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The Best Free Things to Do With Kids in Dorset

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Known for its glorious coastline, gently rolling countryside, and family-friendly ambience, Dorset is one of only five English metropolitan counties without a motorway. This does need to be taken into account when travelling, so you might like to allow a little extra time to reach your destination. Once you get there, however, the county is packed with museums, nature reserves, country parks, animal centres, exceptionally pretty towns, harbours, castles, hill forts, and forests – and even better, many of them are free or at least partly free, although finding somewhere to park can occasionally be an interesting experience. The county is famous for having inspired Thomas Hardy and remains very popular with creative artists to this day. 

Table of Contents

Poole Museum

Poole Museum

What it is: This is actually four separate buildings, with Victorian Oakley’s Mill the setting for many of the displays in the museum. In the 14th century Wool Hall, now home to the Poole History Centre, you can keep a look out for the glorious timber roof and the imposing stone walls. The fourth and final part of the museum is right across Sarum Street – it’s the most complete domestic property in Poole dating from medieval times. In the summer you can usually get access to the herb and physic garden, a great place if you just need a little bit of time out. 

Why we liked it: It’s extremely family-friendly with a dedicated area on the third floor with loads of art and craft activities and plenty going on in the school holidays, usually with a different theme, and often including storytelling or mime and music. These are pretty much all free, though as they are very popular you might need to book tickets in advance. Also, the reception has various trails on offer which really add interest – we chose the Sea Music pack which helped us see the artworks on the Quay in a totally different light. There are always different exhibitions going on, previous events have focused on the Victorians, Tudors, and the Iron Age. 

More information about Poole Museum

Address: Poole Museum Service, 4 High St, Poole, Dorset, BH15 1BW

Opening Hours: 10am to 5pm Monday to Friday (until 30 October 2022); check for winter opening times. 

Stour Valley Nature Reserve

Stour Valley Nature Reserve

What it is: If you like your nature reserves attractive, by the riverside, and in possession of a Green Flag award, then this is the place for you. The hedgerows, meadows, and woodland are a haven for wildlife, and there is a marked trail through the interesting arboretum, with helpful and informative labels on the trees. Keep your eyes open to see the grazing animals that help to maintain the area as well as buzzards, egrets, cormorants, herons, kingfishers, and even otters. If you feel like it, you can start your adventure before you even get there, with one of the downloadable leaflets on the website – depending on the time of year you might be looking for butterflies or birds, trees or flowers.

Why we liked it: We liked the welcoming atmosphere and pleasant, well-cared-for environment. The Kingfisher Barn Visitor Centre can tell you all about what’s planned for the day – and we loved that there were plans for both rainy and dry days. We thoroughly approved of the wildlife wooden benches as well – one showing meadow creatures and one with a river theme. And most of all we liked the short ‘underground’ play tunnel decorated with images of our animal friends that live below our feet. 

More information about Stour Valley Nature Reserve  

Address: 43 Granby Rd, Bournemouth BH9 3NZ

Opening Hours: 10am to 4pm all year round 

Bournemouth Beach

Bournemouth Beach

What it Is: The name is a little bit deceptive – it describes several different beaches over seven miles, in a bay known for its clean water and family-friendly atmosphere and approach. Every beach has a different character, and from Alum Chine to Southbourne, the Poole, Church, and Bournemouth area has twelve separate Blue Flag Awards. Depending on where you are, there are children’s play areas, wooded glades, and fabulous views all the way along. It’s perfect for family games, building sandcastles, paddling in the sea, or just enjoying the view. 

Why we liked it: It’s one of the best beaches in the South of England, with gorgeous golden sands in the different beaches and bays. We enjoyed the tropical gardens at Alum Chine as well as the water play area and the children’s play area with a distinctly piratical air. And we liked the option of standard and electric barbecues at certain beaches, including Branksome Chine, Poole; east of Boscombe Pier; Fisherman’s Walk; and east of Bournemouth Pier, so we could really make a day of it. (They’re first come, first served.) The whole family also liked checking how busy the beaches were via the App. 

More information about Bournemouth Beach  

Address: Pier Approach, Bournemouth, Dorset BH2 5AA

Opening hours: 24/7 all year round

Tout Quarry Sculpture Park

Tout Quarry Sculpture Park

What it is: This educational centre is a popular location for school trips and those who want to learn more about stone heritage and wildlife. This 40-acre nature reserve and free sculpture park is located in a former stone quarry, abandoned some time ago, where the statues are made out of the limestone itself. Both the Portland Sculpture and Quarry Trust and Dorset Wildlife Trust look after this reserve. The Sculpture Park got started in 1983, and in summer it comes alive with all kinds of blue and grayling butterflies. You do sometimes need to watch your footing, especially where there might be loose gravel and stone underfoot, and sometimes steep slopes or sharp rock faces.

