9 family-friendly arts activities for this summer

If you’re looking for something different to do over the school holidays or struggling to find ways to occupy toddlers now that the playgroups are on summer lock-down, fear not! You haven’t already missed out on booking those one-off sought-after events and you don’t have to spend a fortune on big-ticket activities. Arts Aloud has a host of arts-based family fun that you can’t afford to miss!

1. All aboard the Floating Cinema Various London locations (including Regents Canal near Broadway Market E8 and Canalside Steps near Kings Cross, various times, admission £TBC, 20th Aug-20th Sept)
As well as a chance to venture off to some of London’s hidden canals and waterways, this is far more than a chance to watch a few films on a barge. UP Project’s award winning architectural structure returns to London this summer bringing a programme of film screenings, participatory events, workshops and talks, many of which are suitable for visiting families. This year’s theme, curated in partnership with artist / film-maker duo Somewhere (Nina Pope & Karen Guthrie) is a journey beyond earth and into space, and is set to include an immersive space odyssey, open air screenings of sci-fi cult classics and a summer space school. Sign up to the mailing list to hear full details of the programme when it launches.

2. Banish a rainy day in London’s artiest soft play Abbey Leisure Centre, Barking, Mon-Wed & Fri 10am-7pm, Thurs 10am-6pm, Sat & Sun 9am-6.30pm, admission for £1.50 for under 1’s, £4.50 under 3’s, £5.50 3-12 yrs. Age & height restrictions apply to some areas. Check website for details
Everything about this soft play is extraordinary, including it’s Barking location. Flying in the face of conventional multi-coloured soft play, The Idol’s monochrome appearance was the brainchild of Turner Prize-nominated artist Marvin Gaye Chetwynd and took inspiration from a Neolithic figure discovered in the borough in 1922. Kids can climb the two-storey-high climbing frame, venture into the mythical creature’s head and look out of its two giant eyes, before heading down a giant slide.

3. Explore poetry written just for kids in a secret corner of the Southbank Centre The Saison Poetry Library, Southbank Centre, Tues-Sun 11am-8pm, admission free
Believe it or not, during the school holidays you can still find a cosy quiet corner of the Southbank Centre. Take the marvellous JCB singing lift to the 5th floor and while away the day exploring some of the 200,000 items making up Britain’s most comprehensive collection of poetry, including a dedicated children’s section. Read your favourite poems and discover new ones, plus listen to poets perform on CDs and DVDs. Kids can even try their hand at writing their own using rhyming dictionaries. Plus for the very young there’s Rug Rhymes (24th Jul 10.30-11am, 25th July 11-11.30am, foyer spaces).

4. Listen to the sound of a masterpiece at Soundscapes The National Gallery, daily 10am-6pm, until 6th Sept, admission free for children under 12, adults £10, concessions available
If you’re intimated by by taking the kids into the silence of a gallery space, then worry not! Here’s one exhibition where they’ll be drowned out by the soundtrack. Soundscapes exhibition commissioned musicians and sound artists, from classical composers to club DJs, to select a painting from the collection and compose piece of music in response. The result is an immersive experience that allows you to ‘hear’ the paintings as well as see them.

5. Lose yourself in the Serpentine Pavilion Next to the Serpentine Galleries, Kensington Gardens, daily 10am-6pm until 18th Oct, admission free
Explore the secret corridors and pathways of this colourful cocoon by Madrid-based architects SelgasCano, and reward yourselves with a knickerbocker glory when you reach the middle. Read up on my most recent visit.

6. See the best in free street theatre on the National Theatre’s River Stage National Theatre, South Bank, various times, 24th Jul-30th Aug, River Stage admission free, fees apply to NT workshops
If you’re struggling to find theatrical delights to entertain kids of various ages, you’ll love the drop-in nature of this summer’s brand new River Stage. Playing to the strengths of its South Bank location, the recently created Riverside Square will be showcasing a host of free public performances at family-friendly times, including street theatre, live music, circus and dance. There’s also a programme of hands-on workshops for families and children to discover the skills and secrets behind productions in the Clore Learning Centre.

