Activities for babies and toddlers
Tired of the usual bright and tacky indoor playgrounds near you? Then head over to Abbey Leisure Centre in Barking and set the kids free to jump and roll and slide around a work of art. Turner Prize-nominated, multimedia artist Marvin Gaye Chetwynd has created an incredible black-and-white play complex inspired by Greek mythology and science fiction. Brilliantly bonkers.
Not all children’s entertainment has to be corny and colourful, as Bach to Baby proves. Trained musicians perform child-friendly classical concerts in spaces all over London. Toddlers are free to get and up move about and babies are contented to sit on laps as the classical music floats around them. There are shows every week and sessions include a pre-concert Monmouth Coffee Mingle.
£10, free for children
Long before children can muse on Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ and remark how the impasto helps to express the texture of the seed heads, they can relate to centuries-old paintings that sing with colour and drama. That’s why the National Gallery’s ‘magic carpet’ storytelling sessions are brilliant. Every Sunday morning parents and sprouts are invited to sit in front of one of the paintings and hear stories inspired by what they see.
For small children, it’s the doing not the looking that amuses and inspires. As a result, this busy museum’s hands-on galleries win the day. The Garden is a free play zone where young’uns can don aprons and play with waterways and boats, jump around exploring light and shadows and discover the science of sound through all kinds of fun activities.
Internationally recognised as a premiere showcase for contemporary art, the Whitechapel Gallery is serious about its family-friendly activities. Saturday Drawing Workshops are artist-led, for 10- to 15-year-olds (from £150 per term) and there are ‘boot camp’ sessions for older teens during school holidays. However, a highlight for new parents is the occasional Crib Notes tours – a chance for adults to enjoy a guided tour of exhibitions with babies or toddlers in tow.
One of the many arts offerings at east London’s Rich Mix is the cinema, with Kids’ Cine Time sessions and family ticket offers. Every Monday there are parent and baby screenings of the latest releases, shown at lower volume and in more light than usual, which gives mums and dads some cinema time but also offers a calming environment for tots.
£6, £4.50 concs
Richmond’s bright new children’s bookshop encourages all ages to linger as long as they like, browsing the shelves. Well supported by the children’s literature world, you can expect big names like Michael Rosen and Jacqueline Wilson to make personal appearances here. There are also free events like the weekly after-school storytime and creative workshops for older children (ages 7-12) too.
The NMM’s new gallery especially for babies and young children is all about fun. Ahoy! features many different play zones including a beach and a ship deck, plus a game firing cannons and another that is a bit like air hockey. The fish shop is ace –rows of pretend fish, cash tills and shopping baskets. There’s also the All Hands exploration gallery for ages 6-12.
London’s dedicated Children’s Story Centre is a colourful gallery inspired by children’s books, with special exhibitions and events linked to favourite authors and illustrators. Children can play inside and outside, exploring a secret cave, sliding down a magic tower and dressing up. There are places to hide in, treasure to seek out and the chance to fire young imaginations to create their own stories.
£5, free under-2s, £18 family
There’s a lot of natural wonder to be enjoyed at Kew, from the treetop walk with a bird’s eye view over the park, to the incredibly stinky, rare flowering titan arum plant, but for younger visitors the specially created and recently refurbished Climbers and Creepers play zone is a treat. Kids get to feel like tiny insects crawling over huge wooden models of plants and play with interactive features – including the chance to discover the perils of carnivorous plants!
Free with main Kew entry (£16.50, £15.50 concs, £3.50 under-17s, free under-3s)
This family-friendly disco crew references the rave culture of the early ’90s, but happily their events around London and at festivals are thoroughly wholesome affairs. Suitable for babies and children of all ages, Big Fish Little Fish daytime gigs give parents a chance to enjoy good music in a setting that the whole family can enjoy, complete with activities like synthesizer workshops and hulahoop demonstrations. Check their website for upcoming dates.
Celebrating the great outdoors at all times of the year, Free Range Urban Kids encourages young children to play and learn through nature. Den building, mini-beast spotting and foraging are typical of the alfresco diversions on offer at this ‘Forest School’ playgroup and holiday club based at South Millfields Park. Everything has been thought about, including a discreet outdoor potty area, and a professional and friendly team runs drop-off sessions.
£18, £16 each for six sessions, £35 Holiday Club (ages 3-8; 4 hours, lunch included)
Located next to Kensington Palace, this play area has a Peter Pan theme and a fabulous wooden pirate ship as its centerpiece. Specially designed to suit children of all physical abilities, the playground includes a beach, sculptures, teepees for make-believe games, and a sensory trail. It’s free to enjoy, but at busy times there might be a queue to get in.
The V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green has been a dedicated temple to the history of growing up in Britain for over 150 years, but it’s not all antique dolls in glass cases. There are hands-on exhibits and games everywhere you look. Children can join organised activity sessions and dress up in Victorian costume or theatrical attire.
Covent Garden’s LTM is a joyful place and it’s brand new All Aboard play area for babies and under-8s takes the hands-on experience even further. Wannabe bus drivers can get behind the wheel of a real bus, ‘repair’ a mini tube train, or ‘sail’ on the Thames Nipper, a recreation of the Thames Clipper riverboat service. There’s even a make-believe buskers spot.
Free with entry (£16, £13.50 concs, free under-18s, with unlimited re-entry for a year)
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