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We love museums

17 Feb

What makes a museum good for children?  I don’t buy the argument that they can only be entertained by high tech flashing lights, pressing buttons and touch sensitive computer screens.  I think the very best museums engage and entertain children in the most imaginative of ways.

We’ve been deafened by explosions, created artistic masterpieces, become Saxon householders, been eaten by a Venus fly trap,  joined a band of revolting peasants, met the young Queen Victoria, peered down microscopes, danced with Chinese Dragons, camouflaged ourselves and sung carols around a blazing bonfire.

Museums are wonderful places for families and we are lucky that so many are free.  But what of museums that charge?  Does their family ticket suit your family? Does your local museum ticket admit 2+2, while you are a single parent with three children?  Kids in Museums is asking for your help.  They are gathering information about how family tickets suit real families, because families come in all shapes and sizes.  Let them know by filling in their simple form or by leaving a comment on this post, which I shall pass on.  Thank you.

Does your local museum ticket admit 2+2, while you are a single parent with three children?

Christmas tree, O Christmas tree

21 Dec

Tate Britain is one of our favourite rainy day outings.  It’s a short bus ride from our house, has a good cafe serving delicious hot chocolate, and fabulous art trolley every weekend, which can keep the children entertained for ages.  They’ve got some pretty good pictures too.

At Christmas time, they have a lovely tree in the entrance hall, and every day, as dusk falls, they light the beeswax candles which decorate it.  On a frosty Saturday the week before Christmas, I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather have been.  It was truly magical.

Christmas Past

7 Dec

The Geffrye Museum in Shoreditch is one of the most delightful places in London.  It’s a small but perfectly formed Museum of front rooms, from 1600 to the present day.  Christmas is without doubt the best time to visit, as each of the room sets are decorated in period style with lovely attention to detail and information boards describing how the event was celebrated by people in each era.  In the Stuart era, there’s plenty of Pagan greenery and sweetmeats decorated with glittery gold leaf, the Georgians had an afternoon of music and a grand Twelfth Night Cake with a dried pea and bean hidden inside, to determine who would be King and Queen for the day.

Our family favourite is the Victorian room which is full of beautiful wooden toys, a tabletop tree decorated with musical instruments, flags and candles and Christmas carol music on the piano.  It looks like every picture of Christmas you’ve ever seen in old story books.

The 1960’s room brings back memories of mine and Steve’s childhood Christmases with paper chains, Thunderbirds toys and a tree with multicoloured lights.  Although I hasten to add that I wasn’t actually born in the 1960’s.

And how we laughed at the huge cathode ray tube TV in the year 2000 room.  Until we remembered that we still have one of those in OUR sitting room…

A pre-Christmas visit to the Geffrye is the best possible thing to get you in the festive mood, even if you are feeling a bit Scroogy.  Now where did I put those giant, tissue paper, concertina, ceiling decorations and the Slade CD?

Visit a gallery, take in a show, have a nap…

7 Nov

Or 8 things to do in London with toddlers

Dickon in fireman's helmet

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 DSC_0067in 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 withmusical instruments at the Horniman Museum 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 DSC_0114can 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.

Red Arrows fly past

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I survived the dinosaurs!

26 Oct

Or tips for visiting the Natural History Museum in London

animatronic T Rex

Ask any child what the want to do when they visit London, and invariably the answer will be “See the dinosaurs!”  The Natural History Museum is undoubtedly one of London’s treasures, a gorgeous building housing acres of fascinating exhibits.  And it also has animatronic dinosaurs.  But as London’s answer to Disneyland, I think it has become a victim of it’s own popularity and is so usually so crowded that you can feel like a sardine in a tin.

