England, UK, Wanderlust

45 things to do in Dorset with kids

She sells sea shells on the sea shore – and if you’re visiting Dorset with kids 200 years on, you can still walk on that very beach and search for the sea’s treasures yourself. Because the tongue twister has its own fascinating history, the story of Mary Anning.

A view across Kimmeridge Bay on the Jurassic Coast at sunset - fossil hunting tops my list of the best things to do in Dorset with kids

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Born in Lyme Regis, in Dorset, she spent her life searching for fossils to sell to tourists, trying to earn enough for the family to live on – along the way, discovering an ichthyosaur, a plesiosaur and other dinosaurs, helping contribute to the understanding of extinction, central to the theory of evolution.

Having felt the thrill of unearthing a dinosaur bone on the Isle of Wight, the Jurassic Coast has been high on my UK family holiday wishlist. And finding fossils is only the start of the county’s attractions, though easily one of the best things to do in Dorset with kids – I’ve rounded up my pick of the best.

Go beach combing in Dorset

If you’re hoping to find fossils, the Jurassic coast is the place to start. Charmouth is one of the best places to go beachcombing in Dorset – the visitor centre runs guided fossil-hunting walks.

And Lyme Regis, site of Mary Anning’s famous finds, is another easy spot to start with kids: it can get busy but you’re guaranteed to see ammonites at least with the fascinating fossil shelf known as the Ammonite Pavement.

Check out some of the best things to do in Lyme Regis with kids and our day exploring the Ammonite Pavement here

Girl sorting fossils on stones on Charmouth beach in Dorset - fossil hunting is one of the best things to do in Dorset with kids

Seatown is another great place to spy ammonites and they’re usually easy to collect, which is ideal with kids. Stick to the foreshore rather than the cliff bases as these are crumbling which can be dangerous.

Or head to Kimmeridge Bay, which is also wonderful for rockpooling – just watch the tides if you’re exploring, as well as the cliffs, which are crumbling in places here too.

While you’re there, head to the Etches Collection in Kimmeridge itself – the Museum of Jurassic Marine Life is packed with fossils and takes visitors on a journey back in time to the Kimmeridgian Seas, 157 million years ago. There are also family events and activities on during the school holidays.

For more tips on fossil hunting for beginner’s, including how to stay safe and where to look (and why you don’t need to take a hammer), check out this advice from the Jurassic Coast Trust.

Hit the beach 

There are beaches galore in Dorset to make sandcastles between fossil hunting – check out the fabulous sand creations at Sandworld Sculpture Park for some inspiration.

For family-friendly beaches, you’re spoiled for choice: Weymouth has a stretch of golden sand and gentle waves to paddle in (plus some traditional seaside fun), and there’s a dog-friendly area year-round.

Swanage beach has its own sheltered bay with family-friendly swimming areas – although dogs are not allowed from May to September.

The golden beach and blue-green seas along the Dorset coast at Middle Chine between Poole and Bournemouth - hitting the beach is unmissable if you're visiting Dorset with kids

Or there are yet more sandy beaches at Poole and Bournemouth, stretching all the way from Sandbanks to Hengistbury Head. Not forgetting Lyme Regis too for its own tempting beach.

West Bay – now forever known as the beach from Broadchurch – has those dramatic cliffs as a scenic backdrop, with sand at the edge of the fine shingle beach.

For quieter coves, Church Ope cove has Viking history – apparently the landing site of the first raids made on the British Isles, or there’s a mix of sand and shingle at Gundimore which you can reach from Mudeford Quay.

South Beach is one of Studland’s more peaceful spots – Knoll beach is the most popular (watch out for the naturist section) with four miles of beach to explore in the nature reserve of Studland Bay.

For ideas of how to entertain kids at the beach, check out my post of the best beach activities or click here for details of more dog-friendly beaches in Dorset

Beside the sea in Dorset

What’s better than wandering along the beach? Heading below the waves – and there are plenty of opportunities to dive into the deeps without getting wet – as well as boat tours in Dorset and other fun in the water, including a Dorset waterpark.

Sea Life Centre, Weymouth

In Weymouth, the Sea Life Centre is home to sharks, rays and cunning octopus alongside creatures local to Dorset in the Harbourside Zone and the UK’s only colony of fairy penguins.

