Wednesday 29 August 2012

Culturebaby's Adventures in Museum Land

If you love museums, there is nothing quite like South Kensington. With the V&A, the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum all on one street, passing through a (decorative) looking glass and returning weeks later has never seemed more possible.

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.
Our little party consisted of children from age 4 down to ten months, so I brought a selection of dinosaur books from home for the train journeys and picnic times. It was particularly cute to see the two year old reading to Culturebaby with a series of Roars. Here's a few we'd recommend:
  • 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...

Tuesday 7 August 2012

Wings and Fins

The last two weeks have been focussed on Natural History. This wasn't planned, but it all seems rather appropriate in a week when we've seen our wonderful athletes push the human body to its limits in the London 2012 Olympic games. We have 43 medals as I write and even I'm in danger of becoming more interested in sport...

Last week we continued our unexpected summer theme of sharks and butterflies, an unlikely marriage first set by Hirst's magical retrospective at the Tate Modern (for an account of our first visit see here). Each time we have returned to Hirst's exhibition, Culturebaby has found the live butterflies the most exciting element. We therefore jumped at the invitation to visit Butterfly World in Chiswell Green with our friends. At present, 'world' is rather an overstatement (think tent), but the ambitious plans for the site promise a rainforest dome with 10,000 tropical butterflies, thunderstorms and mock Mayan ruins in 2013. Belize in St Albans? Yes please!

The site contains a number of different insect houses. The butterfly tent was sweltering but stimulating, with a stunning selection of bright butterlies which flew around heads and landed on the children. With help from the friendly staff, the 4 year old was able to excitedly locate butterfly eggs on the leaves. Culturebaby bounced with excitement and flapped her arms like wings as she gazed around her. The insect study centre was equally enthrawling for children. Culturebaby saw a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis and sat on convenient wide ledges to examine tanks of stick insects, cockroaches,  locusts, and various types of mantis, while her little buddies also handled giant snails. Next door we also found a colony of leaf cutter ants, carrying leaves long distances along rope to line their 'city' (visible as a cross section). This was a wonderous sight for adult and baby alike, and Culturebaby's little 9 month old  friend couldn't take his eyes off the activity.
  We luckily chose a beautiful hot day and were also able to spend hours wandering through the fascinating designed gardens. Culturebaby and pals particularly loved venturing through a giant flowerpot into a garden from Brobdingnag or the Borrowers with giant flowerpots and garden tools; exploring the rooms of a house from Wonderland (complete with Madhatter's tea party setting); and investigating a garden with numerous spangly or surreal installations. With lots to touch, see, smell and hide behind, and with flowers and plants designed to attract butterlies, these gardens were a wonderful surprise.

Two days later,  we met another old school friend and her sixth month old daughter at the London Aquarium. After the success of our visit to the Horniman (see here), we were both really excited to take our babies to see the enormous tanks teeming with fascinating species. I had never visited the Aquarium before and didn't know what to expect. With so many brilliant free museums, it is an expensive trip (look out for 2 for 1 offers), and as it is a private business it has annoyingly commercial elements (expect to be collared for a cheesy photo on entry and offered face-painting and other gifts as you move round) but it was also really great for the babies, who loved it (as did we)...

The entrance was one of the best experiences. We were lucky to steal a quiet moment and Culturebaby was able to sit alone on the (thick!) glass walkway floor with sharks swimming below. As we moved through the themed rooms, Culturebaby wriggled and chatted away and placed her hands against the glass. There were some great curved tanks and the babies could lean against them and examine their inhabitants from above. Big hits were the giant tank replicating a Pacific reef complete with 16 sharks, an area full of bright tropical fish (think Nemo and friends), turtles, a crocodile and the penguins. It was sometimes hard to pinpoint the specific things which made Culturebaby giggle and babble with excitement (which she did rather a lot) and sometimes her interest was caught by something unexpected, but she clearly found the whole experience thoroughly stimulating. The journey was also peppered with interesting facts and environmentally conscious messaging, which was interesting for us and I think will bring a whole new dimension for Culturebaby when she's a little older.

