Or 8 things to do in London with toddlers
As a lifelong Londoner I may be biased, but London is a fantastic place to visit with children, with so many options it’s sometimes hard to choose. It is not however an obvious destination with toddlers, with most attractions being more suitable for older children or adults. But what if you want to visit London with your toddler? You don’t need to be confined to soft-play hell to keep them happy, there are actually lots of things to do which will appeal to everyone, adults, older children and toddlers too.
As preparation for your trip, I’d recommend you read Paddington at the Palace and James Mayhew’s Katie in London. Both these books are great favourites with our children, who love pointing out the landmarks they recognise as we travel around the city. Now you’re all prepared, let’s go…
Ride on a bus: I don’t know a toddler who doesn’t get a thrill at sitting in the front seat on the top deck of a red London bus. Despite seeing double decker buses on a daily basis, our children always used to shout “BUS” every time they saw one as toddlers, and bus counting is still one of Dickon’s favourite games. Some of the routes are as good as the sightseeing tours, and considerably cheaper. Try route 15, which is an old fashioned routemaster bus (though not great with buggys) or any of the routes which go through Trafalgar Square, Whitehall and Parliament Square. If your toddler is transport obsessed, why not make their year and take them to the London Transport Museum. Just watch out for the scary dummy people.
Take in a show: I’m not suggesting that you take your toddler to see Chekhov or Shakespeare, but London has a thriving children’s theatre scene, with a number of theatres putting on plays specifically aimed at toddlers. Theatres such as the Polka, the Unicorn and the Peacock put on truly innovative and charming shows. I may not get out much, but I can honestly say that the production of Princess and the Pea we saw at the Polka was the most delightful thing I’ve ever seen in a theatre.
Visit the National Gallery: I know that it’s not obviously toddler friendly, but bear with me on this one. If you want to see some world class art, there are ways to make it fun for your toddler too. Every Sunday and during the school holidays they have themed magic carpet story telling sessions for under fives, based on an individual picture. You can also print off your own personal itinerary focussed on one of a number of themes like toddler friendly dogs, cats or nativity scenes. We went last Christmas and had a lovely time running from room to room spotting nativity scenes with the children pointing out their school play characters with great excitement.
Horniman Museum: this South London museum is a veritable treasure trove with amongst other things – stuffed animals, voodoo temples, an aquarium, musical instruments, African masks, a fabulous ethnographic collection and a large and beautiful garden with farm animals. Throughout the week they have hands on sessions, storytelling, art activities and concerts and more. There is so much to do here that even the most restless toddler cannot fail to be entertained. It’s a little out of the way, but it’s truly one of London’s hidden treasures.
Museum of London: this venue tells the story of London from pre-history to the present day. As well as precious artefacts behind glass, the galleries are laid out in such a way that there are things to entertain the children while you look around. The highlight for us has to be the amazing full scale reproduction of a Saxon house with props to play with and sound effects for authenticity. The adults happily looked around the whole of the gallery while they played in the house, which they had to be dragged out of forcefully. They also run plenty of family art activities at weekends and in the holidays as well as a weekly baby rhyme time and a toddler group. The modern galleries are currently closed for renovation, due to re-open in Spring 2010.
Big outdoor event: One thing Londoners do really well are the huge outdoor parades and celebrations. They can be very exciting for toddlers as well as older children, as long as you plan your day carefully. Most toddlers love flypasts (Trooping of the Colour), marching soldiers (also Trooping of the Colour), giant balloons (New Year’s Day parade), dancing dragons (Chinese New Year) and boy scouts in silly costumes (Lord Mayor’s Show). I think the key to visiting these events with very young children is to take a buggy (or other method of preventing escape) and to stay on the fringes so you get a flavour of the celebrations without being overwhelmed by huge crowds or queueing for hours. Queueing not being an activity that toddlers are keen on.
Museum of Childhood: As it’s name suggests, this is a museum of childhood not a children’s museum, but it has to be one of the best museums to visit with small children. It is very thoughtfully laid out, with every section having something to engage both adults and children of different ages. So, there are precious antique dolls houses behind glass next to a sturdy wooden dolls house set up for playing with and next to the antique Punch and Judy puppets, there are two toy theatres with puppets, one tall, one small and a small sandpit with buckets and spades. There are also comfy reading corners, dressing up and a great cafe.
St James’ Park and Changing of the Guard: London has many beautiful parks which I haven’t recommended as I’ve tried to avoid things that you could do anywhere. St James’ Park is however a bit different. It’s a pretty park, with a nice playground, and not only does it have the added bonus of soldiers in shiny helmets on real horses (on Horse Guards Parade by Whitehall), it is also home to a number of pelicans, which you can watch being fed fresh fish at 2.30pm every day. The best reason to visit St James’ Park however, is that it’s a great spot to watch the Changing of the Guard, which is at 11.30am daily in summer and every other day in winter. The area around Buckingham Palace gets really crowded, but if you stand on the edge of the park you get a good overall view as you are slightly higher than most of the crowd. Toddlers adore watching the soldiers in their red coats and busbies, it really is the stuff of fairytales. The first time we took Eve aged just three, she took one look at the soldiers on horseback and sighed “Mummy, look at the real princes”.
A trip to London with toddlers can be really fun, and if you’re lucky, they’ll have a nap on the way home.