7. Discover playground design from the post-war era at the Brutalist Playground RIBA, 66 Portland Place, Mon-Sun 10am-5pm, Tues 10am-8pm, until 16th Aug, admission free
In contrast to today’s risk-averse playground surfaces, this part-sculpture, part architectural installation harks back to an era of post-war design which prioritised creating areas of play space for children within social housing, through making the best of the ruins of wartime devastation. Commissioned by Turner Prize nominees Assemble and artist Simon Terrill, this revival of now-lost Brutalist landscapes is a softer-squidgier version, recreated using foam-blocks to protect your little cherubs should they fall.

8. Take a baby-friendly gallery tour at the National Maritime Museum National Maritime Museum, Sammy Ofer Wing Foyer, 5th Aug, 11am, parents & carers with children under 1 year, admission free, booking recommended
Finally another London arts institution inviting parents and carers with very young babies into their gallery space, to enjoy a talk with a squawk! Step forward the National Maritime Museum’s Curator of Art, Dr Melanie Vandenbrouck, who will lead you on a tour of art highlights around the site, including Yinka Shonibare’s Ship in a Bottle. If you need to divide and conquer, older kids (6-12 years) can join Punchdrunk’s immersive theatrical journey through the museum’s incredible maritime history, by joining the crew of HMS Adventure in Against Captain’s Orders (Daily until 31st Aug, admission £19.50, booking advised).

9. Follow the bear around an arts trail with a difference Pick up a free Pawprint Trail map from the Paddington Shop, Paddington Station, Mon-Fri 7.30am-7.30pm, Sat & Sun 9am-7pm
Last summer was awash with arts trails, from buses to bears. For those still crying into their marmalade sandwiches, lamenting the loss of Paddington from the streets, cry-not! Instead, seek out some familiar faces from last summer on the brand new Pawprint Trail. There’s 4 uniquely decorated Paddingtons to spot, as well as a Water Maze, unusual mechanical bridges and a Puppet Theatre Barge, all housed in this hugely underrated area of West London. Grab a map from the Paddington Shop in Paddington Station, where you can also buy a furry friend to take on your way. Read more in Londonist.

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Arts Aloud: Family Friendly Half Term Highlights

If you’ve been too busy to organise activities and you’re panicking that half term is just around the corner, fear-not. Here’s some inspiration from across the family friendly arts scene:

THEATRE
Meeting Mr Boom! Exploring the themes of building relationships and overcoming life’s challenges, this live music and dance show is performed on an inflatable set, and then offers an irresistible opportunity to stay, play and bounce after the performance (The Albany at Deptford Lounge, 19-21 February, 12pm & 2.30pm, Admission £7, Age 3+).

50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do) If you want to use half term as an excuse to strike and brave something new, this is just the ticket. Inspired by the book of the same name by Julie Spielger and Gever Tulley, acclaimed German theatre-makers Fundus Theater give your kids the chance to do it all. Close your eyes, take a deep breath and give them unimaginable tales to take back to school (Unicorn Theatre, 14-22 February, 11am & 1.30pm, Admission Adult £16, Child £10, Age 3-10)

Imagine Children’s Festival Promising to deliver over half of the programme this year absolutely free of charge, it’s never too late to plan a day out at this incredible spectacular. Check out my top picks.

EXHIBITIONS
Follow the Coloured Brick Road Inspired by the Wizard of Oz, artist Elisa Cantarelli invites you to add to her collection of coloured bricks that will sprawl across the gallery floor, connecting her various work on display. There is a free craft activity in the gallery (Recommended age 3+) plus a workshop for older kids to try their hand at her unique dotting technique (artsdepot, Exhibition 15-21 February, daily 10am-4pm, Admission free, Dotting workshop 20 February, 11am & 2pm, Admission £5, Age 8+).

Figures, Creatures and Tea, by Julia de Greff As well as some great shows topping and tailing the half term week, this vibrant collection of paintings and prints of animals include a giraffe, chickens, kittens, horses, cows, and a glorious whale plus a host of small exotic birds. To accompany the exhibition there’s a children’s gallery trail and a host of chalk boards to create their own versions of the work (Gallery @ Half Moon, 16-21 February and until 13th April, Mon-Fri 10am-6pm Sat 10am-4pm, Admission free).

