French family fun ideas ... whatever the weather
Samantha David tours the country to find some excellent attractions to entertain youngsters
Families in France increasingly enjoy multi-generational holidays and breaks, and many Connexion readers look forward to those visits from grandchildren.
Spending time with family is always precious – but, outside July and August, especially if the weather is inclement, the question can arise of how to keep everyone amused, occupied and happy.
There is nothing worse than a sighing child staring out of a rain-washed window complaining that they are bored! Luckily, France is blessed with more family-friendly options than anyone could do in a lifetime of wet Sundays.
For pre-schoolers and younger schoolchildren, track down softplay centres online by using the search terms ‘aire de jeux’ or ‘parc de jeux’ or even ‘espace de jeux’. If you want something outdoors try ‘terrains d’aventure’ or ‘terrains de jeux’. Just add your location to the search to see what is available in your area.
Do not overlook the local library, as many put on free story-telling sessions for even very young children. (A great chance for them to start learning French!) Another source of fun can be shopping malls, many of which also organise free workshops and child-friendly activities during the school holidays.
For school-age children and teens, if they really are driving you up the wall, search for ‘mur d’escalade’ and take them off to a climbing-wall centre where an instructor will teach them to climb walls properly. Blockout.fr has climbing walls in large cities all over France, teaches children from four years old, and each centre also has a café.
Swimming pools have evolved and the days of draughty changing rooms and large square pools have long since been replaced with ‘centres aquatique’ and ‘piscines ludiques’ (fun pools).
Ideal for all the family, these very often have saunas and steam rooms as well as slides, shallow pools for small children, swimming lessons, aqua-gym, baby-swim sessions and areas where you can sit and watch the fun.
One of the absolute best is L’Odyssée in Chartres. First opened a decade ago, with a total of 11 pools it is the biggest water sports and ice skating complex in France (the rink is 1,300m2).
It is entirely wheelchair accessible, and in summer there are also outdoor beaches, a wave pool, and water slides but all year round there is a fabulous water park, a fitness centre, a spa and a 20m deep diving pool (plus, of course, the ice rink).
If you want to swim seriously there are two Olympic pools, and if you want to relax there are jets, frothy pools and bubbles galore. Activities and events include diving lessons in their dedicated diving pool which has a tunnel at the bottom leading to a 20m-deep pool.
If you are with teenagers who feel too sophisticated for the invigorating joys of the local pool, why not take them to a hammam? Although usually gender segregated, there are usually mixed sessions once a week (check minimum age requirements when you book).
Sprawling about in a steam room is a great way to relax and put the world to rights (hammams have the advantage of being places where even a teenager cannot bring a mobile phone).
There is absolutely no requirement to strip off, by the way. Everyone wears swimsuits, and some women also wear a sarong. Towels, robes and flip-flops are provided.
Entrance is usually around €20, and you can add a scrub with black soap for around another €10. Unless you bring your own, you will be expected to buy your own scrubby glove for about €6.
Needless to say hammams also offer a wide range of other massages, wellness and beauty treatments, most of which have to be booked in advance.
The entrance fee usually includes mint tea and a biscuit or cookie at the end when you are relaxing. Feel especially lucky if you are near Lille, which boasts one of the most beautiful hammams in France: the Kechmara.
Sticking with the theme, why not take the family to a North African restaurant? There is one on practically every high street in larger towns, and many offer exotic decor and good value, especially at lunchtime. Order a tagine, a meat dish cooked with fruits or couscous, and drink fruit juice.
Talking of restaurants, instead of resorting to fast food, why not take younger children to a crêperie for sweet and savoury pancakes? Because they are associated with Brittany, many crêperies are seaside-themed and child-friendly. Adults can enjoy cider from traditional earthenware cups (un bol), and also indulge their inner child with a pancake.
Châteaux often offer a variety of activities, including workshops in arts, crafts, cookery, and activities like archery, as well as living history experiences where children dress up in period costumes.
Some only do this in the summer but there are increasing offers during the spring holidays, so it is worth checking out their websites, or asking at the local tourist office about what’s going on.
