Appalling weather? Kids bouncing off the walls of your tiny London flat? Fear not, there is hope in the shape of the capital’s myriad indoor playgrounds, from the most stylish play cafes and museum children’s galleries to the least awful soft-play centres we can think of (and, good God, there are some dreadful ones).
Sammy’s Soft Play, Yogaloft, Queen’s Park
Brand new soft play in the back of a swanky Queen’s Park yoga studio. As soft plays go it’s fairly ordinary, but it’s very clean and shiny nonetheless, as well as being just the right size for under-5s. Yogaloft is also home to an excellent family-friendly vegetarian/vegan cafe where you can all sit down for a healthy lunch pre- or post-session, or you can even just grab a coffee and nibble to enjoy ring-side while the kids play. Open 9-5 every single day of the week. Very good toilets.
27 Beethoven Street, W10 4LG / yogaloftlondon.com
Bouncy castle fans will be in heaven in this humongous inflatable park, which takes up the entirety of the hangar-sized industrial unit that houses it. Here, kids big and small can boing around on bouncy pillows, sinking (inflatable) stepping stones, bumpy slides, drop slides, tipping slides and lots more. It can get monumentally busy on weekends, when the venue hosts (non-exclusive-hire) parties, so head here during the week if you can.
Unit 1, Colindale Retail Park, 355 Edgware Road, NW9 6TH / inflatanation.com
Ding Dong Fun Bus, Tottenham
Ever wished you could be in a soft play and a bus at the same time? Alright, so technically the soft-play part of this (almost unbearably gaudy) venue isn’t on the bus at all, but in the community centre attached to it. Still, the novelty factor remains high and your kids will be having far too much fun to notice the details. Sure, it’s mildly claustrophobic, but when entry is this cheap, the staff are this accommodating and the food is this kid-friendly and reasonably priced, who cares?
Selby Centre, Selby Road, N17 8JL / facebook.com/dingdongfunbus
King’s Cross Station Family Waiting Room, King’s Cross
Okay, so it’s literally a slide and a few buttons. But on those occasions when your train’s delayed and your kids are losing their minds, that’s really all you need. This spacious (but often busy) family waiting room – intended to be the first of several across the LNER route – also packs in a model train that you can watch whizz around a track, screens showing specially shot family films, and even a breastfeeding booth. Not worth a trip unless you have a train to catch, but mighty handy if you do.
King’s Cross railway station, Euston Road, N1 9AL
This Finchley Road family club offers classes for 0-6s on a pay-as-you-go basis, with the option to purchase a pack of classes for a reduced fee. There are loads of great classes to choose from, from baby massage and messy play through to music, art, drama and languages, plus ad hoc events including storytelling and movie nights. The club’s stylish family lounge is available to use pre- and post-class, and houses a cute climbing frame, baby area and coffee corner.
194 Finchley Road, NW3 6BX / curiouser-family.com
Poppets Stores, Islington
Everything about this Islington play cafe is adorable, right down to its name. On bad-weather days, its cosy back room offers plenty to keep little ones busy while their adults recaffeinate, from a wall-mounted dolls’ house to a cute reading nook. When the sun’s shining, the spacious garden provides sand play, ex-fairground ride-ons and even a tiny playhouse styled as an ice-cream kiosk. And supposing that’s not enough cute, it also sells tiny baby clothes and some of the loveliest toys we’ve ever seen.
237 Liverpool Road, N1 1LX / poppetsstores.co.uk
Old Bank Coffee House, East Barnet
The owners’ decision to transform the vault of this former Barclays branch into a playroom for babies and toddlers was a stroke of genius. Said playroom is adorable, with spongy (but tastefully hued) flooring, Pikler triangle, play kitchen, squishy blocks, library, TV (which was showing the dreaded Cocomelon when we visited) and amazing wall mural. The cafe itself is spacious and modern, and serves sandwiches, baked goods and organic kids’ snacks, as well as great coffee.
253 East Barnet Road, EN4 8ST
Bear & Wolf, Tufnell Park (PERMANENTLY CLOSED)
It might not contain a fancy soft-play structure or pint-sized play town, but this NW5 cafe remains a solid shit-weather-day fallback thanks to its toy-packed playroom and kid-friendly menu. In business since 2014, Bear & Wolf is one of London’s longest-serving play cafes – its success likely attributable to its universal appeal (the minimalist decor, laid-back vibe and reliably excellent coffee mean you definitely don’t need to be a toddler – or in possession of one – to hang out here).
