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London's Museums: Making History Fun for Kids

by Dawn Copeman

Do you remember traipsing around dusty museums as child? Longing to get outside, to play, to eat, to do anything that was just, well, less dull? Do you dread taking your own children on a 'cultural' holiday for the same reasons? If you do, then you're worrying over nothing. If anything, you'll find it hard to drag your children away from these historical attractions. You see, whilst you were busy growing up, history was becoming interesting and fun.

The London Museums listed below are just a sampling of the museums in Britain that make it easy for you and your children to have a fun time and learn something at the same time. They offer kid's backpacks, discovery trails and hands-on activities that you'll want to join in on too, (and you can!) They also offer online activities for children to rouse their interest before they arrive.

The Victoria and Albert Museum, Kensington

Victoria and Albert MuseumThis museum is home to over 3000-year's worth of art and design. It offers trails for families, hands-on activities, family events, backpacks and activity carts.

Trails for Families are suitable for children aged seven to twelve and their families. There are five different trails that encourage the children to complete puzzles and activities as they visit the museum. These trails are free of charge and can be obtained from the information desk on arrival.

The Backpacks are aimed at children aged five to twelve, but younger children can obtain an activity sheet to complement the backpack, so that they too can have fun. My daughter had just turned four when she did her first Backpack. The Backpacks contain puzzles, jigsaws, stories and things to make and do as they walk around the museum. There are five to choose from; each covering different galleries. The backpacks are free of charge and do not need to be booked in advance, but they are only available on Saturdays or everyday in the school holidays. You can collect them from the Information Desk, but you will need proof of ID to borrow a Backpack.

The Activity Cart is an arts and crafts activity, aimed at children aged three and over, that moves around the museum. The activity on offer reflects the gallery it is currently in. This activity is free and does not need to be pre-booked, but as each activity lasts between 20 and 90 minutes, make sure you leave enough time for this when you plan your visit. The Activity Cart is available on Sundays and everyday in the school holidays.

The V&A offers hundreds of Hands-On Activities throughout the museum suitable for children of varying ages. Some of the Hands-On Activities include trying on armour, corsets or crinoline, making chairs, weaving or guessing the mystery object.

In addition to the above, the V&A also offers a series of Family Events such as printing a psychedelic T-Shirt, Middle Eastern Magic and a Turkish Weekend. The V&A has an online newsletter for families where you can preview forthcoming events. It can be found at: http://www.vam.ac.uk/activ_events/families

Online: The V&A offers a variety of games including pairs, make a curiosity cabinet and guess the mystery object. Visit http://www.vam.ac.uk/vastatic/microsites/1185_families/flash/

There are two other Victoria and Albert Museums in London: The V&A Museum of Childhood, home to the national childhood collection and a celebration of childhood and toys; and the V&A Theatre Museum, which has the largest collection of artefacts and memorabilia relating to British theatre, opera, film, and puppetry. The V&A Museum of Childhood has good online activities for children and the displays are interesting to children, but it doesn't offer any backpacks or trails. The V&A Theatre Museum has no activities or trails for children. Details of all three museums can be found at the V&A website.

The Natural History Museum

Natural History Museum dinosaurThis is where you will find out about how the earth was formed; discover geology, precious stones, a well-hidden Wildlife Garden, (it's next to the West Lawn, but most visitors don't know it's there); and visit a colony of leaf-cutter ants. It is also where you will find dinosaurs, always popular with children, and in 2006 they introduced a new animatronics display! But if that wasn't enough -- or if the queues for the dinosaurs are too long, as they can be in summer -- then the Natural History Museum offers Explorer Backpacks, Discovery Guides and two hands-on galleries.

The Explorer Backpacks come complete with binoculars, a traditional explorer's hat, drawing materials and activities for your children to complete as you wander around the museum. The Backpacks are suitable for children under seven. They are free, as is entrance to the museum, but you will need to pay a refundable deposit of £25 via credit card to obtain the backpack. The Explorer Backpack can be obtained from the Information Desk when you arrive at the museum.

There are a wide range of Discovery Guides aimed at children aged four to sixteen. They include a variety of activities involving various exhibits in the museum and have educational content. They cost between 40p and 80p and can be bought from the Information Desk.

There are two hands-on galleries in the Natural History Museum: Investigate and Earth Lab. In the Investigate Gallery you and your children aged between seven and fourteen can handle geological, plant and animal specimens, put them under the microscope, search the computer database and use other scientific apparatus. There is also a secluded garden where children can explore plants and animals in their natural habitat. In the Earth gallery, children can look at fossils, investigate them and even bring their own along for identification. The Earth gallery must be pre-booked. Investigate is open weekdays from 2.30pm to 5pm during school term time, and 10.30pm to 5pm during the holidays and all day Saturday and Sunday.

Online: Before you go you must visit the Kids Only area of the Natural History Museum website; it has several online games and videos to make the children more excited about their visit.

The Science Museum

Science Museum London

If you want to see Stephenson's Rocket, the Apollo 10 capsule or other early inventions of science and technology, then this is the place for you. In addition to children's trail guides (suitable for children aged four to sixteen, which can be completed as you view your exhibits of choice), the Science Museum has an entire gallery just for children. Head to the basement and here you will find a complete floor full of hands-on activities. They offer five different mini-galleries suitable for children of various ages.

The Garden is not an actual garden but a place where children aged three to seven can find out about simple scientific principles through play.

The Pattern Pod is a multi-sensory environment aimed at children under eight and their families. Its range of activities teaches young children about patterns.

The Launch Pad is my favourite place in the museum. It is full of fun, easy puzzles and games that teach scientific facts. There is a wide range of activities suitable for children from two to adult. It can get busy!

On Air is aimed at children over eleven. It is a working radio studio that children can take control of. There are also a range of computer based activities to teach children about sound waves and music.

The Secret Life of the Home is aimed at older children and their parents. It is a display of everyday items found in the home, from the earliest fridge and coffee maker to the earliest home computer game. There are some interactive elements here, but not as many as in the other galleries.

Online. The Science Museum delivers great value through its website. It has downloadable activity sheets on experiments that children can carry out at home such as DNA for beginners, Hands on Science and Code Breaking.

It also offers games and virtual experiments; the current theme is optical illusions, as well as a virtual tour of one of the museum's galleries and the Apollo 10 capsule. Visit http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/education/families/online.asp

The Bank of England Museum

This little museum traces the history of the Bank of England since its formation in 1694 to its role as a central financial institution today. It is surprisingly child-friendly for a small museum. Online it offers quizzes, jigsaws a walk through time and a virtual tour and the museum runs many children's activities such as making a door hanger in the shape of a pound.

So forget about the dusty exhibits and ill-lit corridors of your childhood memories. Today, once your children experience what London's museums have on offer, they may never want to leave!

More Information:

The Victoria and Albert Museum

The Natural History Museum
Kids Section: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/kids-only/index.html

The Science Museum

The Bank of England Museum

Dawn Copeman is a freelance writer and commercial writer who has had more than 100 articles published on travel, history, cookery, health and writing. She currently lives in Lincolnshire, where she is working on her first fiction book. She started her career as a freelance writer in 2004 and has been a contributing editor for several publications, including TimeTravel-Britain.com and Writing-World.com .
Article © 2006 Dawn Copeman
Photos courtesy of Britainonview.com


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