What do you do to keep little kids active and entertained during the hot, sticky summers that we experience in the Tampa Bay region?
Certainly there are lots of options, many involving water, away-from-home summer camps or grandparents.
Here are a few indoor and outdoor activities close to home that will keep the youthful creative juices flowing while giving parents additional options to consider for keeping busy and fending off boredom. Do some online exploring to find even more.
The Wonder Studio
Inside a classroom on St. Petersburg’s Shorecrest Preparatory School campus, children mash and mold potter’s clay into sculpture. Others watch earthworms wriggle inside a compost bin.
As wee printmakers stamp papers and their tiny tablemates piece together collages, laughter and ahs of discovery fill the air. Founder and instructor Shannon Lipan’s charges range in age from 18 months to 8 years+, and they won’t find instructions at any of the experiential stations.
“This is anti-craft; it’s pure creativity,” she says. “I plant the seed in children that they have something unique to offer the world.”
Through weekly hour-long sessions and longer Saturday morning programs, Lipan, who rents the space from Shorecrest but is not affiliated with the school, encourages her young charges to see art as fluid. She presents students with real art media and science-related tools and lets children do what they will. It’s controlled chaos; it’s dirt and detritus. Lipan insists that even the mess has a purpose.
“It’s important to teach children that there are messy situations in life, and they can rely on the community to help. It’s part of the routine, part of the fun,” she says.
Lipan laughs as she recalls the many ‘poor woman’ looks parents give her near the end of a session -- right before she asks them to gather their little artistes and assist with one last lesson: cleanup.
The Body Electric Yoga
It’s 4:30 p.m. on a Tuesday at St. Petersburg’s The Body Electric, and children are spreading imaginary peanut butter on the mats. Such improvisation is normal during weekly Kids’ Yoga Theatre, a class that incorporates acting exercises with yoga poses. The goal? For kids to leave happy and relaxed. It’s a place where ohms are as commonplace as giggles.
“Yoga and theatre have a lot in common,” says co-teacher Tracy Brooks. “Both are forms of self expression; we’re offering a safe place to be silly.”
Tracy and her daughter, Cassidy, lead each session. Cassidy is an actress and practices yoga; Tracy is an alternative healer, writer and seasoned yoga teacher. They delight in the open nature of the class, adjusting the schedule to the participants that day. Children aged 6 months-12 years are welcome. So are parents and caregivers. The class offers drop-off for those older than 4, but Tracy encourages adult participation.
“It’s very freeing for adults to be able to let loose and practice yoga with their kids,” she says.
When it’s almost time for class to end, the mother-daughter teaching team directs their miniature pupils toward “chill time.” Frenetic energy gives way to peace, and everyone watches patiently as a toy is perched atop each belly, rising and falling in tune with the breath.
“Imagine a color and bring it into the body,” directs Tracy. “Connect with your body; be aware of it.”
And the moment each parent of a young child believes will never happen does: all is quiet. (Kiddie) Namaste.
Preregistration for the hour-long class is available at The Body Electric website, but drop-ins are welcome. First-timers are asked to arrive 15 minutes early to complete paperwork. Children are $7 each; their grownups are free. A yoga mat is requested but not required.
Boyd Hill Nature Preserve
During the child-centered Puddle Jumpers program at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve, children ages 3-4 step outside with purpose. “Where do you want to go?” asks Nature Preserve ranger Andrea Andersen, who specializes in environmental education but, like most of the employees here, gets to do a little bit of everything at this place.
Like letting 3 year-olds decide which path to take, what wildlife to discover. Once the hike through multiple ecosystems like sand scrub and marsh is finished, she guides her explorers to a sensory experience, pulling out drawers and offering the natural items inside for touch. Brave children might ask to hold a red rat snake or look closely at the bat to see if he’s stuffed, or just sleeping.
