Our latest family outing was to our perennial favourite, Underwater Street in Liverpool. I should warn you, this is not going to be an objective review, because the kids and me, well we bloomin’ love the place and I simply can’t think of anything bad to say about it. We’ve been going at least once a year since 10YO was four, and she’s showing no signs of growing out of it yet.
So for the uninitiated, Underwater Street – so named because it’s in the basement of the Cunard Building on Water Street – is a short walk from the Albert Dock, the Maritime Museum, Mersey ferries and all the other amenities on Liverpool’s amazing waterfront – not that your kids will ever be bothered with any of these other tourist attractions if you go to Underwater Street first. Entry fees are up to £10.95 per child (slightly less for under three’s) so it’s not the cheapest day out, but the cost for the kids is offset by the fact that adults get in free. I actually really like this pricing system, because it encourages both parents, or a grandparent, to come along to share the fun. Another nice thing about Underwater Street is that the layout means that children can run around and have fun without ever being too far away from their parents. It’s all open plan, with a cafe right in the middle, so that adults can sit and have a cuppa while watching the children play.
Most places that I take the kids for a day out, it feels like there’s a bit of an agenda being imposed on us by the adults who run whatever venue we’re going to. There’s usually a theme, or an objective – learning to play a particular sport, learn about castles, learn about art, or fire engines… in short, something that some adults have decided would be good for kids to learn about whilst also hopefully having fun. And as a parent, you have to hope that today your kids are in the mood for drawing or looking at fire engines or whatever. And sometimes they’re not in the right mood – they want to climb on things instead of making a paper sculpture, or vice versa, and it gets a bit stressful. At Underwater Street though, there’s no adult agenda, it’s just all about playing. In the four hours we were there, this is just some of what we did:
Climbed a climbing wall, walked along a wobbly balance beam, slid balls and toys cars down a series of ramps, took turns pretending to be the cameraman and the newsreader in a mini TV studio, stood inside a ring of washing up liquid and pulled a giant bubble up round ourselves, floated a beach ball in mid air over a big electric fan, dressed up, played vets, played pizza restaurants (making fuzzy felt pizzas and serving them up in a little cafe), played shopkeeper and customer in a little shop, wheelbarrowed toy bricks around the construction area and built a wall, made Peppa Pig masks, looked in magic mirrors, made bright green slime, played with sand, crawled through tunnels, played with magnets, and slapped paint all over a real actual car.
Some of the activities in Underwater Street are just good old traditional favourites – like dressing up or sand and water play. Some of the activities are what you’d find in a class room or nursery – well equipped craft tables with friendly, helpful staff encouraging the children to get creative. And some of it is just gloriously subversive, a chance to step outside the normal rules about what we can and can’t do. Painting an actual car! (a Mini, to be exact) Standing inside a giant bubble!
Frankly, even I get excited about stuff like that and I’m nearly 42. In a world where so many children’s activities are themed or contained in some way (come to our museum but don’t touch the exhibits/ do some painting but only on this piece of paper/ play football at your after-school club, but don’t kick a ball around on the street), Underwater Street feels like a space where kids are really free to play how they want to, not how adults think they should. We always have a brilliant time. There’s always tears when I have to drag them away. It’s always remembered from one year to the next. And it’s always 10 out of 10.