Family London: 9 tips for visiting the Natural History Museum with a toddler
I remember going to the Natural History Museum in London when I was young – Dippy the famous dinosaur skeleton made an impression that lasts decades.
So I’ve enjoyed going back with Minnie since she’s been a toddler, and making the most of a free world-class museum. There’s plenty to entertain toddlers, whether they’re dinosaur fans or would rather gaze at an elephant, whale and giraffe.
It’s also enormously family friendly with plenty of lifts, toilets usually within scuttling distance, high chairs in the cafes and child-friendly food (and places to eat your own picnic). But if you’re planning a visit, here are nine things you need to know before visiting the Natural History Museum with a toddler.
For my complete set of tips on visiting London’s museums with toddlers and kids, check out my ultimate guide
1. Use the Exhibition Road entrance
Skip the main Cromwell Road door for the small entrance on Exhibition Road, as it’s the quietest and step-free. There’s a cloakroom here too, although it does fill up quickly, and while you don’t get the dramatic impact of the suspended whale skeleton in the Hintze Hall (Dippy the diplodocus now having been replaced and headed off on a tour of the UK), it does mean you don’t need to distract their attention as you wrangle them out of coats or fold up buggies.
2. Make sure your buggy folds up
Children aged three and under can leave items for free in the cloakroom, but pushchairs do need to be folded. If you’ve crammed lots of bags underneath, be prepared to have to carry those.
3. Go in the morning
Mornings are usually the quietest times throughout the year, so try to get there for opening at 10am. School holidays and peak tourist season are unsurprisingly much busier, so it’s best to arrive before opening if you’re visiting with school age siblings too – although the museum is rarely quiet.
4. Skip the dinosaur queues
If you are visiting during school holidays and want to see the Dinosaurs Gallery, the museum has previously had the option to book free timed entry tickets to avoid standing in huge queues. If that’s not an option, make this your first stop – even when there are lines, they move pretty fast and you could always play the museum’s online ‘which dinosaur are you‘ quiz to pass the time.
5. Make a plan
The museum is so vast, I sometimes feel like I should leave a trail of breadcrumbs to find my way back out. Split into four colour-coded areas, there are signs dotted around but it’s worth looking at the map online to work out where you’d most like to go before you visit and which areas are likely to upset toddlers – Minnie, for example, is not a fan of the noises in the Red Zone, with the flickering lights as you ride the escalators up.
For other preschoolers, this can be one of the most thrilling sections – but even if you stick to the Blue and Green zones (my mini animal-lover’s favourites), you’ll have plenty to fill your time.
There are so many discoveries around every corner, you could easily wander and see what you stumble across, which is ideal if you can visit regularly, but otherwise it’s easy to miss something amazing. Maps cost £1 when you arrive, so if you can print out the PDF from the website, do.
6. Do some homework
The Natural History Museum website has a great kids only section with games, facts and little introductions to the stars of the museum. It’s great for getting toddlers excited and helps stop them getting too overwhelmed when there’s exhibits they know a bit about. If you’re not sure what they’ll like most, this can help with the planning too.
7. Get into the Explorer spirit
You can borrow an Explorer Backpack free of charge from the main Hintze Hall information desk every day between 10am and 5pm. You do need some ID to leave as a deposit. Designed for children aged seven and under there’s an activity booklet or they can just dress up with safari hat and binoculars, and five topics to pick from.
8. Take a deep breath
If the museum is getting overwhelming, the Wildlife Garden is open from April 1 to October 31. Go through the Darwin Centre in the Orange Zone to reach it. If you know you’ll want to see the garden but are visiting outside those dates, you can make an appointment by calling the information desk on 020 7942 5011.
9. Make time for the Investigate Centre
Tucked away in the basement – another good reason to check the map – the fantastic Investigate Centre lets you pick up and examine all kinds of objects from meteorites to shells, with a microscope to see more detail.
However it’s reserved for school visits on weekdays during term time, so you’ll need to leave it until after 4pm. In contrast, on weekends and holidays, the centre is open from 11am so it’s best to arrive as early as possible. Aimed at children aged five to 14, so better for preschoolers than toddlers.
Check out my experience visiting the Natural History Museum with a toddler as well as our return trip to see the dinosaurs – or discover my complete set of tips on visiting London’s museums with toddlers and kids in this ultimate guide
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