X Play, Don’t Play. Walala’s immersive maze left us puzzled

Anyone who knows me well will know that public art is one of my passions. As a director of Brockley Street Art Festival, the work of designer Camille Walala has inspired me again and again, producing brilliant examples of how enjoyable and accessible art is right there on the street. Her incredible Dream Come True mural for Splice, brightening up the Shoreditch streetscape. Her inspired Southwark crossing, bringing colour to an everyday pedestrian journey during last year’s London Design Festival. To say I’m a big fan is an understatement. So imagine how excited I was to hear that she’d been commissioned to create an immersive installation of her trademark colours and patterns, at one of my local galleries, just in time for the school holidays.

Described as a ‘temple of wonder’, Walala x Play sees the creation of a maze-like installation at Greenwich Peninsula’s lesser-known NOW Gallery, inviting visitors to fathom out the anomalies and asymmetries in the design, by exploring every nook and cranny of this compact three-dimensional space.

Due to popularity, visitors must pre-book a 15 minute slot to view. Visiting with my daughter (age 6) and our friends (with children aged 6 and 2), the glass aspect of the gallery on approach slightly spoilt the surprise. However, there was still plenty of enthusiasm as we neared the entrance, even after the steely front of house had read and re-read us the rules.

Take a wrist band.
Shoes off.
No running.
Do not touch the walls.
Do not sit on any part of the structure.
Children must be accompanied at all times.
Children aren’t allowed to view the maze from the mezzanine level.
This is an art installation and not a soft play area.

We get it. But did they need to be so heavy-handed that they forgot to welcome us in any way? Or tell us to have fun? And what about the artist and the work? Did they not warrant a mention? Looks like they forgot about that too.

Once inside, we found ourselves amongst some of the most playful ‘don’t-play’ art that we have ever experienced. It was impossible to stay together, as our young companions darted through narrow passages, only to emerge in the most unexpected of places. We gazed into mirrors, but our reflections were elsewhere. Instead of corners, we found dead-ends. Instead of space, we’d been squished. We were fooled again and again, and it was bending our small, medium and large minds. This, together with the dazzling colours and patterns, soon made us feel like we’d been sucked into a human kaleidoscope, twisted and spun around and around.  It was so much fun (sorry), and a brilliant way to experience the creative conundrum that goes on inside this incredible artist’s imagination.

Spat out of the labyrinth and back into the foyer, we marvelled at the super cute mechanical model of the neighbouring Emirates Air Line, high above our heads, before peeking our noses into the cosy cinema. Don’t be fooled by the writing on the wall though, there’s no Timelapse of Walala x Play happening in here. It’s just a hangover from the Walala opening night. There is, however, a clever Minecraft style interactive map of the Greenwich Peninsula and its surrounds, worth a play if you’re allowed and have the time to linger. Outside in Peninsula Gardens there is also more fun (not) to be had, in the form of two unique ping-pong tables adorned with Walala’s lively designs. Bats and balls are apparently available to borrow from the Now Gallery reception. That is if you’re brave enough to go back in and ask for them, or indeed, old enough to play.

Walala x Play is in at NOW Gallery, Greenwich Peninsula until 24th September. 
Opening times: Mon to Fri 10am-7pm, Sat & Sun 11am-4pm.
Admission Free.
15 minute viewing slots should be booked via the eventbrite.

Whilst you’re there: As well as nearby Emirates Air Line, take a 15 minute walk down East Parkside and get close to nature at Greenwich Ecology Centre. From here you can double back along the Olympian Way river path, spying the many flotsam and jetsam sculptures. 

Arts-lovers guide to summer family fun

However much time you have to spend with the children over the school holidays, the arts is awash with some fantastic family friendly fun, with many events and activities happening all summer long. Here’s my arts-lovers guide to a summer of family fun!

S is for Shakespeare’s Globe

Celebrating literature and the art of storytelling, from 28-30 July the globe hosts everything from talks with Michael Morpurgo to interactive Shakespeare workshops. Advance booking highly recommended. See website for tickets and times.

