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Things to do in Canberra with toddlers

ANGELA SAURINE finds there are plenty of fun activities for little kids in the nation’s capital

lets get out of here mummy oliver loved playing in the jeep at the national dinosaur museum
Let's get out of here mummy! Oliver loved playing in the jeep at the National Dinosaur Museum

A dark storm cloud looms above the windscreen as we edge closer to the nation’s capital. I am determined to get there before it rains. Our trip had already been delayed by a day thanks to an annoying but necessary COVID-19 test (negative, obvs) that had seen us forced to self-isolate until we got the results – one of the realities of the new era of travel. We’d been due to arrive that morning, when the forecast was for blue skies and sunshine. I want my son Oliver to get at least a few minutes in at the POD Playground at the National Arboretum Canberra that I’d heard so much about. After the long drive he is happy to be unleashed. He makes a beeline for the tallest ladder and slowly, but with as much determination as his mum, begins to make his way to the top. “How old is he?” a dad behind me asks, obviously surprised by his tiny stature. “Two,” I reply. “He’s doing well,” he says, and my heart swells with pride. I climb up behind him and we enter the heart of the giant acorn and the dark tunnel before us. With Oliver sitting between my legs we whizz down the slide, and emerge laughing into the daylight. I try to steer him in the direction of the toddler area, but it takes a while to get there as he stops en route to explore the pods, and tap on musical instruments he sees older kids playing. When we finally get to the sandpit he sits and takes off his shoes before running into another pod, pouring sand from one side, climbing the ropes, and sliding up and down the far more suitable slide, countless times. After he has had his fix, we head inside and grab a hot chocolate from the amazing architecturally-designed building and peruse the gift shop, which is filled with fun, educational toys and quality products such as science kits.

oliver exploring the pod playground at the national arboretum in canberra
Oliver exploring the pod playground at The National Arboretum in Canberra

The National Arboretum was established following the devastating bushfires of 2003 which burnt a significant area of the ACT, including pine plantations. As well as honouring Walter Burley Griffin’s original plan for Canberra, which included an arboretum located on the west side of the lake, it symbolises the community’s process of healing and recovery from the upheaval and grief of the catastrophic fires. More than 44,000 rare and endangered trees have since been planted across a 250ha site, which was also used for concerts and other events in pre-COVID times. We head outside to check out the large grass amphitheatre, where kids are rolling down the hill and families are flying kites in the distance. Oliver begins to run down the hill gleefully, and I follow close behind, dreading the trek back up. Naturally, that’s the moment the heavens decide to open. Screams and laughter can be heard all around us as children and their parents scurry back up the slope to cover, Oliver and I included. It’s not often that I run alongside him, and his giggle is infectious.

the pod playground at the national arboretum in canberra. image visitcanberra
The pod playground at the National Arboretum in Canberra. Image: VisitCanberra

We weren’t meant to be here. Our big holiday this year was supposed to be a South Pacific cruise, where I imagined making sandcastles on white sand beaches, swimming in calm turquoise bays and being greeted by cultural performances at the islands we visited. But like all of us, I’d been forced to look closer to home for our winter getaway. With the border between NSW and the ACT open, Canberra has become a popular destination for families. I’d always associated the nation’s capital with primary school excursions, visiting Parliament House, the Australian War Memorial and, of course, Questacon – the National Science and Technology Centre, where the earthquake machine had always been a favourite, as it was for Oliver on our previous visit.

the national dinosaur museum. image visitcanberra
The National Dinosaur Museum. Image: VisitCanberra

But I’m surprised how much there is to do there with younger kids. Next on the list is the National Dinosaur Museum – a dream come true for little boys. The attraction, in Gold Creek Village, is home to the largest permanent display of dinosaur and other prehistoric fossil material in Australia, with life-like dinosaur models, skeletons, skulls, and robotic dinosaurs.

oliver in awe at the national dinosaur museum
Oliver in awe at the National Dinosaur Museum

Some of the animatronics are a bit 1960s-Disney, and I’d been warned that some small children find them a bit scary. But Oliver mostly just gazes at them mesmerised. It’s only when we pass the T-rex that he backs away a bit closer to me and clutches my leg tightly. There’s also a great section for toddlers to play downstairs, where they can bounce on dinosaur toys, play a dinosaur version of Connect 4, and draw on a chalkboard in the shape of a dinosaur footprint. But the outdoor dinosaur garden, where you can sit in jeeps and pretend to drive, is the biggest hit.

