Feeling Peckish?

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This post from Amy McDowall (Primary Learning Co-ordinator) and Mattie Davies (Inflatable Museum Programme Assistant), is particularly relevant this week. With the University of Manchester awarding Marcus Rashford an honorary degree in recognition for his charity work and well-publicised campaign against child poverty off the field (as well as his sporting skills on the pitch!), we are reminded that food poverty is still a huge problem and, as Rashford put it: “COVID-19 can no longer be used as an excuse”. One response from the Government has been to fund holiday clubs and activities for children who would normally be offered free school meals. Through this programme, summer clubs have provided children with activities to keep them occupied, and, most importantly, to make sure that they don’t go hungry. So when we were asked if Manchester Museum would like to be involved in this scheme, we jumped at the chance, as Amy and Mattie explain.

In a usual summer, Manchester Museum would be packed with activities, crafts, and workshops. This summer, we did things a little differently with a mix of online and bookable socially distanced workshops. This summer was also a worrying time for those affected by the pandemic – 49% of parents with children on free school meals were worried about feeding their children this summer (Food Foundation Survey, June 2021). That’s why we were proud to work with Manchester Environmental Education Network (MEEN), to take part in the Holiday Activities and Food programme (HAF), where free holiday club places were available to children and young people who receive free school meals.

Mattie, a group leader, stands in the gazebo, ready to start a workshop

Manchester Museum visited holiday clubs across Ardwick, Moss Side (including Powerhouse Library), and Wythenshawe with our ‘Pop-Up Museum’ (a huge double-berth gazebo!), to put our own spin on learning about food and healthy eating. ‘Feeling Peckish’ is a creative and fun workshop with a scientific angle on the theme of sustainable food, allowing young people to investigate how different bird beaks are suited to specific types of food.

From the museum, we brought a range of objects, including a taxidermied kiwi, sparrow, and juvenile owl, and the skulls of a heron and a swan. Children aged 6-13 closely examined the birds, making sketches detailing the shape of their beaks, their talons, and their feathers, and used those clues to guess what they might eat. Many children were fascinated by the different objects we brought along and had plenty of questions about whether they were real (yes!), whether they were alive (no!), why they were stuffed (so we can study them closely and teach one another about them!), and how they came into our collection (some are very old and were left to us by collectors when they died – others we purchased from taxidermists!).

Stuffed kiwi and owl next to two bird skulls on a table

Having spent some time really looking at the different birds, the next step was to reverse-engineer the bird skulls, beaks, and claws to test what each one might eat. Because we couldn’t do this using the actual specimens (they are far too fragile), we asked the children to replicate them, using junk materials to construct models so that we could put their theories to the test. We had a range of beaks tested using a range of materials, but the kiwi’s long thin beak was by far the most popular, with children using plasticine, paper clips, lollipop sticks, straws, and bandages to build their models.

Once satisfied with their engineering masterpieces, it was time to really put the models to the test. We lined up five “foods” to represent the diets of each of the birds: fish in water (with cucumber slices simulating the slippery fish), a mouse (with jelly cubes simulating the mouse’s flesh), pondweed in water, seeds, and worms in soil (with cooked spaghetti simulating the wiggly worms). The models worked excellently – not all came to the correct conclusion, but an impressive number did. What’s more, when they learnt about the ways in which the birds are so perfectly adapted to their diets, many of them were fascinated to learn more and watch videos of owls and kiwis feeding on YouTube.

Model of a kiwi beak

After a year and a half of putting programmes on pause and delivering sessions via Zoom, it was wonderful to get back to face-to-face outreach and to support children, most of whom had never been to the museum on their doorstep, to learn, be active, eat well and thrive. We can’t wait to welcome them to the museum when we reopen next year, but in the meantime, we’re looking forward to working with MEEN to deliver more workshops next half term.

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