Has Half Term has been looming on your calendar like a big black cloud or a ray of sunshine? If you're a parent or guardian then the school holidays don't just mean a mysteriously easier commute, but a potentially bored child, and no-one wants that. What to do? Wonder no more, with our reasonably comprehensive guide to what's on offer. Believe me, this isn't everything! But it's around 60 different things, so hopefully you'll find something your family like the look of.
It's been compiled with care, but things do change and the events aren't organised by us, so please do check before you head out. If you do spot any errors, let us know!
Top For Working Parents
Even if two parents never want to take holiday at the same time, most households don't get as much holiday entitlement as schools have holiday. If you don't work a term-time only job, what do you do? Here are some alternatives to a steady stream of playdates.
Market leaders and childcare giants Ultimate Activity Camps are back in Oxford. During the summer months there are many different sorts of camps at a host of locations (including the apocalyptic-sounding Ultimate Survival camps). But for February half term they're making use of the lovely facilities at Headington School. The local version is House of Fun, at St Ebbe's School in Oxford and Rush Common Primary in Abingdon. They are cheaper (£39/day) for a longer day, and have good reviews including from DI parents. Both House of Fun and Ultimate accept part or full payment in Childcare Vouchers. Or for a taste of Montessori child-led education, CREATE is the Montessori-run holiday club in Forest Farm. They take children as young as 3.
For small creatives: Creation Theatre's popular Put on a play in a week are great for budding thesps age 6+. Children in different age bands choose one of three plays on offer, and parents/carers are invited to the performance at the end of the week. And specialist art teacher Lisa Jayne runs art courses at her studio in Bletchingdon.
Times are tight, and children are notoriously expensive, but here are some entertainment options that won't break the budget.
Young mathematicians are in luck, with Oxford Maths Festival's day of Mathematical Mayhem on Saturday 15th Feb. It features shows, magic, activities, games and puzzles and is an all-day drop in at Templar's Square Shopping Centre (which is rather nice on the inside, and has an airy, plant-filled cafe). At the other end of half term on Sat 22nd, you can play science board games with University scientists at the Museum of Natural History.
The Story Museum may be closed, but its staff never sleep, and they're currently delivering a series of workshops on storytelling at Donnington Doorstep on Wednesdays. At the half term session there'll be games and activities, children are welcome, and Doorstep offer a cheap and delicious lunch afterwards. (Donnington Doorstep sessions aren't technically free, but suggested donations are £1.50 per family making it very good value. They are open on Monday 17th too, with a scavenger hunt and soft play Snakes and Ladders.)
The Museums of Oxfordshire will be open and offering a bewildering array of free activities over half term. We can't mention them all or this blog would be ten times the size, but The Ashmolean's Ratty Crafts (for Chinese New Year, Wed 19th & Thu 20th, 2-4pm) do sound particularly appealing.
The great outdoors awaits, and there are of course lots of good free walks and parks. If you seek a free outdoor get-together, on Wednesday afternoon Oxford City Farm hosts a Family Tree Planting and drop-in session. If you haven't been, it's a lovely site hidden away behind the care home on Cornwallis Rd, easy to reach by public transport, and is a nicely wild spot. They're very welcoming and relaxed about how much "help" your family actually provide. And the children can rush about meeting the chickens, playing in the den, and raiding the cake. (City Farm run regular Wednesday sessions after school, if you get a taste for it!)
Top Unusual Sports (mostly indoor)
Mostly these are activities that are always available, with perhaps more sessions open to families over half term. But they may serve as a useful reminder for activities your children haven't tried recently. For example, when did you last go to The Ice Rink? In their family sessions Penguins are available as a balancing aid for kids (sadly not real ones, which is clearly missing a trick) and ages 10+ can skate unaccompanied.
Other options for wearing out the kids include the Indoor Climbing Wall at Brookes which has children's sessions most afternoons (age 5+), including some where you can work towards the NICAS award (age 7+). If leaving the ground is your thing, Rebound Revolution in Bicester offers trampolining sessions for different age groups at different times of day, from age 0 upwards.