153 Fortess Road, NW5 2HR / bearandwolfcafe.com
Maggie & Rose Cafe, Angel
Love the idea of Maggie & Rose but don’t fancy the membership fees? The family club’s Islington branch holds the solution: an adjoining cafe with a wooden play kitchen, squishy leather sofas, the club’s signature sparkly paint sticks and – most importantly – public access, making it totally free, bar the cost of a cup of coffee. It’s not massive and annoyingly it’s closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, but it’s a great pitstop if you find yourself near Upper Street from midweek onwards.
Esther Anne Place, N1 1TU / maggieandrose.com
You won’t find many soft plays on this list because I hate them, but this one is different. Small enough to be manageable but big enough to still be exciting, this shiny new wonderland for kids aged 0-8 boasts a good cafe serving hot meals and an impressive array of cakes, and a cleaning regime to rival Monica Gellar’s. It’s a mission if you don’t happen to live on the northern end of the Piccadilly Line, but worth the hike – especially when they set up the bouncy castle outside.
Bramley Road, N14 4PE / rainbowsoftplay.com
Rainbow Creative Learning Centre, New Southgate
The relative inaccessibility of this New Southgate gem means few Londoners seem to have heard of it – a real shame given its brilliance. The other Rainbow is smaller than the one in Cockfosters, but still manages to cram in an adorable soft-play structure, a cafe and a toy-stuffed upstairs playroom. Booking is via text, payment is cash only and the food selection is limited, but if you can ignore these minor inconveniences then this is a super-cute toddler hangout.
143-186 High Road, Arnos Grove, N11 1PJ / facebook.com/RainbowLondon
Red Stairs Soft Play, High Barnet
This brand-new soft play’s name refers to the red, carpeted flight you have to ascend to reach the it, but don’t worry – the super lovely owners are on hand to help with buggies. The main structure feels clean and manageable, though it’s probably better suited to 2-7s than the 5-10s the venue suggests. There’s also a small playroom with a ball pool for really tiny ones, and drinks and snacks are available to buy. Brilliant value for 105-minute sessions.
101 Barnet High Street, EN5 5UP / redstairssoftplay.co.uk
Raphi & Flo, Winchmore Hill
Not a destination kids’ cafe per se, but great if you’re local to Enfield and looking for child-friendly options. The kids’ menu is a big draw with its toasties, brunch favourites, weaning-friendly finger food and decent range of hot meals; and the adult offer is pretty good too – particularly if you’re vegan. The play area is surprisingly small given the size of the cafe, but the toy selection is well chosen, with lots of wooden role-play props to keep them occupied.
832 Green Lanes, N21 2RT / raphiandflo.com
Baby Gym at Talacre Leisure Centre, Kentish Town
I’ve been taking my kids to Talacre for five years and it’s still one of my favourites. The daily under-5s session, known locally simply as ‘baby gym’, is pretty unbeatable in soft-play terms with its sprung floor, foam pool, trampolines, loose parts and gentle nursery rhyme soundtrack. Talacre is also home to a more traditional soft-play structure called Treetops, but it pales in comparison to this delight. Booking is, unfortunately, via the notorious Better app.
Dalby Street, NW5 3AF / better.org.uk/talacre
Babylon Park, Camden Town
While its biggest draw is probably its indoor rollercoaster, this subterranean fairground also boasts a pretty decent soft play in two parts – half for under-5s and half for older ones. It’s not cheap by any stretch, but the fact that you can come here and just pay to use the soft play (all day, if you like) should ease the pain (even though you know for a fact your kids will talk you into paying for the coin pushers, the merry-go-round – and yes, probably the rollercoaster too).
8 Castlehaven Road, NW1 8QU / babylonpark.com
The RAF Museum, Colindale
Alongside its rather brilliant aviation-themed outdoor playground, the ridiculously underrated RAF Museum boasts an enormous, hands-on permanent exhibition where little ones can fix planes, try on uniforms, sit in miniature planes and loads more. There used to be an interactive children’s gallery called Aeronauts in a separate hangar but it’s not called that anymore and it’s been closed to the public for ages. Hopefully something even better is about to pop up in its place.
Grahame Park Way, NW9 5LL / rafmuseum.org.uk
The Sherriff Centre, West Hampstead
Why wouldn’t there be a soft play inside a church in West Hampstead? Hullabaloo is fairly humdrum as soft plays go, but that doesn’t matter. What it lacks in imagination it makes up for in proximity to good coffee (Sanctuary Cafe stretches across the space, meaning owners of older kids can take a slouchy ringside seat). The big bit has three storeys, while the 0-2s area is gated with a massive ball pool. There’s also a Post Office, should you need to buy stamps while you’re there.