The same is true of zoos (and parcs zoologiques) and museums, which have evolved tremendously over the last decade. Many have ‘parcours’ (trails) for children, as well as tours and workshops especially designed for them.
Helping grandchildren follow a parcours is a great way of improving language skills and having fun together, and if they have got the hang of it and you are run off your legs, let them get on with it while you chill at the museum café.
Seaside is fun all year round, and in some ways is almost better in winter rather than summer. When the tide is out there is space for ball games, and races without annoying the serried rows of sunbathers. Even in the rain, a bracing walk along a winter beach blows the cobwebs away. If there is the faintest ray of sunshine, it might be worth packing shorts as well as jumpers and anoraks because paddling is irresistible.
If you are in easy reach of Toulouse and the weather is truly awful, you might want to consider the Toulouse Code Academy.
It offers 10-hour coding courses for seven to 11-year-olds, spread over a week (two hours per morning) during which children learn to write enough code to create their own computer game.
“We get into the practicalities straight away,” said founder Zacharie Medbouhi.
“It’s like doing a puzzle with bits of code and they can share the game with other people in the community – it can be done after only a few hours of practice, so it’s really encouraging and allows youngsters to progress very fast.”
Courses for 11-15 year-olds are 15 hours, divided into three hours per day. “We also run courses during term-time so that kids can come on Wednesdays and Saturdays,” he said.
“Kids love to code. It helps them develop logical thinking, and enables them to be creative. We concentrate on playing games with code rather than teaching dry theory.”
He said 15 hours is enough for 11-15 year olds to learn to build their own website for a personal blog, or for their parents’ business, or for whatever other purpose they can imagine.
“Children today know lots about computers anyway and take to coding very easily but it isn’t taught in schools so I decided to set up my own academy. The reputation of coding as being difficult, technical, and only for geeky boys is totally wrong... anyone can do it.”
The academy limits groups to a maximum of six children at a time so that everyone gets lots of attention. “Coding is creative and international, it’s a freedom and a key to a door.
“Kids always ask us lots of questions about their projects and how coding works. They love it and they are thrilled to learn how simple it can be. Even adults can start writing code after 10 minutes, and start to see results. In fact, lots of parents ask us about coding for adults, and we’re thinking about that for the future. But even now we get parents to come and sit in for some sessions.”
Teenagers enjoy shopping, so why not let older ones loose with a shopping list at a large French market?
If they are not confident enough with their French you can help them out, or perhaps help them download a translation app – but otherwise they could perhaps navigate the market alone and meet you in a café later. They can buy the ingredients for a quiche recipe and cook it when they get home. A double win.
Other options to consider include live escape games, cinema (films marked VOSF, or just VO, in the listings are subtitled in French rather than dubbed), skating rinks, go-carting and bowling alleys.
Bowling is in many ways an ideal activity for all the family.
There are plenty of opportunities to sit down, and many alleys offer other amusements, suitable for younger children. Book a lane in advance.
If you are anywhere near Lyon, the Guignol puppet theatre is worth a visit. Find out the history behind the shows at the Musée de Guignol first.
It is a tiny museum with audio guides in several languages including English, exhibiting a collection of puppets from around the world and explaining the origins of the Guignol puppet shows.
There are two main characters; a silk-weaver called Guignol, and his mate Polichinelle (a close cousin of Punch), along with Gnafron, a wine-loving cobbler, Guignol’s wife Madelon and the policeman Flageolet.
According to the show, Guignol’s job changes. Sometimes he is a valet, a peddler, a carpenter, a shoemaker, or unemployed; sometimes he is married to Madelon and sometimes just in pursuit of her. He is, however, always broke, always in a good mood and has a strong sense of justice. He is clever, courageous and generous and always wins out in the end.
The shows are full of acid-sharp social satire and written so that children laugh at the comic situations and adults at the witty observations of daily life.
Finally, why not hire some bikes, and follow a marked cycling trail – even if it rains, fun will be had. Ring the hire company ahead if you want to book a trailer to transport babies, bike seats for toddlers, recumbent bikes for people with dodgy backs, or electric bicycles for grown ups. No excuses... the whole family should be able to enjoy this one!