The standard fallback for indoor exercise is of course Soft Play, and there are plenty of options. Sprouts Play Barn at Millets Farm has been described as "the Waitrose of soft play". It's well-managed and actually closes for cleaning between timed sessions. Snakes and Ladders in Abingdon and Whizz Kidz in Thame are pretty good, and easier to reach by public transport, but only Sprouts offers drinkable coffee. You can make a day of it at Millets, as they also have magic shows, and workshops on planting mini gardens, and biscuit decorating. All activities are charged separately.
Top for Teenies
Those with pre-school age children often find their usual run of activities stop in half term (often because they're run by parents with school-aged kids!). But there is still fun to be had with smalls. Donnington Doorstep's Buzzy Bundles baby group is new for Tuesday mornings, brimming with sensory floor-based activities. South Oxford Family Room host a fortnightly Generation Cafe - part stay and play, part tea and chat, this friendly intergenerational activity invites all ages to come and socialise together.
Ride on Time puts tinies in the driving seats - of a vast array of Cozy Coupes and toy motorbikes, complete with traffic lights and cones. Let your 1-5 year old learn the highway code or cause a happy pileup (and the complete array of vehicles is available to hire for parties too). Look out for them in various village halls throughout the county.
For cultural smalls, the Cushion Concerts series at the JdP introduces preschoolers to different musical instruments and how music works. There are different sessions for under and over 5s, and you can go to the full series of seven concerts, or just one.
Top Less-frequented Museums' half term activities
All the usual suspects are putting on plenty of activities, mostly free or very inexpensive. But what if you've exhausted the delights of the Pitt Rivers (is that even possible?!) and co? Here are some museums you might not have been to recently. First, it's in the very centre of Oxford, it's the Bate Collection. Oxford University's historical collection of musical instruments, the Bate is surprisingly interactive with instruments you can touch and play (where else is your child encouraged to tinkle Handel's harpsichord?) and they're offering gallery trails and puzzles every weekday afternoon from 2-5pm. If you need some convincing read our lovely review of the collection by a former music student.
Other museums which sound specific include SOFO, the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum, in Woodstock, and the River and Rowing Museum in Henley. SOFO invite you to create an animated flip-book, in drop-in session on Wed and Thu afternoons, tying in with their current exhibition on how those living through conflict kept a sense of humour. Meanwhile in Henley the RRM has its usual rooms about rowing, rivers and Wind in the Willows, plus the current exhibition of jazz age prints by Gertrude Hermes. Linked in are workshops for children about printing, but there's also some vole puppetry and a session about the ancient Greeks. You do need to book for these.
Banbury Museum are celebrating STEAM, with a mix of art, science and technology workshops. Make clay animals or automata, play with pastels, charcoal or collage. There are workshops every weekday, most of which require booking, and the museum is central, so easy to get to by train, bus (or canal boat if you have a week spare!) from Oxford.
Top Animal-based Activities
February may sometimes seem bleak and like the natural world is asleep, but it's obviously a busy time for goats. The Bucks Goat Centre isn't huge but there are a lot of animals to see, and they know the drill - so they'll rush over to gobble up your little bag of goat nuts and give you some cupboard love. Through the week there's ferret racing, spider appreciation and free balloons. It's a bit of a trek from central Oxford and very hard by public transport, but there might be baby goats!
The nearer-to-Oxford Pony Pursuits certainly have some tiny horses, and even some new foals who are ready to meet adoring fans. Based on the edge of Headington, the Pursuits team can head out on rides into Shotover, or ponies can be groomed and ridden round their field. All rides must be pre-booked (07748 598560), but there's no minimum age as long as a child can sit unaided. If you want to be a top jockey you have to start early...
Wildlife Wednesday visits different Earth Trust nature reserves each school holiday, and this time it's the turn of Abbey Fishponds, in Abingdon. Come and learn about the wildlife, and make a bird feeder. Talking of birds, it's Parrot Pandemonium at Birdland, with a weeklong celebration of the newly completed parrot enclosure. Birdland is at Bourton-on-the-Water in a former Bryant and May poplar orchard grown to make matchsticks! They celebrate the whole evolutionary journey from dinosaur to bird and have 500 live residents and some velociraptors who are fortunately just models.
Top Outdoors - yes, even in February
Is it global warming? Has clothing technology improved? Or is it just that children require implausible amounts of exercise and are impervious to cold? At any rate there are lots of outdoor activities on offer.
