Today our "extended family" (my long suffering friend and her two fabulous kids) invited us to join them on a trip to Stockwood Park Discovery Centre near Luton. When I learn to drive (soon!) I owe them at least a year's worth of carting around.
Despite topping the charts in the Crap Towns of Britain Poll (II), Luton, it seems, harbours some little gems. The Discovery Centre is almost the opposite of Verulamium Museum in that it is multi-faceted, sprawling and surprising. It seems to be primarily designed with kids in mind and has opportunities for sensory engagement at every turn. As we had never visited before, every new area brought something unexpected. We moved from Life's Journey, through a cathedral to horse-drawn carriages (piled high to the ceiling), activity playgrounds, a beehouse, gardens (sensory, medicinal, Elizabethan, wartime... the list goes on), open spaces with large old trees, a hands-on museum of local ancient history and a collection of tractors! It is so seemingly random that it kept us adults, and the children, entertained all day. Culturebaby had so much to touch and feel that she kept fighting sleep until she passed out somewhere in the Cretaceous period.
Some of Culturebaby's favourite things:
- MOVEMENT: As always, she just loves the opportunity to be walked around in the Baby Bjorn, looking at new things, getting fresh air; arms and legs flapping with excitement;
- TOUCH: There was a huge range of exciting textures for us to touch - from fossils to garden ornaments, plants to horsehair, honeycomb to metal car parts;
- SMELL: Surprisingly there were lots of things to smell, including a medieval fair with its range of odours!
- SEE: Culturebaby can't move past an exciting video without being transfixed, and there were also bright exhibits and several murals. She also loves watching her older friends play and there was plenty of opportunity for that;
- HEAR: One of our favourite things was a sensory garden with a couple of noisy items to play with. Culturebaby particularly liked a large windchime that she could hit with a stick and make a range of notes. Although her rainmaker is one of her favourite toys, she did get a bit scared by a giant and very noisy wheel version! The bee building was also a welcome oasis of calm with classical music (and a commentary) and buttons to press to hear the sound of bees;
- PLAY: We managed a rendition of This is the Way the Farmer Rides in the back of a real farmyard cart. She also cooked up some imaginative milk with her buddies in the reconstructed retro caravan...
- And of course there is always that persistent and fascinating baby that lives in windows and shiny surfaces wherever we go...
Some great things for Culturebaby's little friends:
- PLAY: There is a great adventure playground, lots of educational games and dressing up boxes everywhere;
- EXPLORE: There are wagons to board (including a large chariot that was used in the filming of Ben Hur and a car used in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), chairs that simulate the real movement of carts and cars, reconstructed houses, a sandpit to excavate and gardens to explore. There are also normally bees and chickens;
- LEARN: There are some great child-friendly and interactive museum exhibits and some discovery sections that not only contain archaeological finds, but show how they ended up under the ground. The biggest hit with the three year old was a video recreation of a prehistoric underwater scene, showing how the fossil of a Icthyosaurus (displayed below it) was created. She went on to look hard at the various fossils that had been swimming around in the video. It was a really effective learning tool. Another great activity, for both one and three year old, was a medieval clothing puzzle game on a large streetscene mural.
One of the loveliest things about hanging out with my daughter and her friends, which I genuinely adore, is that rediscovery of the excitement of childhood. Although in places the museum was a bit rough and ready, with some broken exhibits, it was largely well thought out and fascinating for kids. There's also something different and new to do at every age so we'll be able to keep coming back. And it's free. Bargain.