St James Church, Sherriff Road, NW6 2AP / thesherriffcentre.co.uk
The Markfield Project, Tottenham
We haven’t figured out why Markfield’s soft-play area needs to be closed for cleaning up to an hour before the end of the only session it’s open all week (under-5s drop-in on Thursday afternoons), but we wish it was open all the time. It’s by far the tallest soft play we’ve seen – a selling point in itself – and includes big squishy shapes, a tunnel running through the middle and a ball pit at the top, if you can hoick yourselves up there. Mattresses-down-the-stairs vibes.
Markfield Park, Markfield Road, N15 4RB / markfield.org.uk
Yonder is a very cool bouldering centre close to Blackhorse Road. In addition to its cavernous main climbing area, Yonder offers a separate, jungle-themed children’s area with easier climbing routes and a little slide (there’s also a massive, hidden slide in the main climbing hall that older ones can try once they exhaust the kids’ room). You either need to complete a family induction or already be an experienced climber to supervise kids on the wall, then you can simply rock up and pay as you go. The cafe is well worth checking out too.
6 Hooker’s Road, E17 6DP / thisisyonder.com
Brilliantly batshit Japanese cafe with bespoke play kitchen/bunk bed in the back room. If you’re the sort of person who expects the play area to be cleaned between visits then this probably isn’t the place for you, but if you’re willing to overlook a bit of mess and the odd foreign object (on our first visit we found a powerdrill on the floor) then it’s great. No one cares how long you stay and the food is cheap and delicious. Order rice balls, a black sesame latte and a matcha blondie.
Unit A, 28 Hertford Road, N1 5QT / toconoco.com
Mile End Park Leisure Centre Soft Play, Mile End
Surprisingly-great-for-a-Better-gym soft play offering a particularly lofty multi-level play frame, a big purple play house, a wooden teepee, a baby area and one of the longest and most terrifying curly tube slides I’ve ever seen. This place manages to be interesting enough for older kids whilst being easy enough for littler ones to tackle by themselves, and while sessions are short at just an hour, no one really seemed to be checking when we visited.
190 Burdett Road, E3 4HL / better.org.uk/mile-end-park-leisure-centre
Macaroni Penguin, Royal Docks
With its modern decor, custom-designed play structure, lovely staff and T4 stand serving weird and wonderful bubble teas, Macaroni Penguin is easily one of the best play cafes in London. At an hour duration its play sessions are annoying short, and unless you live in the Docklands then it’s a mission and a half, but it’s still always worth the trip. In addition to the main play frame, the cafe boasts a baby-sensory area and classroom that plays host to a weekly schedule of kids’ classes.
28 Royal Crest Avenue, E16 2TE / macaroni-penguin.co.uk
The Can Club, Forest Gate
It’s not a club in the exclusive sense (there are no fees, memberships or booking requirements), but this kids’ concept cafe is no doubt something you’ll want to be part of if you have little ones and live even vaguely near Forest Gate. The ex-teacher owners have succeeded spectacularly in creating a space that both kids and their adults will want to spend time in (and will even hang out with your kids if you want them to) and the decor, food and play opportunities are all spot on.
361 Winchelsea Road, E7 0AQ / thecanclub.co.uk
Tiny Tigers, South Quay (PERMANENTLY CLOSED)
This spacious under-5s cafe is a must for any day out in Canary Wharf with young children – particularly if you’re after an easy lunch spot. Situated close to South Quay DLR, Tiny Tigers is a just a short walk from the tube and Canary Wharf’s other toddler-friendly attractions (Museum of London Docklands, Crossrail Place Roof Garden, etc.). Unstructured play sessions run several times a day, alongside an exciting programme of classes and special themed events.
Unit 1, South Quay Plaza, 185 Marsh Wall, E14 9SH / tinytigers.club
Squish Space, Barbican
Squish Space landed at the Barbican back in 2019. The brainchild of India Harvey and Lisa Marie Bengtsson, this under-5s drop in replaced Barbican Blocks, popping up a few times a week to provide local preschoolers with an array of sensory materials designed to encourage open-ended, imaginative play. Best suited to mobile babies and younger toddlers, the session sells out almost as soon as tickets go on sale – a full 48 hours in advance. Worth it though.
