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Monday, 7 April 2014

The end is in sight ...

I don’t know about you, but for me it’s been a long winter. Signs of spring appeared in the last few weeks, but for us March’s cheery daffodils were mostly viewed through a window – because of a combination of illness in the children and some frankly rubbish weather.

But − it does seem like the end is in sight. In the last couple of days it hasn’t exactly been wall-to-wall sunshine but it’s been warm enough for me to feel that it’s OK to give the chesty baby a bit of fresh air (in contrast to the freezing haar we had this time last week), and we’ve even been able to hang the washing out for a few hours. Things are looking up.

And, excitingly, Edition 14 of Edinburgh for Under Fives is finally coming together. After a year of enrolling researchers, compiling, editing, commissioning features written by parents and carers, collecting some gorgeous photos (including the one for the cover, taken by Susan of Clear Photography), liaising with our new and lovely designer (Marie of MAMi Designs) and our new and lovely web agency (Starbit Media), we have not only a book that’s currently about two thirds designed, but a new website that will be launched when the book’s published. As ever, being an old-fashioned type, I love the solid and flick through-able nature of the printed version, but the online stuff is really exciting – it’s searchable, contains maps with arrows so you can see exactly where you’re heading, and will be compatible with smartphones and tablets so you can access it when you’re out and about.  It’s been a long time coming but definitely worth the wait.

So, when will all this be available? Our best aim is for the end of May, but there’s still a lot to do so we’ll keep you posted if it’s likely to be any longer. It’ll certainly be ready for the summer season to give you all sorts of ideas for getting out and about around Edinburgh with your littl’uns. But in the meantime, here’s the cover. Hope you like it.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Lots of play, not much to pay

During my nearly four years of having under 5s, I’ve experienced a fair few indoor play areas. Some you’d expect to be good – for example, the ones that you have to pay to visit, in play cafés and so on. But just occasionally you come across a wee indoor play area that’s fantastic – and free (or accessible for the price of a coffee). And that’s a nice feeling. There are such areas at the National Museum (the Imagine Room), Craigmillar Library (where there’s a ball pit, a “mirror tent” and other wee toys such as trolleys, not to mention all the nearby books), Potter Around (a ceramics café in Burntisland, Fife), and North Edinburgh Arts Centre, where my two recently spent a very happy couple of hours (and, consequently, so did I).

I have heard reports of others (in cafés mostly) from friends – that the Edinburgh Cheesecake Company and Lucy’s Café, both in Corstorphine, and Leo’s Beanery on Howe Street have great play areas, for example. However, when you can count on one hand the really great indoor play areas you know personally that are free (or nearly free), it makes you wonder what makes a good one and why they’re like hens’ teeth.

So, for the purposes of this study, this is what we found at North Edinburgh Arts Centre:

- Two tables and four chairs (chunky ones that didn’t tip over)
- Paper (blank) and pens (that worked)
- Dressing-up box
- Books for a range of ages. I had to promise my daughter that we would return and read the Sleeping Beauty book next time
- Baby toys – not just one. Three is a good number. North Edinburgh Arts Centre has a couple of wire/bead ones, a xylophone and a cuddly something-or-other
- A nice big box of chunky Lego/Duplo (to empty and then fill up again for babies of a certain age)
- A wee indoor slide
- A blackboard and chalk
- Proximity to a café – I could drink a coffee right next to the play area
- Enough room to walk around without bumping into other children
- Wipeable surfaces (my son’s going through a “turn the beaker upside down when mum’s not looking” stage
- Comfy sofa – for breastfeeding, cuddling, putting on a snowsuit, reading a book.

To this list, North Edinburgh Arts Centre is about to add “a nice view” as it’s re-doing its garden, for which great things are planned including an outdoor play area (roll on the summer). I should add that all of its toys were lovely and clean.

With the exception of the nice view, the space and perhaps the blackboard, sofa and slide, most of the items on this list aren’t all that hard to sort out, particularly if you have or know children who have outgrown toys, books and dressing-up outfits. Yet too often you hear about a café with a play area, journey there filled with hope and find a grubby toy kitchen with no utensils, one chair, a sad-looking doll, one toy for a baby, a wee car and two books – all of which will probably keep your children happy for around seven minutes.

I hear that some Edinburgh restaurants are giving out tablets to occupy little ones during mealtimes, which seems amazing, but I can’t help feeling that these venues could get a nice variety of second hand toys for the sort of money you might spend on a tablet. You could produce a really good play area (or toy box, if you haven’t the room) for children to enjoy with just a bit of thought, a small outlay and some regular low-grade maintenance (cleaning, mending, replacement of batteries when needed).

