Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Stratford

Water play area in the Tumbling Bay playground.

Water play area in the Tumbling Bay playground.

The whole of the London Olympic Park site in Stratford is now open to the public. We have been twice, once in the Easter weekend and once during the May half term, and it wasn’t too busy either time. It makes a great day out. You will need wheels and a change of clothes for kids.

There are huge expanses of smooth paved surfaces which makes it brilliant for scooting and everything is very spread out so a scooter and/or buggy is pretty much essential to avoid whingeing as you explore.

There are fountains in front of the stadium to play in and a small playground nearby with sand and water. The main playground, called Tumbling Bay, is near the Velopark and is a good 20 minute walk from Stratford station through the park. It has three big play areas including sand play for toddlers, water play for all ages with lots of pumps, channels and locks, and some amazing wooden and rope climbing structures for older kids.

On any vaguely warm day you can be pretty sure kids will end up wet and any visit should successfully tire them out!

Sand play area in Tumbling Bay playground.

Sand play area in the Tumbling Bay playground.

Best bits: The Tumbling Bay playground.

Cost: Free

Travel: Stratford, Stratford International and Hackney Wick are the nearest stations and are all step free. If you are driving to the Park, there is paid parking at Westfield Stratford City and Stratford International station.

Where to eat: The cafe next to the big playground has nice sandwiches and some hot food as well as indoor and outdoor seating but not much typical kid-friendly food. There are various kiosks selling coffee elsewhere in the park and lots more food options in Westfield.

Note: This trip works best for us as a morning visit to the park, followed by lunch at Westfield. We then round off the outing with a visit to the Lego shop to fill a tub with random Lego pieces for a special treat and still make it home well before the commuters. If you are blessed with a child who will happily nap in the buggy, it would be a rather neat way to follow a fun toddler morning with some serious shopping time.

http://queenelizabetholympicpark.co.uk/

If you get really organised, you can swim in the Aquatics centre in the park. The training pool is open to the general public and has family swim sessions on Fridays after 4, Saturday mornings and almost all day on Sundays. http://www.better.org.uk/leisure/london-aquatics-centre/page/272

You can also go up the Orbit to admire the views. http://arcelormittalorbit.com

Crystal Palace Park and Farm, Crystal Palace

Inspired by the sunshine and the very exciting new “Andy’s Dinosaur Adventures” show on Cbeebies, we have recently been to Crystal Palace Park twice in one week. I had forgotten all about it although it’s only a 10 minute drive from our house. But while watching a small child stamping around the kitchen at 7.30am with his backpack packed, wearing his dinosaur shoes with flashing red lights and shouting “I’m going on dinosaur adventures!” it suddenly seemed like the perfect place to go.

The park covers a huge area. At the Crystal Palace end, at the top of the hill, you can still see the ruins of the old Crystal Palace that housed the Great Exhibition and was moved here from Hyde Park in 1851. Statues of dinosaurs were commissioned the following year and put in place around the lake next to Thicket Road. The Crystal Palace dinosaurs were restored in 2002 and are now grade 1 listed monuments. Sadly they don’t include a t-Rex but remain very impressive nonetheless.

Crystal Palace Dinosaurs

The dinosaur theme has been continued in the playground near the lake. A small farm can be found inside the park just downhill from Crystal Palace station, with sheep, goats, ponies, alpacas, rabbits and chickens. There is also a maze, a huge sports centre and a small woodland area at the far side towards Sydenham Hill.

Best bits: The huge sandpit in the playground complete with dinosaur bones, eggs and fossils to discover, and the dinosaur statues around the lake.

Cost: Free

Travel: Penge West and Crystal Palace stations are both next to the park. Penge East is a 5 minute walk.

A small car park inside the Penge gate on Thicket Road is handy for the cafe, lake and playground. Another huge car park that serves the sports centre as well as the park always has spaces and is accessible from Anerley Hill. All parking is free.

Where to eat: The park cafe has a good range of kid-friendly food and nice salads.

