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Stuff to do for kids of all ages this summer

Summer holidays looming? Don't sweat it! From little ankle-biters to tricksy teens, we know exactly what to do with the kids in Essex this summer, and (spoiler alert) it doesn't involve screens.

FESTIVALS & FAIRS

This summer, there are more children’s festivals than you could shake a stick at. The big one is Kidsfest at Lee Valley Animal Adventure Park, Waltham Abbey, billed (not without reason) as “Glastonbury for kids”. Running until 3 September, expect live music, glitter stations, dinosaurs, bouncy castles, and even a foam party!

Over at Audley End Miniature Railway, their Summer Festival 2021 runs until 5 September and boasts all manner of kid-pleasing things: fairies, elves, live shows, a games corner, dragon and unicorn ice cream… All this, on top of the usual train ride and wildlife.

If you want more diddy train action, there’s a mini steam-powered one at the Museum of Power, which is running a Barleycorn Harvest, Folk & Craft Fayre on 15 August. This involves games, crafts, nature talks and a model village, among others.

The festivals just keep coming: Marsh Farm near Chelmsford are holding their Bubble ‘n Bop fest until 3 September. This involves a foam machine, bouncy castles, (yet another) train ride, fairground rides and more. Plus, the requisite adorable barnyard animals we’re all so familiar with.

But if it’s animals you’re after, don’t miss the Barleylands Farm-lympics at Barleylands in Billericay, until 5 September, for bucket-loads of fluffy cute-ness.

GAMES & THRILLS

Kids a bit old for bouncy castles and students dressed up as fairies? Swerve the teen strop at Maldon Escape Rooms, which has a tonne of engaging and challenging rooms to solve in groups of 2-10 people. Crucially for families with teens, you have to… dum dum dum… communicate to solve them.

For more thrills, don’t forget some of the best Muddy staples: Nuclear High Ropes (the biggest highrope treetop challenge in the county), obstacle courses at Brentwood’s Wild Forest, the Adventure Island theme park in Southend, Brentwood Go Karting, and Laser Mayhem, in Abridge. Phew!

ART & EXHIBITIONS

Hare-d all about it this little ’un friendly art trail? Hares About Town is a fun event for all the family that’s hopping its way across Southend on Sea from now until 12 Sept. The whole town – from the seafront through to Priory Park – will be filled with giant Hare sculptures, each one individually designed by local artists. Grab the kids and hop on over there!

Young toy-sword-obsessives and older history buffs alike will get a kick out of Colchester Castle Museum‘s brand-new exhibition on Decoding The Roman Dead, which runs until 6 January 2022. With immersive displays, this gives visitors a chance to uncover stories about the people who lived and died in Roman Colchester almost 2,000 years ago.

THEATRE & CINEMA 

Alice in Wonderland, Hedingham Castle on 4 August is the kind of thing summer evenings are made for – a magical trip down the rabbit hole into a strange world of caterpillars, cards, tea parties and cute critters getting their, er, heads chopped off. This performance – complete with toe-tapping songs and inventive staging – is held in the castle’s gorgeous grounds, so bring a blanket and a bottle of something chilled, snuggle up with your littlies, and let Alice whisk you away.

Alice too sweet for your older kids? Then even the grumpiest of teens will be laughing with / at (does it matter?) Jimmy Carr, who will be performing his set Terribly Funny at Cliffs Pavilion, Southend-on-Sea, at 8pm on 1 August.

Pint-sized theatre lovers will go mad for In The Night Garden Live at Cliffs Pavilion, Southend-on-Sea on 3 August. All their favourite (and, quite honestly, deeply creepy) characters will be there: Igglepiggle, Upsy Daisy, Makka Pakka, and the rest of the gang too.

