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Even with its blue sunny skies, let’s be clear – Canberra’s winters can get pretty nippy. On days of grey skies and drizzles when you have little ones in tow, even if they do belong to someone else, it pays to have a couple of indoor (read: warm) venues to turn to for relief. When the energy level starts to spike, the cooped up craziness hits fever pitch, and small, squealing small people become possessed banshees, it’s time to make an escape.

That’s why it’s amazing to live in a city of museums and libraries. Cast aside any notions you might harbour about museums just dangling skeletons from ceilings and housing dusty things in glass boxes. They are marvellous places which think about kids and provide educational, interesting and warm spaces, and usually for free. Winning, Canberra.

Here are five of my favourites.


PlayUp is a hidden treasure at the Australian Museum of Democracy, and is all about getting the kids involved. There’s room after room of activities and entertainment: chalk boards, craft tables, foam blocks, shelves of books to be read in colourful beanbags, puppet shows to be created, and culinary delights to be cooked in the kaleidescope cubby. The changing exhibitions are based on the United Nations’ Convention on the rights of the child, so the kids are absorbing important stuff without even knowing it. Currently showing is a shelter theme, which in practical kid-terms means they get to let their imagination run wild and play house with the finest of play items. It also means they trash their house instead of yours, and everyone is happy.

Grab a coffee on the way in or out at the Terrace Cafe (but don’t take it into PlayUp – they don’t like that because it gets messy), or if they kids are older take part in one of the Museum’s other tours and events or play dress ups next door to the Play Up room. Who doesn’t love donning a cape and crown every now and then?

Cost: Free after $2 adult or $1 child entry (over 5 years) to Old Parliament House.

NGA Play

The National Gallery has a changing playroom, based on current exhibitions, where kids are encouraged to take part, explore with their hands and get creative. The current one based on the work of contemporary Indigenous artist, Reko Rennie, is an explosion of colour and pattern (often a traditional diamond) and is on until 3 December. There’s shapes and stamps and drawing on ipads, and you can even inadvertently take a photo of yourself to include in said artwork and somehow have it arrive on your email. That was a surprise.

I’m a bit sad I missed the first one based on the Versailles exhibition as I would have fancied being a queen for the day, but that’s what you get when you snooze.

Watch their Kids and Families webpage for other kids’ events, especially during school holidays.

Cost: Free, all ages, kids must be accompanied so don’t even think about dumping them and going to have a calm look around the gallery by yourself. Open 10-5pm.

The Australian War Memorial

It’s perhaps a strange concept taking small children to a place which remembers our sullied war history, past and present, and honours those who took part. Part of me wants to protect them from the horrid reality, another wants to cultivate their respect and eventual understanding and compassion. But the War Memorial takes its social responsibility very seriously and the telling is done with care and concern for the young.

The memorial has special activities during school holidays, and a changing program of other kid-centric stuff happening. Take for example, the special 30-minute Story Time for preschool kids (big brothers and sisters welcome) on Fridays at 10.30 am, on from 7 July to 25 August where storytellers bring tales to life with puppets. Or check out the Discovery Zone where kids get to climb in a helicopter or wander through a submarine, or be cast back to the days of family life during the world wars. Still getting my head around the war concept though and taking care not to make the whole thing a big adventure, so be open to follow up discussions.

Grab a coffee on your way out at Poppy’s cafe on the grounds.

National Museum of Australia

Underneath that soaring orange arch at the edge of Lake Burley Griffin lurks our very own national museum dedicated to telling stories through objects and words. There are many interesting items to wander through, though holding the attention of the very young is more difficult. For the older kids 5 to 13 years, the dedicated and aptly named kids’ space, Kspace, offers an interactive screen-based journey back to a time past, all while in the guise of your own bespoke time-travelling robot. Best for small groups (for teams) but you can fly solo if you want. It was a bit ambitious for Miss 3 who was happier to roam (run) around the outside Garden of Dreams, but that defeats the purpose of finding indoor spaces on winter days, doesn’t it?

Like all good Canberra museums, the NMA pays special attention to school holiday times with lots of interesting stuff on offer. Check out their events page for what’ coming up.

Cost: Free, open 9am to 5pm daily

ACT Libraries

It seems no one tells you to shush any more at libraries. Not only do they want you to visit and borrow books, they want you to have fun and participate, especially if you’re a kid. Libraries have a whole range of cool stuff like Giggle and Wiggle – songs, stories, games and fun for 0-2 year olds, Story Times for 3 to 5 year olds, and a plethora of activities during the school holidays.

And even if a rainy day doesn’t coincide with an event, you can also pop in anytime for an outing or bit of reading time. Or you can browse the books, DVDs and music and let the little ones pick out some things to take home for later moments of craziness, perhaps just before dinner time.

And, you guessed it – it’s all free! Perhaps with the exception of some school holiday activities, and not accounting for library overdue fines if your little one revels in hiding CDs down air vents or similar.

So Canberrans, cast aside those fears of rainy days aside. You are saved.

Whoever said public institutions were boring?