And then? Then families will rush back (because they’ve promised their delighted children they will, as much as anything), and recommend you to their friends. Which, with cafés at least, seems to be a wise investment – a coffee might be what they order to begin with, but coffee can lead to cake, then to a sandwich and maybe some snacks for the kids. And, in the end, everyone leaves happy, which is definitely how we all felt when we finally trundled out of the door of North Edinburgh Arts Centre a couple of weeks ago. 

Until next time, happy playing!


Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Soul food

It’s at this time of year, when you and your little ones are running from a sharp shower or seeking refuge from an icy wind, that you so appreciate what people do voluntarily in our city to offer shelter and refreshment for prices that still leave you some money to pay your own heating bills.

There are actually lots of wonderful venues in Edinburgh that are largely or completely staffed by volunteers and are, amazingly, free to enter – Gorgie City Farm and the Water of Leith Visitor Centre are just two. But if you’re after a less structured experience for an hour (just a sit down in the warm with a coffee and a bun perhaps), you might want to locate your nearest community café.

Our closest is Newhaven Connections – great for a sandwich and a coffee before or after a play at Trinity’s Victoria Park. But recently we went to Café Life at the Lifecare Centre, Stockbridge, down Cheyne Street and only a stone’s throw from Raeburn Place. It’s a lovely, light room with windows on all sides, space to potter about for the children and the BBC News Channel on the TV (turned down low) for the adults. Leith Community Centre Café has nice views up Leith Walk and over South Leith Parish Church, as well as Wi-Fi and a wee children’s play area with books to read. Then the Friday before last we took the bus through to Café Connect at the Eric Liddell Centre, Morningside. Situated just on “Holy Corner”, you can pop up a couple of steps to an area overlooking the busy traffic junction. We spent ages mesmerised by the cars, bikes and people coming and going. Also within the centre is a second-hand children’s clothes shop, Tots Togs (donations welcome), and a bookstall.

One great thing about these cafés is that you feel you can linger and no-one will mind. They’re a place from which to watch the world go by (quite literally, at the Eric Liddell Centre), often situated in centres that have lots happening that you can nosey in on. The Eric Liddell Centre had a judo and a dancing class in the short time we were there and my children enjoyed seeing the participants dressed in their various activity-appropriate costumes. They’re usually roomy, too, which means that you can easily park a buggy or let a toddler run free. The feel is quite different to an average café – I suppose it’s to do with being right at the centre of the local community. Which, if you’re a sentimental fool like me, warms your heart, as well as the rest of you, for the time that you’re there.

Edinburgh Community Cafés have their own dedicated website and – oh, joy − a map with the cafés marked. But don’t forget your local community centre or church, either. There’s a lovely café, The Sycamore Tree, at Davidson’s Mains Parish Church that you won’t find on the Community Cafés website – open most Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 10.00-13.30, with fresh soup served from 12.00. In a wee hall at the back, as long as you tidy them away again afterwards, your little one can play with the toys belonging to the toddler group while you have a cuppa and some home baking. Even better, on the last Friday of every month at 12.30 they hold an event for all ages and serve bacon rolls and hotdogs while the littl’uns get on with a craft activity. Hurrah for the community. 

Saturday, 4 January 2014

New Year, new adventures

I love New Year’s Resolutions. Time was (before children) when I would spend all of New Year’s Eve curled up with a little notebook crafting my list of things to change, things to achieve, things to give up. There’s just something about turning over a new leaf that appeals to me (I’m someone that makes End-of-Holiday Resolutions, for goodness’ sake). Usually, I’d end up with quite a few resolutions – about 16 on average. Most of which I’d forgotten by 4th January.

For me, New Year wouldn’t be New Year without my resolutions. This year’s list is a little shorter than in past years – just the 14 items. It contains the usual stuff (“Give up sugar” – no, really, I have to. This time last year I had a new baby, and the hungry-making combination of breastfeeding and sleep deprivation meant that in 2013 I ate virtually nothing but biscuits and chocolate).

But there are a couple that I really hope will stick. One is “Get out every day with the children”. To be truthful, we usually do set foot outside the door. Whether the trips we take are enriching is another matter. Sure, I get my errands done – shopping, posting a letter – but what do they get out of it? Fresh air. Sight of a cat, maybe. On a good day, we might bump into someone we know, pop into the playpark or get to the Botanics. We’ve been known to stretch to a play café or a soft play. We go to local toddler groups. We visited the zoo once in 2013 (not enough to justify my membership in that particular year, alas). We do the National Museum of Scotland from time to time. But I usually save proper outings for the weekend − when I have backup. I fear we’ve hit a rut.