Why we liked it: There’s a sculpture trail valuable from the website of Dorset Council that you can follow – every year new statues appear. The newest installation is a sundial of memory stones, due to be created with different themes, and reflecting the light in many different directions. There are sculptures by world-famous artists in the garden, with around 60 to discover, some more hidden than others. If you’re very lucky you might also come across sculptures working on their carvings.  

More information about Tout Quarry Sculpture Park  

Address: Tradecroft Industrial Estate, Isle of Portland, Dorset DT5 2LN

Opening Hours: 24/7 all year round

Kingston Maurward Animal Park

Kingston Maurward Animal Park

What it is: The Animal Park and Gardens are part of the agricultural college, so you get to see animals very much in harmony with their world, although protected by barriers and fences. It’s a living park which works in harmony with the weather, which sometimes means it’s muddy and wet in autumn and spring in particular. There are all kinds of small domesticated animals, including chickens and ducks, ponies, sheep and pigs, bunnies and guinea pigs. 

Why we liked it: We enjoyed the fact that you often come across students learning about the animals in the setting, as well as being able to take photographs of the animals (as long as it wasn’t for commercial use). The dress code is also nice and clear, visitors are advised to make sure they wear sturdy shoes and garments, and there’s plenty of attention to safety without sacrificing any of the fun. Both the park and play barn were a hit, even when they were quite busy.   

More information about Kingston Maurward Animal Park 

Address: Kingston Maurward, Dorchester DT2 8PX

Opening Hours: 10am to 4pm all year round (check details of Bank Holidays and over Christmas)

The Quomps at Christchurch Quay

The Quomps Splash Pool

What it is: The delightfully named Quomps Splash Park incorporates a play park and a splash pool, and is super easy to find, right on Christchurch Quay. There’s a play area, a paddling pool that’s just shallow enough, fountains for water plays, and a splash park that’s enclosed. Christchurch Quay itself is very popular with families and has a Green Flag Award.

Why we liked it: The splash park is enclosed and there are plenty of areas to spread out a blanket for a picnic or just watch the world go by from one of the benches. There are also lots of grassy places to play ball games, run around, or just chill out. The play park has excellent, sturdy equipment and there’s a bit of a pirate theme going on. And when you’re tired of splashing about or just need a change of scene, you can always nip along to the Quay itself which is right next door.  

More information about the Quomps Splash Park 

Address: The Quomps, Christchurch Quay, Christchurch, Dorset, BH23 1HX

Opening Hours: 10am to 7pm during summer; usually opens for the season at the weekend of the late May Bank Holiday.

Puddletown Forest and Thorncombe Wood

Thorncombe Wood

What it is: Feel like exploring 26 hectares of ageless woodland with countless old and beautiful trees? Beech, oak, sweet chestnut – in olden times this tangibly ancient landscape would have stretched from the ancient monument of Badbury Rings to the site we now know as Dorchester. Spot the Dartmoor ponies around Black Heath, or head for Rushy Pond to see dragonflies and amphibians – keep a watchful eye open for grass snakes though. It’s also the area where writer Thomas Hardy spent much of his childhood – the separate visitor centre has won numerous awards. There is a charge for parking.

Why we liked it: You can feel the history at this site, as you wander along the dozens of paths that help you navigate the other-worldly landscape. Our clan loved the ponies, blackbirds, and even the different kinds of fungus, and you might even see adders, grass snakes, smooth snakes, marsh tits, nightjars, spotted flycatchers, and ravens. If you call in at Hardy’s Birthplace Visitor Centre, you’ll be able to pick up details of various leaflets and activities for children including scavenger hunts.

More information about Thorncombe Wood

Address: Hardy’s Birthplace Visitor Centre, Thorncombe Wood, Higher Bockhampton, Dorchester, Dorset, DT2 8QH

Opening Hours: 24/7; 10am to 4pm Visitor Centre all year round (check for Christmas opening hours)

Dorchester Skate Park

Dorchester Skate Park

What it is: Opened in spring 2009, this council-owned facility is Dorchester’s state-of-the-art permanent skatepark. It’s really easy to get to from both Dorchester South Railway Station and the town centre. It’s suitable for skateboards, scooters, inline skates, and BMX, and was designed with input from the Dorchester Skatepark Committee, a local group of young people. It’s suitable for all levels of riders from novice to expert.

Why we liked it: This free facility is a place where those of an energetic daredevil disposition can let off steam. There’s a plaza-style street area at the bottom of the bowl park – the deep, large bowl has an open side, tight corners, as well as an extended tail section. There are ramps, banks, ledges and platforms, and it was really clear that young people had a hand in the design. 

