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20140527_135943So many break­through stud­ies, so many dol­lars spent on research, all of which con­clus­ively show what we already know because, well, duh, it’s obvi­ous. Too much time spent in the pres­ence of the world’s greatest evil, Tele­vi­sion, and all of its demon gen­er­als, PS4 and iPad and Nin­tendo-any­thing, will turn your child into a mind­less slave. And prob­ably an over­weight one at that.

And so we ush­er them out of the house, strap them into the people-mover and head off to… where? To do what? And how much will this cost us?

When decid­ing how best to enter­tain our chil­dren, whatever the weath­er, we cre­ate a sort of graph in our minds that charts expense versus degree of dif­fi­culty. While our chil­dren seem determ­ined to force us into under­han­ded deals with Kim Dot­com so that we can afford their vari­ous hob­bies and dis­trac­tions, our ulti­mate goal is always to find some­thing that will occupy them for decent lengths of time and is, at the same time, easy and cheap.

20140527_141900            With this in my mind, my mate Ben and I gathered three of our com­bined five chil­dren and determ­ined to take them on a fun day out in the Hutt Val­ley so that they might rate and review vari­ous activ­it­ies, both indoor and out. The goal is simply to appease their col­lect­ive hun­ger for activ­ity without hav­ing to sell one of them to pay for it.

In its entirety the Hutt Val­ley is green, and on a decent day your options are almost without lim­it. In Lower Hutt alone, the coun­cil claims 5300 hec­tares of parks, bush, beaches and play­grounds. Upper Hutt City has 15 kilo­metres of walk­ing and cyc­ling tracks and a fur­ther 4.5 kilo­metres of tough­er ter­rain for trampers. Accord­ing to the city’s web­site, it also boasts 24

pub­lic toi­lets for the child who sud­denly needs to go.

Note: By pub­lic toi­let I actu­ally mean toi­let, as opposed to ‘any tree, shrub, hedge or open green area, includ­ing someone’s lawn’, which my six-year-old son seems to con­sider an equally viable, and in some cases prefer­able, option.

If you’ve nev­er been to Percy Scen­ic Reserve, then you’re miss­ing an abso­lute treat. Wide-open spaces in which to burn off energy, pic­nic areas, walks, a cave and a water­fall make this a pop20140527_150939ular spot on week­ends and sunny after­noons. It’s free and fun, and best of all it’s unbe­liev­ably close to the action. The prox­im­ity to civil­isa­tion makes for an odd jux­ta­pos­i­tion, actu­ally, which takes some get­ting used to. Have you ever been to a movie in the middle of the day? Remem­ber that slightly dis­or­i­ented feel­ing you get when you leave the cinema and go out into bright light, when your brain is ready for night? It’s like that when you emerge again from the reserve to see and hear traffic char­ging through the Dowse inter­change. Your mind takes a second to recal­ib­rate. “Oh, riiiight. We’re not out in the middle of nowhere.”

Ana, our near-teen com­pan­ion for the pur­poses of test­ing des­tin­a­tions on tough, young crit­ics, is a fan too, and has been there enough to know. “Some­times when you go you see events there,” she says. “Like wed­dings or parties. Once there was this big battle raging all through the bush between zom­bies and medi­ev­al knights.”

No one is prom­ising bloodthirsty-zom­bie-versus-knight-com­bat-level enter­tain­ment every time, though. Some­times you’ll need to make your own fun. But as Ana points out, the walks are cool, espe­cially if you have young­er sib­lings and just want some alone time. And the stroll up past the nar­row cave (“A bit scary,” accord­ing to sev­en-year-old Charlie) to the water­fall is good for “all fit­ness levels”, which is lucky for me.

Anoth­er favour­ite out­door spot, in the unlikely event that good weath­er should inter­rupt our oth­er­wise con­stant winter, is Har­court Park in Upper Hutt. Admit­tedly this is a much bet­ter spot in sum­mer, but mark it down in your men­tal cata­logue of things to do. The pad­dling pool is bril­liant, there are foun­tains and a slide, and there is plenty of grass to pic­nic on while you watch the kids make new friends. There’s always a fam­ily that brings balls and water guns, so you can sponge off them when you for­get to do the same. The pool is open 16 weeks of the year across the warm­er months, dur­ing which time you can have the best pos­sible Fri­day even­ing by spread­ing your fam­ily out on a blanket with fish and chips from the loc­al in Brown Owl. The park also has, for those with young­er chil­dren, a mini­ature road lay­out com­plete with street signs and lane mark­ings which is well used by kids on bikes and scoot­ers who feel like they’re zoom­ing around real roads

For scoot­ers and skaters, Maid­stone Max Skate­park in Upper Hutt is one of the best in the region. Web­site gives it a rat­ing of 4.2 out of 5, with only the park in Island Bay doing bet­ter than that with a 4.3. What I know about skat­ing could be said slowly in the amount of time it takes to do a goofy-foot McTwist and snap your trucks, but I do know that the place is always busy and there’s plenty to do for the non-skaters (read: par­ents and young­er kids) in the family.