U is for Udderbelly

Catch the last few gems of this family spectacular, which has been occupying the South Bank since April. The Australian acrobats staging Children Are Stinky (22-27 July) wowed the crowds at Edinburgh last year with their daredevil stunts, whilst Jungle Book (1-24 August) brings Rudyard Kipling’s well-known tale bang up to date, setting it in an urban jungle and packing it with street dance and circus.

M is for Museum Trips for Kids

Remember our recent trip to David Hockney with Imagine Art Club? Bringing artists and exhibitions to life in a way that so few galleries do, the enigmatic Aga returns with a host of visits planned to fill the dying days of the holidays. The sessions, which combine an informative exhibition tour with some practical art techniques, take in Matisse at the Royal Academy (29 & 30 August) and Fahrelnissa Zeid’s abstract art at Tate Modern (3 September).

M is for Mad Hatter!

Les Petits will be occupying the atmospheric tunnels of The Vaults almost every day of the summer holidays, with their immersive interpretation of C S Lewis’ classic, Adventures in Wonderland (until 3 September). If you’re looking for something more summery, Sixteenfeet Productions are presenting their own unique retelling in some of London’s loveliest green spaces, including Brockwell Park (22 July to 31 August), Morden Hall Park (4-7 August), Streatham Rookery (10-14 August) and Osterley Park (16-20 August). There’s also a chance to attend a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.

E is for Eclectic

National Theatre’s free River Stage returns to the South Bank for almost the entire summer break this year, promising an eclectic mix of live theatre, DJs, family fun, dance, cinema, workshops and live music. Don’t miss the all-female performance troupe Figs in Wigs and their creative tribute to the 80s (29 July, 15.15) and The Jukeboxes (5 August, 12.00 and 14.45) who recreate classic pop videos using props, puppets and wigs. There’s also a beat-boxing vocal workshop with UK beatboxing champion Grace Savage (12 August, 14.00).

R is for Royal Academy

A few weeks ago I reviewed the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition on behalf of Kids in Museums, and I was so impressed at the endless variety of work, from world-renowned artists such as Tracey Emin and Bob and Roberta Smith, to emerging artists and architects. We also loved the handy Art Detectives pack, free to family visitors in order for them to get the most out of the show. See website for details of tickets and opening times. Exhibition runs until 20 August. While you’re there, as part of exhibition Second Nature: The Art of Tunnicliffe, there’s also the RA’s first ever dedicated family corner with permanent activities, as well as a series of workshops and story-tellings.

O is for Outdoor Art

It should really be P is for Pavilion, as both the Serpentine and Dulwich Picture Gallery celebrate all that is great about art in the outdoors, showing off their spectacular summer pavilions. As well as a family day (22 July) Serpentine are hosting a programme of lunchtime talks, whilst every Wednesday in August, Dulwich Picture Gallery will be hosting drop-in art making sessions for families, inspired by their exhibition Sargent: The Watercolours, and the design of their first ever pavilion. If you love outdoor art, make sure you also don’t miss Frieze Sculpture 2017 (until 8 October). This first-ever summer display of sculpture in the English Gardens of Regents Park is absolutely free, and brings together 25 new works by leading 20th-century artists and contemporary artists from around the world.

F is for Festival

Nobody does festivals better than Southbank Centre and alongside the usual beach and water fountain fun, the Summertime festival extends this year’s theme of Nordic Matters with contemporary circus Cirkus Cirkör (13-16 August), the continuation of Adventures in Moominland (until 20 August) and a weekend celebrating Swedish feasting, craft and Nordic music (19-20 August).

F is for Framed Film Club

Framed Film Festival returns to Barbican later in the year but the Framed Film Club picks up again every Saturday in September with a programme specially curated by children’s films by author Jamila Gavin. Popular kids flick Ratatouille sneaks into the end of the summer holidays (2 September, 11am), but more exciting is The Adventures of Prince Achmed (9 September) with introduction from Ms Gavin herself, as well as a live musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne. See website for tickets and age restrictions.