Or, the whole family’s bound to enjoy a performance of Robin Hood at the Museum of Power, Langford, 3pm on 5 August, ’cause who doesn’t love a kind-hearted fella in green tights and a jaunty cap? Full of thigh-slapping action, memorable characters, general silliness and all the more charming for it, this British classic of good against baddies (boo, hiss) will give everyone a good dose of fun and escapism.

After a hard day’s picking your body weight in berries (check out our pick of local PYO farms here) at Film on the Farm, just a hop across the border in Graveley, Herts, surely you deserve to settle down for a sunset movie? Course you do! So treat yourself and the kiddy pickers to 80s classics, Back to the Future, on the big screen (7 August). Complete the evening with a whopping box of popcorn and a little dwinkie poo from the farm’s local food and beverage trucks, The Victoria Pub Hitchin & Bun Lovin’ Criminals.

The Wind in the Willows, Hedingham Castle, 18 August, is one for the nippers and grand folk alike. Join Mole, Ratty, Toad and Badger on a wild adventure filled with motorcar madness, wicked weasels, exciting escapes and plenty of messing about in boats. The Pantaloons Theatre Company put their own anarchic spin Kenneth on Grahame’s classic countryside caper, resulting in frantically feral fun for the whole family.

Can’t get your tweens into theatre? Here, try this – Baskerville at Mercury Theatre, Colchester, until 22 August. Written by Ken Ludwig (Lend Me a Tenor), this fast-paced comedy (with 40 characters and just five actors, it’s got to be speedy) sees our world-famous detective and his trusty sidekick try to crack their most notorious case with the help of a tangled web of clues and essential daft accents.

WORKSHOPS

Budding naturalists might love one of the wildlife photography courses on offer at Colchester Zoo, such as Big Cat photography, Safari photography, or — for under-15’s — Zoo Photography for Children. Time to put all that Instagramming to work, eh?

If they’re more into STEM, try Summer Science at the Museum of Power, on every Wednesday until 25 August. Morning sessions are for ages 4–8, and afternoon sessions for ages 9+, all covering a range of fun, educational activities: food science, messy science, propulsion, and more.

IN NATURE

For the literal wild child, there’s Scrapbook Safari at Hylands Estate on 4 August, aimed at 4 to 11-year-olds. This entails an immersive expedition around the estate, learning about local plants and wildlife, followed by a fun scrapbooking session.

FAMILY FUN

How about some good ol’ medieval fun (minus the burning of witches and beheading of wives, of course), with Knights of Middle England Joust, Hedingham Castle, 29–30 August? The Castle grounds will be filled with medieval mayhem as the Knights of Middle England square up in front of the ancient Keep to see who’s got the biggest lance. With everything from falconry and jesters to musicians and archery, there really is something for everyone (yep, even that stroppy teen).

Picture credit: LarkRise

Struggling with getting the kids off their screens or getting your zip up on your new cool-girl flares (guilty)? Then grab the nippers, put down that all-butter croissant and sign yourselves up for The Essex Coastal Challenge, Wildlife Trust Essex, until 31 August. This virtual fundraising event. Celebrating Essex’s stunning 350-mile coastline and all the wildlife that call it home, you’ll receive a Challenge Pack (with a medal and everything). You then take your pick from a menu of running and cycling challenges from 5k through to 350 miles – or design your own challenge, like paddle boating, skating, space hopping (my preferred mode of transport). Little folk off the sofa, seeing the beauty that our county has to offer, getting rid of your muffin top, and all for a good cause. Result.

The dream safari trip to Kenya may be put off for another year, but you can still wonder among the wildlife right here in Essex. No really. Well, kinda. Just sign up for this Safari Trail and you’ll find a dozen wild animals hanging around bold as brass in Brentwood, Shenfield and Ingatestone (until 3 September). But first, download the booklet, which includes a map of the beasties’ locations. Once your intrepid rangers have located all 12 of them, submit your entry, and you could scoop a wild prize, such as a trip to Colchester Zoo (Muddy Awards 2021Best Family Attraction) and vouchers to spend locally.

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