Seven Stories | Supporting Families in Byker During Lockdown

Sarah Cotton

Creative Producer, Seven Stories

Seven Stories

30 Lime Street Newcastle NE1 2PQ United Kingdom

Museums Association United Kingdom / Best Lockdown Project 2020


Something To Smile About




Seven Stories, The National Centre for Children’s Books is a family museum with a mission to champion literature for children and young people. We are situated in Ouseburn, Newcastle-upon-Tyne in North East England, right on the doorstep of Byker, one of the most deprived areas of the city and among the most deprived in England.

Before Covid-19 we were working closely with neighbouring schools and community organisations in Byker using children’s book inspired activities to improve the lives of children and young people. Our programmes were designed to share children’s literature using our creative practice, with the aim of improving the life chances of children and young people. Our programmes, delivered in partnership with health social care partners and schools supported children with improved speech and language, social and emotional development, improved literacy and reading for pleasure.

Following a period of consultation carried out with families and community organisations in Byker we understood some of the social issues that many families experienced and we developed programmes to address the inequality caused by deprivation including issues such as school readiness, holiday hunger and the need for out of school activities.

The strength of our partnerships meant that we were able to respond to the disruption caused by lockdown and quickly find new ways of working to meet the needs of families at home.

Keeping children happy, active and busy through such an unsettling time was essential for their mental health. However, we learned that many families that we work with had few resources at home to keep children entertained. Providing food was a key concern and families were anxious about how they could keep children entertained. Seven Stories supported local families through this difficult time by providing online story times and delivering packs with books, craft materials, creative play activities and food directly to family homes that needed them the most. 

Byker Primary School identified families who they considered to be the most vulnerable, who they thought would benefit from taking part in our new food-themed project Story Kitchen. We worked with Food Nation, a social enterprise with a vision to inspire people about good food. Fabulous food-themed children's books and creative activities were paired with recipe kits from Food Nation for a family meal inspired by the story. Packs were delivered to the doorstep of each family home by Seven Stories and Food Nation staff. For each pack a video story time including songs and games was recorded and Food Nation also recorded cooking videos for families to cook food together at home.

Our Reader in Residence programme usually places a member of the Seven Stories team into a school every week with an activity programme designed to develop a love of books throughout school and at home. During lockdown, we moved online. We shared story times and creative activities for all year groups at 2 primary schools in Byker to be used with key worker children attending school and with families at home. 

Seven Stories Creative Associate Molly shared doorstep story times outside family homes at Christmas


Working together with Barnardo’s Community Family Hub East, a family centre which aims to give babies and children under 5 the best possible start in life, we distributed books and family activity packs for young children and their older siblings and provided facebook story times online. Delivering packs to family homes allowed us to check-in with parents who were feeling isolated and in the summer months we delivered storytelling sessions to individual family groups outside their homes.

During the school summer holidays, we also worked with the Byker Children and Young People’s partnership made up of the local housing association and other community groups to deliver fun outdoor story times on the Byker Wall Estate. We provided story packs and healthy meals to help feed a total of 400 people during August. 

The stories we shared were carefully chosen to explore wellbeing themes including friendship, supporting and valuing others and dealing with fears and anxiety. We introduced families to stories which inspired children to grow their own vegetables and flowers and learn new creative skills. What everyone needed was opportunities for moments of joy and to feel hopeful and so many excellent children’s books provided those opportunities. Very importantly, we shared stories which gave the opportunity for distraction – a chance to escape, to laugh, be silly and have fun together.

Esme Ward, Director of Manchester Museum and one of the judges for the Museums Association Museums Change Lives award said, “the judges loved pretty much everything about this project. You really got the sense of a museum that was attuned to the needs of its communities… they acted quickly and thoughtfully to support local families both online and on the doorstep… and what we really loved is that they worked in partnership with multiple organisations …. They were not only delivering literacy, books and resources but also food and recipe packs, cooking demonstrations, gardening inspirations and much, much more. Their impact was far reaching and felt across Byker.”


Story packs were delivered to family homes each week


The staff team who delivered this work did so with courage, determination and compassion for the children they were supporting, understanding that human contact and concern for people’s wellbeing was valued by participants, as well as the creative activities which brought distraction, entertainment and joy. Staff members found it hugely rewarding, despite the difficulties that everyone experienced in overcoming so many obstacles including having to quickly learn new digital skills, difficulties ordering goods and materials, obtaining publisher permissions to share stories online and challenges associated with childcare and working from home.

This work has been delivered at a time when the need for improved wellbeing, positive family interactions and connectedness with the local community has been most urgent. Through this work we have engaged families who may otherwise have not engaged with Seven Stories programmes in community venues. We have been able to share hundreds of books with families who previously did not spend time reading together at home. It was a privilege to be invited into people’s front gardens and outside their front doors to share wonderful intimate story times together which will be remembered long into the future. Families have shared with us that relaxed, joyful experiences inspired by children’s stories have improved their wellbeing, enabled positive family time together and built parents’ confidence in sharing books with their children.

While the last year was about supporting families through the shock disruption of the Covid 9 crisis, the next job is to adapt our community programmes to meet its ongoing impact. It’s very clear that the pandemic has only exacerbated those disadvantages experienced by the families we work with. Ofsted reported that significant numbers of younger children have regressed in basic skills and learning, and that mental distress is on the rise with children of all ages. An agile public programme in a museum must work sensitively with this complex and changing scenario if it genuinely wants to be people-centred, and do its best work. And this isn’t easy. The trick for us is not to find the answer. What’s most important right now is to stay open and alert to what families and partners tell us, and to commit to the idea that continual change within our delivery model is the only way.


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