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