As well as a huge variety of marine creatures, there’s an outdoor rockpool and you’ll find temporary activities during school holidays, such as the Halloween ‘a-scarium’ spooky trail, plus an adventure playground and mini golf to discover.

Prebooking is advised, although you can usually find a discount on the usual price by booking online for Sea Life Weymouth.

Bright tropical reef fish in a tank - you can visit several different aquariums in Dorset with kids

The Oceanarium, Bournemouth

Discover penguins and sea turtles, along with dwarf crocodiles and otters (plus huge numbers of fish, of course) at the 12 themed environments of The Oceanarium in Bournemouth.

There’s an Adventure Quiz Trail to complete, and kids can measure themselves against a penguin (as well as watching them waddle). Talks, feeding times and animal experiences are temporarily suspended, but there’s still plenty to entertain.

Check out my Bournemouth Oceanarium review of our visit during a rainy day in Bournemouth with kids

RockReef Pierzip Line

If you’re visiting Bournemouth with older kids, you can even fly over the waves (and make believe you’re going to keep going under) with the RockReef Pierzip Line.

Running from a 25m high platform, you speed the 250 metres down to the beach in 30 seconds – and as it’s a dual zipwire, you can race a friend down. Suitable for kids over 1.3m.

Splashdown, Poole

If you’re looking for waterparks in Dorset, Splashdown in Poole is great whether you’re visiting Dorset with toddlers or older kids, with the Ricky’s Reef for younger ones, Buccaneers’ SplashZone for under 8s  and 13 flumes ranging from gentle to high-speed thrills.

Some venture outdoors and feature black holes and there’s a minimum height restriction of 1m. Kids can’t go on the slides with parents. Tickets must be prebooked.

Dorset Waterpark

A waterpark with a difference: instead of the usual flumes and splashzones, the park’s two lakes have inflatable obstacles as well as other hurdles like wobbly bridges, floating stepping stones and balance beams. Each lake has a different set of obstacles, with sessions lasting an hour (half an hour per lake).

Minimum age is six, and you do have to be a confident swimmer. Wetsuits are available to hire on the day, tickets must be prebooked. Dorset Waterpark is not far from Corfe Castle, at Dorset Adventure Park, and there’s also a mud trail course if you want another challenge (for 4+).

Boat sails towards Old Harry Rocks on the Jurassic Coast in Dorset - a cruise around Poole Harbour or out to the coast is a great things to do with kids in Dorset

City Cruises Poole

If you want to get out on the water, there are a string of boat tours and cruises running from Poole Quay, including a 70-minute jaunt around the harbour past Brownsea Island, Sandbanks Peninsula and Studland Bay. Or you can head along the Jurassic coast on circular cruises from Poole or Swanage, as well as hopping on a boat for day trips from Poole to Swanage (or vice versa).

There are also combined tickets with Swanage railway and the City Sightseeing Bournemouth open-top bus teamed with a cruise.

Get outdoors in Dorset with kids

Dorset is justifiably famous for its coast and beaches but there are plenty of chances to get outdoors away from the coast as well.

Find a Gruffalo at Moors Valley Country Park

At Moors Valley Country Park lurks a fearsome monster, with a poisonous wart on the end of his nose – and purple prickles all over his back. Well probably.

One of the locations for the string of Forestry England Julia Donaldson trails, it’s still home to both a Gruffalo and the Gruffalo’s Child, along the children’s Play Trail, as well as other family trails.

Plus, of course, plenty of places to walk, cycle or watch the scenery from a narrow gauge steam train – along with a more adrenaline-fuelled option on the Go Ape Junior High ropes course, for anyone who fancies themselves the scariest creature in the wood.

Abbotsbury Sub Tropical Gardens

These award-winning gardens are home to rare and exotic species from around the world, so it feels like you’re leaving the UK far behind as you wander through this woodland valley.

New for 2020, there’s a Wonderland Sculpture trail with characters from Alice in Wonderland, including the Cheshire Cat, White Rabbit and Alice herself dotted around, plus a play area and nature trail.

You could spot the golden pheasants in the sunken gardens, as well as wandering past lily ponds and over rope bridges as you explore too. In winter, there are normally festive illuminations too, although Abbotsbury Enchanted Floodlit Gardens has been cancelled for 2020.

