School's out: The summer's cultural treats for children

It's August, school's out – but the sun might not be. There's a lot to see and do, but arts for children needn't be childish. Alice Jones and Miranda Kiek pick the best fare for the younger culture vulture
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The Independent Culture

You've already seen Toy Story 3 in 2D, 3D and at the Imax. And there are only so many times you can watch the epically spooky trailer for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – not out until November! Another three months! – online. Meanwhile, school's out for summer and there are still four-and-a-bit glorious weeks of freedom stretching out and waiting to be filled. A family holiday, a couple of trips to the beach and some Famous Five-style adventuring in the great outdoors might soak up a little of that time and excess energy, but there are still oodles of hours left over – some of which, at least, could be filled with more than a Club Penguin marathon and memorising Justin Bieber dance routines on YouTube.

A little culture perhaps? Where once the words children and culture combined meant an uninspiring programme of improving summer reading lists at local libraries, a few felt-tip pens and an Impressionists colouring book at the gallery or a treasure hunt around the nearest stately home, today's offerings are much improved. The modern child is a sophisticated cultural consumer. You couldn't move at Latitude for small bodies in Technicolor wellies thronging the poetry tent and trilling along to Sunday-night headliners Vampire Weekend (how did they know all of the words? Wasn't it past their bedtime?). Already this summer, young television fans have spent the first weekend of their holidays packing the Royal Albert Hall to the rafters, dressed in dickie bows and mini tweed jackets, for the sold-out Doctor Who Prom. There was Matt Smith and a smattering of Daleks to draw them in, sure, but there was also Wagner, Holst and John Adams, all rapturously applauded by thousands of eager first-time Prommers.

And last weekend, teenagers streamed into the hipster haven of London's Victoria Park to bounce around in straw hats and sundresses to an impressively grown-up line-up that included MIA, Crystal Castles, Stornoway and Tinchy Stryder, at their very own Underage festival. No adults allowed. The message comes across loud and clear: culture for children no longer has to be childish.

It's not just in the child- and teen-friendly arena of music and festivals, either. Across the country's galleries and museums, castles and historical estates, there are days out and activities rooted in the arts, from a free Arabian Nights festival at the V&A to Toddler Tuesdays, workshops at Gateshead's sleek home of contemporary art, Baltic. The Moscow Ballet Theatre will perform Sleeping Beauty at Alnwick Castle (you may know it better as Hogwarts), while an evening double-bill of Let the Right One In and The Lost Boys at London's Somerset House should attract older Twihards looking for a more culty cinematic take on vampire romance. There are classes with the English National Ballet at Southampton's Mayflower Theatre, a Harry Potter day in the John Rylands Library in Manchester, and story-telling sessions with Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and her daughter in Edinburgh.

Young theatre buffs can enjoy Hamlet redux at the RSC in a special one-hour version adapted and directed by hot American talent Tarell Alvin McCraney (The Brothers Size). It has the company's first British-Asian Hamlet in Dharmesh Patel, Horatio played by young, black actress Simone Saunders and, most importantly, no gravediggers. Book me a ticket now, please.

Equally wonderful is Kids Week (now extended to three weeks thanks to phenomenal demand), offering free tickets for children to all manner of West End shows, from War Horse to The 39 Steps and backstage activities to boot. For younger stalls-dwellers, critically acclaimed theatre productions of The Gruffalo, Room on the Broom and Peppa Pig's Party continue to tour.

Meanwhile, up at the Edinburgh Fringe (which starts today), there are around 100 children's shows on the programme this year. Adults and children alike will queue for tickets to Farm Boy, Michael Morpurgo's sequel to War Horse, at the Assembly. More intriguingly, there's a burgeoning trend for stand-ups to perform a children's show as a lighter, daytime alternative to their adult fare. Irish/Iranian comedian Patrick Monahan's Brand New Stories and Tales for Kids Who Can Run Faster Than Snails is billed as stand-up for ages five to 105, with stories including "Sinbad the Overweight Cat", while James Campbell's Comedy and Songs for Kids features accompaniment from Helen Arney, the musical comedian who by night sings songs of desire on an electric ukulele.

There's even an early-evening show at the Bongo Club where stand-ups showcase child-friendly versions of their adult material. "No jugglers. No magic. No clowns. Just the comedians who are in Edinburgh doing their stuff without swearing", runs the flyer. Last year David O'Doherty, Jason Byrne and even the famously racy Brendon Burns called in.

For art lovers, the erstwhile enfants terribles of Britart, Gavin Turk and the Chapman Brothers, have also turned their attention to infants. Unlikely as it sounds, child-mannequin defacers Jake and Dinos Chapman unveil their children's commission for the Whitechapel Gallery tomorrow, while Gavin Turk continues to cart his creative caravan House of Fairytales around the festivals: next stop Vintage at Goodwood.

Finally, be sure to book tickets to Ernesto Neto's latest exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. With stretchy giant sculptures, ladders and a rooftop paddling pool, it really is fun for all the family. After all, who said summer holidays had to be all about the kids?

