Explore a child-friendly free museum
Home to one of the world’s finest collections of children’s toys, doll’s houses, games and costumes, the Museum of Childhood shines brighter than ever after extensive refurbishment. The venue has lots of hand-on stuff for kids dotted about the many cases of historic artefacts. Regular exhibitions are held upstairs, while the café helps to revive flagging grown-ups.
An anthropological museum set in 16 acres of landscaped gardens, the Horniman Museum has a traditional natural history gallery – dominated by a bizarre, overstuffed walrus – where the exhibits are displayed in traditional cases with no computer touch-screens in sight. There's also a state-of-the-art aquarium, a collection of around 1,600 musical instruments and an area where visitors can play some of them, as well as a permanent gallery dedicated to African, Afro-Caribbean and Brazilian art.
This much-loved museum does a sterling job of presenting a fascinating and entertaining history of transport in the capital, with vehicles to explore along the way. It's free for anyone under 17 (adults must buy a season ticket, costing £17.50 for a year, £15 concessions). There's a family play zone for children aged 0-7, All Aboard, featuring mini-vehicles to climb into, and kids can repair a little tube train, sail the 'Thames Nipper', play in the lost property office and try musical instruments on busking spots. The Baby DLR features an interactive wall and building blocks to keep infants entertained. Visitors of all ages can sit in the driver's cab of a red bus and guide a Northern Line simulator through tunnels and up to platforms, so big kids will have plenty of fun, too.
Free to visit, the National Maritime Museum is also great for kids as well as adults thanks to the AHOY! children's gallery. Suitable for 0-7-years-old, children can engage with a range of play scenes and activities, such as stoking the boiler of a steamship, playing with others in an interactive boatyard, and even working in a fish shop. They can enjoy a bit of Polar exploring or be a pirate for a while, alimbing aboard an eight-metre-high version of the HMS Rawalpindi's mast. There's a buggy park at AHOY! and a café on the next floor for refuelling afterwards. And, of course, the main museum is stuffed full of interesting artefacts, models, maps, art and memorabilia for adults.
Housed in a set of 18th-century almshouses, the Geffrye Museum offers a vivid physical history of the English interior. There are free art, design, craft and baking workshops on offer for children and young people aged 2-16 every day of the October, February and summer half-terms, and on selected days during the Easter and Summer Holidays. There are also family-friendly audio tours and other activities – such as book-swaps – available during half-terms and at weekends. And if the weather's good, don't forget to bring a picnic to enjoy in the gloriously green gardens.
Home to one of the world's finest collections of children's toys, dolls' houses, games and costumes, the V&A Museum of Childhood shines bighter than ever after extensive refurbishment, which has given it an impressive entrance. Part of the V&A museum, the museum has been amassing childhood-related objects since 1872 and continues to do so, with 'Incredibles' figures complementing bonkers 1970s puppets, Barbie Dolls and Victorian praxinoscopes.
The Science Museum features seven floors of educational and entertaining exhibits, including the Apollo 10 command module and a flight simulator. The Wellcome Wing showcases developments in contemporary science, medicine and technology. The Medical History Gallery in the museum's attic contains a substantial collection of medical history treasures. Pattern Pod introduces under-eights to the importance of patterns in contemporary science and Launch Pad is a popular hands-on gallery where children can explore basic scientific principles.
The handsome Alfred Waterhouse building houses a collection that contains some 70 million plant, animal, fossil, rock and mineral specimens. The Natural History Museum’s Life Galleries are devoted to displays on animal life, from creepy crawlies to the plaster cast of a Diplodocus that lords it over the Central Hall. The Earth Galleries explore the natural forces that shape our planet, the treasures we take from it, the effect we have on it and its place in the universe.
Discover the fun of the farm
Nestled on the busy throughway between Broadway Market and Columbia Road, Hackney City Farm has become a fashionable stop-off for ambling weekend marketgoers, thanks in a large part to its Italian café deli Frizzante, serving hungry Hackney folk fresh seasonal Mediterranean cooking and tasty farm breakfasts. The café may be a big draw but the rest of the farm is thriving with happy animals, a pottery studio and garden. The farm is a vital community hub with a vegetable box collection scheme for locals and courses on low-impact living and beekeeping. There is even a bike repair and service centre, so you can cycle your veg home.
These 32 acres on the Isle of Dogs make up one of London’s biggest farms. The farm itself is compact, with some animals just wandering about in the fields, plus a petting zoo and duck pond. Some of the best residents include a Manx Loaghtan named Juliet and a turkey who enjoys hearing ‘Old MacDonald Had a Farm’. The alpacas, Clause and Columbus, have better manners than their long-faced llama cousins, who have a tendency to spit. Charming. Farm events include crafting and exercise boot camps (for humans) and agility classes (for dogs). There’s also a greenhouse full of seasonal veggies grown by local children at after-school clubs. If you can grab tickets, head to the super-popular summer party, which last year involved welly throwing, sheep racing, scarecrow dressing and a hog roast.
If you have ever been on the Overground noticed horses near Gospel Oak station, you will have had a sneak peek at Kentish Town City Farm. Tucked in and around the railway, a treasure trove of wildlife unfolds as you explore: goats romp under brick arches, sheep bleat over the whirring of nearby trains and frogs croak in a lively pond. Children are at the heart of the farm, with a range of weekend workshops, an under-fives activity room and a dedicated team of local young volunteers. With councils cutting funding, farms like this will struggle to continue this good work, but they are keeping spirits up with a range of activities, including building a working kiln.