Silk Street, EC2Y 8DS / barbican.org.uk
I’ve talked to a few parents about this place and it seems to be pretty Marmite, but we really liked it when we visited on a super-quiet Monday morning. It’s been going for years (I have mates who are my age that went when they were little kids) and as a result it’s a bit rough around the edges (and the ball-pit balls could have done with a scrub), but it’s still a good one for toddlers with its numerous ride-ons, manageable soft-play structure and super-cheap kids’ menu.
28 Powell Rd, E5 8DJ / kidzmania.co.uk
The Mill E17, Walthamstow
Essentially a free playgroup that’s open all the time (Tuesday-Sunday). The Mill accepts four parent-and-child/ren groups at a time, with toys on rotation in its playroom (which comes complete with a giant chameleon sculpture) to allow for cleaning. Tea/coffee is available in the adjoining room, where families can eat their own food at the communal table. Sadly booking isn’t an option, so there’s every chance you’ll get turned away if they’ve reached capacity.
7-11 Coppermill Lane, E17 7HA / themille17.org
Clissold Leisure Centre, Stoke Newington
Unlike with regular soft play you can’t quite rock up to this one whenever you like, but it does pop up for three entire one-hour sessions every single weekday morning. It’s pretty simple and I can see kids any older than two or three getting bored fairly quickly, but it’s a nice, relaxed session for those days when you just want to make things easy on yourself. Be warned though, the only thing separating this and the aerobics session next door is a massive curtain.
63 Clissold Road, N16 9EX / better.org.uk
There’s something weirdly nineties about the Romford outpost of Kidspace, but we’re there for it. Actually I don’t think it’s anywhere near that old, but the main play frame is like something out of a deeply kitsch sci-fi fantasy – again, in the NICEST POSSIBLE WAY. Like The Fifth Element, only tackier, and without Bruce Willis. The toddler area is great but it’s mostly set up for older kids, with towering climbing walls, go-karting and a lot absolutely terrifying slides. Fun though.
The Brewery, Waterloo Road, RM1 1AU / kidspaceadventures.com/romford
ZAPspace, Stratford (PERMANENTLY CLOSED)
Still our favourite jumping place, and we’ve been to loads. ZAPspace’s appeal lies largely in the fact that it’s been built inside an old theatre, bestowing it with an air of grandeur that you don’t really expect from a trampoline park in Stratford. Generally it’s just a lot more interesting than other venues – mostly because it’s not part of a chain so feels a little more offbeat than the rest. Toddler sessions run every single morning and there’s even an adorably tiny soft play for babies.
369 High Street, E15 4QZ / zapspace.co.uk
East London Gymnastics Centre
Every weekday afternoon (and Sunday morning), this spacious gymnasium throws open its doors to 0-5s and their carers. Sessions are unstructured (and apparently unsupervised, though there are a lot of rules, which are announced via hand-painted signs dotted around the place) and consist of 90 minutes of free play in the space, which boasts trampolines, beams, soft shapes and a three-storey soft-play structure with two tube slides. Great for rainy days when they have a surplus of energy.
Triumph Road, E6 5LW / eastlondongym.co.uk
Discover Children’s Story Centre, Stratford
There’s nowhere else quite like Discover in London. While we wish their brilliant temporary exhibitions changed more frequently (or even that all their Story Worlds were temporary), it’s such a great space for crawlers and up (my nearly-six-year-old still loves it). Attractions include two permanent, themed story spaces, a newly renovated Story Garden, a temporary exhibition and an ever-changing programme of storytelling shows for different age groups.
383-387 High Street, E15 4QZ / discover.org.uk
Yellow Warbler, Stoke Newington
Yellow Warbler isn’t a play cafe as such, but it is a great cafe where small children are actively welcomed, and such things are rare – especially in cool places like Stoke Newington. The cosy back room is well stocked with baby and toddler toys, and situated right next to the baby change. You won’t get hours of play out of this place, but you might manage a relatively peaceful half hour with a cake and a good cup of coffee, and sometimes that’s really all you need.
9 Northwold Road, N16 7HL / instagram.com/yellowwarblercoffee
Yellow Warbler, Walthamstow
Yellow Warbler’s second site is even better than the OG, with plenty of high chairs, a big stack of games and books, and even a baby Merc poised to occupy tiny visitors (it doesn’t actually move, but would you just look). The coffee and baked goods are reliably excellent, with lots of great vegan options plus babyccinos for younger guests, and the owner and staff are the loveliest. Arrive early for lunch to nab the sofa – this is set to become the place to eat with babes in E17.