Once There Was…The Wonderful World of Oliver Jeffers Renowned for their rotating programme of interactive family exhibitions, this magical exhibition allows little ones to venture into the world of some of their favourite characters. A priceless opportunity to climb inside a space rocket, row a boat with a penguin or conjure up a feast from the life-size fridge. This long-running feature is one not to miss (Discover Children’s Story Centre, 16-22 February and until 6 September, Mon-Fr 10am-5pm, Weekend 11am-5pm, Admission £5, Age 3-6)


STORYTELLING
London Children’s Book Swap A great way to kick off half term, this literary initiative asks children to bring along a book that they’ve enjoyed and swap it for someone else’s recommended read. A chance to share old favourites or discover new stories, as well as make their very own bookmark (Various London venues and times, 14 February, see their Facebook page for your nearest venue or follow the event on Twitter @LDNChildBkSwap, Admission free, All ages)

Roald Dahl Picture Book Week Whether they are familiar favourites or a first-time listen, this week-long storytelling event is a fantastic chance to celebrate the genius mad-cap stories of Roald Dahl. There’s also a chance to make an animal mask (all day, drop in) inspired by the characters from the books (Discover Children’s Story Centre, 16-22 February, Various times, Admission £5 , Age 3+ and 6+).

COMEDY
Comedy Club 4 Kids Just like a normal comedy club, but with less rude bits, a greater chance of being heckled and a time of day that kids can enjoy. This unique event sees the best stand-ups and sketch acts from the UK and international circuit, do their thing for an audience of children and their families (artsdepot, 22 February, 12pm & 2.30pm, Admission £7, Age 6+. Also touring other venues nationwide. See website for details).

MAKE & DO
Family Art Days Minutes from busy Upper Street, this hidden gem of a gallery is hosting two creative family days during the half term, inspired by the work of Renato Guttuso. Kids can bring along their own favourite object or choose from a selection of weird and wonderful items to create a still life arrangement to draw. Another event invites them to add their thoughts to the interactive colour wheel and make their own spinning colour palette (Estorick Collection, 17-18 February, 11am-4pm, Admission free for children with a paying adult, Adults £5, All ages)

WORKSHOPS
Play in a Day: Chinese New Year Inspired by their resident theatrical production Yeh Shen (a Cinderella-style story from China) this Chinese New Year themed workshop introduces kids to a range of performance techniques including mime, physical theatre and improvisation (Polka Theatre, 17 February, 10.30-am-3.30pm, Admission £30, Age 5-7)

Behind the Scenes: Character Costume Making If your little one is a budding costume designer, then here’s a workshop to let their imagination run wild, with the help of a real life theatre designer. Whether their costumes are inspired by characters of their own or borrowed from their favourite stories, everyone will get the chance to show them off in a fashion show at the end of the day (Polka Theatre, 19 February, 10.30-am-3.30pm, Admission £30, Age 7-11)

INTERACTIVE
Tuttle Families If you were inspired by my feature last year around Richard Tuttle’s Turbine Hall commission I Don’t Know. The Weave of Textile Language, then you might want to return for Flock. Part of the Tuttle Families series, Flock is a free performance workshop for all ages and abilities, set to an original soundtrack and guided by dancers (Tate Modern, Turbine Hall, 14 February, 12-4pm, Admission free, Age 5+).

Ooo Mmm Open Studio If your kids prefer to lead the creativity, then perhaps instead pay a visit to the Ooo Mmm Open Studio created by artist Kate Squires, where you can create amazing art together as a family (Tate Modern, Clore Studio, 19-22 February, 11am-1pm and 2-4pm, Admission free, All ages).

Happy half term everyone, see you on the other side!

**Disclaimer: Ticketed events subject to availability at the time of press. Free events based on capacity and first come first served basis.

Review: Hackney Children’s Theatre, Variety Spectacular 2015

With freezing temperatures and grey skies, January has used up a fair few of my rainy-day activities with the family, so I was extremely excited to learn that Hackney Children’s Theatre had the perfect antidote, in the form of their annual Variety Spectacular 2015.

