Imagine Children’s Festival: half term at the Southbank Centre, London

children in front of Royal Festival Hall London

February half term in London can be dreary and grey, if you let the weather get to you. Luckily, Imagine Children’s Festival at the Southbank Centre is an indoor event for kids. So imaginations can bloom, even if the springtime sunshine hasn’t arrived yet.

Imagine Children’s Festival usually lasts for around twelve days, some time in mid-February. It includes international performance, music, literature, and comedy for children of all ages, with some free sessions, and ticketed events that sometimes sell out in advance. Imagine’s always buzzing with families. It’s been so successful that it’s now into its 19th year.

The Southbank Centre gave us some review tickets for sessions, and we paid for other sessions ourselves.

Where is Imagine Festival?

Imagine Childrens Festival is at the Southbank Centre, next to the River Thames in London. The Southbank Centre is made up of several different venues: the Royal Festival Hall, Hayward Gallery, Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Purcell Room. The busiest venue during Imagine Festival is the Royal Festival Hall, where this year (2020) there was face painting, a giant chalkboard, an Earth Activity eco-trail for youngsters to fill in, and lots of timed and ticketed events. Queen Elizabeth Hall was the venue for some of the talks and sessions for slightly older children, and the space was a little less busy than the Royal Festival Hall.

Southbank Centre address: Belvedere Road, London SE1 8XX

girl with facepaint at Imagine Children's Festival
Children could have their faces painted at Imagine 2020. This design cost £5.

What’s on the Imagine Festival lineup?

The Imagine Children’s Festival lineup varies from year to year. It always features big names from the world of children’s literature (Michael Rosen, for instance, appeared at Imagine 2020), as well as a combination of talks, theatre performances, music and fun sessions for tiny tots. From a sketching session by author/illustrator Polly Dunbar and a big book swap for kids of all ages, to this year’s excellent sound and light sensory spectacle, Soundpit, and an illuminating talk by Robin Stevens on how she found the inspiration for her Murder Most Unladylike series, Imagine’s lineup spans all ages.

Imagine Children’s Festival 2020

This year, we went to what is pretty much our favourite kids’ festival in London. Imagine Children’s Festival was as buzzy as ever. Imagine 2020 had a clear message about the environment running through a lot of its activities. Outside the Royal Festival Hall, families hopped around on the chalked-up floor of the terrace, which was daubed with messages about how we need to save the planet. Kids could help themselves to a free Earth Activity eco-trail. Headline sessions included Fantastically Great Women Who Saved the Planet with suffragette descendant Kate Pankhurst, and You’re Never Too Young to Save the Planet, a free event for all ages.

environmental message outside the Royal Festival Hall, London
Imagine 2020 had a clear message about the environment running through many of its sessions.

Through our Facebook London with Kids group I had good feedback about YolanDa’s Band Jam, a performance of songs by the CBeebies star YolanDa. We know from previous experience that The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show, playing in the Purcell Room, must have been fun for the under-5s. But the two clear highlights for us were Soundpit and Robin Stevens: Top Marks for Murder.


Soundpit at the Southbank Centre, London
Colours and shapes swirled in the multi-sensory experience, Soundpit.

Soundpit was a room styled by artist Di Mainstone, devoted to sensory play. After taking our shoes and socks off, and leaving our bags behind in a large cloakroom, we walked through heavy curtains into a dark room. Seven or eight pits heaped with sand were illuminated by spotlights. These lights moved and danced when children’s hands or bodies stirred up the sand.

Some sandpits were on the ground. Children could crawl around, and bury each other while flowers swirled or stars flurried across the moving grains. My favourite, though, were the sandpits at waist level. One was lit up in vivid lava red. When you dug your hands into it, black trickles streamed out of the sand. In the other sandpit, pebbles of white light shot onto the sand’s dark background every time a handful of sand was thrown onto the heap. The sandpits were mesmerising, and even my cynical ten year-old son came out saying he thoroughly enjoyed it.

Robin Stevens: Top Marks for Murder

author Robin Stevens with children at the Southbank Centre Imagine Children's Festival
My two children were inspired by the Imagine session with author Robin Stevens.

Robin Stevens: Top Marks for Murder was, on the face of it, a straightforward session with a popular children’s author. But it was one of the most inspiring hours my eight- and ten- year old have spent. They both came away plotting to write detective novels, and they set to scribbling in their notebooks the moment we arrived home.

Robin Stevens gave an engaging account of her life before writing the Murder Most Unladylike series. There was a bit of audience interaction, where Stevens encouraged youngsters to help her put together a detective story, on the spot. But the exciting thing about the session was how accessible Stevens made writing seem. Although she clearly comes from a privileged background, with a father who was Master at an Oxford College, I doubt there was a single child in the audience who didn’t feel as though they could follow her example, and write a bestseller. Stevens gave plenty of hints and tips on how to get started, and see the process through. She seemed a thoroughly likeable, down-to-earth character. Top Marks for Robin Stevens!

Places to eat at Imagine Children’s Festival

London’s Southbank has several family-friendly restaurants, including Giraffe and Wagamama, which are right next to the Royal Festival Hall. Inside the Southbank Centre itself, the Royal Festival Hall’s Riverside Terrace Cafe serves sandwiches, salads and cakes. Prices aren’t cheap, but the quality is good. If you want to beat the queues for coffee, try getting one at the Royal Festival Hall’s Central Bar. It’s one of the longest bars in London.

Have you been to Imagine Children’s Festival? Which sessions did you attend, and did you enjoy them?

1 Comment

  • Plutonium Sox
    February 27, 2020 at 10:31 pm

    Oh what a good idea having a festival inside at this time of year. It sounds wonderful, a great opportunity for children to meet authors and be inspired to write. I might take my girls next time, my sister is in London so it’s always nice to go and stay and have a day or two out there.


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