Recently on Twitter the travel writer Jen Leo, who is the lead blogger for the Los Angeles Times Daily Travel & Deal Blog, wrote that she was looking for things to do in London with her 14-month-old daughter Cora. Amie O’Shaughnessy of Ciao Bambino had already recommended the London playground at Coram’s Fields and I seconded Amie in a tweet of my own. I was delighted to see later that not only had Jen discovered the playground, she and Cora had spent some happy time at the indoor drop-in play area there.
I also spent happy hours at Coram’s Fields, which I think is one of the best playgrounds in the world. Founded as an orphanage and hospital in the eighteenth century, it is now a huge park (over seven acres right in the middle of the city) with loads of play equipment for children of all ages, several large wading pools, and a small farm, all surrounded by the graceful arcades and large windows of the original hospital building.
Like Jen, I discovered the Coram’s Field One O’Clock Club (as the British call their drop-in play centers) because 17-month-old Tommy and I had stopped for a romp on the playground before we got on the bus to go back to our rented house in northeast London. I was following Tommy as he ran through the empty wading pool when I noticed a sign for the club. It opened fifteen minutes later, and in we strolled.
We were greeted by Barbara. She wore her cinnamon-colored hair in a bun and immediately asked and committed to memory the name and age of each child who crossed the threshold. We were asked to sign in so they knew who was in the building, but that was all that was demanded of us. Tommy plunged immediately into a wading pool full of small plastic balls, where he wallowed for a good ten minutes while I checked out the two bright rooms full of blocks, and trains, and paints, and sand tables. The center was open for two and half hours each weekday afternoon, and that day I had to drag Tommy out of there so that Barbara could lock the door behind us.
Matt, Tommy, and I were in London for a month – it was the fourth of eight stops on the 13-month trip we took between the time Tommy was 1 and 2. It took almost an hour to get to Coram’s Fields but Tommy and I started going there three or four days a week. Barbara was always there, a loving presence and the first person outside a book whom I actually heard call a child “poppet.” She had a degree in early-childhood education and was a fountain of wisdom. It was Barbara who showed Tommy how to use stamps and play with molding dough and who reassured me in her warm voice that I shouldn’t worry so much about his development. “They all do things at different paces, love.” She had been diagnosed as an adult with a learning disorder and was passionate about helping children learn to be calm and control their bodies. When she spoke to Tommy, she would crouch down to his level, look him in the eye, and use his name. He always did just as she asked.
The same small group of mothers brought their children here every day, and even though they all lived close by, they didn’t seem to mind us interloping. When we arrived, Tommy started driving trucks up the small indoor slide and I would settle in on the floor, easily fitting into the flow of conversation about sleep habits, nursing, and colic. We didn’t become best friends, I wasn’t even sure of all of their names, but we knew who was teething, who wasn’t sleeping at night, and who was weaning. Babies crawled around and we would pick them up when they needed to be directed away from something dangerous.
It was at Coram’s Fields that I first learned the importance not only of finding great places to have cozy, age-appropriate fun while traveling with a very young child. I also learned that I needed an occasional opportunity to recharge my batteries and talk to other adults. I traveled with Tommy for another nine months and at ever other stop on our itinerary was able to find similar places – although I never found anyone quite as helpful as Barbara. Today I’m dreaming of a cup of tea in her smiling company while Tommy plays nearby.
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