Every other month of the year the imposing eighteenth century St. John at Hackney Church, is transformed into a friendly pop-up theatre by local theatre company Adrenalindance. Today was a one-off, promising a crazy mix of circus, magic, mime and dance, suitable for all ages, and accessible for all wallets, with tickets priced at just £5, thanks to the host of volunteers who bring the event to fruition.

The later than billed start, left many of the young bums fidgety by the time proceedings kicked-off, and in spite of the imaginative sea-themed set and the energetic intro by Larry the Lobster (played by Mark Winstanley), the issue of the echoey acoustics in the vast space didn’t help to hold their attention until the arrival of the first act; The Mehetebellies.

Like a kids version of The Commitments, The Mehetebellies had everyone singing along to their octopus song from the surrounding cue-boards and left the young audience in awe of their musical talents, alive with violins, drums and percussion.

Next-up, Mike and Joanna (Mike Nichols Circus) mesmerised the crowd with their unique acrobatics and hand-to-hand act, including use of a giant Cyr wheel. Some shakey transitions made it not entirely comfortable to watch, but the dare-devil lifts are what made this act memorable.

All too soon it was time for a break, and there was no keeping the kids from the well-stocked cake stand, nor from the giant hula hoops and open stage to dance it all off.

Into the second half of the show, and Feet Off The Ground Dance were the perfect opener.  For many youngsters in the audience, this was likely to be their first experience of contemporary dance, and the specific art of Contact Improvisation practised by the group, silenced the recently seated crowd with their impressive physical storytelling.

Marie Andree Lemaire’s cheeky mime act was definitely one for the grown-ups, leaving more than a few little girls in the crowd heartbroken as their dad’s were led away to the stage to complete the act. Marie’s perseverance with audience participation did, however, finally pay off with a brave volunteer, game enough to help the tongue-in-cheek love story play out.

With concentration of the younger ones waning, it was a shame that the timing for the finale act Ian Marchant had suddenly started to feel like the graveyard shift. As somebody who has performed their mix of juggling, skill and trickery all over the globe, unperturbed by the rising noise levels, he soon treated us to spoon-catching, hat-tipping and even the trustee ‘table cloth’ trick, making sure that every box that in the cabaret checklist was ticked.

As an exercise in bringing the varied art of theatre to a young and diverse audience, Variety Spectacular was a triumph. In a cosier venue with slicker production, this is a format to be rivalled, with the potential to sell out multiple shows at any London fringe theatre that I have visited. Interspersing acts with audience-participation games was a fun way to keep the crowd engaged whilst the interchange of acts took place, but with so many young visitors it only served to break momentum and impart an unfair sense of chaos upon otherwise very well organised proceedings. That said, on a dreary Saturday in January, you’d be hard pushed to experience any greater theatrical variety than we were treated to, and we’ll be sure to return next year with our friends.

https://www.facebook.com/hackneychildrenstheatre

Twitter: @HackneyCtheatre

Would families give Edinburgh Fringe a rave review?

The Journey: Interactive installation on Grassmarket

The Journey: Interactive installation on Grassmarket

I’ve just returned from the opening weekend of the Edinburgh Fringe, but contrary to my Arts Aloud mission, I actually decided this year to go child-free. Aside from it being a fantastic opportunity for myself and my husband to spend some well-earned time alone, we did also have it in mind that it might be worth scoping it out for a possible return next year with the kids in tow.

As the largest arts festival in the world, the Edinburgh Fringe promises an ‘open-access festival’, a festival that contains something for absolutely everyone, fuelled by the creativity of the many individuals who have poured their passion into their work, and brought it to the city to share with the millions of people who attend each year.

As we leapt from venue to venue, mixing up superb theatre with live music, unusual dance and movement with close-to-the-bone comedy, we realised that above all else, it certainly wouldn’t be possible to embrace the fringe with the same intensity that we had been doing. With two children under 5, it’s unlikely that we would want to fill the day with more than one or two ‘appointments to see’, but volume aside, I wondered, could we still ‘experience’ the Fringe in the same way, if the children had come along with us?

