10 best free things to do with kids from in London!
Long before children can muse on Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ and remark how the impasto helps to express the texture of the seed heads, they can relate to centuries-old paintings that sing with colour and drama. That’s why the National Gallery’s ‘magic carpet’ storytelling sessions are brilliant. Every Sunday morning parents and sprouts are invited to sit in front of one of the paintings and hear stories inspired by what they see.
For small children, it’s the doing not the looking that amuses and inspires. As a result, this busy museum’s hands-on galleries win the day. The Garden is a free play zone where young’uns can don aprons and play with waterways and boats, jump around exploring light and shadows and discover the science of sound through all kinds of fun activities.
This commemorative play area is easily the best bit of Kensington Gardens for a child. The popular playground for kids aged up to 12 now includes a sea monster sculpture, giant swing, turtle drum, storyteller’s chair and tree carving by Daniel Cordell. Created in 2000, the area’s main attraction is still the vast wooden pirate ship sailing a sea of sand. When children tire of competing for control of the ship’s wheel and escapades involving cabins, pulleys and ropes there is a trio of tepees and a tree-house encampment with walkways, ladders, slides and ‘tree phones’ to provide inspiration for other imaginative games, and delightful play-sculptures hidden among the greenery that makes the place a treat for adults, too.
The V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green has been a dedicated temple to the history of growing up in Britain for over 150 years, but it’s not all antique dolls in glass cases. There are hands-on exhibits and games everywhere you look. Children can join organised activity sessions and dress up in Victorian costume or theatrical attire.
Surrounded by some of London’s most popular sightseeing attractions (Buckingham Palace, Westminster and Trafalgar Square), St James’s Park often gets overlooked, but it’s one of the loveliest green spaces to let the kids run about in. Duck Island, at the east end of the park’s lake, is perfect for birdwatchers. There have been pelicans here since the 1660s, and every day you can watch these curious feathered creatures being fed fresh fish at 2.30pm.
Looking like something curvy and top-heavy that’s straight out of ‘LazyTown’, the Walkie Talkie is a City office building that has a Sky Garden on its top floors, which, happily, is open to the public. Take in a huge concourse of lush, exotic plants, plus restaurants and a terrace for amazing views. Sky Garden is free to visit but you must book your 90-minute time slot at least three days in advance.
On the east side of vast Victoria Park, The Hub is a playground for bold adventurers. Along with climbing equipment and sand play (plus a pool play area that’s open in summertime), The Hub boasts huge swooping slides for speedy thrills. There is a skatepark here, too, though smaller children might prefer to head for the V&A playground to the west of the park, near Grove Road, for the gentle pleasures of swings and other things.
The long walkways that link the various venues and residential blocks of the Barbican are traffic free, with few pedestrians. In fact in early morning and in the evening you might encounter joggers, but otherwise this is a great place to let little ones scoot around. There is a lot to spot, too, including arches, turret motifs and arrow slits built into the design by architects, referencing the site’s previous life as a fortress.
With oodles of traffic-free pathways, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is a brilliant place for running around and bike rides. The Tumbling Bay adventure playground is a real highlight, with sand pits, wobbly bridges, rock pools and tall treehouses. There are also swings and slides. Note to parents with a penchant for a cuppa and a cake – it’s next door to the Timber Lodge café.
These sessions every Saturday morning (10am-noon) at Cass Arts branches in Hampstead and Islington are a lovely way to inspire ideas and nurture budding artists. A free activity table is set out with a range of materials, inviting kids to let their imaginations run wild. Children must be accompanied by an adult, but sessions are drop-in and all materials are supplied free.