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FREE School Holiday Family Space - National Portrait Gallery

Home > Canberra > Family | Free | Rainy Day | School Holiday Activities | School Holidays
by Sue W (subscribe)
New to Canberra, I love exploring this city and the secrets that it holds with my family.
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Perfect for a rainy day, or chilly afternoon in Canberra
The second week of the July school holidays are here - which is usually about the time that parents start running out of affordable things to do with the kids. One idea is to visit Canberra's museums and galleries and enjoy some of the free activities they have on offer. For example, the National Portrait Gallery has a free family activity space in conjunction with their Dempsey's People exhibition. This exhibition steps back two hundred years and displays unique portraits of English street people by painter John Dempsey. The family space, located near the entrance of the gallery, has games and activities which children would have played with back in this era. It is open daily between 11am - 4pm, until Sunday 16th July.

When you first walk in, there is a spinning wheel and a wool activity on the right, to make and create a small circular woven mat. This activity is fairly complicated, so it was mainly enjoyed by older children who came to visit - and mums! There is also a play area with wool, raffia, rags and fabric, to make your own 19th century crafty creation.

national portrait gallery, school holidays, ACT, canberra, july, winter, 2017, free,
Walk in and enjoy 19th century kids activities


Behind this activity is a book shelf with children's books to read which relate to the era, as well as a picture matching game with some of the portraits in the exhibition. With a large mat and comfy chairs, there is plenty of room to spread out and stay awhile. On the far corner table there is also an interesting children's "show box", where a picture story was scrolled along between two wooden scrolls.

national portrait gallery, school holidays, ACT, canberra, july, winter, 2017, free
Matching the pictures...


national portrait gallery, canberra, school holiday activities, free, portrait play,
19th century show box


Next to these activities is a table with slate boards and metal sticks to write with, just like kids would have used in the early 1800's. On our visit, it was amusing to watch how shocked the kids were by how 19th century children lived - with no iPads, pens, paper or textas in sight! Little cloths are provided to wipe the slates if you make a mistake, instead of modern day erasers. The next activity station is for kids to draw the street where they live, then compare it to what streets would have been like in England, 200 years ago. You can then take the drawing home, or display it on the wall nearby.

national portrait gallery, canberra, ACT, school holiday activities, free, family play space,
Slates and drawing - with two more activities to go!


The "collage cobbler" craft station was the most popular with our daughter and other children who came in and out of the family space. Kids pick up a coloured photocopy of a typical 19th century shoe and then decorate it with gold and silver doilies they can cut up into shapes, as well as pieces of leather, wrapping paper, cardboard and more. Nearby is a display showing how cobblers made shoes in that period. Kids can take home their shoe(s), or stick it up on the wall, as part of their gallery. The last activity, "matchstick puzzles", used match sticks to put together puzzles to solve.

national portrait gallery, canberra, ACT, school holiday, free, july, 2017, winter,
Cobbler collage activity station


Our family enjoyed this free family space as it started a discussion about what kids used to play with, long before todays technology. It is an easy place to relax and enjoy sitting with the kids, with toilets and a café located nearby if you need either. Although the Dempsey's People exhibition costs $10 for adults to enter (children under 18 are free), the rest of the National Portrait Gallery is free to enter for their general exhibition. Kids enjoy looking at the large portraits on display - with some colourful characters whose faces they may recognise.

With the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery located opposite each other, both with free school holiday activities (see NGA Play at the National Gallery), you could easily spend the afternoon enjoying all the free activities at both. Perfect for a rainy day - or a chilly afternoon in Canberra!

national portrait gallery, canberra, ACT, school holiday, free, july, 2017, winter,
NGA Play across the road at the National Gallery of Australia. This free activity area, near the front entrance, includes drawing, stamping, iPad games and learning about the 1967 Australian referendum


Parking fees apply at the National Portrait Gallery and other attractions - except on weekends. For a quick visit, there are 1 hour free parking spaces on Parkes Place East, diagonally opposite.

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Why? Free activities for creative kids!
When: 11am - 4pm daily
Phone: 02) 6102 7000
Where: National Portrait Gallery, King Edward Terrace, Parkes ACT 2600
Cost: Free, however donations welcome
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