical Thinking (2010), and her approach to “Engaged Pedagogy”: “Engaged pedagogy establishes a mutual relationship between teacher and students that nurtures the growth of both parties, creating an atmosphere of trust and commitment that is always present when genuine learning happens” (hooks 2010, p. 22). In Anderson et al.’s (2002) research, museum-based culture was imitated through children’s own everyday activities, such as making collections and building personal “play” museums; an approach that relates to our observations. In art galleries and art museums, guided and facilitated play is the most powerful learning tool, inviting children to access, enjoy and motivate discussion of artworks on their own terms (Andre, Durksen, Volman 2017, p. 63). The space to learn is a transformative goal to create engagement within the museum:

“The availability of access to learning situations and accessibility of meaningful learning opportunities are necessary, if not sufficient conditions, for engagement—cognitively, behaviorally, emotionally, autonomously, and socially—in learning that results in the use of knowledge and skills.” (Ng et al., p. 45)

A further focus lies in digital and media literacy, as Renee Hobbs (2011) sees the need to strengthen people’s capacity for engaging with information—their rights—“but also for addressing the many potential risks associated with exposure to mass media, popular culture, and digital media” (p. 15).

We understand that engaging children’s open-ended learning in informal museum education is like a rhizome, expanding through play, interaction, critical thinking, trust, and active engagement. These theories lead to the research in three different settings and to our approaches.

Research 1: On-Site School Workshops

In February and March 2020 we invited over 1,000 children from primary and secondary level education to visit the exhibition on-site and to work on a specific, age-adequate set of rights. We collected data from the teachers and we gathered some observational anecdotes of the visits, to inform our plan to make the exhibition accessible through digital spaces for communities outside the formal school visit. The children were between 4 and 13 years old, and attended schools in and around Cork. The workshops were 90 minutes long, and included a tour and an art activity that was usually a collaborative one. The outcome of their sessions would have been shown in an on-site exhibition to introduce parents and friends of the participating children to the gallery. This could not happen due to COVID-19, and lockdown in March 2020. The workshop topic was chosen by the teachers, or in collaboration with the children. One teacher justified her choice, “Approximately two thirds of our pupils are New Irish. This (The Right to Refuge) was the topic toward which they gravitated.”

Expand Expand Figure 2 Which topic related to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child did you choose for your workshop? (27 responses)

We wanted to know if the exhibition and workshop helped children understand their rights, and CRC. “This workshop definitely helped introduce the concept that every child has rights, and that rights include the everyday things they may not have thought about like play and the right to creativity.” In workshops we observed that if teachers have used pre-visit materials and prepared their children for the visit, they were able to interact and to ask questions more frequently than groups that were not prepared.

Expand Expand Figure 3 How did you prepare your students for your visit? Did you use any of the resources listed here? (23 responses)

The facilitators guided the children with questions around the selected right, which helped them look closely, and gave them an opportunity to learn through peer-discussion and questioning.

When the children broke up in smaller groups, they were assigned to work on an art activity collaboratively, which was probably the most challenging for them. As a group they were allowed to choose their approach, and the task was open-ended, for example: What does Education mean to you? It allowed students to explore information according to their interest and familiarity, and stimulated the children’s curiosity through participation (Paris 1997, p. 23). This led to creations like those shown in Figure 4, such as a school with circus elements, a school on a boat, a traditional school, and a school in outer space.

Expand Expand Figure 4 The Right to Education by 10 year olds in collaboration. Photo: Lucia Taeubler

Due to the children’s young age (6–7 years), “it (the exhibition) was a great opportunity to introduce the idea of children’s rights to them, and to have them develop an awareness of the wider world, not just their immediate environment.” In this sense, respectively to Todres and Higinbotham (2015), we partnered with children in helping them realize their own rights and the rights of their peers. Especially, when we were introducing the Right to Be Heard, the children were very vocal about what they would change in their relationship with adults, to be heard more and to empower themselves. We also observed that when children successfully created a collaborative piece, they felt the sense of accomplishment in the face of a meaningful challenge (Paris 1997, p. 24).

All these key learnings from on-site children’s visits have to be encountered to create a useful, valuable resource for vulnerable communities, since “…children who have developed skills to facilitate communication, cooperation, assertion, empathy, and self control, engage more effectively with others, find school more positive, and generally achieve more” (Ng et al., p. 198). We are looking to transform this empowerment, through CRC to vulnerable communities, as we did in the on-site visits of children in asylum accommodation to work together with Irish Scouting on the Right to a Climate Justice. This partnership strengthens the communities’ understanding of the given topic but also creates opportunities to connect, and build trust for further collaborations.

