I have dedicated an entire section of this blog to identifying how to get the most out of what can often feel like a hostage situation; the only thing that changes is who is being held hostage. In a museum, it’s probably the child who feels they are being subject to cruel and unusual punishment but at soft play most parents would probably rather take a short stay in A&E where there are probably fewer bodily fluids on the chairs. Someone is going to be miserable anyway so you may as well do what your child wants to do, unless you are teaching the lesson that grown ups deserve to do things they like as well (though don’t expect to actually enjoy yourself).
When you are taking babies out I think the priorities are doing things that you actually like or that don't cost very much. I dropped bags of cash (at a time when funds were particularly limited) on utterly pointless activities that bore no benefit at all. I took a 6 month old to the circus for god's sake. The only thing we got out of it was my undying fear of dancing horses. (It is against the natural order of everything to see a horse do a pirouette.) My second was basically strapped to my chest in a sling and just went where big kid was going anyway. Without being constantly hectored to join in and harangued into appreciating everything offered to her and being pushed to participate in large groups she was far more relaxed and therefore more willing to join in pretty much anything offered to her from a much younger age.
When selecting activities with babies the priority should be your own interests. I loved going to baby massage with both of mine but one of my good friends would rather bathe in chilli oil than go anywhere near such a thing. Luckily, there are hundreds of baby groups out there - you're sure to find something that fits. Libraries, cinemas, church groups, children's centres, even pubs offer mother and baby activities; there's sure to be something suit you. I think the only goal is to try and find other parents who are going through the same things as you. If your baby is teething and only allowing you two hours rest a night then the only people you can communicate with effectively are people who are similarly addle-pated. One of my friends did my coat up for me one day - I just couldn’t manage it and she was so used to doing it for her toddler that she instinctively turned and did mine. It was awkward but also kind of nice. Days out at this point are much more about building relationships with other families in weird and wonderful ways. Relationships that may be fleeting or last for decades, it can be hard to tell which but both are vital to getting through this with a giggle and the occasional sob.
As babies turn into toddlers, its tempting to start to introduce a range of 'educational activities'. At a city farm recently, I sat next to a lovely man desperately trying to keep his 18 months old seated during a sheep-shearing demonstration whilst the child was repeatedly attempting to backflip off the hay bales just to get the hell out of there. I wish I’d told him to just go where the child wanted. I mean, the poor bastard is going to spend the better part of a decade trudging round these places, there is plenty of time for sheep shearing demonstrations in his future. I think that’s one of the key differences with the first - you don’t know what’s coming: for all you know this may be your only trip to a farm ever. You don’t know that there will be ample opportunities for communing with goats, sheeps and their ilk for years to come. Wherever you go, whatever holiday you take, there will be a farm there waiting for you and your children to practice the cognitive dissonance of making friends with animals you usually see on your plate.
Take your toddler to the park, to look at trains or planes or boats, let them stroke animals and collect stones. Take them to anywhere that is active, not educational. The under fours just need things to bounce on, splash in or bash: the three P's - play ground, pool or playgroup. Find a place that’s a little bit fancy that your kids enjoys - a local zoo or open farm, for example - and get the annual pass as soon as the kid turns two. These places are eye-wateringly expensive if you go for a day but after the initial sting of an annual pass you can pitch up whenever. It doesn’t matter if your child freaks out because the giraffe looked at her funny or if there is a random wasp infestation in all the play areas you can go home when it suits you, not when you feel you have wrung sufficient ‘value’ out of a place.
I had dreams of attending the carol concert in our nearby, beautiful, historical cathedral. I had visions of children voices rising to the heavens creating a wonderful yuletide atmosphere that we could share in and recall nostalgically in the years to come. I was sitting with a 4 year old big kid and his friend, who were not down with this whole thing. They flopped over pews, riffled through the pages of hymnals and glumly poked at the cushions, muttering darkly about being hungry and bored. I hissed at them, a basilisk glint in my eye, ‘You are neither tired nor hungry. You are both bored. Now sit quietly and deal with it.’ Truly it was a magical day.
Big kid loves the theatre. Since the age of 2 he has sat in the dark watching a shining stage, rapt and silent, taking in all the stories and loving every second. I know he is unusual in this because unfortunately kids’ shows in theatres are full to the brim of children who profoundly disagree. Children who would much rather be on a climbing frame and are enthusiastically trying to convert the theatre into a soft play area. Children who have barely noticed the actors on the stage and are having loud conversations about what bogeys taste like. Children who do not care about events that they have absolutely no part in. Theatre trips must have some sort of physical element or at least a park nearby for the kids to burn off steam - small kid spent the second half of The Railway Children splashing about joyously in the fountains behind Kings Cross. Not even an entire steam train on stage can stoke a love for theatre in that one.
Interactive shows work much better though you do run the risk of your child lowering the tone somewhat. Small kid was once asked to come up with a magic spell to help move the plot along on one such show. She uttered the immortal word ‘poo poo wee wee bum.’ The poor actor gamely rolled with this before quietly asking a nice calm nine year old for a second spell. I think we all learned something that day.
Nowadays I pack for all days out with an amount of kit a backwoods survivalist would be proud of. Wellies and waterproofs in the boot in case we get one of those unexpected typhoons. Sun-cream and towels in case we happen upon a splash park on one of the three days in the year when the sun is shining, Thank god the National Trust have got playgrounds at almost every location, and usually good coffee to boot. It’s not just middle class aspiration that makes these places so popular, its that they genuinely provide something for everyone. On our latest trip to Hughenden the kids had a whale of a time pushing tiny wheelbarrows and spotting bugs whilst I learned I really hate Disraeli. Something for everyone.
Also, everyone loves the beach.