Stately homes nearby include Waddesdon Manor, a French chateau in the Bucks countryside, and National Trust-run Greys Court, near Henley. Waddesdon have teamed up with Thames Valley Orienteering Club, who've set up three courses round the estate. There's a space theme, and fancy dress is encouraged. Routes are 1-2km, and you get a medal at the end. At Greys Court they're encouraging budding (ha!) rangers to get to know their trees, with a tree identification trail. Again, a prize awaits at the end. Greys Court also have a terrific muddy den building / outdoor playground area, which is unsupervised and surprisingly free range - good for children learning to assess risk, in the best possible way. (If you like grand houses, you might like to know under 16s are free at Stowe, though they're not doing anything particularly out of the ordinary for half term.)
Outdoor sessions with a more specific focus include Hill End's family forest school. Tue 18th is fully booked, so get in quick for Wed and Thu if you like the sound of dens, scavenger hunts and then toasted marshmallows by the campfire. The Earth Trust take young explorers back in time, to the Incredible Iron Age (Monday) or visiting the Ruthless Romans (Friday). Suggested age is 7-11, but they're flexible. Try some cooking, crafts, and a bit of archaeology. Great for Horrible History fans! For more archaeology, there's also the Oxford Castle's Dig In events, which we believe are indoor-based. Excavate historical objects and build a bird feeder, on Mon, Wed, Fri and both Saturdays of half term week.
BBOWT's Wild at Heart initiative is encouraging children to enjoy local wildlife and look after the birds in particular, with a series of sessions at their Sutton Courtenary Environmental Education Centre just outside Didcot. Tue - Thu sessions look at what wild animals and plants do to surive the winter, building bug hotels, bird spotting and storytelling, for ages 4-11. On Friday children aged 8+ can weave a hanging bird table to take home. Booking is essential for Friday and recommended for the other days.
Top for Transport-o-philes
Didcot Railway Centre has steam trains running Wed 19th and the following weekend. They're open the other weekdays, for Exhibition Days where you can race round and look in all the sheds, but no trains are running. Though of course it's very accessible from Oxford by train, (as the Railway Centre is part of Didcot mainline station complex). Ironically, so is Oxford Bus Museum, as that is right next to Hanborough station, and they often run vintage bus rides to and from Oxford Parkway. Over half term vintage buses are running Sunday 16th, Wed 19th and Thu 20th Feb in the middle of the day. The museum itself is well worth looking round even if buses aren't laid on, as there are plenty to climb into, pretend to drive, or see cut through so you can view their inner workings. The museum site also houses the Morris museum, full of bikes, trikes, cars, and a very antique fire engine.
Pendon Museum has the advantage in bad weather, as it's all indoor and cosy, being a giant model railway. Visit 1930s in miniature, admiring the Devon or Oxfordshire countryside as it used to be in more rural days and the skill of the modelmakers, or take part in model-making workshops (Wed afternoon drop-in for age 5+, though longer sessions for older children on Thu have sold out). They also do workshops for adults if you get jealous. Friendly staff and a neat little cafe make it a charming destination.
Or just get the whole family out on bikes - Oxford to Abingdon is a surprisingly do-able ride, finishing up at the superior Abbey Meadows playground. Much of the way is on dedicated cycle tracks, making it pretty good for even younger cyclists. And one of the best cycle ways is Oxford ring road. From Blackbird Leys to Cutteslowe Park is very possible for younger riders, and again finishes up at an excellent playground. The Cycle Streets website/app is brilliant for finding quieter cycle-friendly routes anywhere in the UK.
Cornerstone Theatre have gone all out, with not just some half term activities but a whole Youth Festival! This combines workshops, dance tasters, and performances for all ages of children. Yana and the Yeti showcases the arctic, with puppets and music (Sun 23rd, 2.30pm), Excalibow is a comedic musical journey through myths, portals and all musical genres, possibly including ABBA (Fri 21st, 7.30pm), and The Elves and the Shoemakers kicks off the celebrations on Sun 16th with magic surprises and little green visitors.
Oxford Playhouse also goes puppet-mad, with The Slightly Annoying Elephant by David Walliams bringing chaos to the stage. Sam didn't realise adopting an elephant would be quite so hands on... There are two performances daily Wed 19th - Sun 23rd. Beginning half term with a bounce is Oi Frog at Aylesbury Waterside. Fans of rhyme probably already know the books: we all know cats sit on mats, but where does everyone else sit? Head along on Sat 15th at 10am to find out. And to round off the week, whizz up to The Mill Arts Centre, Banbury, for Little Grimm Tales, all your favourite fairy tales, again told with the help of puppets, for ages 3+. It's on Fri 21st at 11am.