U is for Up

Well, Pop Up. As well as your last chance to catch the immersive exhibition The Fantastic World of Dr. Seuss (ends 3 September), this summer, Discover Story Centre will be staging 2 pop-up playgrounds. Illustrators and artists Pencil & Help will be hosting a Pop-Up Poetry Playground (5-20 August) where you can make a poem out of big bendy shapes and draw a poem to take home with you, then artist Kristi Minchin unveils her interactive Geometric Playground (21 August to 3 September) with cogs to turn, levers to pull and pendulums to swing. See website for opening times and details of day passes. Entry is free from 21 July to 14 August to those living or working in Newham.

N is for National Portrait Gallery

Inspired by the BP Portrait Award 2017, the gallery has planned a programme of free family workshops and activities (24 July to 4 August) including painting, drawing and a chance to learn more about judging a portrait competition. The jewel in the crown is the  special Playdoh Portraits session (20 August, 13.00 for 3+, 15.00  for 7+) with artist Eleanor Macnair, where visitors recreate a portrait from the gallery’s collection using nothing but play doh. Tickets are free and available one hour before the event.

Finding more than fair-weather fun at Serpentine Pavilion

I’m usually first past the post to visit the annual Serpentine Pavilion. In fact, i’d go so far to say that I anticipate it.

Over the years I’ve seen more than a few internationally renowned artists take up the challenge of designing a 300 square metre structure to take pride of place alongside one of London’s most exciting contemporary art galleries. With the intention of creating a cafe-cum-social space by day, and an entertainment space by night, I’ve always enjoyed putting the resulting structure through its paces with a young companion in tow. So imagine my disappointment this morning, as we drew closer to Francis Kéré’s bold blue structure, and my 4 year old decided to drop the clanger “I’m not going in there”.

I’ve always relished having kids that were open to everything, but here I was, in front of what was intended to be one of Serpentine’s most inclusive pavilions, and she had bailed. What on earth was I to do? I knew you’d be relying on me. I knew I had to think quick.

The artist was particularly keen on ensuring visitors to the pavilion remain ‘in nature’ whilst they view it, which means there’s plenty of scope to circumnavigate the space, without really feeling like you’re “in”. This was helpful. I could at least talk her into a scoot around the outside, and with four separate entrances and free-standing perforated walls, i’d at least get a good peek inside.

The whole structure is inspired by the canopy of a tree and its role as the centre of community in the artist’s native Burkina Faso. The focal point of the community, the tree offers shade and shelter, but it is also a social space, a meeting place where everyone in the village can come together.

Three quarters of the way round and we struck gold, in the form of a mound of plywood which had been fashioned into what appeared like a slide. A simple accessory to the centrepiece was shaping up to be our main event. Grateful for being thrown a lifeline, I dashed inside to check the rules of engagement with front of house staff, and at the wishes of the artist, we were free to explore. She slid down its shiny surfaces. She reclined in the (not quite) sunshine. She circled it like a mountain, and jumped free from its summit. So much more than a slide, this humble addition successfully recreates the collective gathering of children under the tree, a virtual kindergarten, allowing us ‘villagers’ the time and space to look on, to talk and to share stories.

Now sold on the structure, we ventured inside to the sweet smell of coffee. The central courtyard which kept us connected to nature, was the next big draw and we both loved seeing and feeling the outdoors inside. The seating here is strictly for bottoms and don’t allow the same level of adventure, but the wind in our hair and the stones under foot soon had us lost in our own thoughts, as if we were on a distant beach. All we needed was to be free of the overcast skies above and the world would be perfect.

Keen to quit whilst ahead (and grateful to have turned a thumbs down into a thumbs up), we headed off, over the road to the Diana Memorial Fountain for a paddle.

As we moved away from the pavilion, I could finally appreciate the expanse of the funnel-like roof in all its glory, ready and waiting for the dark clouds above us to kick it into action. Bound to nature, this creation really comes to life when it rains and any water collected on the roof is channeled into a spectacular waterfall effect, before being evacuated through the floor for later use within the park. This surely makes this one of the most simple, yet useful, pavilions we have ever visited.