The Puddle Jumpers program takes a hiatus during the summer months, but the tram is a wonderful year-round option for families with young children, Andersen says. It takes passengers across the entire property while a guide points out animal sightings and plant life. The preserve is closed Mondays, but the tram runs every day afterward at 1 p.m. Saturday there is also a 10 a.m. tram option. Besides the tram, visitors are welcome to amble at their leisure or join in one of the many events.
“We have programs for people of all ages,” Andersen says.
Visiting the website to consult the calendar of events is the best course of action. There, she says, you can decide between Pioneer Camp for older children or taking a wildflower walk as a family. Astronomy Night is an occasional treat. Biking trails abound; canoes and kayaks are available for rent. Strollers are available upon request.
Fall of 2016 will bring a new program called Hike it Baby, inviting baby-wearing mothers and fathers to visit with each other and commune with nature. During the program, Junior will be introduced to the outdoors while parents visit. With the wealth of naturalistic learning opportunities available here, those tykes’ first words could include “alligator,” “scorpion” or “gopher tortoise.”
HorsePower for Kids
Do you want to teach your children to help others? Take them horseback riding. At HorsePower for Kids, a Tampa nonprofit petting farm/riding stable, those ages six and up take trail rides through the wilderness. Visitors not quite ready for the gentle giants opt for pony rides. Afterward, it’s time to meet the resident zorse (that’s a zebra/horse hybrid) and pet a wide assortment of fuzzy friends.
“Our regular visitors to the farm fund programs like scholarships for campers, admission fees for foster families and more,” says Estela Orosz, who reaches out to groups that might benefit from a visit.
Orosz shares a love for animals with her brother, Armando Gort, who started the farm some 20 years ago. It has been a nonprofit for the last five years, offering free admission and riding experiences to thousands of children. Caring for animals is therapeutic, Orosz says, and the sheer assortment of critters in the petting zoo delights both old and young.
Scores of rescue cats roam the property. There’s a zebra whose mother passed away after its birth, dwarf horses born with disabilities, goats and ferrets. Trail riders can choose from beginner, intermediate and advanced rides, and should download a release form from the website before their visit. Reservations are requested for the trail rides; drop-ins are fine for those riding ponies or petting the menagerie.
Wear shoes with closed toes, advises Orosz, and pack water and a lunch to eat at one of the picnic tables. For the children who can’t get enough of the equine entertainment, there are summer camp sessions and private lessons available. Before you go, consult the website for hours of operation; in the summer months, the farm is open seven days a week, but there are no trail rides Saturday or Sunday.
Parents, are you frustrated by Pinterest? Do your children yearn for more than Crayola and stickers in their art arsenal? MakeMe Studio owner Melissa Mudd wants to help. The former high school art teacher works alongside children and adults in St. Petersburg on projects that have languished in “To Do” lists for months and creates plenty of original concepts to boot.
“Many parents have high Pinterest aspirations,” she says. “Here, our motto is ‘less pinning, more making’.”
Parent-assisted and kid-only classes abound in this eclectic place, which has been open since December 2014. For the youngest, there’s Mini Makers, a “mommy and me” class where kids as young as 2.5 and as old as 5 learn technique around a seasonal theme. Have a Play-Doh eater? No problem. Everything is nontoxic. Elementary Artists are dropped off to discover the world of art, with a goal of connecting art to personal experience. Then there is the class for future Pinterest addicts, a craft club where everything is provided, and a family “crafternoon.”
Mudd credits her “idea addiction” for the vast variety of projects available. Some, she draws from her years of teaching; others, like a Dinosaur themed day, are spontaneous “aha” moments that demand hours of preparation on her part. Students of that class make fossil plaster molds of bones and lifelike dinosaur eyes out of polymer clay.
There are no standard birthday party packages. Mudd devises a personalized project for each one; during a recent celebration, a 6 year-old and her entourage created fairy gardens with painted pots, potting soil and plenty of moss. The same holds true for summer camps, with each day having a specific theme.
Consult the website before visiting; there are no drop-in hours presently, so participants must register for a class in advance.