Note: The farm has quite limited opening hours: from 12 to 4 every day except Wednesday. The paths around the dinosaur lake are quite hilly and not tarmacked so are not scooter friendly.

http://www.bromley.gov.uk/info/200073/parks_and_open_spaces/780/about_crystal_palace_park

http://www.capel.ac.uk/crystal-palace-park-farm.html

http://www.audiotrails.co.uk/dinosaurs/

 

National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich is excellent for toddlers and little kids. A well-designed children’s gallery has lots of hands-on activities, including a cargo-loading crane, play food in a ship’s galley and a realistic cannon to shoot and sink onscreen pirate ships with.

On the mezzanine level next to the cafe a huge floor map of the world makes a great place to run around and play while grown ups drink coffee. When the museum is not too busy there are toddler-sized ride-on boats out here to explore it on. We’ve been here three times now and a term-time weekday trip really lets little kids enjoy the space. When school groups are due to come in to the children’s gallery they ask everyone else to leave which works really well.

Best bits: The children’s gallery and world map

Cost: Free

Travel: Cutty Sark DLR or Greenwich train station are fairly near. The closest car park is just off Trafalgar Road and costs £2.50 an hour. The car park in Greenwich Park is cheaper but a bit more of a trek.

Where to eat: The cafe next to the world map is a branch of Paul with no special child-friendly options, but they don’t mind if kids eat a packed lunch here. A bigger cafe on the ground floor near the Greenwich Park entrance has more food options.

http://www.rmg.co.uk/national-maritime-museum

Playing on the Great Map

Playing on the Great Map

Battersea Children’s Zoo, Battersea Park

The children’s zoo in Battersea park is in the middle of the north side of the park, near the river and the Peace Pagoda. It has a nice collection of small animals, a brilliant sand and water play area, and a playground with a real fire engine to play in.

The only bad thing about it is the large number of fairground-style games in the play areas that need money to make them work. Arguments over those put an unhappy edge to a day out here – and not just for us – walking around I overheard endless disputes and negotiations between parents and children over more pound coins for another go on one of the games. It would be a much nicer place to spend time in if they got rid of them all. But if you go with an iron will and no pound coins whatsoever, it makes a nice day out and is maybe worth it for the fire engine alone.

Best bits: It’s small so easy to see everything without getting overwhelmed.

Cost: Adults £8.75, children £6.50

Travel: The closest gate is Chelsea Gate and lots of buses go nearby. You can drive into that gate and park in the pay and display car park next to the zoo – the turn is immediately after Chelsea bridge from the north and easy to miss.

Where to eat: A small cafe on site has the standard kids lunchbox options.

http://www.batterseaparkzoo.co.uk/

Looking at the Kune Kune pigs

Looking at the Kune Kune pigs

Tower Bridge

A visit to Tower Bridge makes a perfect day out for a preschooler who is interested in machines. The south bank between London Bridge and Tower Bridge is great for exploring too, with big open traffic-free spaces for running around or scooting. The Hayes Galleria and the fountains, sculptures and mini stream near the City Hall building are great places to stop and play.

The paid visit to Tower Bridge includes the raised walkways and the Victorian engine rooms on the south bank of the river. The engine rooms still house the beautifully presented Victorian machinery that used to raise the bridge using coal-generated steam power, which was fascinating for a three-year-old who has recently discovered steam trains. There is even a section of mini railway inside and one of the carts that used to deliver the coal. The furnaces, pipes, huge spinning wheels, giant tools, taps, nuts and bolts are very impressive to little ones, and the engineering genius behind it all is equally impressive to geeky adults!

If you don’t want to pay to go inside, it’s still fun to just go see the bridge itself. And if you stand on the middle of the bridge with one foot on each side you can feel the two halves wobble when buses and trucks go over.

Best bits: using the power of hydraulics to lift a parent up – one person sits in a chair while someone else turns a handle which raises it up – a three year old can lift a grown-up.  And the giant spanners as big as a small child. Which are fixed to the wall, sadly. Children also get given a lovely set of stickers to collect as you go around the exhibition that end up making a passport to Tower Bridge.

Cost: £8.00 for adults, children under 5 free.

Travel: Tower Hill & Tower Gateway tubes are very close, London Bridge station is a nice 15 minute walk along the river.

Where to eat: there is a Strada next to the County Hall Building and lots more options along Shad Thames.

http://www.towerbridge.org.uk/TBE/EN/Exhibition

If you get organised you can check when the bridge is due to open and plan your visit around that: it happens a few times a week during summer and less often in the winter.