A view down to the waves and beach to the rock arch of Durdle Door in Dorset - exploring the coast is one of my best things to do in Dorset with kids

Durdle Door

One of the most iconic sights of Dorset, the limestone arch of Durdle Door is 10,000 years old, with the waves crashing underneath and a beautiful shingle beach alongside.

There’s a cliff path down, as well as steps to the beach or you can view the arch from the clifftop coast path. Unsurprisingly, it’s a hugely popular spot and can get very busy in summer or on sunny weekends so plan your visits accordingly.

Lulworth Outdoors

For active families, Lulworth Outdoors is hard to beat – you can try anything from snorkeling to kayaking and cliff diving, archery, rock climbing, mountain biking and orienteering.

It’s set between beautiful Lulworth Cove and Durdle Door so you can also get to soak up some of Dorset’s best scenery. Activities temporarily suspended.

Durlston Country Park

The best of the countryside and the coast combined, Durlston Country Park is on the corner of the Isle of Purbeck looking out to Swanage, with some gorgeous walking trails to discover across the 320 acre site.

If you visit at the right time of year, you could even spot dolphins (April/May and October/November are best), seals and basking sharks in the waves. There are also regular family events, trail explorer books to buy, as well as ideas for a mini-beast safari.

And at Durlston Castle, you can find live wildlife cameras as well as a fossil room plus rangers to offer more information.

View over dry stone wall and hills above Anvil Point Lighthouse in Durlston Park - one of the great days out with kids in Dorset

Upton Country Park, near Poole

A grand mansion sits at the heart of Upton Country Park, just outside Poole, but it’s the woodlands which are most tempting for kids. (the house does open on Sundays and bank holidays for most of the year if you fancy peeking inside though).

There is a great play area made using natural wood, or if you’re visiting in summer (or sometimes during unexpected heatwaves), a splash fountain to help cool off in the Walled Garden.

The cycle routes also form part of the Castleman Trailway, the old Southampton to Dorchester railway line turned into a gentle 16.5 mile cycling and walking path.

The Tunnel Tree Tops, west Dorset

This award-winning high ropes course has 11 different elements up in the trees of the 15 acres woodland, from rope bridges and walkways to zipwires.

Suitable for age 6+ and taller than 1.2m, the Tunnel Tree Tops is part of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – although your heart might be racing too fast to take in all the scenery as you have fun in the trees. Must be prebooked.

Animal attractions

Creatures great or small love Dorset, whether you’re looking for exotic animals or farm animals, equally beloved by smaller kids, not to mention some memorable animal interactions.

Monkey World Ape Rescue Centre

Home to chimpanzees, orangutans and gibbons (among others), Monkey World Ape Rescue Centre has rescued animals from around the world and helps work against the primate smuggling trade.

With over 250 rescued and endangered primates, it’s the largest group of chimpanzees outside of Africa, including three groups of orangutans. Tickets must be prebooked and all visitors aged 3+ must wear masks to visit.

Check out my review of a family day out at Monkey World Dorset

Gibbon like those found among the rescued primates at Monkey World in Dorset - one of the best days out in Dorset with kids

Farmer Palmer’s Farm Park

A fabulous day out for younger kids especially, you can find farm animals galore along with alpacas, play areas, a woodland walk, activities including tractor trailer rides and goat feeding, plus pig exercising to see.

There’s a new dinosaur roar trail at Farmer Palmer’s Farm Park for 2020. Tickets must be prebooked, with morning and afternoon sessions available: it’s worth noting that a lot of the indoor options are temporarily closed if you’re looking for things to do in Dorset in the rain.

Dorset Heavy Horse Centre

Head to the Dorset Heavy Horse Centre for tractor and pony rides, and farm animals to feed – as well as the chance to learn about the history of heavy horses, who have carried armoured knights, pulled canal boats and more over the past thousand years.

Abbotsbury Swannery

Ordinarily, the last thing I’d recommend is to approach a nesting swan – but if you’ve always wanted to see cygnets up close, Abbotsbury Swannery is the only place where you can safely get close to a colony of nesting Mute Swans.

Visit from the end of May to the end of June and you can see eggs hatching and the baby swans being born, while there’s also a Giant Swan maze and other family activites to entertain.