Awfully big adventures: things to do with children over the Summer


Moscow Ballet Theatre: Sleeping Beauty and The Treasure of Siegfried

'Sleeping Beauty' at a real-life castle should be a magical experience, and even more so for Harry Potter fans – Alnwick doubles as Hogwarts in the films.

Alnwick Castle, Northumberland, tonight, 7.30pm (


A Young People's Shakespeare production by the RSC, this version of 'Hamlet' has been edited to a little over an hour's running time. The RSC has clearly decided that blood, gore and brevity is the way to win children over to the Bard. Tarell Alvin McCraney directs.

Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 21 August to 11 September (

The Princess' Blankets

Carol Ann Duffy and her daughter join forces with John Sampson to blend poetry, fairy-tale and music.

The Scottish Storytelling Centre, Edinburgh, 8 to 23 August, 3pm (

Squashbox Theatre

Have a mid-morning break from building sandcastles and take your children to see Squashbox's two family shows at the stunning coastal setting of the Minack Theatre. A mixture of puppetry, songs and cabaret. Free for the under-12s.

Minack Theatre, Cornwall, to 2 September, 10.30am (

The Comedy Club 4 Kids

An event of which even Mary Whitehouse would have approved. Comedians present cleaned-up, swearing-free versions of their shows, suitable for all the family. Increase the interest of a performance by placing bets on how long it might take for each stand-up to slip up.

The Bongo Club, Edinburgh, 6 to 29 August, 5:30pm (

Kids Week in the West End

Kids Week is actually three weeks during which children can go to selected West End theatres for free to see everything from 'War Horse' to 'The Woman in Black'. Bear in mind that for every free child's ticket, a full price adult's ticket needs to be purchased. There are also backstage activities including ballet lessons with Billy Elliot, puppet workshops and theatre-land ghost tours.

Various venues, London, 13 August to 3 September (

Cautionary Tales

Newbury Youth Theatre bring Hilaire Belloc's 'Cautionary Tales' to the stage. An all-in-one play and PSE lesson.

Zoo Roxy, Edinburgh, 9 to 14 August, 12.45pm (


Arabian Nights

Among the activities on offer at this free festival are storytelling, henna-painting, dancing to Arabian music and decorating domes. Outside the festival, the V&A provides backpacks full of games, stories and art materials for children to carry around the museum.

V&A, London, 8 August (

Soap Secrets Uncovered

A chance to take part in some activities based on soap operas. How about composing a soap theme tune or editing a trailer, or perhaps making a soap-star mask? No need ever to feel guilty again about letting your children watch 'EastEnders' – it's now officially educational.

Bradford Media Museum, 9 to 15 August (

Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre

This charming museum has oodles of summer foodie activities based around Roald Dahl's books – try Chocolate Decorating, Swiggles of Sweeties or Revolting Recipes. It also hosts calorie-free activities, such as storytelling sessions and pop-up book-making.

Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire (

Tales and Trails

The hushed halls of the British Library may not be an obvious place to take fractious holiday children but its programme has plenty of child-oriented activities, including this free storytelling treasure trail.

British Library, London, 17 to 19 August, 11am, 2.30pm (

Beamish Museum

This open-air reconstruction of a 19th-century North-eastern village (below) is replete with costumed guides, lessons in the village school, magic-lantern shows and sweet- making demonstrations.

Co Durham (


Big Chill Festival

The most family-friendly of the music festivals, its Kids' Zone offers performances from No Strings Puppet Theatre, Scamp Theatre's production of 'Pinocchio' and the ever-entertaining John Hegley. Also features Comedy Club 4 Kids.

Eastnor Castle, Hereford, to 8 August (

Fantastic Mr Fox

This operatic version of Roald Dahl's children's classic at Opera Holland Park is open-air, promenade and, best of all, under an hour in length.

Holland Park Theatre, London, to 14 August, 3pm (

Summer Sundae Weekender

Teen-friendly acts include the grime star Tinchy Stryder, the chart-topping singer-songwriter Eliza Doolittle and Diana Vickers, while for the younger children, a dedicated Kidzone hosts cartoon and costume-making.

De Montfort Hall, Leicester, 13 to 15 August (

Mugenkyo Taiko Drummers

Fast, furious and very, very loud, Europe's leading Taiko drum group are performing as part of the new Halifax arts festival.

Pierce Hall, Halifax, 14 August (

Scottish Opera: BabyO

Wander round a secret garden containing singing ducks, bees and fish. Song meets science at this event, as the Scottish Opera create a musical experience that promises to emulate the ways your baby listens to sounds.

Riverside Studios, London, 14 to 15 August, 10.30am, 11.30am, 1.30pm (

Green Man

A kids' area that will have adults wanting to join in. There are film-making workshops and a chance to have your own animation shown in the film tent, in addition to storytelling, arts and crafts, music workshops, puppet-making and shows. Don't miss the children's parade on Sunday.