More information about Dorchester Skate Park  

Address: Dorchester Skatepark, Weymouth Avenue, Dorchester, Dorset, DT1 1QZ

Opening Hours: All year round, any time during daylight hours

Gold Hill Museum

The original Hovis advert that featured Gold Hill in Shaftesbury

What it is: If you’ve ever seen the classic Hovis advert where a young boy on a bicycle delivers brown bread, you’ll recognise the setting for this charming and idiosyncratic cottage and museum. There are eight galleries in total, all looking at town life and rural life. Right at the top of Gold Hill, this local history museum covers the history of Shaftesbury and District. Alongside the former priest’s residence is the second building, which offered basic lodgings for those who had come to trade at the Gold Hill market. 

Why we liked it: The views over Blackmore Vale are stunning (another location known to Thomas Hardy and used as a setting in some of his works), and the cottage garden has won awards. In the part of the house that was the priest’s home, one of the walls still has a “squint” through to St Peter’s Church, and some of the exhibits are both fascinating and just downright odd. There’s Dorset’s oldest fire engine dating from 1744 when the only option was to pump by hand; costumes, lacework, and handmade buttons from the county; a mummified cat; and a serpent and drum (which aren’t quite what you expect). 

More information about Gold Hill Museum

Address: Gold Hill, Shaftesbury SP7 8JW

Opening Hours: 10.30am to 4.30pm throughout the year (last entry 4.10pm).

Lodmoor Nature Reserve

Lodmoor Nature Reserve

What it is: This RSPB nature reserve provides peace and tranquillity for wildlife near the town of Weymouth. There is a whole range of habitats – bushes, open water, reedbeds, saltmarsh, and wet grassland. It’s a haven for many different birds including winter waders, kingfishers, gulls, ducks, Cetti’s warblers, and bearded tits. And the absolute winged star of the show is the marsh harrier, known for its ‘sky dancing’ antics early in the spring. 

Why we liked it: We had great fun trying to identify the sounds of all the different birds, especially the sort of “pinging” noise that bearded tits make, and the noisy yammering of Cetti’s warblers and common terns in the springtime, who always sound like they’re having an argument. The viewing screen is one of the best places to observe what the various birds get up to without disturbing them. 

More information about Lodmoor Nature Reserve

Address: RSPB Lodmoor, Preston Rd, Weymouth DT3 6HS

Opening Hours: 24 hours, all year round.

Tyneham Village

Tyneham Village

What it is: Close to Lulworth on the Isle of Purbeck, Tyneham is one of what are sometimes called the “forgotten villages” of England. In 1943, the British Army took over Tyneham for military training, evacuating the 225 residents, who were never allowed to return. You can still see some original buildings including the School buildings, a restored Church, and four terraced houses. As Lulworth Ranges, Worbarrow Bay, and the Village itself all come under the management of the Ministry of Defence, access can be limited, although they are often open on public holidays and at weekends – we always need to remember to check the notices at Mupe Bay.  

Why we liked it: We enjoyed trying to spot the evidence of Iron Age Britain, the Romans, and medieval settlements in the landscape, and then went off on a walk to the World Heritage Jurassic Coast via way of Tyneham Farm. It doesn’t get over-run by visitors due to the remoteness, although you do need to make sure you stay on the paths throughout (they’re easy to see – they’re the ones with the yellow posts). As the village has pretty much been left to its own devices over the decades, it’s become something of a haven for wildlife. 

More information about Tyneham Village

Address: Wareham, Wareham BH20 5DE

Opening Hours: All year round and mainly usually open at weekends and public holidays – check if the ranges are in use on the noticeboard at Mupe Bay or the council website

Honourable Mentions

We’ve pulled out some of the attractions that met the highest approval rating from our little clan, but there are plenty of alternatives.   

If you enjoy museums, both Todpuddle Martyrs and Wareham Town Museum are worth a visit. 

Those who enjoy nature reserves and parks will have a great time at Radipole Lake (check in advance as low staffing levels can affect opening hours), Avon Heath Country Park and Redhill Park Bournemouth. And don’t forget Borough Gardens Dorchester and Fontmell Down.  

And when it comes to beaches, you really are spoilt for choice, from Poole Harbour to Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre, Jurassic Coast, Golden Cap, Lulworth Cove and Durdle Door, Hengistbury Head and Weymouth Beach. There’s also the gloriously rugged Winspit Quarry, but you might find it helpful to know this last location is really not good for buggies.

Then there are a few things you can only do in Dorset – walk to Portland Bill Lighthouse, take a look at the Cobb in Lyme Regis and explore the site of one of the most impressive Iron Age forts in the country (https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/maiden-castle/). 

Written by
David Prior

David Prior is an NCTJ-qualified journalist and the editor of Big Family Breaks. He is also a father of five and an experienced traveller, especially with kids.

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