Before I birthed the life force that is Babu I’d pretty much never hung out with a child in my life. None of my pre-baby friends had kids and I literally had no idea what you were meant to do with one. For the few weeks postpartum I was so physically and mentally broken I just sort of blithely went along with what my health visitor suggested I do with her: plopping her on a beanbag at the local stay and play; a terrible council-run ‘communication and language’ class where I was told I “should talk to her”; and endless bloody Rhyme Time sessions.
I realised quite quickly that I wasn’t going to become Mary Poppins overnight, or ever. I still wanted to hang out in the kinds of places I hung out in before, with the same people as before. Compromises would have to be made, of course, but I refused to be spirited away into this lonely, lobotomised baby world that didn’t feel like it was benefitting my baby any more than it was me.
So we found stuff that kept everyone happy: soft play in pubs, cafes with play areas, interactive art exhibitions, baby-friendly gigs, playgrounds with bars in them. We sought, and continue to seek, the best of child-friendly London for under-5s who have adults with them (which is hopefully all of them). Here are the places and activities we’ve returned to again and again that everyone, whether 36 months or 36 years, adored.
- Peckham Levels, the multi-storey-carpark-turned-cultural-destination known for its rainbow stairwell and rooftop bar, manages to hold equal appeal to people big and small thanks to its copious watering holes, street-food cafes, acres of toddling space and rather misleadingly named concrete ‘soft play’ area. There’s even a photo booth that everyone can cram into at the end for a group photo (Peckham Rye).
- It might be small, but NOW! Gallery has fast become one of our favourite places to hang out with grown-up friends due to its consistently brilliant immersive installations that delight young and not quite so young. Recent exhibitions have included Camille Walala’s colourful maze, Fred Butler’s squishy, theraputic wonderland and, currently, Hattie Stewart’s world of doodles (North Greenwich).
- Ah Bear & Wolf, the only cafe I know that manages to attract arty laptop workers and chaotic toddlers in their droves. Its secret? Great coffee, delicious brunches, a cool location and, of course, a massive, well-stocked playroom. Its minimalist decor and placement of the play area in a totally separate room mean if it wasn’t for the buggies and toddler snacks you’d barely notice it’s a play cafe (Tufnell Park).
- Gallery-slash-museum-slash-cafe God’s Own Junkyard was one of my favourite pre-child hangouts and remains one of the most successful days out we’ve had out with Babu. This hefty hoard of neon is a feast for eyes old and new, has a little colouring table and houses the toddler-friendly Rolling Scones Cafe with its comprehensive, hearty and reasonably priced menu – and beer (Walthamstow Central).
- By far one of the most hilarious excursions we’ve done as a family, Novelty Automation is a small but brilliant museum-cum-amusement-arcade that adults will love and toddlers will hopefully be vaguely amused by whilst being unable to do too much damage to themselves or their surroundings – and if the whole thing goes tits up then Coram’s Fields park is a five-minute walk away (Holborn).
- Toconoco is the place I go most often with my kid and friends who don’t have kids. It’s very simply a Japanese cafe with a little play area, but the food is so good and the decor so delightfully non-naff we cannot get enough. Plus the excellent Dalston Eastern Curve Garden – a community garden serving coffee, booze, food and a vast array of ride-on toys – is just around the corner (Haggerston/Dalston Kingsland).
- Take your babe and grown-up mate to a How Does it Feel to be Loved children’s indie disco or a Wake-Up Gigs concert. Okay so there’ll be kids there, but the brilliance of these events lies in their distinct lack of kiddiness. Both venues offer a fully stocked bar, brilliant music with not a Disney song in earshot, and enough infant distractions to give you a chance to boogie (Oxford Circus/London Bridge).
Babu, Auntie Tash and Matcha the Shiba Inu hang at Rehab, Hackney.