This year’s Fringe boasts well over 100 shows that are specifically for children, whether re-telling of family favourites or original work. In addition, the rest of the schedule is well sign-posted with icons comparable to film classifications, designed to indicate audience suitability, and providing parents with enough information for them to decide whether to expose their children to some of the more grown-up aspects of the Fringe. Although we thought that this was a great idea, we did have some reservations about how you can enforce the recommended ratings, particularly with regard to some of the more improvised aspects of comedy and theatre. It is also worth considering the very real lack of access to some of the venues involved; particularly in the Old Town with its narrow passageways and steep winding staircases, typical of the buildings that populate Edinburgh’s historic centre.

In spite of this, I was given several reminders that one of the most attractive things about the Fringe for families, is that it exists far beyond the pages of the directory listings and the seated shows. It’s live on the streets of Edinburgh, in every corner of the city that you visit, providing hundreds of alternative activities that bring the festival to life and create some welcome opportunities to take a break from the schedule and to kick-back and relax.

Courtesy of a range of brand sponsors, St. Andrew’s Square Gardens, is one of many of the city squares that have been transformed into a relaxed social space; awash with deck chairs and food stalls, live (but unimposing) music and even table football and ping-pong. For those who prefer to keep moving, the West End Fair was a really interesting space for a stroll, featuring hundreds of makers, artists and designers exhibiting their latest creations, and the Fringe Schools Poster Exhibition at the Museum of Childhood was a great way to inspire enthusiastic scribblers through the work of other young artists.

At Grassmarket, a historic marketplace just a stone’s throw from a whole host of Fringe venues, we chanced upon a really exciting piece of interactive installation by Diana Bell, with Daniel Balanescu and Helen Edwards. The Journey asks passers-by to share something about their life, where they come from or where they were going by picking up a small wooden house, and adding it to the installation, wherever they felt it should feature. Older children were really enjoying sharing stories of their home-towns, whilst the younger ones loved walking in and out of this imaginary village that was emerging from the pavement, moving houses around and making it their own.

In addition, even the Festival stalwart The Pleasance decided to get in on the family friendly act this year by adding a ‘kidzone’ to their already popular courtyard. And all of this before you even consider that Edinburgh is a world-class city, and like any world-class city, it is home to an abundance of year-round sights and activities suitable for families.

Where better to start than Edinburgh’s imposing Castle, which can be seen from pretty much anywhere in the city, and is a gift to the imagination of every young visitor. Leading down from the castle, at any time of year, it would be impossible to walk the cobbles of the Royal Mile without stopping to watch a busker, an acrobat or a magician, in the same way not a single visitor could pass the adorable and infamous Greyfriars Bobby, without stopping to rub his now gold and shiny nose! Add in Edinburgh Zoo, the Botanic Gardens and the hundreds of museums and galleries where kids can get hands on, and you should have exhausted children, happy parents and a good night sleep for all! And yes, it might be more difficult to do too much in the evening, but like us, it might be worth considering teaming up with friends and taking it in turns to continue the fun late into the night.

All things considered, I would say our plans to return to the Edinburgh Fringe with the children are firmly hatched, and I look forward to hearing from anybody who might have already put my plan for next year into action.

In the meantime, on the 16th August the Edinburgh Fringe Festival Society and Starcatchers, are hosting ‘Breaking Down Barriers’, a conversation to explore why early years arts are important and consider how they can make the Fringe more accessible for babies, toddlers and their adults. Sadly, I will not be in Edinburgh for this event, but I urge anyone who might be in Edinburgh at this time, with or without their children to go along, join the debate and share some of the outcomes with me. I am in contact with the Edinburgh Fringe Festival Society and hope to be able to publish the minutes from this meeting here on Arts Aloud.

Until then, my self-indulgent top 3 from the Fringe this year are as follows:
1) Shame – Highly original production of spoken word, contemporary dance and hip-hop theatre exploring some of the shameful aspects and experiences of the creator’s life.
2) #MeetandTweet – Heart-warming story of Twitter’s influence on people and friendship, and a social experiment that turned into a global phenomenon.
3) Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – If like me you found the film a little too weird and intense, then you will love this fantastic re-telling of a journey to the heart of the American Dream.

The Edinburgh Fringe runs from the 1st – 25th August.