A couple of weeks ago, a happy little band of children, babies and some of my oldest friends braved the Olympic traffic and navigated the tube system with our prams to spend a few wonderful hours in museum land. Crazy you say? Well, in fact, this Olympic effect seems to have much to recommend it... Firstly, The Tube wasn't actually that crowded (a welcome surprise); secondly, the museum wasn't quite as hectic as normally expected for summer holidays; and finally, we encountered London in a cheery mood with lots of people ready to help us up and down steps with our convoy of prams. That said, (digression for soapbox moment):
Dear TfL, with so many children visiting South Ken, you really ought to put some lifts and ramps in. It's ridiculous to see so many parents stuggling with pushchairs, not to mention the impact this has on disabled museum-goers. Thanks. (End of soapbox moment)
This time, our expedition had one main goal - to see the Dinosaurs, but, as it was a beautiful sunny day, we began by enjoying one of London's lesser known child-friendly parks: the courtyard at the V&A. With a shallow large central pool which children are welcome to paddle in, lawns and a little cafe, it is a haven from the bustle of London. With toddlers in soggy (rapidly expanding), nappies and cute kids in sunhats wading around hand in hand, the courtyard harbours rather an appropriate fin de siecle air of jolity and festival.
With lunch eaten and Culturebaby rested, we headed into the Natural History Museum. These corridors are so well trodden by me that there is possibly a Museum Mummy footprint to be found somewhere amongst the fossils, but with Culturebaby it provided a whole new and refreshing experience. When you know somewhere well, you often find you no longer look hard at it, and through toddlers eyes I saw the place again for the first time. The most surprising and welcome discovery was how much there was to touch and feel - so important for babies. We had entered through the Exhibition Road entrance, which has babychanging and a place to stow prams, but also provides a slightly quieter and more meandering route through to the dinosaurs. We stopped for a while in the Lasting Impressions Gallery. This great little area provides the opportunity for anyone to touch, feel and examine a range of impressive fossils. Culturebaby often gets frustrated when she sees something exciting and can't feel it. This area was perfect for her. She spent a while touching each item, and was also thoroughly interested in what her older buddies were doing. She always wants to play with what the older children play with and here she notably copied them as they examined the items. The 4 year olds also really responsed well to the invitation to work out the age of the Bezoar Goat from its horn ridges, count tree rings etc... calling to each other excitedly as they shared their discoveries with each other.
At ten months, Culturebaby is clearer about what interests her, and I was delighted to find that as we stopped to wait for our friends she was touching and examining the beautifully modelled terracotta wall tiles of the museum over my shoulder. The NHM is stunningly designed to showcase natural flora and forna, both living and extinct, in its decoration and is an absolute work of art and architectural prowess in its own right. It was refreshing to stop and take the time to look at the museum building rather than just its contents.
The dinosaurs were, as ever, very popular. We made our way (slowly) along the high walkway (accessible by lift), carried along by the perenial herd of other curious homo sapiens sapiens, past a number of suspended fossils and exciting animatronics (which really caught Culturebaby's attention), towards the eternally appealing large T-Rex. I have it on good authority that the 'creature' is programmed to respond to the colour red. I have no idea whether the source was pulling my leg, but shuffling along behind our friend's bright red pram, I was very proud of my little explorer as she watched the animatronic model roar towards her without flinching, and babbled away at it with a smile on her face. (NB. For the less adventurous, there is a route round avoiding this particular room.) I've been round this whole section of the museum a number of times, but on this occasion I was really struck by how appealing it was for the children. Of course kids on the whole love dinosaurs, but this wasn't just a room of fossils and models, it also had screens recreating past environments, questions to consider, cartoons to bring the science to life, and most excitingly for us, LOTS to touch and feel. Culturebaby loved the range of textures and shapes of skin, teeth, scales and bones that she was invited to maul. We treated ourselves to a couple of models in the well stocked shop to remember our first encounter with the Cretaceous. Parental geeks beware. The shop has THE best selection of children's science and nature books you could ever hope to buy. Humanity may have missed the dinosaurs by a few million years, but here they present a real danger to the wallet.
- For babies, you can't do much better than Usborne's bright and engaging touchy feely books That's Not My Dinosaur and Dinosaurs, both by Watt and Wells. The first is part of the brilliant That's Not My... series where a little mouse introduces babies to a range of popular themes and textures, and the second is the next step up, a slightly more complex book with more to touch on each page, dealing with the concept of opposites. Both aim to develop sensory and language awareness. DK also produce a number of lovely tactile Dinosaur books;
- There are also a few great Dinosaur pop-up books we found on our bookshelves. Dinosaur Days by Mitter and Snyder is cute, colourful, rhymes, and has feely bits, flaps and pop-up elements. It was the four year old boy's favourite. Another hit was the clever What's in the Prehistoric Forest? Beg, borrow or buy a copy second-hand. It's quirky and beautiful and all the kids loved it;
- If you want rhymes, there are a couple of gems around. The two year old loved the colourful and fun Stomp, Chomp, Big Roars! Here come the Dinosaurs! by Umansky and Sharratt. Similarly Bumpus Jumpus Dinosaurumpus by Mitton and Parker-Rees soon had "Shake, shake, shudder near the sludgy old swamp. The dinosaurs are coming! Get ready to romp!" stuck in my head for hours... Though they are probably for slightly older children, Culturebaby enjoys the rhythm and bright pictures of these too. Similarly, Dinosaur Roar by Paul and Henrietta Stickland, with a simple rhythm, bold images and a great selection of adjectives, is a perfect exploration of opposites;
- The two year old selected as her favourite (and has since asked to read again and again) the wonderful series of stories about Harry and the Dinosaurs by Ian Whybrow and Adrian Reynolds. This gorgeous series documents the adventures of a little boy and a set of toy dinosaurs he found in the attic. It not only teaches the names of a number of important dino characters, but provides a story for many occasions (first day at school, the dentist etc...) and perhaps most appropriately for our little trip I'd recommend Harry and the Dinosaurs at the Museum, where his little pals meet their own ancestors;
- Finally Culturebaby's friend also brought a rather exciting looking book back from the shop and it instantly joined our wish list for when she is a little older. As part of a pair with (the also hugely exciting) How the Sphinx got to the Museum, Jessie Hartland's How the Dinosaur Got to the Museum, is a brilliant exploration of the process from palaeontology to display. Just the sort of thing that could lead to a lifetime of scrambling around in the sand...