We’ve scoured the UK to find the very best experiences that your little one will enjoy as much as you – and there’s not a soft-play centre in sight!
Bounce on a trampolineNo matter how young your tot is, sitting or lying on a trampoline while you gently bounce him up and down will be a huge hit. As your little one gets older and learns to walk, trying to balance as he totters around a trampoline is brilliant for developing co-ordination. Some experts say it’s even better than riding a bike! Jumping on a trampoline can also encourage bravery. That initial fear of falling is replaced with a sense of confidence as he finds out he won’t hurt himself.
Best trampoline fun for totsBriarlands Farm, Stirling
The giant jumping pillows are fun for all ages – babies can sit on the edge while older toddlers can go to the top. Guaranteed giggles! briarlandsfarm.co.uk
Jump Nation, Manchester
Europe’s largest indoor trampoline park. It has a special area for under fives; jumpnation.com
Church Farm, Stow Bardoph, Norfolk
The trampolines at this tot-friendly farm are set over hollows at ground level, so your little one can crawl across with no risk of falling off; churchfarmstowbardolph.co.uk
Follow fishVisiting an aquarium should be at the very top of your list for summer fun. Watching colourful creatures swim gently past is an amazing sensory experience for a tot, and even young babies will be mesmerized by the movement. It’s great for cognitive development too. From age six months, a baby will be able to recognise an object by its colour and shape, so try pointing to a species as it passes you by, and say its name. An aquarium is a great place to work on a toddler’s vocabulary skills too, particularly colours and counting. Take a book, such as Fabulous Fishes by Susan Stockdale (£4.59, Peachtree), and see how many species you can spot.
Best aquariums for totsHorniman Museum, London
With lots of low-level tanks for tiny people to peer into, this gets the M&B vote for the best aquarium for toddlers and babies in Britain; horniman.ac.uk
Deep Sea World, Fife
Walk through the UK’s longest underwater tunnel and look out for Stella the stingray; deepseaworld.com
This interactive aquarium has multi-level displays, so even the smallest family member gets a good view; bristolaquarium.co.uk
Pet an animal.... or twoOur favourite farm attractions all have a petting zoo, where little ones can stroke animals for a great lesson in being gentle and calm. Research has shown that children who are exposed to animals from a young age tend to be better listeners and develop compassion. Many farms offer animal-care talks for little ones too. There’s lots of fun to be had encouraging even a young baby to make animal noises, which will help with his vowel sounds. Teach a toddler the names of the baby animals, and play a matching game to find the adult animals.
Best petting zoos for tots
Chatsworth Farmyard, Derbyshire
You can handle lots of cuddly creatures, from guinea pigs to lambs and baby goats. Don’t miss the toddler-friendly cow-milking demonstrations; chatsworth.org
Thrift Farm, Buckinghamshire
Run by friendly volunteers, this hands-on farm will let your little one stroke rabbits, guinea pigs and more. And its café serves fab, healthy food that’s perfect for youngsters; facebook.com/thriftfarm
Godstone Farm, Surrey
Get up close with hens, rabbits and newly hatched chicks. They all sit on low-level platforms within easy reach of chubby hands. Don’t leave without going on a tractor ride; godstonefarm.co.uk
Check out a sensory roomThere are a growing number of sensory rooms around the UK, and they’re great for introducing your baby to sights, sounds, textures and smells. You’ll find a mix of lights, mirrors, and music, which will help develop your tot’s awareness, creativity, co-ordination and problem-solving skills. And with the emphasis on quiet exploration, a sensory room is a far more relaxing place to spend a rainy afternoon than a soft-play centre.
Best sensory rooms for totsV&A Museum of Childhood, London
The Sensory Pod is a mix of bubbles, coloured lights and mirrors. It’s perfect for a baby or toddler; vam.ac.uk/moc
Boomerang Centre, Greater Manchester
With a sensory bed, colour-changing ball pool and fibre-optic curtain, this offers hours of fun; boomerangcentre.co.uk
The Party & Play Funhouse, Greater Manchester
The sensory studio has sensory, relaxation and interactive zones; partyandplayfunhouse.co.uk
Have fun at a family festivalMany parents think it’s only worth going to a festival with older children. But choose the right festival and you’ll find plenty for babies and toddlers. There are experiences to be had that can be enjoyed nowhere else, from creative music shows to building forts. And with nappy-changing tents and breast-feeding areas, your needs will be well catered for too. The trick to enjoying a festival with a youngster is to organise your day around his routine.