If you spend Sundays munching bagels and rummaging for vintage bargains on Brick Lane, you’re missing a trick not to visit this urban oasis built in a former railway goods depot. There are many rare breeds of animals: stop by and visit characters such as Bayleaf the donkey and Bentley the goat, or pick your own veg. The farm also reaches out to local residents with projects like the ‘Coriander Club’ for older Bangladeshi women, free cookery classes, a young farmers' club and gardens growing produce and herbs.
You may be surprised to find this compact farm just off the busy main Vauxhall junction, but it has managed to pack in a range of animals, duck pond, ecology garden (complete with bog, wormery and stag beetle nursery) and community allotment, which grows plants used as dyes for the spinning classes that take place on the farm. There is also a riding school with a paddock across the road, which is probably the only place you can keep an eye on MI5 while out for a gallop. Plus the farm’s dedication was recently rewarded with a prize for ‘Commitment to the Community’ and was winner of ‘Business of the Year’ at the Lambeth Business Awards 2011.
Find a lovely local park
Children going through the dinosaur phase always enjoy a visit to 'the monsters' - five dinosaur sculptures that lurk among the trees around the lake. The remains of a Victorian pre-historic theme park created on the site by Benjamin Waterhouse-Hawkins, the dinosaurs were restored in 2003.
No territory better exemplifies the tension between east and west London than Victoria Park. It sprang to life as a Royal Park but became municipal in 1887; it's rougher around the edges than its western counterparts and thus a great expanse to kick back and let nature revitalise you. Vicky Park is wonderful for youngsters too: the V&A Playground is equipped with swings etc, and the fantastically designed Pools Playground encourages creative play.
The Children’s Park in Mile End Park is the place to head for a colourful and imaginative space that has a rope slide, scrambling wall, complicated climbing frame, swings and a see-saw, as well as a dedicated area for under-fives that includes a vast sandpit. New apparatus installed in the playground is designed to appeal to children with disabilities as well as to their able-bodied playmates, with a huge, bird’s nest-style swing and a ramped bridge. Summer additions include play fountains and fire pits; don’t miss the recently created skateboard park either.
Not to be missed for families in Holland Park is the playground, with its extensive climbing equipment, zip wire, giant see-saw and tyre swing. There’s also a fenced-in separate play area for younger children. In summer, open-air theatre and opera are staged in the park.
Opened to the public in April 2014, the new children's playground on the southern side of the park is ungated and very much open to visitors of all ages. It’s not easy to make us wish we were seven years old again, but Tumbling Bay pulls it off. It’s a truly awesome-looking area, packing in swings, slides, stepping stones, sand and water play, and a big treehouse with rope walkways, as well as squashy orange hills and a climbing wall to conquer. Energetic kids will spend hours here. Exhausted adults will find it conveniently close to the outdoor tables at the Timber Lodge café.
The children's playground here will keep kids amused for hours. There are fast slides going into the sandpit and really tricky climbing equipment to challenge older children, plus lots for toddlers to enjoy. Kids of all ages also love the enormous wooden structure adjacent to the playground.
If Springfield Park were anywhere but this slightly forlorn corner of Clapton it would be overrun with joggers, revellers and pram-toting parents; instead, it's so little-known it's like a private garden for locals. Further north than its more famous East End siblings Clissold and Victoria, Springfield Park is a way to leave London for a few hours without the bother of actually travelling. The lack of tube connections is almost a bonus.
The children's playground at Highbury Fields in Islington is popular, combining old-fashioned thrills (such as a circular train requiring Flintstones-style propulsion, and an excitingly long, steep slide) with more recent additions, such as the flying fox and giant, web-like climbing frames.
Enjoy the great outdoors
Highgate Wood has an excellent and well-equipped playground, complete with sandpits, climbing equipment of various levels of difficulty and a zip wire that gets very busy at peak times. Great thought has gone into providing fun and challenges for the various age groups, and there's a separate area for the under-fives to call their own.
A small but thriving green space on the site of a former coal yard, Camley Street is a lovely oasis at the heart of the renovated King's Cross. London Wildlife Trust's Flagship Reserve, it hosts pond-dipping and nature-watching sessons for children and its wood-cabin visitor centre is used by the Wldlife Watch Club.
The idea behind this community project was to create a space where children can take controlled risks while they are playing – and Glamis Adventure Playground must be one of the few playgrounds in the country where children are actively encouraged to build and light a bonfire. There’s an amazing climbing structure, as well as swings and slides, and a vegetable garden to get grubby in. Indoor activities include arts, crafts and cooking. The playground won Adventure Playground of the Year 2007 and there’s a play-scheme organised during school holidays.
Thomas Coram established the Foundling Hospital for abandoned children on this spot in 1747. Part of the old estate now houses the Foundling Museum, a thoughtful retelling of the story of Thomas Coram and his charity’s vast achievements. The Foundling Hospital building was demolished in the 1920s, when it moved to the countryside.
The Diana, Princess of Wales’ Memorial Playground celebrated its tenth anniversary in June 2010. This commemorative play area is easily the best bit of Kensington Gardens for a child. A huge pirate ship on its own beach takes centre stage (take buckets and spades). Beyond this lies the tepee camp: a trio of wigwams, each large enough to hold a sizeable tribe, and a tree-house encampment with walkways, ladders, slides and ‘tree phones’.
Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park is a four-acre wetland area with wet woodland, marsh and meadow, as well as lakes and streams. It's home to an assortment of plant life and wildlife including frogs, toads and newts, dragonflies and damselflies, and a wide variety of birds which can be observed from specially designed hides.
February half-term term activities
This February half-term, London has enough fun lined up to have you and your gang raring to go. Maybe you fancy a kid-friendly event at one of London's many museums or exploring some of London's great outdoors. Whatever you're after, we've got all your family-fun covered.