Taking children to historical sites and stately homes can be done, although it can be hard work and you will definitely miss the days when you could just go somewhere with a minimum of planning and preparations. But it is rewarding, well worth doing and will give you, and them, many happy memories - you’ll hopefully forget the times they threw up in the National Trust gift shop, or had a very public tantrum because they weren’t allowed to climb the castle walls.
These are my top tips for taking children around historical sites and museums – something I have done a considerable amount of - which should give you maximum reward and minimum stress. Some of these are obvious, others you may not have thought of. I hope they help!
1. Choose your site wisely …
Some sites are just more naturally interesting than others for children and bear this in mind when choosing, particularly in the early days. Pompeii with its plaster casts of bodies and full size town is easy; foot high dusty ruins can be more challenging. Keep an eye out for themed days targeted at children, such as learning to joust, falconry or building dens.
For older children, try to do museum sleepovers, behind the scenes tours, visiting a site by candlelight, a Twilight Tour – anything that is different and out of the ordinary. This gives an added element of excitement and interest and tends to lead to increased involvement.
A lot of museums have interactive displays, usually involving a screen, which children will instinctively gravitate towards. These can be really good, but screens are often broken or surprisingly dull unless specifically designed for children. They are still an improvement on many museums though and worth factoring in to your decision about where to visit. Just remember that great quantities of hi-tech and interactive exhibits don’t always mean a better experience for children.
Living museums are great and I cannot praise them highly enough for keeping children interested and teaching them far more than artefacts in glass cases ever will. One of my favourites is Milestones in Basingstoke which not only has streets with shops, an arcade of playable antique fairground games, a 1940’s sweetshop that sells children their weekly ration of sweets, but also an Edwardian pub where adults can buy an actual drink. It was a happy day when we discovered that one.
There is also Blist's Hill near Ironbridge which is a full sized Victorian town and is fantastic for its detail and level of immersion.
We had to change our money to pre-decimal currency in a Victorian bank before we could buy anything in the town. There was a lot of activities on offer, including a proper Victorian funfair, and so many things for children to do that we could have gone there for two days and not done it all.
2. Fail to Prepare and You Prepare to Fail …
Always check the basics beforehand – parking, food establishments in the area, facilities, and pushchair parks. Most of this information will be available on the site website.
Site websites often have a kid’s area so always look at this first as it will give you an idea of how child friendly the site is and also if there are any special areas of interest that are particularly interesting for children. For older children that have screen access, the children’s area on site websites often have games and fact sheets that will give them an idea of where they are going and provide some basic facts beforehand.
Read the Trip Advisor reviews before you go. You can take the opinions with a pinch of salt, but often people will point out things that you just won’t have considered for children (e.g. the pushchair park is a mile away from the main site, or you will be asked to leave your rucksack at the coat check and so won’t have easy access to your supplies).
It goes without saying, but ensure you have more than enough snacks, drinks, wipes, sun cream, waterproofs and all of the other usual accoutrements that all parents have attached to them when out of the house and put them in a rucksack so you still have your hands free for dealing with your small people.
Sometimes it’s a good idea to tell your children where you are taking them for the day, and making a big deal out of it, sometimes it’s best to sneak the site in before the main attraction: “We’re off to the cinema this afternoon! On the way, were just going to quickly explore a 12th century ruin.” It’s a judgement call and depends on the age and temperament of the child. I tend to big up the interesting and interactive sites, the 12th century ruins I keep quiet about until the last minute.
Know beforehand that you will only get to read about 25% of the information panels yourself. Make your peace with this and the visit will be far less stressful.
3. The visit …
When you do have to take those overlong journeys to get to a place, there is no shame in allowing your kids their screens if they’re old enough. It prevents any complaints before you’ve even left your driveway and keeps them, and therefore you, even tempered for your arrival at the site.
If you are taking younger children, let them do some charging around before you go in, to burn off any excess energy. In each new place, don’t forget to designate a meeting point in case anyone gets separated from the group. Chose the tallest and most central spot you can.
