Paris with kids: Visiting the Cité des Enfants
What is better than April in Paris? I’ll tell you: April in Paris with kids. Although our most recent trip there was eight months ago, it’s taken me a while to get around to writing about it. And since April is a month that gets us all thinking of the City of Light, throughout the month of April I’ll be sharing stories, tips, and even some ideal itineraries for families interested in visiting Paris or just daydreaming about it.
We’re not a family that automatically visits children’s museums when we go to a new city, but when we were preparing for our trip to France in 2012, I invited ten-year-old Tommy to explore my City Walks with Kids: Paris Adventures on Foot deck of cards and choose some attractions he’d like to see. He immediately latched onto card number 25, which describes the museums of La Villette, a contemporary park in far northeast Paris that is home to a science museum, a children’s museum, a music museum and an IMAX theatre.
After consulting with seven-year-old Teddy, we decided that the Cité des Enfants, which as the name suggests is designed specifically for children and offers multi-lingual exhibits, would make a great destination for anyone visiting Paris with kids.
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We started our visit in the water play area where kids can manipulate water in a variety of ways, seeing for example what happens when it is blocked while moving downhill.
Or using water as a balancing tool or to send plastic balls flying through a tube.
In the communications area, some of the exhibits didn’t work, and others were either challenging to figure out or do. But we did really like the chance to practice writing in Arabic and Chinese characters.
The garden was full of creepy crawlies, including a large ant farm that kids can climb inside.
The different areas are labeled, including this place for the less fortunate ants.
I liked the greenhouse, which in addition to some lovely hibiscus contained a variety of butterflies and moths, some in their cocoons.
Without a doubt, the children’s favorite area (and the one where they spent the most time) was the television studio, where kids can pretend to be in a band, “film” themselves riding in a car, or make a news broadcast. Teddy in particular loved seeing himself onscreen.
Then it was on to check out various aspects of our bodies. Tommy could have spent the entire time racing against himself on the small track.
Teddy got caught up in a video showing the lifecycle of a human baby from conception to birth (much to Matt’s chagrin). We also had fun playing with the tool that allowed us to create “new looks” for ourselves and another that had us looking inside our bodies.
After we had to leave the Cité des Enfants, we took another hour to visit the Light and Shadow exhibit next door. This magical display, which was originally created for and housed in the Centre Pompidou, pretends to be the home of Archibald Ombre (ombre means shadow in French) a dreamer, poet, and “shadow collector”. Moving through different rooms, you are invited to read Archibald’s scrapbooks and to play over and over again with light and shadow using both your own body and series of objects.
While the exhibits in the Cité des Enfants were more typical of the kind of thing you’ll find at a children’s museum in the United States, the Light and Shadow exhibit seemed very French to me – mixing science, philosophy, and mysticism in a way that you don’t often see on this side of the Atlantic.
After we finished, it was getting to be lunchtime so we left for a stroll along the Canal de l’Ourcq to a neighborhood bistro, followed by a long explore of the Parc des Buttes Chaumont. But it would be easy to spend the entire day in the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie museum complex and adjacent Parc de Villette. Of course, this is not an outing where you learn a lot about French history or culture, and it’s certainly not Parisian per se. But sometimes it’s nice for kids to get this kind of break on a European vacation – a day where they can just play with a lot of other children around them.
- There are two entirely separate areas in the Cité des Enfants, one for children aged two to seven, the other for five- to twelve-year-olds. You purchase tickets for a timed entry and have 90 minutes in the exhibits (75 minutes during school holidays) before they turn everything off and clear you out in preparation for the next group. There are four timed admissions per day so you’ll want to plan accordingly. The Light and Shadows exhibit requires a separate ticket, but does not have timed admission.
- Exhibits in for older children are laid out in themed groups that roughly translate as water play, the body, the garden, communication, the TV studio, and the factory. All displays have explanatory panels in English as well as French and Spanish, so you don’t have to translate.
- French schools have a different schedule than their American counterparts and tend to run later into the summer. That means we had no trouble on a weekday early in July buying tickets for the first admission of the day at 10 a.m. But if you’ll be visiting during a school holiday – later in the summer or at Easter for instance, you probably want to buy your tickets in advance online.
- Because the visits here are timed, you may want to help your children move through the exhibits, to make sure they get to enjoy everything. We hit the factory area last and had very little time there before it shut down – I’m pretty sure my kids would have enjoyed this more than they did the section on communication, which we visited second, so if I returned, I might monitor our time more carefully.
- There’s a small café in the museum that has kid-friendly snacks.
- I’m not sure how much (if any) of the science museum has panels in English, but it’s reputed to be very hands-on. In the park, you’ll find lots to explore including a naval submarine, a Chinese dragon slide, and themed gardens. The museums, IMAX, and submarine all require tickets.
- This entire complex is a bit out of the way in the northern portion of the 19th Arrondissement. If you’ll be starting out in the museum, take the metro to the Corentin Cariou or Porte de la Villette stop on the Number 7 line; or, walk through the park from the Porte de Pantin stop on the Number 5 line.
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