Best festivals for totsCamp Bestival, Dorset
Held at a castle by the sea, you can’t find a more magical setting for a family festival. 30 July to 2 August; campbestival.net
Just So Festival, Cheshire
From wake-up wiggle classes to sensory exploration sessions, this has oodles of new experiences for little ones. 21 to 23 August; justsofestival.org.uk
Green Man Festival, Brecon Beacons
This features a magical Little Folk area right next to the family camping area. 20 to 23 August; greenman.net
Play on an epic scaleAround the age of 24 months, your child will start to use his imagination in play. This is vital for his development, helping him to explore different scenarios and possible outcomes. And you’ll see him mimicking the actions of the grown-ups in his life. So once your toddler starts to get engrossed in his make-believe games, expand his play with an all-encompassing adventure. These attractions all make play into a big day out, with costumes, story-telling and tot-sized pretend worlds to encourage him to follow his imagination and get creative. Great for developing social skills too!
Best play-days for tots
Little Street, Surrey
Toddlers will have a great time in the child-sized fire station and more. Organised play in small groups, so it doesn't get too busy; little-street.co.uk
This adventure park offers interactive story sessions and dedicated areas for little ones; bewilderwood.co.uk
Underwater Street, Liverpool
Your little one can star in his own TV show in the Imagination Village; underwaterstreet.com
Visit a butterfly houseMost butterfly houses feature a chrysalis house – take a copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar (£3.49, Puffin) with you and learn about the butterfly’s life cycle, hunting with your toddler for butterflies in the caterpillar and pupation stages.
The colours and sensation of a fly-past makes this a great experience for even a tiny tot. To encourage a butterfly
to land on your finger, dress in bright clothing and wear a floral-scented perfume. Cameras at the ready…
Best butterfly houses for tots
Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire
The butterfly hatcheries have huge glass viewing panels, so toddlers can see the life cycle in action; blenheimpalace.com
Chester Zoo, Cheshire
This is the largest zoo-based butterfly house in the UK and offers an immersive experience; chesterzoo.org
Otters & Butterflies, Devon
As well as the butterfly house, older tots can help feed otters; ottersandbutterflies.co.uk
Head to the beachThe youngest baby will enjoy feeling the sand in between his fingers and toes. Try tipping a bucket of water on to some sun-warmed sand to make a damp patch and he’ll love exploring the difference in texture between wet and dry. Or play near the shoreline for a stimulating sensory experience of water and soggy sand. There are lots of games you can play with sand too. Part-fill an empty water bottle with it for your baby to shake. With a toddler, go on a shell-hunt, then use them to make patterns and faces in the sand.
Best beaches for tots
Crantock Beach, Cornwall
This stretch of sheltered sand is our favourite for families, with lifeguards on duty in the summer months so you can safely paddle in the sea; nationaltrust.org.uk/holywell-and-crantock
Torquay Beach, Devon
Officially the best tourist beach for sandcastle-building – an accolade awarded by scientists to this fine-grain sand beach; torquay.com/torquay-beaches
Barricane Beach, Devon
Known as ‘Shell Bay’, this is an amazing place for toddlers to collect shells and other treasures, with the Gulf Stream sweeping exotic examples to its shore from the Caribbean; northdevon.com
Explore musicAllowing babies and toddlers to listen to, and make, music in the early years can aid speech development, increase concentration skills and encourage self-expression and creativity. It also helps your tot learn to co-ordinate his body and mind to work together – it’s no easy task clapping along in time to a piece of music! Our favourite attractions all make music a part of play, with the emphasis on fun.
Best music for totsDiscover Children’s Story Centre, London
The garden of this play centre has giant musical instruments to bash on. You can slide down a monster’s tongue and
sail off in a pirate ship. You’re bound to have a go at dancing on the noisy polka dots; discover.org.uk
Classical Babies, various venues in the south of England
These classical concerts by professional musicians are run for mums, dads and babies. Your tot can run around and play while the music washes over you; classicalbabies.com
Baby Loves Disco, London, Edinburgh and Glasgow
Strut your stuff as a family at a daytime disco with DJs playing ’70s, ’80s and ’90s tunes. With face painting
and a chill-out zone; babylovesdisco.co.uk
Splash in a fountainBabies and toddlers are often drawn to water – after all, they’ve spent nine months floating around in your womb, so the sound and feel of water are very familiar. A summer day out involving water pushes all the sensory buttons for your baby as he can see, feel, hear and – try as you might to deter him – taste this experience. With a young baby, try sprinkling water on his arms or hold him as you run through a fountain. If your tot is a little older, make sure you pack a few plastic containers so he can catch, scoop and pour the water.
Best splashy fun for totsBurghley House, Lincolnshire
The Garden of Surprises features tot-friendly fountains and cascades. They'll have hours of fun as they run amok and let out high-pitched squeals of excitment; burghley.co.uk
The Alnwick Garden, Northumberland
The Grand Cascade is the biggest water feature of its kind in the UK – and little ones love to run through the water jets and splash on the terrace; alnwickgarden.com
Decoy Country Park, Devon
With a huge water-play area, this green-flag award-winning nature reserve has sprays, jets and tipping buckets to play with; teignbridge.gov.uk/decoy