Having spent three months in the states with a toddler, my husband and I were shocked at the lack of things we could find to do with her that were free or low cost. Perhaps it was down to us not being familiar with the area, but from what we could see, the parks were fantastic, but the library story sessions were pretty pathetic and everything else costed a fortune in memberships and subscriptions. Coming from our London context where immediately we were directed to free and low cost activities to while away the time on maternity leave and beyond, it was frightening to feel left with nothing.
Let’s zero in on Hackney & East London where we’re resident, since for all I know there is next to nothing on offer in West London.
Friends, Health Visitors and others were quick to suggest various play groups held at the local children’s centres within walking distance. We benefited from free-of-charge access to baby massage, stay and play sessions, baby sign classes, messy play and music groups. The providers were mostly very hands-on, remembering each child by name from week to week, enquiring about parents’ well being, and creatively crafting sessions enjoyable by both carers/parents and children. To say I admire these people who spend their hours caring for new parents and children would be an understatement.
With maternity leave stretching to 11 months for me (another post to come yet very relevant to the availability of provision for non-newborns in the states) there was a lot of time and many stages of my child’s and my own development to fill. Particularly in the winter months it was a real safety net to be able to get out to a place nearby that you didn’t have to afford, where you could look as disheveled as the next person, and just be. I think these places are tax money very well spent.
Another incredible pro to such offerings made available by local authorities (and some churches) is that it’s inclusive. It doesn’t end up being a posse of ‘yummy mummies’ who tick the same boxes in life, but you find yourself in the mix of people from a variety of backgrounds, professions or none, and children can no doubt only benefit from such an environment when it comes to relating to humans in a multicultural place like London. The longer my daughter can go without noticing someone can be labelled differently to her, the better.
So, that covers children’s centres and such. We’ve also got incredible museums in London – for the most part all free of entry charge. See mummies, dinosaurs, incredible artwork, ships and a sampling of childhood toys gone for the cost of getting there. Most museums have child-friendly experiences like soft play areas, activity packs to take around, and sensory areas. Even the occasional museum or space charging admission is normally quite reasonable such as the Discover Centre which charges a low one-time or membership fee, or the Transport Museum where one admission lasts an entire year. Arguably, however, these memberships may be less than affordable for people on a very hand-to-mouth existence.
Even in grey England, one of the things we’ve most benefited from is time outdoors spent in the abundance of public parks and open spaces in London, and specifically in Hackney. We live near the marshes which are well managed open spaces to see wildlife and to catch a glimpse of the horizon (rare in London). There are woodlands to traipse through (investing in a good pair of wellies and waterproofs, words that didn’t appear in my vocab until I moved here) and rivers and canals to follow along. There’s a movement of natural play areas rather than simply plastic and metal playgrounds. One such play area takes place in Adventure Playgrounds, an American lawyer’s fantasy. These areas are frequently built in an area reclaimed from bomb damage with crazy climbing frames, gutted black cabs, fire pits, etc, all to let kids be wild and learn risks rather than aversion. Again, tax dollars happily spent.
Finally, there are a couple movements we’ve seen that we love: Forest Kids and Play Streets. Play Streets are an initiative whereby a neighbourhood street can be closed down, stewarded, and set up for the enjoyment of local kids to cycle, hoop, draw with chalk, etc. all over the streets. It brings neighbours together and brings kids out who might not have parental support to get out to parks as much as they should. Vitamin D is a real deficiency here (as in most of the office-based world) as I have learned, now chowing down tablets every day and dosing our daughter with the (free) vitamin drops we get from the chemist, so any extra time spent outside is a winner.
Forest Kids (and Forest School) is a movement that began, I think, as an alternative to the indoor activities of children’s centres, nurseries and even schools. It’s being adapted now increasingly by service providers themselves and our childrne’s centre takes kids out in all weather to climb trees, dig in the mud and run free for hours at a time. We have a local group that meets up on Monday mornings to go to one of our woodland or marsh areas to explore. It’s good for vitamin-D deficient mommas like me and for the kids as well.
While it is, no doubt, challenging to bring up a child in London, these things make it possible for a child to thrive here in ways that you have to make a very concentrated effort to do so in the states (from what I can observe as an outsider in this regard). It’s given me insight into helping people become stronger, more connected, more broadly exposed and cultured people from the very get-go. No matter what their financial status might be.