Winchester Science Centre: Seasonal workshops

Woman with a ponytail and pink T-shirt looking out at an audience in a dome shaped planetarium

Working with the community and the importance of user voice

Megan and Tim: Winchester Science Centre

Megan and Tim visited Winchester Science Centre in December 2018. After feedback from their visit, the Widening Participation team worked with Megan to improve the Christmas Grotto experience. The science centre has been working with Megan to improve accessibility across the centre ever since.

Megan and Tim

Megan is a Carer for Tim, a child with very complex medical needs. Due to the complexity of Tim’s medical needs he is non-verbal and relies on his wheelchair for all of his mobility needs.


Rachael is the Widening Participation Officer at Winchester Science Centre. She believes everyone should have the opportunity to be inspired by science, regardless of their background. Rachael works across the organisation to ensure everything is accessible and inclusive, from the marketing team, front of house, the planetarium to the team of science communicators (Inspirers). She works with the accessibility advisory panel, as well as listening to and acting on feedback from visitors. Rachael also works outside the centre inspiring groups of people who wouldn’t typically visit the science centre through running outreach programmes in schools, organising and attending science festivals.

How was the need for the improvement identified?

For Megan and Tim, access information prior to booking a visit is essential. Megan found this information on the website where she saw the centre was fully wheelchair accessible. They booked a place at the Christmas Grotto, an experience where visitors get involved in a science-themed activity and have a chance to meet with Santa.

Megan and Tim had a disappointing experience at the grotto. Due to the lack of space in the grotto, they were asked to sit in the corner out the way with no view of what was happening. When it came to taking part in the activity, the small children’s tables meant they had to sit on a bench at the other end of the room. When Santa came in he had his back to Tim the whole time and there was no interaction. It was at this point that Megan and Tim left because it was causing upset and distress to not only Tim but the group he was with.

Megan emailed the science centre outlining her experience, she explained that although the experience was amazing for children without access needs, it did not meet any requirements to those who do have access needs. Through many phone calls, email consultations and exchanging of ideas with Rachael, Megan helped to design the accessible grotto experience now offered at the Centre.

How much did the change cost?

In Christmas 2019 the centre launched the Quiet Grotto. This was specifically tailored for children with sensory sensitivities. As well as meeting Santa, children experienced fun science demos without loud bangs and took part in multisensory Christmas activities. Small changes were made to the interior of the grotto, including replacing the benches for chairs.

The multisensory activities allowed visitors to choose how they would like to interact. For example, the playdough-based activity encouraged visitors to squeeze and mould the dough, and add smelly Christmas spices if they wish. The Christmas rice activity involved exploring sensory bags full of different textures - rice, pompoms, googly eyes, jingle bells - adding smelly spices was optional.

Each activity was also designed to have multiple levels of interaction. For example, visitors could use the playdough and straws to build tall chimneys or presents, but they could also mould them into Christmas objects or shapes.

The activities created were not a huge cost. The budget was £200 for three accessible grotto sessions with 18 children in each. With this money sensory Christmas activity packs were also created for people who may attend the regular Christmas Grotto who would prefer sensory activities.

Demand for these sessions was high with each one selling out in advance. Although the Grotto did have an extra cost on top of entry, there were no extra costs involved in the accessible grotto.

Were there any barriers to accessing the Grotto?

Megan and Tim did not face any barriers to accessing the Grotto, Megan says ‘They [Winchester Science Centre] have a very open mind’ and made ‘small changes such as taking out benches and relaxing them with chairs’.

From the Science Centre point of view, they did not face any barriers introducing the change. The team of elves (Inspirers) actively wanted the change so that they could include everyone in the grotto. The elves and santas were trained in house on the activities as well as being trained on how to ensure everyone is included in the grotto.

Megan and Tim are very pleased the feedback was taken so seriously. Megan says ‘All feedback was taken on board and the changes made a huge difference … We could tell that the staff had had training. There were designated wheelchair spaces with chairs for parents and carers.’

They will definitely be visiting the science centre again. ‘We love Winchester Science Centre and we hope we can work with them in the future to continue to help.’

How has the impact of the change been assessed?

Regular feedback and communication with the Inspirers showed that visitors enjoyed the Quiet Grotto. Each session was fully booked showing there was high demand for a sensory grotto experience.

Was the change worth doing for Winchester Science Centre?

Yes. It opened up the doors to numerous people who wouldn’t have been able to attend and enjoy the regular Grotto. Megan says ‘[by] providing a more sensory based activity they are opening the science centre to many more people.’

What other changes have you made at your organisation?

Winchester Science Centre has made numerous changes, both big and small, including: organisational-wide staff training programme, accessible toilets on both floors, Changing Places on lower floor available 24/7, monthly quiet hours, relaxed and subtitled planetarium shows, induction loop in the planetarium, Carers enter free of charge, comprehensive access guide, sensory backpacks, vocabulary cards for student workshops using Widgit symbols.

What other changes would you like to make in the future?

Winchester Science Centre are in the process of redeveloping the top floor of their science centre and are working with the accessibility advisory panel to ensure it is fully accessible.