Living in Essex, we are very lucky that London and all it offers is only a short train journey away. The Discover Centre in Stratford is one of our favourite family places to visit. If your child loves exploring, stories and make believe then it is an absolute must!
We have made a few visits here now, but I realised my youngest, now 2 1/2 hadn’t been since he was a baby. Now a fully fledged toddler, I thought I would try it out with him this week while his big sister was at school and we quite literally had a whale of a time!
When visiting, you can expect to find purpose built creative spaces consisting of two Story Worlds and a Story Garden, all designed to inspire children’s curiosity and imagination. There are also regular exhibitions and workshops as well as a wonderful Storytelling space and a lovely (and of course super family-friendly) cafe. The current exhibition ‘A World Inside a Book – Gruffalos, Dragons and other Creatures’, based on the popular stories by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, is running until September 2018. Previous exhibitions have included the works of Oliver Jeffers and Dr.Seuss (all of which we have visited, and all of which have been equally as amazing!). Discover is also a charity and works with schools and libraries in the local area, running a series of community and education programmes with an aim to improve reading, writing and speaking and listening skills.
After a very exciting train journey with my vehicle crazy son, we arrived at the Discover Centre at around 11am. I hadn’t pre-booked as it was a bit of a spontaneous trip and I wasn’t expecting it to be too busy during term-time (which it wasn’t). After buying our tickets and booking into the exhbition, we left our coats, hats and scarves in one of the spacious honesty lockers and set of to explore. I had braved not bringing a buggy, just because I didn’t want the hassle of it getting on and off the train. However, I have brought the buggy on previous visits, there are lifts at Stratford station and plenty of buggy parking space within the Discover Story Centre. Buggies are not allowed on the Story World spaces but they are allowed in the cafe.
Immediately my little boy felt at home and set off to investigate the ground floor Story World space. In 2016 the illustrator Jim Field worked with Discover to redesign the spaces. Jungle vines and flora and fauna hang overhead. You feel like you are walking into an actual magical woodland. In the corner, my son enjoyed walking along the mirror lined wobbly bridge, with lighting designed to make you feel you are suspended in water. There are plenty of hidey holes and hollows for little ones to explore including an interactive cave with sound and light spots on the floor and a changing screen displaying some of the resident ‘Hootah’ birds – a huge hit with the younger children. A rope attached to a grassy hill further encourages chilren to explore and climb. If you have children with boundless energy, this really is a great place to let off some steam, not-to-mention a creative alternative to the soft play centre! My son was enthralled with the steam ship and really enjoyed taking the helm at the wheel, declaring that Mummy must sit in the passenger seat as we were “on an adventure”. Opportunities to make and create were also available with craft tables filled with wooden spoons, tissue paper, pencils, sticky tape, scissors and adornments. We made a little ‘spoon person’ together and added him to one of the ‘spoon trees’ alongside creations left by other visitors. We also enjoyed playing in the mock castle which was big enough for us both to climb into and where we engaged in some role play with lion puppet! Hootah’s sorting office also gives older children a chance to do some writing. Hootah being Discover’s resident alien who comes from the planet Squiggly Diggly where everyone has lost their imagination. Children are invited to create a story for him to send home! There are of course numerous books scattered everywhere and plenty of opportunities to cuddle up in a cosy spot and read a book or three! However, my son was not going to be sitting quietly when there was so much to do!
After a while, the first floor Story Space was also opened up. it may be a good idea to check when this space is open, as I believe that during the week it is sometimes used for school workshops and classes. Making our way upstairs we discovered Hoothah’s spaceship/observatory with periscope, telescope, buttons and levers a plenty to press, pull and grab. For older children there are ideas for story starters and story titles to interact with and spark the imagination. If needing a bit of down time, there are desks for children to colour in and complete Hootah themed worksheets. In the corner resides an inviting and hidden book nook, with a range of colourful and exciting books to share together. However, the highlight of the floor is the sky walk and giant slide – perfect for tiring out energetic toddlers!
