If there’s one thing museums know how to do well, apart from arranging knackered old pots into glass cases, it’s children’s play areas. Forget the filth-laden soft-play bricks, assorted mutilated ride-ons and crumb-filled crates of half-chewed Stickle Bricks favoured by children’s libraries and dentists’ waiting rooms. Children’s galleries are the Barbie Dreamhouses of the infant-diversion world thanks to a combination of unrelenting exposure to bored, mopey schoolchildren; a handy ready-made theme to base the entire design around; and easy access to dedicated teams of world-class curators who understand how to engage with diverse, intergenerational audiences and are (probably) paid handsomely for the trouble. Your motley crew might be bored shitless by the museum itself but these cleverly devised immersive indoor playgrounds are almost guaranteed to hold their attention, with any luck buying you a few minutes of peace/extra browsing time and maybe even teaching them something useful in the process.
- Opened in March following a £23.75m museum-wide refurbishment, the National Army Museum‘s Play Base boasts a variety of immersive activities for 0-8s, including a demanding assault course, an interactive liaison vehicle, a camp kitchen complete with play food, and a well-stocked quartermaster’s store. Sessions last one hour and cost £4.50 per child (Sloane Square 11 mins).
- Aimed at 0-7s, the London Transport Museum‘s All Aboard play zone allows tiny travellers to explore some of the key modes of transport explored in the main museum, including half a double-decker, a soft-play DLR for minis, an intercom-equipped taxi and the hilariously named ‘Thames Nipper’. Access is unlimited and free with an (admittedly quite pricy) museum ticket (Covent Garden 3 mins).
- While the V&A Museum of Childhood has no one play zone as such this free space is jam-packed with interactive bits and bobs, making it a popular baby and toddler destination – particularly on weekdays. Attractions include a sensory pod with colour-change lighting, a fenced-off baby area with giant musical flowers, a 360-degree dolls’ house, an indoor sand pit and a mini library (Bethnal Green 2 mins).
- The National Maritime Museum‘s Ahoy! gallery for 0-7s is open all day every day, with no limit on numbers or play duration. Distractions include a child-sized fishmongers, a light-up sensory area, an air-hockey game featuring foam boats, and a large ship complete with a protruding bow and a maze of rooms to explore below-deck. NMM also houses the All Hands gallery for 6-12s (Cutty Sark 5 mins).
- Museum of London Docklands‘ fantastic Mudlarks gallery is designed to introduce under-8s to the themes covered in the wider museum, and features a multi-level soft-play area, a building zone with giant Lego, a Docklands train set and a water-play table, amongst other activities. Access is free but sessions last just 40 minutes and tickets must be bought in advance from the front desk (Westferry 4 mins).
- The Science Museum‘s misleadingly named The Garden is recommended for ages 3-6, when actually it’s very much indoors, not remotely garden-themed and perfectly suitable for babies and younger toddlers provided you keep a keen eye on them. The light- and sound-filled sensory zone will captivate tinies, while older ones will adore the water table and futuristic climbing frame (South Kensington 5 mins).
- While its disappointing 1950s-themed Playtime! gallery probably won’t occupy your little treasures for more than a few minutes, the Museum of London is full of brilliant hands-on displays, from a light-up model of a section of the London Underground to a full-scale Saxon house complete with hearth, cookware and blankets, as well as an audio post and even a shoe-touching zone (St Paul’s 5 mins).
Bab tries on a diving helmet at the Mudlarks gallery, Museum of London Docklands.