Glanusk Park, Brecon Beacons, 20 to 22 August (

Prom 49: A Celebration of Rodgers and Hammerstein

With extracts from 'The Sound of Music' and 'The King and I', this Prom should be enjoyable for younger audiences. Queue for seats in the gallery – lying down in a concert hall is far more exciting (and considerably cheaper) than sitting in a seat. Some Proms, although not this one, offer introductory workshops aimed at families, which give young instrumentalists the chance to try playing the music themselves.

Royal Albert Hall, London, 22 August, 5:30pm (


The Wouldbegoods by E Nesbit

Further mishaps and escapades from the Bastable children (better known as The Treasure Seekers) taking place over the course of the summer holidays. The book contains one of the cleverest examples of unreliable narration to be found in any book – for children or adults. This series deserves to be remembered alongside Nesbit's more famous works, such as 'The Railway Children'.

Jane of Lantern Hill by L M Montgomery

L M Montgomery is best known for her 'Anne of Green Gables' series, but she wrote a number of other brilliant children's books with feisty female heroines. In this one, Jane Stuart grows from cowed girl to confident young woman over the course of three summer holidays spent with her previously estranged father on Montgomery's beloved Prince Edward Island.

Just William's Luck by Richmal Crompton

"Never mind, Emily," Mrs Brown comforts a beleaguered housemaid at the beginning of 'Just William's Luck', "he goes back to school next week." The "he" is the irrepressible William Brown, who in his last week of his summer holidays gets into even more trouble as he and the outlaws form the Knights of the Square Table. One of the few full-length William stories and an all-time classic.

The Growing Summer by Noel Streatfeild

When all sensible adults are away, the children have adventures. Which is precisely what happens when the Gareth family are sent to spend their summer holidays with their sublimely quixotic aunt.

The Gathering Light by Jennifer Donnelly

Sex, murder, family angst, rebellion, feminism and a bit more sex. Winner of the Carnegie Medal, this compulsive coming-of-age story is set during the summer of 1906.


Let the Right One In + The Lost Boys

If you're looking to broaden your teenage 'Twilight' obsessive's interests, try this double-bill of vampire films at Somerset House, including Kiefer Sutherland in the Eighties hit 'The Lost Boys'. Tell them to take plenty of cushions, both to sit on and to hide behind. This event is only suitable for the over-15s.

Somerset House, London, 7 August, 7:30pm (

Animation Workshops

Clearly the cool thing to do with children this summer, the country groans under the weight of animation workshops for kids. Google them: they're everywhere, from 'Alice in Wonderland' workshops in Antony, Cornwall ( to Aztec workshops at the British Museum (

Family-Friendly Film Festival

Free film screenings, themed activity days and film-related events are all on offer at venues around Manchester for this broad-ranging festival, which includes outdoor screenings of 'Madagascar' and 'Spirited Away', Harry Potter screenings in John Rylands Library, and a Robot Day where visitors can make their own 'bot before watching Pixar's 'Wall-E'.

Various venues, Manchester, to 15 August (

Steve McQueen

Can Steve McQueen, once considered the "king of cool", charm the modern teen? Put it to the test as the BFI Southbank screens a retrospective of McQueen's work. 'The Great Escape', 'The Magnificent Seven' and 'The Thomas Crown Affair' are among the most accessible offerings.

BFI Southbank, London, to 31 August (


Build a Boat for the Liverpool Biennial!

Not many people get to display at the Tate, but this cardboard-boat-making workshop enables your fledgling artists to do just that. The boats will be used by the professional artists Isabel and Alfredo Aquilizan in an art installation called 'Passage', to be displayed at Tate Liverpool in September.

Tate Liverpool, 3 August to 3 September, 1.30pm (

Auld Reekie Tours: Scary Haunted Underground Experience

A tour around Edinburgh's most haunted spots, followed by a visit to a medieval torture museum. The Scary Haunted Underground Experience sounds blood-thirsty enough even for the most ghoulish of children.

Edinburgh, 6 to 28 August, 11am, 3pm (

Children's Art Commission: Jake and Dinos Chapman

Jake and Dinos Chapman must be among the most inappropriate artists ever to create an exhibition for children. On display will be a collection of macabre and fantastical art based around their forthcoming book of modern fairy-tales, 'Bedtime Tales for Sleepless Nights'.

Whitechapel Gallery, London, 7 August to 31 October (

Time Travellers Go... Knight/Highwaymen/ Rogues and Villains

A chance for children to let out their belligerent side in a socially acceptable manner. Various courses promise to teach your children to sword-fight (Knight), rob a stage coach (Highwaymen) or use a musket (Rogues and Villains). Send your unruly brood if you dare.

English Heritage, nationwide (

Bollywood Dance and Costume Workshop

Far East meets North-east (above) in the dramatic surroundings of rural Cumbria.

Rheged Centre, Penrith, 11 August, 11am, 3.30pm (

The House of Fairy Tales

A group of performers, led by the artist Gavin Turk and his wife, who believe that fairy-tales can make for a better society. The idealistic troupe have become a staple at festivals from Glastonbury to Port Eliot.

Vintage at Goodwood, Sussex, 13 to 15 August (