Bridge lift times:

www.towerbridge.org.uk/TBE/EN/BridgeLiftTimes/

During the summer there are often free events going on in the Scoop, a sunken amphiteatre outside City Hall.

http://www.morelondon.com/scoop.html

Princess Diana Playground, Kensington Gardens

This wonderful wooden playground is in the far north east corner of Kensington Gardens. Lots of beautifully made and imaginative play areas are linked by a network of little paths and tall hedges.  At weekends and during school holidays it gets packed with older children, making it hard for toddlers to get a look-in. But it’s worth the effort to get there and on a sunny weekday during term time it makes a lovely day out with a group of friends. I probably wouldn’t go without at least one other adult: the logistics of food/ toilets/ keeping track of child and pushchair are tricky. Access is strictly limited to children and their accompanying adults, with a member of staff on duty at the gate at all times.

Best bits: there are lots of interesting little areas to explore. The play houses are great and the huge pirate ship has a big wheel that really turns.

Cost: free

Travel: Queensway tube is very close to the playground but it’s not step free. The nearest step-free tube is Green Park: a good half-hour walk away along the top of green Green Park and all the way through Hyde Park. For parking there is an NCP at the bottom of Queensway.

Where to eat: a kiosk sells pizza and sandwiches and there are lots of outside tables and chairs, but no covered areas. Whiteleys Shopping centre is a short walk up Queensway and has a Pizza Express and various foodcourt options if you need an emergency retreat from bad weather.

Note: a huge sandpit is the first thing you see: come prepared to get sandy!

http://www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/kensington_gardens/diana_playground.cfm

Science Museum, South Kensington

This is not exactly a top secret spot, but is our favourite so far of the big London museums.

The interactive area in the basement is brilliant for toddlers, during the 10 or so minutes respite you get between rampaging school groups. If I remember, I’ll go again during the first week of the Autumn term, on the basis that hopefully no schools will have had a chance to organise their outings for that week.

The pattern exhibition on the ground floor is aimed at slightly older children but is really interesting and less hectic than the basement. The highlight for us is a little booth where you can jump and dance while watching your outline dancing on a screen in front of you, making all sorts of different patterns.

Our favourite secret bit is a mezzanine gallery that runs along the side of the ground floor Energy Hall. It has lots of model trains with buttons to press to make the wheels and pistons move. They are just the right height for toddlers, the buttons easy to press, and it always seems to be deserted, no matter how crowded the main gallery is below. And the long straight stretch of carpet makes it a great place to do a bit of wobbly running.

Cost: free, as long as you don’t mind walking past the people ready to take your £5 voluntary donation.

Travel: South Kensington tube is hopeless with a buggy. There is a campaign to improve it: http://www.exhibitionroad.com/step-free We either get a bus from Victoria or leave the buggy at home.

Where to eat: Lots of nice cafes in the museum and other options nearby.

http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/

Changing of the Guard and St James’s Park

Better known as Changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace.

For mornings when we haven’t managed to get out of the house on time to make it to any playgroups but still want to go do something fun, this is one of my favorite trips. It requires very little planning or effort and is doable as long as it’s (currently) an odd day of the month and isn’t raining.

We get a train from Herne Hill to Victoria and walk to Birdcage Walk next to the Wellington Barracks for around 11:00. There are always huge crowds waiting outside Buckingham Palace and it would be impossible for a small child to see anything there, but the guards band plays for a while outside the barracks and there is plenty of space to get a pushchair right up to the railings so you can see everything. They then do some stamping and shouting and march across the road to the palace, accompanied by mounted police. The last time we went, the police horses were the highlight of the day.

After the soldiers disappear into the crowds you can then have a nice mooch about in St James’s Park. There is a small playground with a sandpit just across the road from the barracks, and pelicans, swans, interesting ducks and a fountain to admire on the lake.

Travel: Green Park tube has step-free access and is 5 minutes walk away.

Where to eat: The self-service Inn the Park cafe in St James’s park is expensive and not especially child friendly but is the closest option. You need to get there before 12:00 to avoid queuing and get a table.