10 Chingford Road, E17 4PJ / facebook.com/yellowwarblercoffee
Role-play centres are hard to come by inside the M25, but this Walthamstow favourite more than makes up for the dearth. Owned by two local mums, Role2Play is equipped with everything a good toddler town needs, from a supermarket to a hair salon and a theatre to a tiny house – all surrounded by a real-life cafe serving great coffee, cakes and kids’ snacks. One of the most reliable days out with an under-4 we can think of, and always worth the schlep to E17.
75 Fulbourne Road, E17 4EZ / role2play.com
Britannia Leisure Centre, Hoxton
It’s not a big by any means, but the new Britannia Centre’s soft-play area deserves a mention for its cleanliness and manageability alone. While the two play areas are designated for under-2s (a small, soft, pen-like space) and under-8s (a three-storey climbing structure), the whole thing feels best suited to under-5s, and is usually blissfully quiet on a term-time weekday morning. Combine with a trip to the Britannia’s Leisure Water – a brilliant interactive water-play area with a slide.
Pitfield Street, N1 5FT / better.org.uk/britannia-leisure-centre
Mudlarks, Museum of London Docklands, Canary Wharf
Museum of London Docklands is one of London’s most underrated family-friendly museums and an excellent day out even without a trip to Mudlarks, its interactive children’s gallery. If you can though, make sure you book a free (if annoyingly short) session here too. Suitable for 0-8s, Mudlarks packs in plenty of dock-themed treats, from a ship-loading play table to boat-filled water play, a DLR-themed soft-play area, baby sensory and even a wearable diver’s helmet .
No. 1 Warehouse, West India Quay, Hertsmere Road, E14 4AL / museumoflondon.org.uk/mudlarks
Waltham Forest Feel Good Centre Soft Play, Walthamstow
While it’s technically designated a ‘toddler area’ WFFGC’s smaller soft-play area is weirdly challenging in parts and definitely more of a 0-5s than a 0-3s situation. As well as being pleasingly clean and manageable, the soft play is housed in a secure room complete with electronic doors, picnic tables and toilets with baby changing, so little ones stay safe and there’s no reason to leave until home time – unless you fancy checking out the centre’s ‘Extreme’ offering…
170 Chingford Road, E17 5AA / better.org.uk/waltham-forest-feel-good-centre
Waltham Forest Feel Good Centre Play Park, Walthamstow
With its huge multi-storey, multi-slide soft-play structure, mini trampoline park, large foam-pit area and even a series of Clip ‘n’ Climb walls, WFFGC’s enormous Play Park is the perfect place to tire out kids big and small – not to mention their adults. The hour-long session doesn’t sound like it’ll be long enough to cram everything in but, trust me, it’s enough. Refuel with reasonably priced kids’ food in the cafe post-play.
170 Chingford Road, E17 5AA / better.org.uk/waltham-forest-feel-good-centre
Cheeky Chops, Twickenham
One of the most exciting new additions to London’s under-5s landscape in the last few years, Cheeky Chops manages to appeal to both adventurous toddlers and style-conscious adults with its cleverly designed play frames and considered interiors. Unless you’re SW-based then Twickenham might as well be on the moon, but Cheeky Chops’ exceptionally friendly owners, generously lengthy sessions and tempting menu make it well worth the trek.
cheekychopsplaycafe.co.uk / 37-39 York Street, TW1 3LP
The Bee’s Knees, Battersea Arts Centre, Battersea (CURRENTLY CLOSED)
Magical Teletubbyland for under-5s, created by set designers and host to a packed programme of weekly classes and groups, with unstructured playtime available on Wednesdays. The Bee’s Knee’s has been going for years and remains a firm favourite five years after we first discovered it thanks to its one-of-a-kind design – complete with rolling hills, caves, tunnels, and rainbow bridge; its super-chilled vibes and its abundance of baby and toddler toys.
Lavender Hill, SW11 5TN / bac.org.uk
So called because it’s also a theatre, a kids’ hairdressers, a shoe shop, a cafe and a nursery, Under1Roof is still a pretty decent soft-play centre in its own right. Aimed at 0-5s, this vast space consists of a large town-square area decked out with more play houses, ride-ons, giant bricks and slides than you could possibly imagine, in addition to a separate soft-play room complete with a two-storey climbing structure and lots of lovely squishy things.
The I O Centre, 9 Skeffington Street, SE18 6SR / facebook.com/under1roofkids
Like the south London answer to north London’s Yonder, Substation is a stylish bouldering centre with a wildlife-themed family room – also with a small slide. Designed for ages 2+, The Wild is available to use on a pay-as-you-go basis for 90-minute sessions during the week (on weekends it’s reserved for birthday parties) and you can also book a private family induction. Substation is also home to a stylish cafe where you can grab lunch and play board games post-session.