You can also get a discount on Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens (scroll up for more) if you buy tickets to both. Abbotsbury Children’s Farm had to close during lockdown and unfortunately will not be reopening.

Swans at Abbotsbury Swannery in Dorset - an unusual day out with kids in Dorset

Dorset Falconry Park, near Dorchester

Home to over 100 birds of prey, including owls, as well as eagles, hawks and falcons, you can see them fly at two organised shows during the day, as well as when they’re being exercised in between.

There are also falconry experiences on offer at Dorset Falconry Park, including ones for families. Tickets for general admission don’t need to be prebooked.

Donkey and Llama walking

How to spice up a walk through the countryside – take a donkey with you as you go. Donkey Walking Adventures near Beaminster lets you roam the lanes and byways with a donkey. Choose between a a five-mile trek with a pub stop, or shorter two-mile walks including a cream tea (the donkeys will expect you to share). Suitable for aged 4+

Or for something a little different, you could go for a walk with an alpaca on the border of Dorset and Wiltshire – Alpaca Adventure runs sessions of around 90 minutes, with 30-40 minutes walking with the alpacas. Must be arranged in advance.

RSPB Arne

This lovely nature reserve overlooking Poole Harbour is a great place to explore with nature-loving kids, as well as babies and toddlers – there are buggy-friendly paths as you search for wildlife, along with a low ropes course for slightly older kids.

It’s the only place where all six of the UK’s native reptiles can be found, plus birds galore, and there are often children’s trails during holidays to help you explore the heathland and ancient woodland.

Red squirrel with a nut sitting on autumn leaves, like those which can be found on Brownsea island, a lovely day out in Dorset with kids

Visit Brownsea Island

For more native animals, take a ferry from Poole or Sandbanks over to Brownsea Island, home to endangered red squirrels – perfect for kids to scurry around as well.

Famous too as the birthplace of Scouting, there are special calming walks if you want to wind down plus a family squirrel trail and other activities like den building.

Castles and historic houses

Corfe Castle

Trace a thousand years of history at the now ruined Corfe Castle – not least the fact it inspired Kirrin Castle in the Famous Five books.

With its murder holes, secret places and tales of treachery and treason, not to mention rumour of royal death and its place in the Civil War, it’s perfect to let imaginations run wild. Tickets must be prebooked.

A view towards the ruined towers of Corfe Castle in the Purbeck Hills against a blue sky - exploring is one of the best things to do in Dorset with kids

Portland Castle

Or its younger cousin, Portland Castle – still a venerable 470-something years old – was built by Henry VIII to protect against French and Spanish invasion.

Kids can dress up, explore a Tudor kitchen and discover its own wartime history, from the Civil War to the Second World War. Tickets must be prebooked.

Kingston Lacy

This beautiful English country house has a far more dramatic history than the elegant façade might suggest – remodelled to look like a Venetian palace, its former owner was also a renowned Egyptologist so you can see the largest private collection of ancient Egyptian artefacts at Kingston Lacy too.

Home to artwork by Rubens, Van Dyck, Titian and Brueghel, it has also been called the South West’s ‘national gallery’, while the huge estate is home to Iron Age hill forts, the world’s oldest pedigree herd of Ruby Red Devon cattle, and gardens so impressive that Queen Victoria sent her gardeners here to get inspiration.

There’s a woodland trail and walks galore, plus an illuminated trail in winter called Ignite. Timed tickets must be prebooked and limited numbers allowed in the house.

Highcliffe Castle, Christchurch

Highcliffe Castle was built in the 1830s and has played host to royalty over the years – but with kids’ trails and some impressive rooms to discover, it’s also a great place to visit with family in Dorset.

As well as the formal gardens and woodlands in the grounds, there’s also a beach and nature reserve to explore – plus some fun online activities to keep the visit going once you get home. Tickets must be prebooked and entry is limited to the house itself.

Nothe Fort

Built in 1872 to protect Portland’s harbour, Nothe Fort sits at the mouth of Weymouth harbour and now houses a collection of guns, model ships and submarines.

There’s also a children’s trail around the fort to get kids exploring as they spot mice, as well as information on evacuees during the war.

The cannon is still fired every other Sunday (with a display of musketry on alternate Sundays) by the Fort Artillery, just as if you’d stepped back to Victorian times.