So, “Get out every day” really means “Get out every day to somewhere interesting and different”. At the moment I’m busy editing all the entries for the new edition of Edinburgh for Under Fives which is out in May, and there’s something about reading other people’s accounts of going somewhere with their children that encourages you to do the same. The libraries section has reminded me what brilliant facilities we have in the city – all for free (“Be frugal” resolution – tick!). So maybe I’ll pop to the new library building at Drumbrae, which sounds amazing. The swimming section has made me think that it might be nice to go with the baby to a pool one morning while my daughter’s in nursery – perhaps the refurbished Ainslie Park, or Glenogle (“Be healthy” resolution – tick!). On the strength of a couple of the reviews that have come in we’ve taken the children to playparks we hadn’t visited before – to Haugh Park to see the Shetland Ponies, to Musselburgh Links Playground to try its fancy equipment. They had such a nice time we took a few snaps (“Take more pictures of the children” resolution – tick!).

All these plans on the strength of a few reviews. That’s what the book’s about, I suppose. And I am quite suggestible, but that’s not so terrible. Ah – except the next section I’m tackling is Eat & Drink. This could mean an awful lot of coffee and cake! What was that resolution about sugar? I seem to have forgotten …
Until next time 

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Festivities for under 5s

Well, we had the nativity play yesterday, Santa’s dropping into nursery this morning and then that’s that – Christmas holidays for my three year old, and still a whole two weeks until the big day. My daughter has only been going to nursery since August (and only four mornings a week) but I got used to the term-time routine surprisingly quickly (it took about two days). My baby son generally obliges by napping for some of the morning so by the time we all know it, it’s lunchtime and there’s only the afternoon to fill. Now, for a few weeks, we will have all day, every day together. What will we get up to?

We could get into town – there’s loads happening there, and there really is nothing like Christmas in Edinburgh. I’ve promised us a trip to Princes’ Street Gardens East where there’s a Santa Express, a grotto, a Christmas maze and all sorts of other marvels. On Friday I decided to get a taster of Christmas in town by getting the bus in to see the decorations, Jenners’ tree (“You’ll not find a bigger tree indoors, Anna, have a proper look!”), and check out the happenings in St Andrews Square. This has become a great venue for holiday activities and I’d missed the amazing stuff that was hosted there in the summer. Well, we weren’t going to miss this! Whatever it was!
From the minute we stepped off the bus on Hanover Street, Edinburgh felt Christmassy. On the way, George Street looked great and the Dome was as festive as it ever is at this time of year, with its twinkly pillars. At St Andrews and St George’s West they seemed to be having some sort of Christmas tree festival. I made a mental note to pop in another time, and to check out their Undercroft café while I was at it.

Arriving at the Children’s Christmas Market at St Andrew’s Square, it was the carousel that caught my three year old’s eye. I distracted her for a while with the Toys Galore shed, and then a sniff of the candy shed (letting her roam free in there would have been far too dangerous). The Children’s Market also had a theatre, with Captain Flinn and the Pirate Dinosaurs, amongst other shows, playing and craft huts to keep little ones busy. For the adults there are stalls nearby selling Glüwein and hot chocolate. But, soon enough, back to the colourful, musical horses it was. I’m sure she could have hung onto one all by herself but I was taking no chances. After a little think about the logistics and a chat to the man in the booth and a lady selling the tickets, I decided all three of us could pile onto a horse – Anna in front, me in the middle with one arm round a pole and another round her, and my one year old firmly in the baby-carrier rucksack on my back. We must have looked a sight. Still, my daughter was utterly delighted with the whole experience. The baby didn’t say much but emitted the odd ‘Oh!’ as we went around.

Coming off the carousel, my daughter announced that she wanted the toilet so we headed for John Lewis (where else?) as I also wanted to check out the shoe department. An amazing lack of foresight in October (that winter was coming) had meant that her current shoes were the flimsiest summer model you could find – not great for near-zero temperatures. Getting into the store there was Christmas stuff to enjoy everywhere you looked. On floor 4 there was a little watching area for children to look at the latest Christmas advert, with model animals in a snowy scene. Toilets visited and boots bought, we headed off down Broughton Street to get the bus home.

Just before we got to the bus stop we took a detour. I’d always meant to check out the Barony Community Garden, having heard such good things about it. When we got there, it was deserted. My daughter was very excited to be there on her own and had a go at everything – the roundabout where everyone sits on a bike and pedals to make it go round, the multiplay with very slidey slide, the seesaw, the basket swing. It was a nice way to spend half an hour before heading home.

There really is nothing like Christmas in Edinburgh. Waiting for the bus back, in the crisp, bright weather, we saw a coach pull up on the other side of the road. Who should be driving it? Why, Santa Claus, of course.

