So 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.
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 popular 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 skateparkhunter.com 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
For 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.
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