Whatever the weather, it goes without saying that Serpentine Pavilion should be high on your day out ‘hit list’ this summer. Free, family friendly and lots of fun, it’s a visual feast that neither a grumpy pre schooler nor the British summertime can spoil.

Serpentine Pavilion is open until 8th October 2017.
Admission Free, Open daily 10am to 6pm.

Inspired by Francis Kéré’s stories of gathering, debate and community the Pavilion will become host to a series of picnic talks this summer, every Wednesday at 1pm until 23rd August.

There is also a Family Day on 22nd July. See website for details

7 Step Guide to First-Time Edinburgh Fringe for Families

Last year’s Edinburgh Fringe was momentous for me. Alongside putting together my definitive Best of Free Edinburgh Fringe for Families, for the first time ever since being footloose and child-free, I decided to let my children (aged 5 and 3) in on the fun, organising a week-long break to take in Edinburgh Fringe. I entered into this decision completely accepting that our experience might be unrecognisable from what we’d enjoyed in the past, yet contrary to my assumptions, it was one of the most memorable family holidays we have ever had. It wasn’t, however, without its challenges. What I learned forms an invaluable guide for those visiting this year with children.

1. Book early to avoid bankruptcy

If you’re reading this planning to visit this year, and you haven’t yet booked flights or accommodation, it’s likely you’ve already missed the boat. The cheapest flights are on sale up to a year in advance, but booking in the sale at the end of the year prior, can usually yield good results. We paid approx £400 return for 2 adults and 2 children (including seat selection) from London City to Edinburgh with Flybe. Easyjet and Ryanair also provide affordable alternatives from a range of UK airports, and occasionally British Airways muster up a bargain. Alongside travel, the price of accommodation in Edinburgh can swell by more than 30% during the fringe, with family options limited, depending on how comfy you want to be. Airbnb is obviously a great option, but ensure you’re centrally located or the daily commute could really take its toll. We stayed in Holyrood Aparthotel, just a stone’s throw from The Pleasance, offering all the comfort and services of a hotel (daily cleaning, concierge, safe, free wi-fi, family friendly) but with the flexibility of self catering, saving us on lunches out and evening meals. Our 2 bed apartment with fully equipped kitchen cost approximately £1100 for 5 nights, but there are less glam options from around £850. It was great to have a base to escape when we needed to, and the kids settled in a treat. It was our home from home.

2. Never underestimate the power of planning

If you think you can just rock up, pick up a programme and point and shoot, you’re wrong. Edinburgh’s Fringe programme is immense and unless you take the time and effort to familiarise yourself with what’s on offer for you, you’ll be well and truly bamboozled. Far from sapping the life out of spontaneity, creating an activity wish list by day and time was a brilliant way of wading through the haze. We still embraced so many of the flyers waved in our faces, but it enabled us to be much more nimble. By having plenty of back-up, we never missed anything that we really wanted to see, and there was no confused panic if events were cancelled or didn’t live up to expectations. For planning, the Fringe website has come a long way in terms of usability, with the range of performances well categorised, easy to find and book. There is, however, definitely still some value in rooting through the many pages of the pre-ordered printed programme with a highlighter pen to choose your goals. Similar planning principles should also be applied to any eateries that you are keen to try. Historic Edinburgh’s restaurants and cafés generally lack space, especially during the busy festival season, so always carry a picnic in the day and book ahead for popular dinner venues, such as yummy pizza pick Amarone, beautifully housed in an old banking hall.

3. It’s not all child’s play

When it comes to choosing what to see and do, there’s no right or wrong. Edinburgh has everything from Shakespeare for Kids and science shows, to mad cap magic. There’s even a kids pub quiz! My husband and I did our own shortlist based on what we liked, what the kids might like and what was new and unusual, then we merged it all together. Visiting with children also doesn’t have to mean you’re limited to the children’s shows. There are almost 800 performances classified as ‘U’ or ‘Universally Suitable For All’ with only 131 of these listed as children’s shows. Providing they aren’t in an unsuitable venue (e.g. age restricted pub), don’t stipulate age, are at a time that works for you and aren’t too lengthy for fidgety bottoms, you can seek out something for you all to enjoy. Perhaps (if you need to) pre-book one or two things that you know the kids will love, so that you have some guaranteed big-hitters. For example Les Petits’ First Hippo On The Moon by David Walliams is running for the majority of the festival at The Pleasance, and can be booked in advance through the Edinburgh Fringe website. Bagging a dead-cert might leave the door open for you all to experiment elsewhere.