A great many sites will offer you a children’s trail as you pay to get in, be prepared for this and have your answer ready so you don’t stutter out an automatic ‘yes’. Parents either love or loathe trails - after 13 odd years of these, I am now firmly in the loathing camp.
When the children were very small we found that they raced through the property thinking that the trail was all they had to do, so as soon as they had found the mouse, or whatever was on the trail, they were charging off to the next location and there was no time to look at anything else.
It also means that as parents, you are forced to carry their clipboards for them when they get bored and want to run off somewhere.
Fortunately we have now reached the point where the children themselves say a firm no to any proffered clipboards, knowing that the prize of a sticker at the end really isn’t worth the shame and hassle of carrying around a clipboard.
Guided tours can also be a feature of historical and archaeological sites. When I was a child, visiting historical houses usually meant a very long tour with someone droning on while you stood behind a rope and had distant items pointed out to you. These were never targeted at children and could be very tedious. Things have come a long way since then and most stately homes now will allow people to wander where they wish and will often leave out a pile of toys for children to play with.
National Trust places are very good at this and in the summer months will also put out a wide variety of outdoor games. Sadly there are a few places where the guided tour and roped off areas still exist, so I recommend using TripAdvisor first; something I really wish I had done before dragging my poor, unsuspecting children around a stately home near Romsey, which will remain nameless, and subjecting them to an old fashioned, slow-paced, adult targeted tour, complete with ropes and everything. There wasn’t even a café to reward them with sugary items afterwards.
This segues nicely into that other aspect of modern presentation of historical sites – costumed characters. These can be fantastic in some places, really adding to the ambience and helping your children to see exactly how the site would have been used by people in the past.
The best example of this that I have seen is at the Roman Baths in Bath, where they had people in togas just wandering around and acting as they probably would have done. It really added to the atmosphere and made the visit something special.
The flip side of this is that in some places, the costumed characters can approach your terrified child and start a conversation with them that they are just not interested in - being approached by a bewhiskered and very tall butler asking questions can be rather intimidating. Warn your kids in advance if there are likely to be any, so they know what to expect.
Many museums and sites these days will have an area where they have laid out costumes relevant to the time period for children and adults to try on. Mine just walk past these with contempt now but when they were younger, this was always a good way of getting them interested and giving them something to do other than just looking at objects. It can provide a welcome respite for the parents too as there is often somewhere to sit down for a few minutes, which is always welcome.
Gruesomeness is a bonus. Children reach an age when they are fascinated by all things gory and grotesque. If the site you are visiting has any grisly stories, it’s always a good idea to find them out beforehand and promise the kids that they will see the spot where someone had their innards ripped out 300 years ago, or their head put on a spike. Tell them the story of what happened, slip in a few historical facts with the story and you will be amazed at how well they retain the information.
4D/5D cinemas are great for children and if the site has one on offer then it’s definitely worth going in. We have seen some fantastic ones and it is such a good way for your children to learn the facts about a site. Mine still remember feeling rats tails brush the back of their legs in the seat when learning about the plague, or the way the chairs shook as the film took us on a carriage ride through medieval Vienna. Even teenagers will enjoy these, however much they try not to.
Do a family photo competition if your children are older, these can work well to sustain interest on larger sites.
Set the rules beforehand e.g. best picture of an amphora, first one to take a picture of a Latin inscription, best selfie in a toga etc.
For younger children, taking a favourite toy round the site and taking photos of it in situ can also help to keep them engaged and interested.
Allow time for exploring and going off route. In Pompeii we just let the children chose where we went and which street to walk down. It kept them really interested and let them feel like they were in control – we were able to spend an entire day on the site, saw everything we had wanted to and no-one moaned once. Keeping it fun, by playing chase or running around a larger site can burn off energy and keep them engaged.
Exit through the gift shop but set a budget first. Use it as a reward for good behaviour round the site. Everywhere sells pens, bookmarks, fridge magnets that are affordable and yet desirable for small people.
Finally, I asked my children what their advice would be to get children interested and well behaved around historical sites. They both said the same thing – bribery. And that is definitely what I would recommend if all else fails.