We are lucky enough to live a short bus ride away from the museum so I’ve worked out a strategy for visiting, which goes like this:

  • DSC_0051The best time to go is on a week day during the school term time, when you will be joined by school groups and hordes of toddlers.  If you have school age children, you will have to endure it being busy whatever day you go.
  • Take a look at their website before you go to plan what you want to see.  It is a huge building, covering a whole block, so it’s worth having some sort of a plan before you start.  You can also book  tickets to timed exhibitions and find out what special events are on the day you plan to go.
  • Arrive just before it opens at 10am, when the queue will already be  building up outside.  There are two entrances, the main entrance on Cromwell Road and the Geology Museum entrance on Exhibition Road.  The latter is usually quieter and has the benefit of being buggy friendly.
  • If you arrive at 11am, the queue will be snaking around the front courtyard like a popular ride at Disneyland but it does move quite quickly.
  • If you arrive at noon, the two queues will be stretching along their respective roads and threatening to meet at the corner.
  • The big ticketed exhibitions are usually fantastic and child friendly.  If you have booked timed tickets in advance, you can walk straight in to the museum when you arrive, so it is really worth doing.
  • Absolutely the first thing you must do when you get inside is go and see the dinosaurs.  Very quickly a queue builds up and by lunchtime it snakes around the giant brontosaurus  in the entrance hall like a popular ride at Disneyland (are you sensing a theme here?)
  • The dinosaur exhibition is hot, dimly lit and surprisingly extensive, and if you are in the company of a five year old boy you will have to look closely at EVERYTHING (unless they’re scared of large roaring animatronic beasts, you do see children exiting in tears).  It is a one way system, so you can’t just see the animatronic T Rex and avoid the educational bits.
  • Once you’ve finallyDSC_0052 emerged, head back to the main entrance hall and visit the information desk.  Every day the museums puts on a great selection of activities and tours, many of which are surprisingly under subscribed.  We’ve had two real life scientists and three microscopes all to ourselves, a solo performance from an Annie Darwin puppet and the undivided attention of demonstrators sharing specimens, as well as great guided tours of the museum and gardens.  The information desk will tell you what is on when, and give you free tickets as necessary.
  • The information desk also hands out explorer backpacks for children, which are great, but I find that there’s often not enough space to stop and look at the contents so we don’t usually bother.
  • Investigate, is the special hand-on area for children aged about 5 upwards.  It has tons of stuff to keep children interested and isn’t always busy, it’s definitely worth a visit.
  • Once you’ve visited the big ticket items, preferably before midday, head upstairs.  Bizarrely, few visitors make it to the many interesting galleries above the main hall, yet there are lots of things to fascinate children.  Our favourite, is the room with row after row of glass cases full of beautiful crystals and gemstones.  At the back of the room you go through a huge safe door into the area they keep the gold and precious stones.  It may not have animatronic specimens like the Creepy Crawlies gallery, or a simulated earthquake in a Kobelearning about bones supermarket, but I guarantee you’ll be impressed.
  • By now, I expect you’ll be getting tired and hungry.  The museum has good cafes and restaurants, but by lunchtime, you’ve guessed it, the queues start building up.  Small hungry children and queues are not a happy combination.  The museum is well provisioned with benches and indoor picnic areas, so bring a sandwich, have a sit down and gather your wits before you embark on the next gallery.  Whatever you do, don’t go out of the museum if you want to see more after lunch.  You will have to queue to get back in.
  • If you feel you’ve seen enough for one day, my suggestion is to head out of the museum for a picnic in the lovely garden of the Victoria & Albert Museum over the road.  There is a great cafe for additions to your picnic, loos just inside, a perfectly manicured lawn to sit on (or poo on if you are so inclined) and a huge water feature that you are allowed to paddle in.
  • If it’s too cold for a picnic and a paddle, head to one of the many restaurants around South Kensington tube.  You can choose from conveyor belt sushi, Chinese, sandwiches, cupcakes, pizza, Lebanese, frozen yoghurt, Indian, Carluccio’s, Scandinavian, Thai, an ice cream shop where you can watch the ice cream being made and a Polish restaurant that’s a London institution.  You won’t go hungry.

It’s not surprising that the Natural History Museum is so popular with families.  It is stuffed to the gunnels with fascinating objects which are displayed in an engaging and relevant way.  With only a little bit of planning, you will have a fantastic time and not spend half your day in queues.  In the words of our resident five year old museum critic “Wow, it’s so cool”.

Eve learning that horn is made from hair

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