Sure, unstructured time is great for kids—whiling away the hours banging on pots, giggling at penguin documentaries or rolling down hills. But now and then, even the most schedule-averse parent is bound to feel the need for an outing. Whether for exercise, education or just plain fun, an Official Activity of some kind might be exactly what you need to shake up the family routine. Here are some of the area’s best bets.
Chefs in training
Don’t you wish your offspring could whip you up some breakfast on a winter Sunday morning? You could call out instructions from your bed (“Now crack the eggs…No, into the bowl!”) or you could sign them up for a children’s cooking class at Charlottesville Cooking School. Focused on different topics each class, it’s less than $50 and runs 9:30am-12:30pm; students ages 8-14 are welcome. See charlottesvillecookingschool.com or call 963-2665.
Knack for nature: Bring your toddler to the talk and trail walk the last Thursday of each month. (Photo by Cramer Photo)
In a county packed with lovely places, Ivy Creek Natural Area is a standout. And it’s not just beautiful—with its variety of habitats and an Education Center full of natural objects, like cool animal skulls—it’s a great place to learn. That goes for toddlers, too. Every last Thursday of the month, January through October, 3- to 5-year-olds are invited to a talk and trail walk. We’re guessing parents might pick up a botanical fact or two along the way, too. See ivycreekfoundation.org for more Toddler Time details.
Kicks and giggles
Eleven-year-old Penny Shuster and her dad, Dave, practice at Darden Towe Park, one of a few local spots they hit when kicking the ball around twice a week. A nationally licensed coach, Dave helps Penny hone her skills for the travel soccer team she plays on—and it’s working. Last fall, SOCA U11 Express won the Virginia Club Champions League South championship, beating out top teams from Virginia Beach, Williamsburg, Roanoke and Richmond. You go, girls! (Photo by Cramer Photo)
Outfit details: Penny wears Rag + Bone zipper capris from E.G. ($204, 979-2888), a Splendid boatneck striped top ($68) and Lilla P cowl neck sweater ($144), both from Duo (979-1212). Dave’s outfit is from GAP (973-5026). They’re wearing their own shoes.
The ultimate in recreation, Albemarle’s 113-acre Darden Towe Park boasts a Little League baseball field, three softball fields, four multi-purpose fields (used for soccer, lacrosse, and football), four tennis courts, and 3.8 miles of trails. Bring a bagged lunch and break between games—there’s a picnic shelter with seating for 50, plus electricity and open grills. Fido can come too—Darden Towe features a one-acre off-leash park for dogs. Open from 7am-dark all year. See albemarle.org for more info.
My kid could draw that
The UVA Art Museum wants your kid to know from Jackson Pollock, so they offer Family Art JAMs: guided, kid-focused tours of the collection, along with hands-on art activities. Parents get involved, too. Imagine how proud you’ll be when Junior not only identifies a Picasso, but declares his own Blue Period. JAMs cost $20 (less if you’re a museum member) for one parent and up to two kids; there are programs for kids ages 5-7 and 8-12. See virginia.edu/artmuseum for the schedule.
How can kids learn animal communication, scenery appreciation and balance all at once? On a trail ride with Appalachian Horse Adventures, which operates out of the Montebello Camping and Fishing Resort in Nelson County. As long as they’re at least 6 years old and willing to don a helmet, they’ll be allowed to mount their very own steeds for a rugged trek through the mountains. A one-hour trip is $35 per person; two hours cost $60. Visit montebellova.com or call (540) 377-2650 to make reservations.
Spin city: Eliot Ward whips up something brilliant at McGuffey Art Center. (Photo by John Robinson)
There is a profusion of opportunities here for your kids to learn the arts, from theater at Live Arts, to painting at McGuffey Art Center, to ballet at the Charlottesville Performing Arts School. One of the newest to join the scene: City Clay, on the corner of Ridge and West Main, where kids’ classes include weekend and after-school programs for all ages. We like the sound of “Zoo,” where students age 4-7 build animal sculptures. Go to randybill.wordpress.com or call 293-0808.
Up in the atmosphere
If you’re raising an adventuresome type, there may be no more exciting birthday present than a hot air balloon ride. What’s not to love? You’ve got brightly colored balloons, intermittent roaring flames and an absolutely killer view. Kids will be thrilled to peer down at their town, identifying landmarks and guessing where the crazy thing might land. It’s not cheap ($210 per person for a sunrise flight with Blue Ridge Ballooning, for example), but it sure is memorable. See blueridgeballoon.com or call 589-6213.
Our favorite thing about Staunton’s Frontier Culture Museum is that it’s a worthy destination for almost all ages. Tiny tykes will dig the animals: ducks, cows, sheep and other critters that are part of the museum’s collection of historical farms from five countries. Older kids will be fascinated to imagine life without electricity. Heck, it might even make them less resentful about cleaning their rooms—at least they don’t have to thresh wheat or churn butter. Ages 6-12 cost $6; ages 13 through college are $9; adults are $10. See frontiermuseum.org or call (540) 332-7850.
Take your kid to Arch’s. Do we really need to explain why? O.K. Number one, they deserve a treat now and then. Number two, this is frozen yogurt, not ice cream, so it’s perhaps a tiny bit marginally more healthy, maybe. Number three, it’ll help them exercise decision-making skills. Should they order Banana Berry Blast, Mississippi Mud, or Fluffer Nutter? Life’s full of tough questions, kid. Arch’s is on Emmet Street, Ivy Road, and the Corner.
It’s important to give back, even when you’re still in fourth grade. One way to introduce kids to the world of volunteering is to sign up as a family for stream monitoring with StreamWatch, a local nonprofit that keeps an eye on watershed health. Parents, you’ll need to attend training; after that, you can lead your kids through the collection and analysis of insects, crayfish and snails in local creeks. Awesome science lesson, no? The next training is on April 7; see streamwatch.org for more info.
Eric Spooner, an in-house counsel for Northrop Grumman, and his sons, Zack and Adam (far left), prepare to dive in at Smith Aquatic & Fitness Center. The boys, 11 and 9 respectively, learned to swim at the local YMCA near where they used to live in Maryland. These days, they all swim, with mom Hyam Hosny, in their backyard pool or at Fry’s Spring Beach Club. (Photo by Eric Kelley)
The city’s got a shiny, new toy in its airy, stylish Smith Aquatic & Fitness Center. You and the kids can get more than your feet wet here—the center includes a lazy river, recreational pool and play structure. The littlest swimmers can start small with the zero-entry pool while the older ones careen down two huge water slides. If your kids are 3 or under, they get in free; ages 4-17 cost $6, or $4.50 if you’re Charlottesville residents; adults are $11 or $8. See charlottesville.org for hours.