Living in London and raising a young child on one minimum wage is hard. It can be even harder when you suffer from intense FOMO and everyone else seems to be having all the fun and visiting all the places with their little ones. Luckily, although the capital has insanely priced baby sessions and events coming out of its ears, it is also crammed with under-5s fun that won’t cost you a penny. Really, we’re spoilt for choice, and I’ve managed many a week to get out every day armed only with an Oyster card and a packed lunch.
We’re lucky to live in a borough (Islington) with some excellent Children’s Centres, but they can feel claustrophobic and if you haven’t managed to befriend anyone it’s just all a bit awkward. Playgroups in big, spacious churches are the answer here. Our favourites are Mini Mags at St Mary Magdalene in Highbury and Hey Baby! At St John at Hackney – both of which offer free tea and coffee and are huge, so depending on how you feel about other human beings you can either find somebody to chat to in the crowd or slip anonymously into it. We also love Tufnell Tots at St George’s, Tufnell Park, as they have not only free drinks, but homemade cakes. Perfect if you or your spawn haven’t managed to eat breakfast (assuming you’re fine with feeding a baby chocolate brownies for the most important meal of the day). The Hackney Playbus is so good I’m always faced with a tantrum when it’s time to leave. The ultimate mobile playgroup, it parks up at various spots during the week. The appeal here is that so many of the toys are set up to enjoy outside. There’s also an awful lot crammed into the bus itself – arts and crafts activities, a mud kitchen and lovely staff who’ll offer you a cup of tea. If you find yourself in a lonely void at the weekends (and are able to get yourself together stupidly early), Tomato Tutors in East Finchley runs the Greenhouse Playgroup on Sundays. It’s quiet, chilled and super friendly, taking place in their gorgeous Montessori-esque studio.
We try to get outdoors as much as possible and I’m always looking for places to fill the countryside-shaped hole the move to London left in my life. I won’t patronise anyone by suggesting “Hey, how about taking your baby to a park?!”, but obviously there’s tons of amazing ones (worth a mention is Victoria Park with its V&A playground, and the Diana Memorial Playground). City farms are plentiful, but our favourite is Spitalfields City Farm as not only is it a decent size with plenty of ducks, donkeys and all the usual suspects, but it has a wonderful children’s play area filled with ride-ons, scooters and a treehouse. Dalston Eastern Curve Garden is always a great place to hang out – parent or not – and on Fridays they hold a family session with songs and live music from Double Bass Dan. Ideal if your miniature human has become too fidgety/non-conformist/possessed by the Devil for music sessions in enclosed spaces. The Nomadic Community Gardens off Brick Lane have a bit more of an adult vibe (and are filled with impressive street art), but have still found space for an awesome ramshackle play area complete with a big boat, pimped-up cars and a sign warning you to play at your own risk. If you find yourself having a heart attack when you see the prices of most forest-school-type sessions, try the Mud Monsters session run by the Hoxton Trust. Expect laid-back art and craft activities using natural materials in their beautiful garden. Lollard Street Adventure Playground in Lambeth runs a family forest school session twice a week and it is one of our all-time favourites. They offer unstructured, outdoorsy activities such as gardening, clay modelling, potion making and campfires, but the real selling point is the chance to let your tiny ones loose in an absolutely incredible playground that is normally only open to older children. If you want the next best thing to going to the zoo without shelling out enough for a deposit on a house then head to Golders Hill Park. You can see lemurs, coatis, deer and owls, which is all you need considering that a toddler’s favourite animals at the zoo are usually the pigeons. For the ultimate outdoor adventure we disappear into Queens Wood – Highgate Wood’s quieter, more wild next door neighbour. Park your buggy in the café garden and venture off the path. Perfect if you want to spend some time sitting in a muddy ditch watching your child eat leaves. Which is genuinely an urge I often have.
When the weather is lousy and we’ve reached our limit of braving the elements in a rain suit, museums are our saviour. The majority of the big ones are free, and provide much needed space for little legs to run about. The V&A Museum of Childhood is naturally very child-friendly throughout, has daily storytelling sessions and often runs events and play days at the weekends. Bringing your own lunch is, however, a bit of a nightmare in bad weather and you may end up eating it wedged in a windowsill (those Benugo cafes are my nemesis). The Museum of London Docklands is home to the Mudlarks gallery, containing both soft play and water play, the combination of which will leave you with soggy socks. The only downside is the short session duration. The Science Museum’s The Garden also has a water-play area, which is the most enticing thing in there and you’d best bring a change of clothes because your child will get soaked. The best museum play space (in my humble opinion) has to be the AHOY! gallery at the Maritime Museum. It’s big, you can spend as long as you like in there and it’s crammed with different scenes and interactives, such as beach huts, rock pools, a mini fishmongers stocking disturbingly realistic fish, and lots of ship interiors. Plus the equally great play space for older kids upstairs is generally deserted. The British Museum wouldn’t normally be high on a list of museums to take my sticky, destructive child to but we love their Little Feet sessions. Exploring different themes each time, the activities on offer aren’t groundbreaking but the ones we’ve attended have been set up right in the midst of one of the museum’s main galleries, so the kids are just unapologetically there in everyone’s way, owning the space, which I think is so much better than being hidden away in a dreary education room.
Art galleries can be great places to take toddlers, but they can also be full of disapproving dickheads. The Tate Modern is not the most original suggestion, but it has the benefit of being huge enough that you probably won’t run into the same glaring twat twice, the high ceilings will soak up the noise of your little angel’s screams, and hopefully they’ll wear themselves out so much running around the tanks that then they’ll sleep and you can actually look at some art. Under 5s Explore the Gallery takes place at Tate Britain once a month, run by choreographer and artist Aya Kobayashi. Messy Mondays at the National Gallery run during most school holidays and offer one room filled with themed sensory bits and pieces, and one with messy art activities. We love a bit (or a lot) of mess and I don’t feel like we’ve had a proper day out unless something’s stained at the end of it.
If you’re willing to wait for months to get in somewhere for free (which I totally am) then one day a year – the day of the London Childrens’ Book Swap – the Discover Children’s Story Centre in Stratford opens its doors free of charge, with access to its storytelling events and special exhibitions. We’ve managed to visit both the Dr. Seuss and Julia Donaldson exhibitions this way. The Battersea Arts Centre hosts family days on the last Saturday of the month, with various workshops and all-day entry to their Bee’s Knees play space – a whimsical landscaped room that’s perfect for newly mobile babies. The Barbican Centre is currently developing a new programme of activities for under-5s, but on offer at the moment is Barbican Blocks. This is basically a glorified version of when your child drags all the sofa cushions onto the floor, except you can count it as having been out and done a thing; it isn’t accompanied by the incessant whinging of that little shit Bing Bunny on in the background, and you can’t see the mountain of washing up in your kitchen. Which is pretty much what I’m trying to escape every time I take my sprog out adventuring.
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Photo credit: Kerri Burton