Research 2: Online Art Activity Space

Due to COVID-19 and a general lockdown, including the closure of all cultural institutions, we decided to create art activities for children to be accessible online. The Glucksman’s focus has not been on digital engagement with vulnerable groups in the past, mainly because of the structure of the small team. But additionally, relationship building and connecting face-to-face has an important impact on individual lives. We created a safe, private space with original artworks, and enabled them to link with local, and national artists, as well as empowering them to “experience support for acquiring a critical consciousness, for any commitment to end domination” (hooks 2003, p. 45).

We were trying to create “tools to assist children to learn and develop deeper understandings of the museum messages in and beyond the walls of the museum itself” (Anderson et al., p. 228). Still, while we cannot truly imitate the museum experience through a camera and a screen, we can find a connection to our participants through their learning journey and process, their engagement with art appreciation, and their understanding that “[a]s a mode of communication, artworks are visual representations of ideas, experience, and memory” (Wilks et al. 2012, p. 55). Artworks as such, and therefore art museums containing objects of art, are visual representations of knowledge, ideas, experiences and memory. They have been linked with people throughout history, and usually have a certain story to tell.

The first question we asked our interviewees who participated in Creativity at Home “Did you visit the exhibition Viewpoints: Children’s Rights in Imaginary Spaces in person?”, was answered 50% with yes, and 50% with no, but 90% of the interviewees participated in Creativity at Home and were able to connect the online space with our physical exhibition.

See the following 3 charts (10 interviewees).

Expand Expand Figure 5 Did you visit the exhibition Viewpoints: Children’s Rights in Imaginary Spaces in person?
Expand Expand Figure 6 Did you use the online resources ‘Creativity at Home’ provided during COVID-19 lockdown?
Expand Expand Figure 7 If yes, did you connect the exhibition and the resources given?

Their sense of discovery and wonder motivated them to explore further and to learn more, as Paris (1997) suggests. In inviting vulnerable and marginalized groups into the art gallery or the virtual space to create, this perspective can be widened. The Creativity at Home activity usually combined two tasks: creative exploration and practical making. The exploration included guiding questions to stimulate participants to observe and look, before (or after) they started with the art-making activity (Figures 8 and 9). “We sometimes skipped the questions and went right to the art making,” an interviewee reported.

Expand Expand Figure 8 Creativity at Home, the Right to Play.
Expand Expand Figure 9 Creativity at Home, the Right to Play, participant’s image. Photo: private

The pilot programme for our Viewpoints online learning space fosters learning through prints of the exhibits, which will be installed in community centers such as refugee accommodation and rural schools. These will be freely accessible to children and their community leaders. The gallery has already had long relationships with migrant communities in so-called “Direct Provision accommodation” around Cork through Creative Agency programmes.

Challenges we have assessed are as basic as accessibility to technology, such as hardware (computers, printers, art materials) and functioning Internet. Working without being on-site or face-to-face can also lead to misunderstandings, which we have faced in the Creativity at Home activities which included an example, a stop-motion animation tutorial, and step-by-step text. The online activities also require help from a parent or guardian to download, read, and support with art-making skills. Especially, children with learning disabilities will need extra support, which needs to be assessed through the museum. We will assess the language barriers of parents and guardians to know which languages to prioritize for multi-language resources. “Digital and media literacy competencies are not only needed to strengthen people’s capacity for engaging with information but also for addressing the many potential risks associated with exposure to mass media, popular culture, and digital media.” Rachel Hoobs (2011) makes clear that as an institution we will have to provide a safe way of handling digital empowerment and protection for children.

Over the course of several weeks, workshop sessions with artists, authors, and museum educators will help build trust with the children, and to connect with their interests, knowledge, and backgrounds. We will provide virtual workshops to introduce topics, and create space to question and form ideas within the group. These ideas will be collected to inform collaborative projects, possibly with on-site instructions through local artists. In a final workshop we will collect feedback and learnings, and discuss potential improvements. The pilot programme’s findings will feed into the finalization of our resources, in empowering children to know their rights, and become ambassadors for others by fostering engagement and fun. We are aiming for the following:

  • Children’s participation as a community in online art-making sessions with the underlying understanding and knowledge of children’s rights.

  • Creating a space in their communities to view art regularly, and discuss the topics, even as passersby.

  • The creation of resilient resources for vulnerable communities during a pandemic and beyond through digital and media literacy and the art of looking.