Unit 13, Ellerslie Square Industrial Estate, SW2 5DZ / substation.co.uk
Foolishly good soft-play-meets-activity-centre scenario for 0-12s. The kind of thing you visit in other countries and think “we’ve got NOTHING like this in the UK”. Well, here it is. The allotted two-hour time slot is nowhere near long enough to try out the gigantic, maze-like wooden play frame, the soft-ball arena, the Toddler Village soft-play zone, the climbing walls, the go-kart track, the black-hole slide, the interactive sand box *breathes*. Just go to Croydon, ok?
The Colonnades, 619 Purley Way, CR0 4RQ / kidspaceadventures.com/croydon
GetSetGo! is the family members’ club with no membership fees, meaning literally anyone in possession of a child can join. The club’s impressive range of classes includes martial arts, music, stay and plays, ballet, swimming and LEGO, but we’d be happy just hanging out in the spacious reception area: think custom-designed wooden play frame, sensory light wall and a kid-friendly cafe serving healthy lunches, tempting toddler snacks and exceptionally good coffee.
Tileman House, 133 Upper Richmond Road, SW15 2TR / get-set-go.com
Peace + Riot, West Dulwich (PERMANENTLY CLOSED)
Possibly the best idea ever had by anyone ever, Peace & Riot is a beautiful contemporary cafe that just happens to have on-site childcare. Parents/carers simply pay £10 per child (or a monthly membership fee) then enjoy 90 minutes of eating/drinking/laptop time, safe in the knowledge that their little one is happily occupied nearby by one of the brilliantly named Peace Keepers. The food is great, alcohol is available and it all turns into a restaurant/bar in the evenings. Ingenious.
12 Croxted Road, SE21 8SW / peaceandriot.co
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich
The National Maritime Museum is home to two interactive play areas – Ahoy! for 0-7s and All Hands for 7-12s – as well as The Great Map, a giant floor atlas complete with moveable ships. While All Hands feels overdue a refresh, Ahoy! is still brilliant with its child-sized fishmongers, net-enclosed sensory area with colour-change lighting, an air-hockey game featuring foam boats, and house ship Rawalpinidi with its maze of wood-panelled rooms to explore below-deck.
Romney Road, SE10 9NF / rmg.co.uk/national-maritime-museum
The Moustache, Sydenham
Newish cafe/bar with hidden kids’ area in the basement. One of those ‘nice places that just so happens to be child-friendly’, rather than a ‘child-friendly cafe’, which half the time are better anyway. I only had a chai when we came here, but it was a pretty damn good chai, and the toy selection is better than in some designated ‘play cafes’. The only bummer was having to leave the buggy on the street, as I just imagined it was being stolen the entire time we were there.
99 Kirkdale, SE26 4BL / themoustache.co.uk
Tots Town, Deptford
This dreamy role-play cafe is probably one of the best things ever to happen to Deptford, and has bridged a pretty huge gap in the children’s entertainment market in SE London. Small but perfectly formed, it includes a playable grocery store, beauty salon, library, diner and doctors’ surgery, all with beautiful attention to detail. Tables have been cunningly placed inside the (gated) play area, allowing adults to sip (really good) coffee right next to the action, and the toilets are stocked with all manor of complimentary nappies and wipes.
10 Tanner’s Hill, SE8 4PJ / totsintown.co.uk
Apple Tree Children’s Cafe, Herne Hill
The original Apple Tree Cafe opened opposite Brockwell Park in 2018, taking over the lease from an existing play cafe on the same site. There are many reasons to love this place, from reasonable prices for generously long sessions to great coffee and food (including toddler tapas), friendly staff and themed activities that change from week to week. It’s popular and can get very busy at times, so it was hardly surprising when they opened a second site in Peckham Rye last year.
27-29 Norwood Road, SE24 9AA / appletreelondon.com/hhplay
Apple Tree Children’s Cafe, Peckham Rye
If anything, we love Apple Tree’s new cafe even more than the original. Ok, so we’d have been even more excited if they’d branched out of SE London and come up north, but it’s still absolutely worth the trek to Peckham. In addition to a bespoke wooden play frame, a ball pool, heaps of toys, an adorable reading area, the same great menu as the OG and themed role-play activities, Apple Tree 2 even has a separate baby-sensory room with soothing lighting and squishy mats.
