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Looking for something to appeal to young children in London can be a bewildering experience, especially during half term as there is so much to choose from. Having a few days to spend at my mother's house in Greenwich we were eager to find something to entertain our two and a half year old but without resorting to the dreaded soft play. We decided to try out Discover in Stratford on the basis of a positive recommendation on a parenting site and a quick glance at their website. I now think this place deserves another positive recommendation from us!
***What is it?***
A 'hands on, interactive story trail' designed to encourage children to develop their imagination and creativity, especially related to reading and writing. It was set up as a charity to help and encourage children in deprived areas, but everyone is welcome. It is aimed at children between 0 and 9 years old.
***Where is it and how to get there?***
It is in Stratford East London and is easily accessed by public transport or car (there is an NCP car park around the corner). From Stratford train station it is a short walk to Discover and the station is served by overland trains, several tube lines and the Docklands Light Railway. The bus station is next to the train station and all relevant bus/tube etc information is neatly listed on their website.
£4.00 per person. Children under 2 are free but children older than 2 are counted as a person.
£3.50 reduction for Newnham residents and concessions
£14 for a family ticket of four people.
We came in by tube to Stratford station and took the short ten minute walk to Discover through Stratford high street. As we forgot our map and didn't notice the small silver signs set into the pavement which pointed the way, we got a little confused when confronted with the Discover Centre frontage and no apparent way to enter. The entrance is in fact at the back of the building and it is not immediately obvious which way you should go to get there. The rear entrance is down a footpath which winds past the magistrates court and was very quiet. I have to say that I would have felt uneasy going down this path on my own, but with my mother and husband I felt more encouraged.
The entrance to Discover is less enticing than the frontage on the main street, as it is hidden around the corner and surrounded by a security fence. My daughter's eyes lit up however when she spotted the small play area at the front, the Story Garden, and we had to almost drag her into the building. Once in there is a small seating area with tables where you can eat your packed lunch, toilets and the ticket desk and a small shop area. The staff were extremely polite and helpful and once we had paid we were given a small map and my daughter was presented with four wooden spoons for the Story Trail.
The area itself is quite compact, but it makes extremely good use of the space and we started right away with the Lollipopter, set out as an open plan helicopter where children can design their own tickets to the place of their dreams. Another area allowed you to appear on the TV screens in a variety of different shifting patterns and scenarios which my daughter loved. Then you cross the Sparkly River over the marvellous trip trap bridge made of rocking wooden 'planks' which spark off a number of noises as you move across. Stepping stones light up and make noises as you walk across to the Lion tunnel, with its lookout point and secret sensory cave underneath flooded with soft toys, noisemakers and buttons to press. There is a tea party area, a puppet area, dressing up box, place to decorate your wooden spoons and a place to act out a play with them. Another puppet theatre is up a small childsize flight of stairs and there are lots of hideyholes with little stools and other equipment squeezed into them. Everything is delightfully childsized and designed to totally appeal to children. In another area spotlights on the floor encourage you to jump from spot to spot, creating electronic noises as you break the beam of light. Throughout are little opportunities to draw and create; masks, wooden spoons, finger puppets and little sheets of paper headed 'my secret recipe', 'my party invitation', 'my wish' etc. There are a range of different floorings, wall coverings and light combinations and everything is designed to stimulate the senses and encourage exploration in complete safety.
On the walls are several boxes which allow you to listen to stories or record one of your own and books are everywhere, in every nook, cranny and hidey hole. Combined with comfortable (child sized!) seats there is every encouragement to at least pick up a book here or to sit down and share with an adult. Even though this is a relatively small space we were here for over two hours and my daughter remained completely intrigued and entertained at all times, something that we always find difficult to do!
In the main building there are male, female and disabled toilets and I was impressed to see that in the female toilets there are two small childsized toilets and only one adult one. A stool is also provided so that children can reach the sinks themselves which is something so many places seem to forget but make a parents life so much easier! The whole place is fresh and modern looking, even after a whole busy half-term day and it wasn't that busy, there were maybe 35 children and their families sharing the space with us although it didn't feel like it.
The Story Garden outside is completely free although it closes at 5.30pm and is locked up. I would imagine that it is more enjoyable in the summer, but Olivia had a lot of fun sliding down the slide shaped like a monster, climbing into the pirate ship and alien space ship, running around the soft path, touching the water features and generally having a whale of a time.
There are plenty of activities going on at the Discover centre, for example whilst we were there children were being facepainted as animals to take part in an interactive story and the website offers a list of additional activities taking place over the summer.
A bright, easy to navigate site with plenty of information on the centre.
In addition to disabled toilet facilities there is a ramp to the front door and as it is all on one level it is highly suitable for those in a wheelchair or with mobility issues.
It doesn't surprise me that the Discover Centre was voted one of Time Out's Top Five Kids' Days Out in 2007, this place is an absolute gem and a far cry from soft play centres. My daughter left talking about all the things she saw and did and has drawn pictures and made up stories based on what she saw and did. I have got many more recommendations for good books and creative ideas to do with my daughter; spending a couple of hours in the Discover Centre had a positive effect on both of us and I can thoroughly recommend it.