We have experienced that sharing children’s creative and research works digitally (Robyler and Doering 2010, p. 377) fosters pride and happiness, knowing that their images not only reach other people but create the same emotions. How did you feel when we shared your work online? “I felt proud,” one interviewee answered, still visibly proud. Todres and Higinbotham (2015) addressed the factor of social behaviour and learning improvement through learning about their rights, to become more responsible members of their community, and more highly motivated, active learners (p. 6).

Our interviewees showed a stronger willingness toward peer-learning and collaborative creating than the school workshops. Important to our approach is blended learning, including face-to-face sessions and open-ended tasks that can be worked on individually (or as a collective). Participants of the online activities were more likely to ask for support from their peers and to learn from each other than in the school workshop setting in which they tend to ask facilitators or teachers. Enabling children to become peer-leaders and guides creates a strong community connection, not only within the community but also the institution. Open-ended, activity-based social learning processes with discovery learning as their centre is our aim (Kolb and Fry 1975).

Learning should be fun and entertaining, especially in an informal learning setting. As educators we foster imagination and creativity through offline and online learning experiences, creating a platform for children to exchange, raise questions, and engage with institutions. The online activities inspired one of the interviewees to create her own “play” museum at home, gathering her creations throughout the weeks of lockdown and assembling them in her curation, which refers to Anderson et al.’s (2002) research. These resources teach social skills, which enable and help students connect socially and emotionally with others in their environment informally, and “optimize the cognitive abilities needed to engage with opportunities to learn and to achieve academically (Ng et al., p. 198).”


Picturebooks, and extracted illustrations of children’s rights, are playfully “not just showing us what is, but also what can be.” (Todres and Higinbotham 2015, p. 3) and inspire children’s endeavours, their wishes, and their hopes. Through the extensive engagement with vulnerable communities online, and in face-to-face sessions conducted by the Glucksman, children are empowered to become ambassadors for children’s rights, for themselves, and for their peers to raise questions and create a platform of justice. They lend their voice for our digital resources to become peer leaders and guides. This takes blended learning to another level: from the community, to the digital resource, to the peers, back to the museum. As a concept, this project needs active assessment around practicalities like accessible hard- and softwares, as well as languages in migrant communities.

The learnings we gathered from on-site school workshops and online art activities enable us to create virtual spaces to foster emotional learning and social skills. We hope our resource develops to become a collaborative, critically aspired and future-led opportunity for children to learn and teach.

About the Author

  • Lucia Taeubler

    Lucia Taeubler is educator and curatorial fellow at SIRIUS Arts Centre, Cobh, County Cork. Previously, she worked as Assistant Curator Engagement and Digital at The Glucksman, University College Cork. She engages with a diverse audience at the art museum through education projects, exhibition mediation, and digital media as well as observing visitor experiences. During lockdown in Ireland from March–July 2020 she worked mostly on engagement projects online and in the virtual space. Lucia is a graduate in Art History at University of Vienna in 2012, and is currently studying an MSc of Digital Education at University of Edinburgh. She has been working in the field of museum education and digital storytelling since 2013, and as Head of Museum Education and Visitor Experience, at Kunstmeile Krems since 2015. She received a grant at Victoria & Albert Museum for Creating Innovative Learning Programmes in 2016. In 2018, and contributed to the ICOM CECA Austria publication “From the Inside Cultural Mediation in Austria–Definition, Tasks and Working Conditions in the Field.”


  1. Todres, J. and Higinbotham, S. 2015. “Stories for children have historically been didactic and functioned as instruments to mold children according to prevailing notions of appropriate behavior. But alongside that tradition, books have also fostered children’s imaginations, creativity, and autonomy,” 207.
  2. The Right to Education, illustrated by Roisin Hahessy, The Right to Justice, and to Be Heard, illustrated by Peter Donnelly, The Right to Equality, illustrated by Fatti Burke, The Right to Family and Identity, illustrated by Mary Murphy, The Right to Shelter and Security on a Functioning Planet (Climate Change), illustrated by Chris Haughton, The Right to Play and Leisure, illustrated by Niamh Sharkey, and The Right to Refuge, illustrated by Chris Judge.
  3. Research about “play” has been conducted through a variety of researchers and collaborations, such as The Lego Foundation and UNICEF. 2018. “Learning Through Play.” Strengthening learning through play in early childhood education programmes is also a target for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Accessed October 26, 2020.
  4. In addition, in bell hooks’ Teaching Critical Thinking, 2010: “In such a community of learning there is no failure. Everyone is participating and sharing whatever resource is needed at a given moment in time to ensure that we leave the classroom knowing that critical thinking empowers us.”


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