Part of Nothe Fort with views out to sea, Weymouth - one of the most unusual historic sites to visit in Dorset with kids

Lulworth Castle and Park

The 17th century building was originally intended as a hunting lodge to entertain royalty and the aristocracy – Lulworth castle has been restored after a fire in 1929 and you can explore inside, as well as wandering through the parkland.

There are woodland walks and a children’s playground too, with some family activities during the holidays. Tickets must be booked in advance. Entrance is free to English Heritage members.  

Athelhampton House and Gardens

This Tudor manor house dates back 500 years – perfect if your kids love being transported back to the past, plus there are family events on some weekends.

It’s the gardens which are likely to capture most children’s imaginations at Athelhampton House though, with yew trees clipped into topiary pyramids in the walled gardens, a 15th century dovecote and chance to walk along the riverside, as well as past fontains and ponds.

Museums in Dorset with kids

The Tutankhamun Exhibition, Dorchester

Although you can’t see the real artefacts recovered from Tutankhamun’s tomb (those are now on display in Egypt, except for occasional loans to exhibitions), you can see these fantastic recreations at the Tutankhamun Exhibition.

There’s also a recreation of the pharaoh’s tomb on the day that Howard Carter entered it, back in 1922, so you can relive the thrill of his discovery. Temporarily closed – has been accepting limited numbers of visitors, no prebooking. 

Signpost to several Dorchester Museums including the Dinosaur and Teddy Bear Museum - some of the best things to do in Dorset with kids on a rainy day

The Tank Museum, Bovington

With nine different galleries, the museum tells the story of tanks – and other armoured vehicles – from the First World War onwards, but with plenty to keep even younger kids entertained, including interactive activities and the chance to go for a ride in one of the museum’s vehicles.

As well as more than 300 on display, you’ll find exhibitions to tell the stories of the people behind their invention and who have driven them throughout history at the Tank Museum.

Bournemouth Aviation Museum

If your kids love all things transport, Dorset is also home to the Bournemouth Aviation Museum where you can sit inside the cockpit of a variety of planes and helicopters, as well as getting hands on with some of the interactive displays, not to mention a flight simulator.

As an added bonus, it’s near the airport for some added plane spotting! The aircraft are all outdoors, so the museum occasionally closes in bad weather, particularly if there are high winds.

The Dinosaur Museum, Dorchester

Set not far from the Jurassic Coast, where Mary Anning famously found her ichthyosaur fossil, the Dinosaur Museum is the perfect place to learn more about these prehistoric creatures – including the chance to touch fossil displays (including teeth, heads and poo!) and even smell the breath of a T-Rex.

There are also various interactive displays too, with puzzles, virtual flashcards and an excavation pit to make your own discoveries. Temporarily closed – has been accepting limited numbers of visitors, no prebooking. 

Hengistbury Head Visitor Centre

The perfect place to visit to discover more about the area’s wildlife and geology, the Hengistbury Head Visitor Centre is full of interactive displays and makes a great starting point if you’re planning to head to Dorset’s nature reserves or go fossil hunting.

You can also explore the nature reserve around the centre, and hop on the little land train (temporarily suspended).

The beach and sand dunes at Hengistbury Head near Bournemouth in Dorset

Dorset Teddy Bear Museum, Dorchester

Dorchester seems to specialise in quirky museums – as well as ancient Egyptian artefacts and dinosaurs, you can discover a family of people-sized bears, plus a collection of teddies from antiques to current TV favourites (from Winnie the Pooh and Paddington to Sooty) at the Dorset Teddy Bear Museum.

They’re all arranged in a Victorian building, set up as a house – so you can discover Edward Bear and his family going about daily bear life with their own collection of teddies. The museum is temporarily closed.

Other Dorset family attractions

From Dorset theme parks to crazy golf galore, steam trains and open-top buses, there are plenty of other ways to entertain kids in Dorset.

Adventure Wonderland, Bournemouth

This Dorset theme park is themed around Alice in Wonderland, and has been named one of Dorset’s top family attractions – as well as rides, there’s a maze, indoor play and other activities, all aimed at families with children aged 3 to 10.

There are some minimum height restrictions (and a few maximum heights!) but Adventure Wonderland is a great option with kids of different ages.