4. Free, can be stress free

The beauty of ‘free’ is the right to bail at any time, without loss of money or more importantly, loss of face! This year’s programme has well over 100 free performances, activities and events under the ‘U’ classification, 17 of which are children’s shows. The PBH Free Fringe is a great place to start, as is the Free Festival, yielding everything from children’s theatre such as Blue Bird, Ceilidh Kids dance lessons for children and adults and the (almost) educational Science Magic. There’s also free fringe music every day in the glass-roofed hall of the National Museum of Scotland, plus don’t miss its stunning views from the recently refurbished roof terrace. Virgin Money’s Fringe on the Royal Mile is also a brilliant place to watch free previews of hundreds of Fringe shows, making it a great place to discover gems beyond the children’s programme.

5. Be realistic about what you can achieve in a day

You might be on holiday and you might be at Edinburgh, but avoid the temptation to pack out your agenda more than you’d ever dream of at home. Try to cluster your activities into one or two neighbourhoods, to avoid trawling back and forth across the city (as we did when we were child-free). This is where your wish list from Step 2 will serve you well, giving you a chance to stroll and take impromptu stops, exploring the many hidden gems of this beautiful city. There are also some great hubs that you can head to if you’re at a loose end, such as The Pleasance Courtyard, where there’s always craft activities on offer for visiting children.

6. Be prepared to ditch the buggy

Although the Georgian New Town is more accessible, the Medieval Old Town causes havoc with any stroller, with parents having to endure the stress of busy, narrow pavements, whilst little ones experience bone-shaker sensations generated by the prevalence of historic cobbles. Laden with an almost unusable buggy board and having not brought along a toddler-carrier, we had to resort to carrying our youngest quite a bit. Yet another great reason to be realistic with your daily quest.

7. Take a Break

If you’ve made it here to Step no. 7, you should have done everything you need to sit back and relax, as much as you can when on holiday with children.  As with any city break (especially this one during festival time) it’s busy and it’s hectic, and it can take its toll, especially on very young family members. The good news is that Edinburgh’s parks are plentiful. Whether the wilds of Holyrood Park (the gateway to King Arthur’s Seat) or the brilliant children’s playground at The Meadows, there’s plenty of break-out space for children of all ages to let loose. Less than an hour from the city by bus, beautiful beaches are also abound, such as the swathes of beach-combing sand at Portobello. This Victorian seaside suburb has bags of character, pretty beachfront cafés and more recently, a few chichi shops, making it a great option for an escape. Once at the beach, all that remains is to give yourself a huge pat on the back for clawing back your old life, whilst introducing your children to one of the everlasting giants of the arts scene.

Edinburgh Fringe runs from the 4th to 28th August. 

Share your Edinburgh highs and lows this summer by tagging me on Instagram or Twitter and as they say in Scotland; Whit’s fur ye’ll no go past ye, or whatever is meant to happen to you, will happen to you! Good luck and happy hols!

Slicker and sillier, Adventures in Wonderland is still a sweet treat

When award-winning children’s theatre company Les Petits first brought their immersive adaptation of Alice in Wonderland to The Vaults, we were left grinning from ear to ear. However, since being frightened half to death by Rob Watt’s Goosebumps at the same venue, I was struggling to persuade my daughter back to this style of theatre, even with the promise of exploring Wonderland all over again.

As we approached the gloomy tunnels under Waterloo Station, I could see that she was apprehensive. This was being compounded by the dingy entrance adorned with skull and crossbones, and there were no words of reassurance from her accompanying friend, who had never experienced this kind of theatre before. I feared that I was going to have my hands full. I was glad I’d drafted in reinforcements (aka her Dad).