oliver by the turtle tank at canberra reptile zoo
Oliver by the turtle tank at Canberra Reptile Zoo

Just across the road, the George Harcourt Inn is in a perfect place to grab a bite to eat before exploring other child-friendly attractions in Gold Creek Village, including the miniature village Cockington Green Gardens next door. Named after a local landowner, the English-style pub has a lovely courtyard, or you can sit inside at a booth by the fire on colder days. It feels a bit like you are in Hobbiton.

oliver was fascinated by the frogs at canberra reptile zoo
Oliver was fascinated by the frogs at Canberra Reptile Zoo

Just around the corner, Canberra Reptile Zoo is another winner. The attraction started its life as a pet shop and has expanded to include displays of turtles, frogs, lizards, snakes and even a saltwater crocodile, as well as an affordable gift shop. “Sleeping,” Oliver says as he points at the coiled snakes. He also loves the blue tongue lizard’s tongue, while mummy is most impressed by the gigantic python and boa constrictors that had been rescued from smugglers. Definitely fun for young and old!

The writer was a guest of The Australian Dinosaur Museum.

FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO IN CANBERRA WITH KIDS

PLAYUP AT THE MUSEUM OF AUSTRALIAN DEMOCRACY

playup at the museum of australian democracy. image penny bradfield visitcanberra
PlayUP at the Museum of Australian Democracy. Image: Penny Bradfield-VisitCanberra

Kids can explore the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in a playful way at this immersive attraction at Old Parliament House. PlayUP has everything from listening pods and a roleplay Kindness Café to a fuzzy felt wall and craft activities.

BOUNDLESS – THE CENTENARY OF CANBERRA NATIONAL PLAYGROUND

the boundless playground. image kara rosenlund visitcanberra
An all abilities kids playground

On the shore of Lake Burley Griffin at Kings Park, this state-of-the-art play space is Canberra’s first all-abilities playground. The park has limited on-site parking, but extra parking spaces are available at Russell — a five-minute walk away.

WESTON PARK

kangaroos in weston park. image visitcanberra
Kangaroos in Weston Park. Image: VisitCanberra

Spot kangaroos, ride the miniature train and play mini golf at the Yarralumla Play Station, play bocce or petanque on the special court, or ride your bike along the cycle track at Weston Park, located on the western side of the lake. Splash about in the water playground designed for younger children, or the wading pool for older siblings. There are also picnic tables, electric barbecues and public toilets.

COCKINGTON GREEN GARDENS

ride the miniature steam train at cockington green gardens. image visitcanberra
Ride the miniature steam train at Cockington Green Gardens. Image: VisitCanberra

Discover meticulously handcrafted miniature buildings from around the world set within beautifully landscaped gardens. Take a ride on the miniature steam train, view the 34-room dolls house, ‘Waverley’, and enjoy homemade scones in the Garden Cafe.

NATIONAL ZOO & AQUARIUM

a giraffe treehouse at jamala wildlife lodge at the national zoo aquarium in canberra
A Giraffe Treehouse at Jamala Wildlife Lodge at the National Zoo & Aquarium in Canberra

The only combined zoo and aquarium in Australia is located on around 18ha of land at Yarralumla, just five minutes’ from the centre of Canberra. It has a wide variety of native and exotic animals, an open range section plus the AdventureLand playground, which features fibreglass animal sculptures for children to play on. It is also home to Jamala Wildlife Lodge, suitable for children six and over on standard nights. Children four and older can also stay on family nights, held once a month.

Please check websites to ensure attractions are open or operating before planning a holiday. 

WHERE TO STAY IN CANBERRA

kids eating ice cream at italian restaurant agostinis at east hotel in canberra
Kids eating ice-cream at Italian restaurant Agostinis at East Hotel in Canberra

East Hotel is a contemporary family-friendly design hotel located between the vibrant shopping and restaurant hubs of Kingston and Manuka. The six-storey hotel has 140 rooms in various studio and apartment-style combinations. The East Two Bedroom apartments feature cubbies with bunk beds, Xbox One consoles, games, reading nooks and dress up clothes. Its Italian restaurant, Agostinis, has a kids’ menu including pizza or pasta, gelato and a soft drink for $16.

easthotel.com.au

MORE INFORMATION

visitcanberra.com.au

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