When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life, goes Samuel Johnson’s old bon mot. The capital is a thriving, pulsing megalopolis with more to do in one evening than even the keenest gadabout could manage in a lifetime.
Entertaining a toddler, however, is a rather different matter. In this article, we investigate London activities that will keep the testiest of toddlers happy and entertained.
Pastoral idyll isn’t the first picture that springs to mind when one thinks of London but, believe it or not, there are rural pockets dotted all over the city. London has over a dozen inner-city farms, where visitors can experience a slice of the agricultural life without leaving the M25. Hackney City Farm, Mudchute Park and Farm on the Isle of Dogs, Lee Valley Park Farms and Kentish Town City Farm are some of the largest and most well-known. There, your little darlings can get up close and personal with creatures great and small. And when they’ve finished worrying the sheep, there are workshops, activities and classes. Many also have gardens, cafes and farm shops.
A ginormous Peter Pan-inspired wooden pirate ship is the big draw at this wonder-inducing specially-designed London park, where children are very much at the helm. Unaccompanied adults are not permitted, so children can maraud at will whilst their parents and carers relax. The ethos of “natural play” provides the basis for the thinking behind the playground; it has been designed to stimulate children’s imaginations and encourage them to challenge themselves. Other features include swings, slides, a sensory trail, teepees, a play tunnel, a music area and various toys and play sculptures peppered liberally amongst the foliage.
If your brood prefer animals of a more exotic ilk, London Zoo is a reliable favourite. It’s the world’s oldest scientific zoo, housing a collection of some 755 species of animals. There are the gorillas, the penguins, the giraffes, the tigers – all of which offer enormous thrills for the under-threes, of course – but the dedicated children’s area, Animal Adventure, is where London Zoo really excels. It’s ideal for marauding kids, who can immerse themselves in the sights, sounds and smells (especially the smells!) of the animal kingdom. The interactive attractions should keep them occupied: the Tree Top Zone, where they can climb amongst the trees, a network of tunnels, the Roots Zone and the Splash Zone, which comprises a stream, a secret garden and a storytelling tipi.
This is possibly the most family-friendly museum in London. But if the vast array of attractions prove a little overwhelming for your little ‘un, head to the basement, where you’ll find The Garden, an interactive gallery specifically aimed at the museum’s smaller visitors. Three to six year-olds can don waterproof tabards to play in a multi-sensory environment designed to encourage exploratory play. Children can stage a puppet show, create footprint patterns and explore kaleidoscopes.
Tackling the Oxford Street rush accompanied by a toddler is a bit like taking part in a rugby scrum with both hands tied behind your back. Certainly, afterwards it’s likely you’ll need a rest and a minute or two to decompress. Mercifully, Coram’s Fields – a free playground and park with picnic areas, a paddling pool, sandpit, slides and a pet’s corner with ducks, sheep, goats and hens – is a mere five-minute lurch away and makes a perfect shopping pit stop. And when you’re ready to saddle up again and take on Central London, the British Museum, Great Ormond Street Hospital, the Foundling Museum and the Charles Dickens Museum are all nearby.
Okay, so it’s rather unlikely art appreciation is very high on your child’s list of priorities – unless you’re a really pushy parent. But kids can have a whale of a time at this South Bank art behemoth. There’s a dedicated children’s area on the fifth floor, but by no means feel confined to it. The rest of the gallery has much to offer: think of the video installations as giant baby sensory rooms. And it’s fully family friendly – you won’t find stuffy gallery attendants hissing “quiet please!” here. Let yours maraud around the vast space of the Turbine Hall, ascend in the glass lifts and enjoy the South Bank’s buzzy ambience. And – hoorah! – there are baby changing facilities in the men’s and women’s toilets on every single floor and the café has a very decent dedicated children’s menu.