The layout of the main foyer, the cloakroom, the box office and the bar, appeared much slicker than before. There were plenty of loos and the popular flamingo croquet was already in action. We were even divided into our groups before we stood in line for our performance. Regardless of things ticking along like a well-wound pocket watch, the kids were still full of impatient excitement as we huddled together with around 20 others, waiting for our call to enter.

Two years on and we were back in Lewis Carroll’s dusty study, packed with curious things in jars and eery moving pictures. With a flicker of the lights, a slightly kookier looking Alice appeared, still stuck behind the mirror and still lost in Wonderland, but this time intent on playing tricks on the Queen of Hearts by stealing her beloved jam tarts! At least, that’s what I think the new twist was. The rattle of the trains above and some neighbouring building work rendered her inaudible for a key moment in the briefing.

Elbows were soon out, as excited adults then tried to keep pace with eager youngsters, as we squeezed through the dark and narrow passageways, crowding into the space which would transport us down the rabbit hole. Once again we were greeted by the White Rabbit, with the chance to grow or shrink determining our group’s path to find her.

On the surface, so much about this return production is the same as the original. The fast paced narrative, the sumptuous costumes, the elaborate set and the spectacular staging, even the majority of the characters that we encounter rang more than a few bells. There is, however, this time around, a much greater injection of silliness, and a more infectious humour which brings light to the imposing tunnels and is highly reminiscent of other Les Petits productions (such as Captain Flynn), that we have come to know and love.

We enjoyed the new clowning between Tweedledum and Tweedledee, distracting young visitors from their scarily big heads set down on the floor. The new Queen of Hearts (played by Adam Collier) was also much less intimidating, and more like a cheeky pantomime dame (in a good way), with pencilled-on lips and an outlandish costume, leading to playful interaction with some dads. She even had one of my young companions feeling sorry for her loss of tarts.

The new set of mushrooms might have seemed right at home in the damp, but I can’t say that the addition of the caterpillar quite captured the trippyness i’ve come to associate with him, but at least the addition of the Unbirthday Song at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party created something of a finale to what previously felt like an abrupt end to our jolly jaunt.

If you missed Adventures in Wonderland the first time around, please don’t make that mistake again. With so few theatre companies investing this level of production into children’s performances, it will do you all the world of good to set yourselves free from the comfy chairs and stop experiencing theatre at arm’s length. It’s expensive, yes, cost prohibitive for some, and it might mean having to deal with the unpredictable and the unexpected, but don’t we all do that as parents and carers anyway?

Intent on demonstrating their satisfaction, I handed my traditional star rating over to my guests, with scores of 2 million 600 and 1068 out of 10, coming through, respectively. Why was it such a resounding success? Well, aside from being described as “the best thing I’ve seen“, it was more importantly “a million times better than Goosebumps” and in comparison described as  “happy exciting”. Phew, I thought to myself, thank goodness for that. Our love affair with interactive theatre is free to continue. I think i’ve got her back.

Adventures in Wonderland is at The Vaults until 3rd September.
Admission £26.50 Adults, £15.50 Children, Family Ticket £71.00.
Check Kidsweek listings from 13th June for Kids go Free offers.
Recommended age 5-10 years.
Strictly no buggies and no babes in arms.
See website for performance dates and times.

Read my original review of Adventures in Wonderland, and my recent interview with Les Petits Artistic Director, Oliver Lansley.

Review: Imagine Art Club, David Hockney for Kids

A focussed way to tackle big exhibitions with kids, with no time for boredom to set in.

When Imagine Art Club founder, museum educator and visual artist Agnieszka Arabska created her David Hockney for Kids event, it was met with an unprecedented response. I was one of over 17,000 people who spotted the event on Facebook, which saw almost 7000 people express an interest in attending and over 600 people confirm their place. Whether it was the draw of one of Britain’s greatest contemporary artists, or Tate’s unwavering popularity at attracting families, it reinforced our shared opinion that children just aren’t suitably catered for when galleries stage major exhibitions.