I'm also trying to pick out appropriate books and toys from our collection to accompany what we see (remember the champion charity shopping mother?). Last week we attended our first baby book club (a fabulous idea and run by a friend of ours as part of the Picture Book Picnic). Appropriately one of the books on the menu was a gorgeous new book by Petr Horacek called Butterfly Butterfly. Radiant is indeed the right word for this stunningly coloured book complete with story and pop up butterfly. It's a little delicate for tiny hands, but supervised I think it is fine for babies. Similarly amazing is a noisy book we found in the Horniman Museum bookshop called Bugs by Maurice Pledger. This brilliant series allows the reader to hear the recordings of the sounds associated with a particular environment whilst looking at the appropriate pop-up pictures. Again it is delicate, so needs to be held out of the reach of little paws, but Culturebaby still loves it. Other good bug related reads are the eternally popular and fabulous The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle; The Very Lazy Ladybird pop up board book by Isobel Finn and Jack Tickle; one of Culturebaby's earliest favourite books - Feely Bugs by David A Carter (we have a version from 1995 which could be sturdier, but it has really good feely materials and was one of the first books that Culturebaby really enjoyed - she turned the pages backwards and forwards and really examined the bold feely images); a retro find from my brother's old collection - My Garden, an early fold out board book about bugs by Rod Campbell; and finally the wonderful Fuzzy Bee and Friends cloth book by Roger Priddy. This series is Culturebaby's absolute clothbook favourite with catchy rhymes, touchy feely elements, bright colours and easy to handle and satisfyingly crunchy pages.

To accompany our underwater adventures, we also have the equally fab Squishy Turtle cloth book from the above series. Here are another few underwater themed books Culturebaby has enjoyed looking at from our collection:
  •  Dr Seuss's One Fish, Two Fish, Three, Four Five Fish!  - A rhyming and bright board book with 5 counting fish beads which Culturebaby loves to play with;
  • If You See A Whale by Powell and Larranaga - A great lift the flap book with bold images which introduces babies to five sea creatures and prompts actions with each new discovery ("If you see a penguin, waddle like a penguin....") It makes her laugh when I attempt to act them out.
  • 123 Little Fish by Guido van Genechten - A beautiful bright little book I found in the Tate Modern shop. It has beautiful images, cute creatures nestling behind flaps for Culturebaby to find (she's really enjoying lift the flap books at present), and the chance for a game of peekabo at the end;
  • Dart and Dive by Hannah Wood - I'm a big fan of Child's Play publishing, and this little concertina book is no exception. The boards unfold to reveal sea creatures hanging from ribbons, seemingly swimming - and expecially exciting when blown! This one is great for even the smallest babies to lie and watch;
  • Of course for the less scientifically conscious, there's a plethora of Mermaid themed books - some great feely ones in particular from Usborne's 'That's not My'... series and the next stage up - Mermaids by Cartwright and Bird;
  • We also found a couple of lovely story books for older children, but perfect also for a chilled out moment for us - the wonderful Julia Donaldson's The Snail and the Whale (in convenient board book format) is a heartwarming rhyming tale of two unexpected friends adventuring together and helping each other along the way; The Glass Bottom Boat by Peter Harris and published by Tesco (!) was a good charity shop find and introduces just the sort of characters we met in the aquarium; and finally My Friend Whale by Simon James is a lovely and simple moral tale for children about the plight of whales.
It must also be said that the value of cool bathtoys also cannot be underrated in this area. Other than Archimedes the rubber duck, we have great sets of squirty and sponge sea creatures and bath books, which Culturebaby definitely counts amongst her favourite toys (as well as being really educational). She often tries to go to bed still clutching Captain Crab or one of his comrades. For dryer playtimes we also have a giant snail shape sorter (we'll cover this in a later post but shape sorters are Culturebaby's current favourite thing) - if you ignore the slightly annoying tune it is not a bad and quite simple one - and of course we have the seemingly compulsary but wonderfully sensory pram accessory Freddy the Firefly. We also found a brilliant set of Baby Einstein Animal Discovery Cards a few months ago. Culturebaby loves sorting through these, examining the pictures and (hopefully) learning to recognise some of the animals from their portraits.

 Next stop, Culturebaby's first trip to the Natural History Museum...
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