If you’ve got kids that need entertaining and you’re on a tight budget - you’re in the right place. London is full of things to do that are child-friendly, and many of them are absolutely free.
Whether it’s last minute trips for half-term or a day trip on a quiet weekend - the city is your playground in London, where the canny guardian can find events, performances and attractions throughout the year. From petting alpacas at Mudchute Park and Farm to spotting dinosaurs in Crystal Palace Park - here are the best free things to do in London with kids.
Explore a child-friendly free museum
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.
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.
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 kids up to age 7, 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, climbing aboard an eight-metre-high version of the HMS Rawalpindi's mast.
The Science Museum features seven floors of educational and entertaining exhibits, including the Apollo 10 command module and a flight simulator. Kids should head straight to the Wonderlab on level 3: an interactive exhibition with over 50 shows and demonstrations to inspire and entertain. Meanwhile, the 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.
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 history of London, from prehistoric times to the present is told in the Museum of London through reconstructed interiors and street scenes, alongside displays of original artefacts found during the museum's archaeological digs. Check the website before your visit as a packed programme of temporary exhibitions, talks, walks and children's events is central to the life of the Museum of London.
Under 18s go free (adult tickets start at £16.50) at this much-loved museum. It does a sterling job of presenting a fascinating and entertaining history of transport in the capital, with vehicles to explore along the way. There's a family play zone for children aged 0-7 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 visitors of all ages can sit in the driver's cab of a red bus and guide a Northern Line simulator through tunnels, so big kids will have plenty of fun, too.
Discover the fun of the farm
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, and is open Tuesday to Sunday, 10am to 4pm.
These 32 acres on the Isle of Dogs make up one of London’s biggest farms. The farm - which is open from 9am to 5pm daily - is compact, with some animals just wandering about in the fields, plus a petting zoo, stables, 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’.
Workshops cost extra, and include a forest school and arts and crafts. Over 7s can also join the Mudchute Young Farmers team, where for £40 they can learn how to groom, feed and care for all the animals daily.
If you've ever been on the Overground and 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 free-to-enter farm, with a range of weekend workshops, an under-fives activity room and a dedicated team of local young volunteers.
If you spend Sundays munching bagels and rummaging for vintage bargains on Brick Lane, you’re missing a trick not to visit this free-entry 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. Technically, entry to the farm is free, but there's a suggested donation of £3.
Spend time in the great outdoors
Opened by Queen Victoria in 1858, Battersea Park has since grown into an action-packed attraction for kids and grown-ups. The park's adventure playground is superb, with plenty of original and imaginatively-built features. The climbing structures, slides and high climbing nets present unusual challenges for children aged 5 and over, and there's a separate area for younger kids too.
The playground in Brockwell Park is a favourite, with its aerial slide, massive sandpit and sections for different age groups; nearby are the duck ponds and the paddling pool, BMX track and basketball court.
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 sessions for children and its wood-cabin visitor centre is used by the Wildlife Watch Club.
Thomas Coram established the Foundling Hospital for abandoned children on this spot in 1747. Now the seven-acre site provides a cornucopia of facilities to delight kids, with an enormous sandpit, toddler climbing frames, see saws and swings on the east side. There’s also a city farm and an adventure playground for the older kids with a zip wire, tunnel slide and lots of climbing equipment made out of natural materials.
Children going through the dinosaur phase always enjoy a visit to 'the monsters' - five dinosaur sculptures that lurk among the trees around the lake of the 80 hectare Crystal Palace Park. The tech savvy can download the Crystal Palace Park Dinosaurs app for an audio guide around the 700-metre monster trail.
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’.
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. There's a lovely café in the middle of the park (with toilets), and a children's playground next to that, built with a £5 million Heritage Lottery Fund, that will keep kids amused for hours. This year marks the park's 150th anniversary, and they've lots of events planned to celebrate.
The idea behind this community project was to create a space where children can get away from screens and video games in order to learn how to build, fix, and explore. With tools to repair bikes, timber to build their own shelters, and a vegetable allotment to get grubby in, hands-on is an understatement. There’s an amazing climbing structure, as well as swings and slides, and a group of skilled staff to oversee the organised chaos.
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 kids can spot from specially designed hides.
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.