Unrelated to fairy stories or indeed puppets, Science Oxford are also putting on a show, at the Museum of Oxford. At Inventing Isobel on Monday 17th, inventors aged 5-7 are needed to help Isobel solve problems by creating contraptions. Teaching material science by stealth, this is a fun and interactive show, with two performances during the day.
Children considering acting as a career might like to mosey along to the Pegasus, where the students of the Boomsatsuma Professional Acting Diploma are putting on A Midsummer Night's Dream. In a two year course developed in association with Bristol Old Vic Drama School, 16-18 year olds experience all the rigours of drama school, and during half term they're putting on several performances, though their other offering, Girls Like That, is a more adult drama, and not family-friendly. And if you're a Midsummer Night's Dream addict, it's also on at The Watermill, Newbury, who are brilliant at making Shakespeare engaging and accessible.
And although it's not a performance, we should mention the Narnia exhibition at Dorchester Abbey. It's open all of half term, so put on a fur coat, step in to the wardrobe, and have tea with a faun. Create your own theatre, and rediscover this old favourite.
Top for Learning a New Skill
The best time for learning is clearly when school is out. Whether it's whittling or musical theatre, it's covered. First up, a family whittling workshop. The price covers one adult and one child, plus materials. Learn to whittle green wood from Wychwood Forest, Thu 20th in Witney. The afternoon session is sold out, but there's still room in the morning. A practical skill for little ones next, as Explore Learning teach Telling The Time to ages 5-7 at Headington Library, Tue 18th at 1pm.
Part of Cornerstone's Youth Festival, get your little one on their feet with a Ballroom Dancing or Breakdancing workshop. Latin and Ballroom (Wed 2-5pm) is for primary aged Strictly fans, is suitable for all genders, and requires no specific kit. Breakdancing (Thu 11am-noon) is for secondary school age, and teaches both the fundamentals of breakin' and also how to apply originality to a routine.
For 12-16 year olds interested in the technical aspects of theatre head behind the scenes at the New Theatre, for workshops on Technical Theatre Experience (Tue) and Theatrical Makeup (Thu). Younger children can take part in a Musical Theatre Experience, learning a song and dance routine, on Wednesday 18th and finishing up with a performance on stage.
An honourable mention - Roll With Me's Sushi making workshop is sold out, but if you like the idea they'll run more next school holidays, so do check their website and book early! Who knew Sushi was so popular with children?
Top Further Afield
We have included in various sections some activities outside Oxfordshire, but here are a couple more that are a do-able distance for a day trip from Oxford, and we think are worth travelling to.
The Living Rainforest is delightful. It's not huge, but there are plenty of things for the eagle-eyed to spot, not least a sloth. And they make good use of the space they have with labyrinthine paths. It's a little taste of the tropics for all of us, and a ticket gives you a year's access, at no extra charge. We love it for grey days and a bit of a change.
Bekonscot Model Village is something you'll have seen signs to if you'd driven along the M40 between Oxford and London. It's one of those mad labours of love, created by a London accountant in 1929, making it the world's oldest model village. With 200 buildings and 3000 human inhabitants stuck in a 1930s time warp, look out for a zoo, some terrible punning shop names, a house on fire, a French hotel de ville, Enid Blyton's house, a hospital full of patients, a fishing village, a working watermill, Ascot races and an archaeological dig. Plus it has a railway big enough to ride on, and a playground.
Westonbirt Arboretum is a fair trek, out past Cirencester and Swindon. But the Forestry Commission do a lovely line in forests full of family-friendly activities. With play areas, Gruffalo sculptures and a Tree Top Walkway, it has the edge on local woodland and might keep little legs going for longer with the promise of Shaun the sheep and an alien just round the next corner.
And if you don't feel the weather is nearly cold enough, why not embrace the chill and head over to Snozone MK, for a session of family sledging or a ski or snowboard lesson. It's a vast palace of real snow, indoors, and Sno-play sessions mean really little ones can just throw snowballs about and make snow angels. It's both cheaper, and closer, than an alpine ski trip, and you can get there on the train!