Check out what’s on in Edinburgh at

Until next time, have a very happy Christmas with your wee ones!



Monday, 4 November 2013

Rain without the wallet pain

On Saturday, our original idea was to go to Roslin Glen to see the autumn trees. But by the time we had packed bags and got coats and shoes on, the rain was falling steadily. So there we were in the car, all dressed up and nowhere to go. To add to our conundrum, we also knew that we didn’t want to spend too much money, which is tricky on a rainy day when you have little ones to entertain.

Because we were heading in a westerly direction (my husband saying, ‘Where shall we go, then?’ and me frantically leafing through my edition of Edinburgh for Under Fives for ideas) we decided to pop to EICA at Ratho. I’d heard good things about the Rocktots playroom and knew it was open at weekends.

There was ample parking, which was a great start, and lots of people milling about with canoes which interested my three year old daughter. Then when we got inside, the view down to the climbing walls from the café was incredible, like something from the Matrix. My daughter declared that she wanted to climb the walls like that, so we headed quickly towards the playroom before the idea took hold in her head.

Rocktots is great, with safe little areas for babies, all sorts of toys for toddlers and a bouncy castle. There is a café area where you can station yourself, and water is provided for free. We spent a happy 90 minutes there, then got in the car unsure of our next destination. We’d spent a fiver on playroom fees and didn’t want to spend too much more. My husband suggested Dobbies Garden World at Lasswade.

The great thing about Dobbies (apart from the brilliant, child-friendly café with its fantastic cakes – which were on a 2-for-1 offer!) is that you can spend a lot of time there with little ones, for free. We spent ages looking at the fish in the pet area, then at the guinea pigs and rabbits and budgies. But my daughter was absolutely fascinated by a model dinosaur in one of the displays that roared at passers-by. There was a model band made up of a walrus, a rhino, a hippo and a giraffe. Christmas displays were up so there were plenty of twinkly lights, which interested the baby. We had a lovely time just wandering around and looking at things. I even resisted the temptation to pop to the new branch of Lakeland – result. By the time we got out it was dark and time to head home for tea, bath and bed.

This is just one way to pass a really pleasant rainy day in and around Edinburgh with minimal damage to the bank balance. You could also go to the National Museum of Scotland, a gallery or a library – the new Drumbrae Library is great place to spend time. The Penicuik Centre is highly recommended by our researchers too.

Have you got any favourite, cheap, rainy day activities? Let me know at and your ideas could appear in the next edition of the book.

Until next time, keep dry!


Monday, 14 October 2013

Our Big Day Out - why we're making a bit of an exhibition of ourselves.

So, the Big Day Out is on at the Corn Exchange this coming weekend (19/20 October) and we’ll be there, complete with books, flyers, stickers, balloons – and voting slips! For there will be the chance to let us know which, in your view, are the best venues and activities for under 5s in Edinburgh and its surrounding areas.

The idea behind the vote is that a lot of the event’s value to us will be as an information-gathering exercise. We want to get you talking to us. All of the Edinburgh for Under Fives committee members move within their own circles and bring information back to each monthly meeting, but even as a committee our scope is limited to our individual experiences. Our lovely researchers keep in touch with us and let us know about things that they've found out during the research phase of the book, but they're all busy people and after their research is over they usually get on with other stuff, which is completely fair enough. I keep up with my Twitter feeds when I can, read family-friendly magazines and surf the relevant websites, but there’s nothing like just chatting to a wide range of other parents and carers for finding out the most useful nuggets of information – especially about what’s just closed (after all, it’s easy to spot an ad for a new place but a closure is much less trumpeted affair).

As a book that's published every two years, Edinburgh for Under Fives is never going to be the most up-to-date source of information that’s out there, we realise that. But we strongly believe that there’s a place (a bookshelf, hopefully, or, even better, a pram bag) for a printed book that contains the sort of first-hand information from other parents that inspires you to get out of the door on a chilly day with the buggy or hop in the car and go exploring. We can give you updates on our website and through Twitter and Facebook, and we’re working on making sure that these become great sources of up-to-date information. But for this we do need your help to know exactly what’s going on out there.

And we'd really like to find which of Edinburgh’s family-friendly activities and venues has found a place in your hearts, and those of your wee ones. We might have our own ideas about what might be the best things to do and places to go, but I’ll bet there’ll be some surprises when the votes are counted.

So if you’re at the Big Day Out, come and tell us what you know, and cast your vote for the best places and activities for young children in and around our brilliant city. If you’re not coming along, you can still vote. Just email me and find out how. In any case, please do keep in touch and make sure we’re informed about what’s going on. We’d be really grateful, as would all the other parents and carers who your information would help. Email me at

Until next time, happy exploring!