For when you’ve had enough of the park and need a coffee, or you brought a picnic but it’s too cold or wet to sit outside, the huge first floor lobby of the office building at 80 Victoria Street is open to the public on weekdays and has loads of sofas and tables where you can eat a picnic in comfort and a cafe for coffee and snacks. It would work better for little ones who won’t stray too far from you, (I was asked very nicely by a security guard to round my little boy up when he went to the far end of the lobby to check out the building site across the road) but with a baby or a toddler who is barely mobile and has a few cars to play with on the nice shiny floor, you could be happy there for quite a while. You would never know it’s there when walking past, but there is a disabled entrance next door to Zara where they will let you in with a pushchair. I have the lovely Victoria to thank for this discovery too. If only the building site was on the side overlooked by the cafe, it would be our new perfect place.

Note: changing of the guard takes place every other day, except May – July when it happens every day. If you go to 80 Victoria Street, watch out for the gaps next to the pillar at the escalator end of the lobby.

http://www.royal.gov.uk/royaleventsandceremonies/changingtheguard/overview.aspx

The Horniman Museum, Forest Hill

I love the Horniman. I grew up living just a short bus ride away, and now my son is too. He’s been there umpteen times already but is showing no signs of getting bored of it. And we invariably head straight to the small aquarium and then our favourite two or three rooms and the cafe, so there is a lot more he has yet to discover.

The museum is just as good for babies as for toddlers – the aquarium is fascinating even for tiny babies, and on the lower ground floor there is a private feeding room with an armchair which feels like a gift from heaven when you have a wriggly, easily distractible baby who needs feeding.

Best bits: the small aquarium, perfect for toddlers, and the musical instrument room where you can press buttons to select and listen to recordings of different instruments. A small interactive room just off this one has some weird and wonderful instruments you can play with. (Only open when not in use by school groups.) There are also some giant musical instruments in the gardens you can play.

Cost: museum free, aquarium £3.00 per adult and £1.10 per child age 3+.

Travel: Forest Hill station (mainline and East London Line) has step free access and is 10-15 minutes walk away, but up a huge hill. Frequent busses go up the hill.

Where to eat: the food in the cafe is fine but not brilliant and it can be a bit hard to find a table at lunch time. But it’s the only option within easy walking distance unless you bring food with you – you can picnic in the gardens or the (unheated) glasshouse next to the museum. Otherwise walk or get a bus towards East Dulwich or Forest Hill for more options.

Note: some weekday mornings they run free and very popular story/craft sessions for toddlers – get there before 10.30 and queue up outside for a ticket. Or avoid those days altogether as the aquarium gets really busy. Check website for details.

http://www.horniman.ac.uk

 

 

Museum of London, City of London

The museum of London – brilliant discovery of my friend Mandy – is one of the most toddler-friendly museums in central London. It’s quite small, a bit hard to find and doesn’t make it on to the tourist must-see lists, so is wonderfully quiet. There are plenty of hands-on displays that toddlers can get involved in and play with, little doors to open and things to do.
They have children’s backpacks to borrow, stuffed full of goodies including a magnifying glass, torch, a puzzle and games involving things to find around the museum. Ask at the main desk and pay £5 deposit per bag. They will also check buggies into a secure storage room and bring them back for you when you’re finished.

Best bits: stirring pretend food over the fire in the Saxon hut, and playing with the mini trains, busses and tube trains in a street scene near the Victorian bit. They have even thoughtfully provided tables and chairs for grown ups here – perfect as you are likely to get stuck for a while.

Cost: free (Deposit for the backpack is returned when you give it back.)

Travel: Farringdon and Blackfriars tube stations both have step-free access and are 10 – 15 minutes walk away.

Where to eat: the cafe on the lower floor doesn’t do lunch food but is perfect for a break – plenty of space for little ones to run about or play with things from the backpack while you have a coffee. Food in the main museum cafe is nice but it’s a small space and is self-service so can be a bit stressful. There is a Pizza Express two minutes walk along London Wall, or a small park just below the museum or tables in the main lobby for picnics.

Note: the entrance from street level is via a lift at the north side of the Aldersgate Street roundabout. The museum doesn’t open till 10.30.

www.museumoflondon.org.uk