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Visiting Canberra with Toddlers: 11 Fun Activities for Little Explorers

On a weekend trip to Canberra with two-year-old Oliver, ANGELA SAURINE discovers there are plenty of fun activities for toddlers 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 due to bad weather conditions. We’d been due to arrive that morning, when the forecast was for blue skies and sunshine. I want my two-year-old 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. 

With close proximity to NSW and VIC, Canberra has become a popular destination for families, especially for weekend trips. There’s no shortage of things to do with kids in Canberra, but I’m surprised how many fun activities there are for littlies under three. Read on to find out which toddler-friendly activities we loved most. 

Fun things to do with a toddler in Canberra, ACT

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.

This time, we explored some more of Canberra’s kid-friendly museums, playgrounds and parks. Here are the highlights – five experiences that delighted mum and toddler alike: 

1. The National Arboretum Canberra

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

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. 

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.

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.

2. The POD Playground at the National Arboretum

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

Based on the idea of the beginning of life in the forest, the incredible POD playground features giant acorn cubbies, nest swings, banksia pods and music-making instruments. 

After the long drive Oliver 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. 

3. National Dinosaur Museum

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

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.

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. 

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

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.

4. Canberra Reptile Zoo

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!

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

5. George Harcourt Inn

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.

Five more fun things to do in Canberra with toddlers

6. 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

Cockington Green Gardens will delight little ones and fascinate the rest of the family. 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.

7. 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.

8. Boundless all-abilities playground

the boundless playground. image kara rosenlund visitcanberra
Boundless – the Centenary of Canberra National Playground

On the shore of Lake Burley Griffin at Kings Park, Boundless is a state-of-the-art play space and 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.

9. Weston Park on Lake Burley Griffin

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

Spot kangaroos, 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.

10. Yarralumla Play Station

A pig with her piglets at Yarralumla Play Station in Canberra
A pig with her piglets at Yarralumla Play Station in Canberra

Located near Weston Park, Yarralumla Play Station has been entertaining families since 1973, and there’s plenty of old-world charm to be found. Hop aboard miniature train ‘Bluebell’ at Yarralumla Play Station and chug your to Farm Stop, where toddlers can say hello to free-roaming miniature pigs, alpacas, dwarf goats and a Galloway cow. 

Have a putt on one of two Canberra-themed mini golf courses, then head to the Station Stop Cafe for a bite. The charming eatery features booths made from restored railway cars and an affordable kids menu. For dessert, the colourful fairy floss from Ye Olde Lolly Shoppe is always a winner.  

11. 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. The National Zoo & Aquarium 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.

Where to stay in Canberra with a toddler

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 Canberra 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 $20.

Book your stay at East Hotel in Canberra

The writer was a guest of The Australian Dinosaur Museum.


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