134-136 Peckham Rye, SE22 9QH / appletreelondon.com/prplay
Totstars – Toby’s Adventure Club, Streatham
Surprisingly amazing indoor play area right on Streatham High Road. While there is a small, more traditional ‘soft-play’ room for babies in the basement, Totstars’ main play area is anything but soft, being dominated instead by the kind of amazing wooden structure you’d find in a particularly imaginative outdoor playground. Rope tunnels, slides, wobbly bridges, a sandpit – it’s all here, along with an on-site cafe. Sessions are cheap and it’s generally quiet during term time.
66 Streatham High Road, SW16 1DA / totstarsuk.com
Bertie & Boo’s Adventure Island, Balham
Bertie & Boo used to have three sites in SW London. Now only the Adventure Island is left, but that’s ok – it was by far the best of the three. Aimed at under-5s, Adventure Island is a verifiable tardis, packing in four whole play areas including a pirate-themed climbing zone, a role-play and disco room, and a large restaurant area complete with play kitchen and giant building bricks. The menu is extensive, with lots of baby- and toddler-friendly options, and there’s even prosecco.
205-207 Balham High Road, SW17 7BQ / bertieandboo.com
London only has two role-play centres (due to high rents, presumably) and this is the south-of-the-river edition. Actually, even if you’re north of the river I’d still recommend getting yourself down to Picnic. Not only does it boast an excellent play town with all the essentials (beauty salon, grocer’s, police station, theatre, etc.), it also manages to pack in a baby area and a large picnic-themed play space. The cafe is excellent too, with almost every meal available as a child’s portion.
Unit 3 The Rotunda, Clarence Street, Kingston-upon-Thames, KT1 1QJ / picnicandplay.co.uk
Peckham Levels, Peckham
It’s an unconventional one, but I love a day spent at Peckham Levels with the kids. Ok, so the children’s area is essentially just a large pink-and-green tarmac half-pipe thing that they can hurl themselves onto, but it’s not like that’s the only place to play (remember, this is basically a huge, carless multi-storey carpark) and anyway, I enjoy the weirdness. The food options are great, and if you visit during the summer you can also check out the Bold Tendencies rooftop art exhibition.
95A Rye Lane, SE15 4ST / peckhamlevels.org
Polka’s recent refurb is so good you don’t even really need to book a show to have a decent day out here (although their shows are really great). In addition to a fancy new family-friendly cafe, the improved Polka Theatre is home to a huge indoor play den complete with colouring tables, a reading corner and a dressing-up area; as well as an incredible outdoor playground with its own custom-designed wooden treehouse. Drop in for free whenever the theatre’s open.
240 The Broadway, SW19 1SB / polkatheatre.com
Hobbledown Heath, Hounslow
You’re unlikely to trek here just to use the soft play – although we really wouldn’t blame you if you did. Hobbledown Heath’s impressive Playbarn is one of the most inventive indoor play spaces we’ve encountered with its crocheted climbing web, breakneck drop slide, sky bridges, digital games and so many levels we couldn’t count them all. The Playbarn also houses the cafe, so you can enjoy your lunch in peace when the kids inevitably become restless. The dream.
Staines Road, Hounslow, TW14 0HH / hobbledown.com/hounslow
London Bridge Station play area
While adorable, this play space is tiny and definitely not worth a special trip. Still, supposing you have time to kill before your train, or you happen to be mooching around London Bridge, it’s a very cute way to kill 10 minutes. The space consists of three train carriage structures – one with a steering wheel and another with a very small slide. Its location – between the Tube and mainline stations and slightly off the main thoroughfare – make it an easy target for vandalism, and it’s often closed for repairs. Worth a look though.
Station Approach Road, SE1 9SP
Play Base, National Army Museum, Chelsea
One of our all-time favourite museum play areas. Play Base might not be free to visit, but it is well worth the trip to the Army Museum for, even if you’re not planning on doing the rest of it. Aimed at 0-8s, the space consists of a two-storey assault-course structure, a canteen, a large play tent, a military jeep and a toy-packed storeroom. Kids eat free in the museum’s airy Cookhouse cafe, and the galleries are packed with interactives. The whole thing is desperately underrated, tbh.
Royal Hospital Road, SW3 4HT / nam.ac.uk/families/play-base
Despite the soft play’s unimaginative ‘London’ theme and the extortionate entry fees, we really liked this place. While the main structure might not feel challenging enough for older kids, it was manageable enough that my two could disappear into it on their own while I enjoyed a coffee, which is surely the only reason we take them to these places in the first place. Kidz#1 is also home to a massive cafe, a VR experience, a mini sports arena and a 7D cinema – whatever that is.