Following the Gruffalo’s footprints, we made our way to the basement for our allocated time slot for the exhibition. Adorning the walls outside the entrance to the exhibition was the Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler gallery. Beautiful, original illustrations and page layouts were framed together in collections of the famous stories with little anecdotes about each. My son was quick to recognise the drawings from his favourite ‘The Monkey Puzzle’. I could have studied them all day! As the door opened we were ushered inside to Charlie Cook’s front room. There, we were read ‘Zog’ by one of Discover’s ‘Story Builders’. This is definately one of Julia Donaldon’s longer stories and as it was during term time and the audience was on the younger side, they did get bored quite quickly. But the ‘Story Builder’ read with enthusiasm and managed the somewhat rowdy bunch of toddlers and babies. The big reveal came after the story and a secret entrance into the main exhibition was theatrically revealed! As expected from previous exhibitions attended, the attention to detail throughout the exhibition was impeccable. The worlds of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s were created in full technicolour glory. From ‘The Snail on the Whale’ to ‘The Smartest Giant in Town’ my son throughly enjoyed being immersed in each story, flitting from one to the other in turn. We rode on the witches’ broom, uncovered our very own Stickman, made friends with a Gruffalo, spied ‘Owl’ in his tree top house, squashed and squeezed into the old lady’s house and dressed as a monkey who searched for his Mummy. My son’s favourite was the submarine and the undersea world of ‘Tiddler’.
Having worked up an appetite we headed up to the cafe. They really cater for adults and children alike and serve a wide range of hot and cold food such as paninis, jacket potatoes and sandwiches and a varied selction of drinks at a very reasonable price. I was almost persuaded into a slice of delicious looking chocolate and Guiness cake with cream cheese frosting! but settled for a homemade flapjack which was also delicious. The tables were clean, the service was excellent and we were not in anyway hurried.
Feeling refreshed and with some new found energy we grabbed our coats and headed back down to the ground floor and out to the Story Garden. Outside there are plenty more activities to discover, a giant taxi to ride, another huge slide and oversized musical for children (and adults!) to bash and play to their heart’s content. Seeing as we visited on a very typical grey and drizzly January day, we didn’t spend too long outdoors but on a lovely day this is a great extension to the indoor spaces.
With the promise of a visit to the shop, and perhaps a new book to take home, I managed to steer my toddler towards home! The onsite shop stocks a huge range of children’s literature and book related merchandise as well as some smaller ‘pocket money’ toys and items to cater for all budgets. I could have spend hours browsing, but settled for ‘Shh We have a Plan’ by Chris Naughton, probably because of the vivid illustrations and recognising them from another of his books ‘A Bit Lost’. You are also welcome to access the shop without paying get into the Centre.
You can find the Discover Story Centre at 383-387 High Street, Stratford, London, E15 4QZ. The nearest stations are Stratford High Street (DLR) and Stratford which is served by the Central and Jubilee lines, as well as the DLR, Overground and main line services to and from London Liverpool Street. If you are coming from Stratford station just make sure you take the exit marked ‘Town Centre’ which is the opposite exit to the Westfield Shopping Centre! It is then a very short 5-8 minute walk. Discover is very easy to spot and adorned with large red flags at the top of the building. At the time of writing admission prices are £6.50 adults and children over 2 years old. Under 1s are free and 1-2 pay £2. There is a small additional charge of £1.50 to enter a selected time slot at the exhibition which is worth every penny! Pre-booking is not essential but I would advise if you are planning to visit during the school holidays or want to enter the exhibition or other special event including Story Telling sessions for babies and toddlers. The Centre is aimed at 0-11 year old. I would personally say that the story spaces are primarily suitable for pre-schoolers, but there are aspects that would please older children. The exhibition suggests and age range of 0-8 (but older children are also welcome) and I would certainly recommend this for all ages. If you have older children, it is also worth checking out their events page as there are lots of workshops and author visits to cater for all.
I hope you enjoyed reading the first of our ‘adventures in reading’! and I hope that you get a chance to visit the Discover Story Centre soon!