Exploring the great outdoors: A guide to survival for snowy winter days

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Jefferson-Madison Regional Library offers plenty of free ongoing and one-time classes. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto Jefferson-Madison Regional Library offers plenty of free ongoing and one-time classes. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto

As every parent knows, a bored child is a menace to herself and others. Lacking positive ways of focusing her attention, my toddler, for example, will use her own body in experiments designed to discover if there are any loopholes in the laws of gravity. Keeping children entertained during the winter months presents special challenges, especially when the weather obliges us to stay indoors. Granted, winters in Central Virginia are generally relatively mild, but relative warmth doesn’t necessarily make going outdoors more appealing: While 30 degrees and snow is a perfect opportunity to get outside with the kids, 40 degrees and rain is a miserable thing to try to manage with children (no matter what people from the greater Seattle area may say).

Last winter, I resolved to come up with a list of inside things to do out of the home. I expected slim pickings, but quickly discovered that Charlottesville has so many great, publicly available, free or low-cost things to do that even the most restless child could never get to them all in the course of a single childhood.

Starting with the free things, the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library (comprising eight library locations from downtown Charlottesville to Albemarle, Greene, Louisa, and Nelson counties), offers a truly impressive variety of free ongoing and one-time classes, events, and activities for kids ranging in age from infants to teens. Some of JMRL’s offerings are open to drop-in attendance, but most require prior registration (and many of those fill up quickly) so check for details about JMRL’s offerings on its website (jmrl.org/pr-kids.htm) or by picking up a program guide from any of the locations.

Of particular note are the storytime programs for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, and book clubs for tweens and teens. My daughter was especially fond of “Mother Goose Time” at Gordon Avenue Library. Glynis Welte did a wonderful job making well-known children’s stories interactive by combining stories, songs, movement, and play time to keep the infants and toddlers fully engaged.

Other highlights from JMRL’s schedule include the monthly Family Movie Matinee, Lego Mania, a “Nutcracker Suite” meet and greet with the Charlottesville Ballet, occasional dance parties for 2- to 5-year-olds, various craft programs, and special programs when school is out (including snow day matinees!).

The Virginia Discovery Museum (vadm.org) sponsors “Kid-vention” (February 22), a free annual event designed to “celebrate science” through a variety of interactive displays. Admission to the VDM itself is $6 per person. The museum, catering to kids from ages 1 to 10, has a lot of exhibits, many of which my daughter found mesmerizing. The VDM is fun for parents, too. The only drawback is that it’s not open on Sundays.

The Charlottesville Department of Parks & Recreation also offers an incredible number and variety of activities for kids from ages 0 to 17—everything from aerobics to zumba. Most classes and activities require prior registration and charge a small fee (albeit higher for non-city residents). Check the Parks & Rec website for details (charlottesville.org/parksandrec).

For sheer physical activity for toddlers and preschoolers, there is the “Parent and Me Playgroup,” which is for kids up to age 5 and meets three times a week. My daughter loved the tumbling class we enrolled her in last winter (so much so that we took the same class twice), so I was pleased to discover that Parks & Rec offers tumbling classes for specific age groups through age 8. Parks & Rec has sessions in specific age groups (starting at age 2 or 3 and running through age 17) in basketball, soccer, swimming, tennis, skating, self-defense, and dance (including separate classes in ballet and zumba). Roller skating at Carver Recreation Center is free (!) on Fridays and Sundays.

For kids who prefer to get their ya yas out in less physical ways, the options include art classes available to kids as young as 1, photography classes (starting at age 7), crafts (starting at age 3), separate guitar and drumming classes (open to kids from age 10), yoga (starting at age 3), Spanish language classes (starting at age 6), and cooking classes (starting at age 9).

See stars at McCormick Observatory's free public night, on the first and third Friday of each month. Photo: Jack Looney
See stars at McCormick Observatory’s free public night, on the first and third Friday of each month. Photo: Jack Looney

Conducting an informal poll of local parents, I came up with even more suggestions for free or low-cost activities not covered by the library, Parks & Rec, or the Discovery Museum. A lot of parents recommend taking younger kids to the indoor play areas at Fashion Square Mall, C’ville Coffee, and Barnes & Noble. Older kids might be interested in “Public Night” at UVA’s McCormick Observatory. It’s free and happens on the first and third Friday nights of each month. Check the website for details (astro.virginia.edu/public_outreach/schedule.php). Finally, Bounce-N-Play (bouncenplayofcville.com) offers an incredible play area for everything from crawling to laser tag and a lounge area for parents. Cost of admission is $10 for each child over 2 years old, but free for adults.

With all the resources Charlottesville has, the problem isn’t finding something to do when the weather is bad—it’s choosing among all the great options.