Oh, for good­ness’ sake, get inside, it’s raining

20140527_143302For enter­tain­ing the kids when it’s cold and wet, it’s tough to go past the Dowse Art Museum and the lib­rary. Wait — before you roll your eyes, and before you let the kids roll theirs — these are two of the best things we found to do with our kids on test day.

First The Dowse, and please let me get this out of the way up front: I am not what you would call an appre­ci­at­or of the more mod­ern, free-range style of art. I like sculp­tures to be more than a goat’s horn glued into a shoe, I will nev­er under­stand exactly what ‘per­form­ance art’ means and I think too many coun­cils have thrown ‘arts’ money at what could be more accur­ately described as Year 8 sci­ence pro­jects. But there is plenty to admire here even if the idea of walk­ing silently through a gal­lery won­der­ing how you’re sup­posed to react makes you squirm.

My point is, I’m not encour­aging you to vis­it this museum and gal­lery for any reas­on oth­er than this: it’ll keep the kids hap­pily and com­pletely enter­tained for hours at zero cost to you. All you have to do is make encour­aging noises from time to time and per­haps play with them. Be care­ful, though, the tun­nel-cre­at­ing and block-build­ing are addictive.

20140527_135336 20140527_135418
For sev­en-year-old Charlie, The Dowse was without doubt the favour­ite of our stops. “I loved mak­ing a marble run,” he says. “And climb­ing on the robot out­side was cool.” This was in ref­er­ence to the huge Fallen Robot install­a­tion by artist Ron­nie van Hout out­side the Lower Hutt iSite oppos­ite the museum. Theo, at six years old, also had the best time with both marble run and robot.

An added bonus for lov­ers of caf­feine and good food: an extremely pleas­ant stop on the way in or out of The Dowse is Café Reka, which appears to have raided a toy box for its stone fit­tings and dec­or­a­tions. From a warm spot just inside the huge slid­ing doors, you can watch as your darling chil­dren jump on, around and off the giant robot on the far side of Dowse square as if it were a jungle gym and not a sculpture.

To para­phrase the many who para­phrase George Orwell, who was para­phras­ing the Amer­ic­an Declar­a­tion of Inde­pend­ence, all lib­rar­ies are cre­ated equal, but some are more equal than oth­ers. There’s prob­ably no such thing as a bad lib­rary, but there are some in the Hutt Val­ley that are very, very good.

Lower Hutt’s cent­ral lib­rary (offi­cially called the War Memori­al Lib­rary) is a great way to occupy kids of almost any age on a rainy day. My son loves the lib­rary partly because it allows him to feel like a grown-up. He has his own card (which he calls a cred­it card) and gets his own books. There are so many nooks and cran­nies for just park­ing up and read­ing, or allow­ing your­self to be dis­trac­ted from any work that needs to be com­pleted. For Ana, the library’s many levels and spaces — much like the hid­den out­door tracks through Percy Scen­ic Reserve — allow for ditch­ing annoy­ing little brothers.

Petone Lib­rary is small, but the people who work there are bril­liant and the kids’ room is packed full of stuff to read and do. Not related to its many cuz­zies fur­ther south, the Upper Hutt Lib­rary has had a recent refur­bish­ment, boasts 100,000 books and should be on the list of pos­sible stops along Enter­tain­ing-the-Kids Highway.

All of our activ­ity so far had been no fin­an­cial bur­den unless you count cof­fee, pet­rol and snacks. It’s worth men­tion­ing one more place that can be a lot of fun with min­im­al work and very little expense (if not com­pletely free).

One: Wheth­er or not you want to don a bikini or Speedos of your own, the loc­al pool is bril­liant if your kids can swim, or even if they’re only at the pad­dling-pool level. The newly rebuilt McK­en­zie Baths in Petone and the Wainu­io­mata Pool are per­fect on sunny summer’s days, and in the middle of winter it’s not much fur­ther to get to either Huia Pool in Lower Hutt or H2O Xtream in Upper Hutt.

Two: Stag­lands is a long way away for folks who don’t live in Birchville or Totara Park, but it’s a whole lot of fun when you get there. It’s $56 for a fam­ily pass but for the bet­ter part of a full day’s fun I con­sider that a reas­on­able price

A full day’s enter­tain­ment for three kids, for not more than the loose change under the pas­sen­ger seat of the people-mover. That counts as a win.

Steve Joll

Steve works as part of the breakfast show on wellington's The Breeze radio station. In past lives he's been a sports journalist for ONE News, a presenter on iconic children's show What Now and one heck of a forecourt attendant. He has three kids: a talkative son (Theo), aged six, and twin daughters (Margaux and Lila), aged three. He adores them and yet is counting down the days until they leave home. It seems a long way off.

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