Swanage Railway 

This lovely heritage steam railway chuffs through the countryside along the old Southern Railway line between Swanage and Norden, stopping at the ruins of Corfe Castle – so you can also use it as a more unusual way to get from A to B as well.

Look out for the services marked with an ‘O’ when the special Observation Car is also running, with its huge windows for the best views, as well as special themed services on the Swanage Railway year-round.

Portland Bill Lighthouse

There are few better places to learn about life in a lighthouse and the feeling of being out in a stormy sea than a visit to Portland Bill Lighthouse. The famous red and white striped tower has stood since 1906 but there has been a light on this site for over 500 years, helping mariners navigating the coast here.

The former lighthouse keeper’s dwelling has various displays and interactive exhibits, including ‘Into The Dark’, taking you on a stormy sea journey. There are also fabulous views from the top of the lighthouse, although visitors must be 1.1m tall (and able to climb unaided) so this isn’t one to attempt with toddlers.

The red and white striped Portland Bill Lighthouse in Dorset against a blue sky - a great day out in Dorset with older kids

Pirate Adventure Golf, Weymouth

This mini golf course puts the swashbuckle into adventure golf, with pirate ships, treasure chests and gunpowder barrels as you work your way around the 18 holes, including some fiendishly tricky challenges.

Attached to Weymouth Sea Life Centre, there’s half-price entry for annual pass holders or you can buy separate entry – tickets must be prebooked, parrot optional.

Mr Mulligan’s Bournemouth

This crazy golf course is truly out of this world – in fact, there’s more than one intergalactic course to play at Mr Mulligan’s and as it’s all indoors, it’s also a great option for a rainy day in Dorset.

You can choose 17 or 26 holes, as you try to putt past aliens and spaceships, and there’s a discount on Wednesdays.

Sandbanks Crazy golf

This seaside crazy golf course isn’t open year-round but time your visit to Sandbanks right, and these 18 holes have one of the best views… if you can drag your eyes from the course.

There’s a smaller sister mini golf course in Poole with 12 holes (also closed in winter) which has its own sneaky challenges too.

Corfe Castle Model Village

If you’re planning a visit to the ruins of Corfe Castle (or even if you’re not), you can transport yourself back to the days when the castle’s walls still stood, in 1646 before it was destroyed in the Civil War.

Corfe Castle model village shows people visiting the church, standing by the moat and generally getting on with life in the village, while there is also a fairy garden, life-size Civil War soldiers on guard plus other activities for families (and working stocks if anyone misbehaves).

English model village showing a pub and old-fashioned cars - there are two model villages in Dorset for a day out with kids

Wimborne Model Town

Step back to the 1950s in this award-winning model town – a 1:10 scale model of Dorset market town Wimborne Minster, there are over 100 shops, banks and cafes packed with tiny items, plus a river system and even a ringing phone box.

There’s a Model Town Trail for kids to follow as they explore, or they can eye up the miniature 1950s school and compare it to their own classroom before exploring the gardens.

City Sightseeing Bournemouth open-top bus

Hop-on hop-off bus tours can be a great way to explore with kids, as a more scenic way of getting from A to B or to take in some of the highlights in one trip.

The City Sightseeing open-top double deckers leave from Bournemouth Pier and Poole Quay, travelling around the Sandbanks peninsula as well as Poole Quay.

You can choose 24h and 48h tickets, as well as combined tickets with the City Cruises boat tours and the complete loop takes around 90 minutes.

Where to stay in Dorset with kids

There are self-catering cottages galore in Dorset, as well as a string of different AirBNB properties in Dorset including seaside and countryside options.

Wyke Dorset Cottages have places to stay that are just minutes from Charmouth’s beach as well as others along the coast, so you never need to walk far with your finds. Or Sykes Holiday Cottages also has a varied collection of places to stay in Dorset.

If you prefer a family-friendly hotel, check out these ideas from booking.com.

For more ideas of UK days out with kids, check out my round-up from across the country

**First published 2018, updated 2020**

PIN FOR LATER: THINGS TO DO IN DORSET WITH KIDS

The best things to do in Dorset with kids - from beachcombing for fossils to historic castles, monkeys and marine life, as well as exploring the beautiful UK countryside. #dorsetwithkids #dorsetuk #ukdaysout

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