Leeds is rightly proud of its city centre and what it provides for the financial, legal, retail and leisure industries. Reasons to visit are plentiful and few people are in any doubt that Leeds city centre is one of the most thriving and prosperous in the country.
One long-standing failing it has, however, is an attraction for children. Sure, shopping is great if you are looking for something for the kids and there are plenty of places desperate to feed, water and sugar-load your little ones. But in terms of permanent, dedicated ventures for kids to be active or learn, Leeds has a conspicuous vacancy.
It is important to point out a distinction between attractions or organisations being ‘child-friendly’ and being aimed at children. These are two very different things, and Leeds definitely does lack a venture like ‘Eureka’ within its boundary, although the outer areas of the city do have places like the Thackray Medical Museum, Thwaites Mill and Armley Mills, where children can watch and learn. But again, these are not dedicated specifically to children.
The knock-on effect of making a concerted effort to attract children into the city centre is very clear, and many people have cited the Clarence Dock development as a clear example of where Leeds has perhaps missed a trick.
That said, for those who are prepared to look, Leeds does offer an interesting selection of venues for kids wanting to learn and expand their life experiences. Better still, quite a lot of them are free.
The Royal Armouries is one of Leeds’ most notable attractions, and coming face-to-face with history is a great, free, excuse to get the kids learning while excitedly engulfing themselves in the endless galleries of arms, armour, costumes and equipment. There are several special events and exhibitions throughout the year, some with a leaning towards children, and there are also educational sessions which can be pre-booked and which are in line with the national curriculum.
On a similar theme – and also completely free – is the Leeds City Museum in Millennium Square. Here, four floors offer a world of discovery with interactive areas and games, and special exhibitions, activities and lectures. The ‘Life on Earth’ display on the lower ground floor is a permanent treat for the kids, and this summer the large ground floor central area is hosting the ‘Leeds Playground’, which promises to explore the whole of Leeds in one room.
The museum also holds a monthly craft activities event for children hosted by Rory the LCM Tiger.
Walking trails of Leeds city centre are great ways to get the kids active while learning about the important history of the city. The Leeds Owl Trail takes participants around 25 locations in the city spotting the ornate carved owls perched on various landmarks. Alternatively, ‘Curious About Leeds’ is a self-guided mile walk discovering the city’s diverse culture, imposing architecture, sprawling markets, unusual arcades and period statues.
There are two walks of identical length – one from the art gallery to the River Aire and the other from there to Park Square – for which you can pay £5.50 for a printed guide book or £4.50 for a downloaded version. You can do the walks together or separately and the self-guided element offers great flexibility.
Leeds Art Gallery may not strike you at first as being a great place for kids to learn. But as the best collection of twentieth century art outside London there are a variety of paintings, sculptures, photography and contemporary art that can entrance the youngsters more than you might think. Kids might not understand some of it, but to talk about art and express an opinion is a great way to develop the mind and open up boundaries.
There are various events, exhibitions and collections in the free-to-enter gallery and its neighbouring Henry Moore Institute, which are all open to children.
The Tetley is another venture which tries to attract children through promoting creative thinking, expression and communication. The creative centre on the former brewery site holds family art workshops, which are creative activity sessions lead by artists, and where kids can make simple prints or even design a robot. The sessions are free and don’t need to be pre-booked, and as they are drop-in sessions you can stay for as long or as little as you like.
Leeds Central Library is a great, free resource which kids can spend hours exploring, and learning through books, music, art and local history. The vast children’s books section is just the tip of the iceberg, but certainly the little ones can immerse themselves in endless fiction, non-fiction, story tapes and talking books.
For the musically minded, the Leeds College of Music offers a Saturday Music School for young musicians aged between 9-17 years. This does require a significant dedication though, as it carries a £500 annual cost, but the three-hour sessions explore composing, song-writing, theory, technique, improvisation and sound recording.
So, many of Leeds’ most famous institutions offer learning initiatives that might not be immediately obvious. But parents around the city might wonder if this is enough and whether Leeds really should offer more?
If you want the kids to mix some fresh air in with their learning, here are five great sunny day attractions in Leeds.