Established in 2012 in Hanwell, West London, Aga’s successful Saturday School and After School Club combines practical art activities across a range of materials, with interesting ways to learn about artists and art movements. This includes devising child-friendly visits to important museums and galleries in London.

When I first visited David Hockney back in February, I commented on Tate’s lack of family provision for this exhibition. Now, in its closing weeks, I found myself back at Tate Britain with my eldest daughter (aged 6), to road-test one of Imagine Art Club’s trips, feeling lucky to have bagged myself a place on their sell-out run.

Communication before the event was very good, with clear meeting points and start times, and permission forms to sign. When we arrived, we found the group, with Agnieszka impossible to miss, checking off our names whilst showcasing her colourful Hockney socks.

The group size was small and intimate (around 10) which was ample for such a crowded space. Most children were aged 6 to 10 years and left their parents at the door, but accompanying (paying) adults were welcome for those not quite yet at that stage.

Before we entered, we gathered into the corner for a short ‘story’, the tale of sugar magnate, art collector and founder, Sir Henry Tate, and a simple introduction to David Hockney as well. Pitched perfectly, the ‘briefing’ was gentle and slow, with questions to get them thinking and an invitation to chip in. A frisson of excitement ran through the group, as each child received their sketchbook and some freshly sharpened pencils.

Dividing into two smaller groups, we headed in and straight to Hockney’s photo collages housed in Room 7. It was great to enter with purpose, but I did have to hurry my young companion, who seemed keen to take in much of what we’d passed.

Huddled in the corner again, we talked about Polaroid and the art of photo collage, before moving slowly from piece to piece, observing the technique in action. Everyone enjoyed counting the vast numbers of photos used and spotting signs of Hockney with his cheeky tip-toe presence. We even created our own collages, using colourful sheets of cleverly prepared stickers.

Next stop was Room 4, home to Hockney’s infamous A Bigger Splash. We sat down right in front and talked about the painting. What did it remind us of? How do we know he is somewhere hot? How do we find Hockney in the picture? The process was the same, with the children challenged to question, think and look, before recreating for themselves.

Further fun activities included searching for life-like textures amongst Hockney’s double portraits and adding our own rich colour to Hockney’s Hawthorne Blossom Near Rudston (2008) in a room full of his Yorkshire paintings. Our time spent with Hockney’s digital and screen time work was all too brief, before we had to exit via the gift shop. The remainder of our time as a group was then spent making cards and writing messages for David Hockney, who celebrates his 80th birthday in July.

Imagine Art Club’s gallery trip was a breath of fresh air. In a world where all too often family or children’s gallery activities are unstructured arts and crafts, happening outside the exhibition space with little or no link to what’s going on next door. These guided exhibition tours take the learning back into the gallery, losing none of the opportunity for creativity, but re-writing your typical curator tours in a fun and interactive way.

For newbie gallery visitors, the trips are highly educational and a low-risk way to ensure you really make the most of your ticket. For those perhaps used to spending more time in this space, the schedule might feel limiting, lacking flexibility and freedom to explore what takes your fancy. In the room packed with spectacular double portraits, we spent so long spotting textures in our books, we didn’t always step back and appreciate the magnificence of the bigger picture. Similarly, my daughter commented that she would have loved to have spent longer watching Hockney’s iPad creations unfold, “…because that’s what it’s all about mummy, isn’t it?” That is what it’s about for her. On the whole, however, the experience was highly positive, and we both agreed that we learned so much more and looked so much deeper than if we’d have gone it alone. It was the perfect supplement to our usual visits, and a real treat for bigger exhibitions.

The next Imagine Art Club visit is on the 21st May.
See Facebook page for details of American Dream for Kids at the British Museum.
Imagine Art Club runs on Saturday, 10am-12pm or 1-3pm, £27.
There is also an After School Club.

 

Review: Barbican’s Japanese House provides a warm welcome

We might be a little late to the party, but after a busy period of Easter holiday fun, we finally gave ourselves the time to visit Barbican’s first major UK exhibition of Japanese domestic architecture.