Unit 26-28, 2 Longfield Avenue, Dickens Yard, W5 2TD / kidz1.com
Cloud Twelve, Notting Hill
It might be part of an exclusive members’ club, but I couldn’t do an indoor play areas roundup without including this beauty. Cloud Twelve’s enchanted forest-themed soft-play area is predictably dreamy with its climbable treehouse complex, bumble bee-shaped sensory pod and ball pit complete with vacuum-powered ball blower. Want more? How about a vegetarian/vegan cafe, a relaxing lounge and a whole series of rooms set up with art activities and Montessori toys?
2-5 Colville Mews, W11 2DA / cloudtwelve.co.uk
Hamley’s, Westfield White City
Not a play space in the traditional sense, but Hamleys’ Westfield White City outlet is still a fun place to hang out with young ones – particularly if they’re flagging after a long day of shopping. As well as the big red helter skelter, which is aimed at ages 4+, this spacious branch is also home to LEGO play tables, a Playmobil area and giant Barbie packaging poised for photo ops. Best of all, it’s totally free to use and there’s no pressure to buy anything – except maybe from your kids.
1081 Ariel Way, W12 7GF / westfield.com
Jaego’s House, Kensal Rise
This plush family club might be members-only, but it’s also one of the cheapest of its kind. As well as a drop-off kids’ club, chef-led restaurant, chic lounge with kids’ cinema room and an exercise suite for parents, Jaego’s House is home to two impossibly stylish, state-of-the-art soft-play areas – one for under-5s and one for over-5s – which come complete with their own coffee and snack kiosk and a wine vending machine. Look out for pay-and-play day passes, which the club has made noises about introducing in the near future.
557 Harrow Road, W10 4RH / jaegoshouse.co.uk
The Garden, Science Museum, South Kensington
Given the vastness of the Science Museum, I’m always struck by how stingy the planners were when they allocated the kids’ play area this tiny corner of basement. Also, why is it called The Garden? And why is it aimed at ages 3-6? I digress. Both my kids have always loved the big water table here, and the sensory area is really nice. There’s a cosy den-like bit, and a platform where you can lower beanbags on a pulley. And when all that gets boring, there’s always Wonderlab.
Exhibition Road, SW7 2DD / sciencemuseum.org.uk/garden
A Little Me Time, Ealing
Absurdly child-friendly cafe specialising in bubble tea and Taiwanese cuisine. Think super-cute toddler treats in the form of animal-shaped waffles and dinosaur-shaped biscuits, a small but perfectly formed play area at the front of the space, an ever bigger play area downstairs for classes and parties, and even a kids’ table where bigger ones can sit and craft or play around with the cafe iPad. The owner is amazing and the overall vibe is so chilled you’ll want to stay all day.
58 The Mall, W5 3TA / alittlemetimelondon.co.uk
Purple Dragon, Chelsea
Another private members’ club – and one we’ve been jammy enough to be able to visit on several occasions. If you ever get a chance to hang out at this place, be it through a friend, as a trial or if you just happen to be minted, please do it. The main Imaginarium space is adorable, but we particularly love the little soft-play area with its trampoline and vacuum-powered ball run. There’s also a state-of-the-art music room with a baby grand piano, because of course there is.
Ground Floor, 30 Gatliff Road, SW1W 8DP / purpledragonplay.com
Sorted!, The Postal Museum, Farringdon
The whole of the Postal Museum is great for kids, but Sorted! is particularly good – especially for under-5s. Here they can sort parcels in a mini post office and depot – complete with conveyor belts, pulleys and chutes – and then deliver them in and around a beautifully designed model village. Tinies will love creating their own townscapes with wooden blocks, and there’s even a pair of (working) telephone boxes, a book corner and an unexpectedly high-speed slide.
15-20 Phoenix Place, WC1X 0DA / postalmuseum.org/sorted
All Aboard, London Transport Museum, Covent Garden
Brilliant transport-themed play area across two levels. Kids aged 0-7 are invited to board a fleet of scaled-down vehicles, from a double decker to a Thames Clipper and even a black cab. The baby DLR is great for non-walkers, while older ones can attempt to fix a broken Underground train, try their hand at busking or man the lost-property desk. This might be one of the best play zones we’ve come across, but to be honest the entire museum is a parent’s rainy-day dream.
Covent Garden Piazza, WC2E 7BB / ltmuseum.co.uk
Greta, Roma, Babu & Arlo explore Macaroni Penguin, Royal Docks.