The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945, promises a feast of modern and contemporary design. The exhibition features over 40 renowned architects as well as a centrepiece in the form of a full-size recreation of the 2005 Moriyama House, designed by award-winning architect Ryue Nishizawa.

If like us, your knowledge of contemporary architecture could scarcely fill the back of a matchbox, do not fear. The beautiful thing about this exhibition is its accessibility. You definitely don’t need any prior knowledge to appreciate what’s on offer, all you need is a love of design, an interest in the built environment around you and a keen sense of adventure to let yourself and your companion explore.

So, what should you expect?

A brilliant activity sheet
Anyone who has visited Barbican Art Gallery before will know that it is a sizeable space. On this rare occasion, however, the team have played an absolute blinder and devised a fantastic activity sheet to guide you through the more technical upper floor. Starting in the upstairs gallery Inhabiting the Experimental, there’s a chance for little ones to choose their favourite house, peer inside curious models and take some inspiration to draw or design their own.

Plenty of video installations
For my young companion, any screen based installation is a big draw, and there’s plenty of this on offer to keep wide eyes mesmerised. There’s film snippets of Japanese home dramas – devised with minimal plot to simply show off abodes, and a host of beguiling manga cartoons, with video cleverly peppered throughout the exhibition, allowing you time and space to take-in the panels on the wall.

An awe-inspiring Japanese House
Downstairs, the exhibition centrepiece will be met with a shriek of excitement, followed by an opportunity to weave a curious path through Mr Moriyama’s house and garden. Whether marvelling at his well stocked kitchen, perusing his extensive belongings or giggling at his tiny bath, there’s more fun than Ikea to be had here. Move from room to room and ponder the incredible use of space, as well as exploring its garden pathways, hidden terraces and private courtyards.

A tea house as good as a tree house
Set within the garden of the Moriyama House, the tea house is a new commission designed especially for the Barbican by architect and historian Terunobu Fujimori. Featuring a beautiful hand-charred timber exterior, visitors are invited to play ‘house’ through climbing up inside its stark plastic interior and peering out of the circular tinted windows, waving at fellow visitors below.

The gallery environment is also transformed every 30 minutes by lighting that mimics dawn to dusk, ensuring that every visitor can experience the magic of these buildings across any one day.

What should you be aware of before visiting with young children?

Rules are rules
Although very family friendly and highly interactive, the ‘no touching, just looking’ rule should still apply. Yes, you can weave through the arches, climb stairs and explore rooms, but discourage little ones from touching the models or moving items found within the house. If cushions, futons and bunny chairs are devoid of items, you’re welcome to try them out for size, but steps obstructed with books and nik-naks stuck down with glue, give a good indication of what’s acceptable here.

Stick to the paths
The garden area has some fun pathways marked out by stones and interesting doorways to pass through. Be mindful not to walk on the stones, or open and close doors, to protect little fingers and delicate exhibits.

Lose the shoes
When entering the tea house, shoes have to be removed and set aside, but should be hastily put back on as you exit. It’s also one way in and one way out, with numbers limited at busy times.

With such a wealth of space beyond the gallery itself, from the foyers to the fountains, the conservatory and the Curve, the Barbican is such a fantastic destination for families. It is, however, easy to be put off by the often over-zealous front of house team, or the unfavourable reactions of the regular patrons. The experiential nature of this exhibition, however, appears to have turned this temporarily on its head, attracting far more younger visitors and with it, a slightly more relaxed approach from the hosts. Add this safety in numbers aspect, together with the peace and serenity that ensues from exploring a home unscathed by tut and toys, and this house will feel like a home in no time, and one you’ll want to return to again, and again, and again.

The Japanese House Architecture and Life after 1945 is at Barbican Art Gallery, Barbican Centre until 25th June.
Admission Adult £14.50, Children 14+ £10, Children under 14 Free.
Sat to Weds 10am to 6pm, Thurs & Fri 10am to 9pm.
Bank Holiday times vary. See website for details