Does she ever stop? She’s just one constant streak of movement, isn’t she? After hearing these questions in excess of three dozen times, I knew I had to find a way to keep my wild child busy and thereby maintain my sanity. You don’t have to have an Energizer Bunny for a son or daughter, however, to want to seek out fun ways to preoccupy portions of your time. Today, entrepreneurs recognize the value of providing services for parents with children, and the state has also invested in our little models of the future by providing parks, recreation, and classes.
This guide is geared toward parents who have children under the age of four and who live in or around Fairfax County, Virginia. Most of the places listed here will appeal to older children as well. So, whether you’re looking for parks, kid-friendly restaurants, or kids’ classes and gyms, read on.
There are numerous public (as well as private) parks and playgrounds scattered throughout Northern Virginia. Here is a sampling of the parks that are the most conducive to an active toddler.
Meadowlark Gardens Regional Park (9750 Meadowlark Gardens Court ~ Vienna ~ 703-255-3631)
Many Northern Virginians are unaware of the existence of this beautiful park and botanical gardens. The park has a gazebo overlooking three lakes, paths, trails, picnic tables, and a pavilion. It’s a great place to take a walk with your toddler and point out the trees and flowers. Call first to make sure it isn’t reserved for a wedding.
Walker Nature Education Center (Glebe Road ~ Reston ~ 703-435-6530)
Parents and children can visit 1,100 acres of open space at this park, where you can see birds and crickets and bullfrogs, among other things.
Frying Pan Park (2709 West Ox Road ~ Herndon ~ 703-437-9101)
Just take a turn onto West Ox Road off of the Fairfax County Parkway, and pretty soon you’ll arrive at this wonderful park, which boasts Kidwell Farm. The kids can go through the barn and walk beside the pens to see real live cows, pigs, turkeys, chickens, and goats. You can also take a hay ride on a tractor (additional fee). A playground is available, and on hot days, you might want to purchase a popsicle from the Country Store.
Bull Run Regional Park (7700 Bull Run Drive ~ Centreville ~ 703-631-0550)
Bull Run Park has public pools. The cost in 2005 was $4.25 for adults, $3.75 for children 11 and under, and kids under 2 are free. This is one of the most affordable pools in the area. The park also has walking and riding trails.
Reston Zoo (1228 Hunter Mill Road ~ Reston ~ 703-757-6222)
This private, 30-acre zoo costs $10 for adults and is free for children under two. More like a petting farm than a zoo, the park is not particularly impressive for the hefty price, but kids absolutely love it. They’ll get to pet goats, sheep, and even a horse. Ducks and geese roam free. Cages and pins house peacocks, pheasant, monkeys, and pigs. You can take a tractor ride out to see camels, zebra, cattle, and ostriches. It’s a very small area and easy for little legs to walk around. Pony rides are available for an additional fee. Plan about two hours for a visit. If price is a concern, however, visit Frying Pan Park for a similar affect. There’s no petting at Frying Pan, but the kids can have almost as much fun for free.
National Zoo (3001 Connecticut Avenue ~ Northwest Washington, D.C. ~ 202-673-4989)
One advantage of living near the nation’s capital is that the major zoo is free. It isn’t the most impressive zoo in the country, but it will be a delight to the kids, especially now that a petting zoo has been added to the grounds. Take the kids there first-before they get too tired to really enjoy it. The zoo is spread out and confusing to navigate, so be sure to grab a map first. It is least crowded on weekdays and in the early mornings. Be sure to bring sun block, a shaded stroller, plenty of liquids, and a snack or lunch. Plan three to four hours for a visit.
Parks with Carousels
Looking to take the kids on a carousel ride? Visit Lake Accotink in Springfield (7500 Accotink Park Road), Lake Fairfax in Reston (1400 Lake Fairfax Drive), Lee District Park in Franconia (6601 Telegraph Road), or Burke Lake Park in Fairfax Station (7315 West Ox Road). Burke Lake Park also boasts a train the kids can ride, and Accotink features paddle boats and miniature golf.
Signal Bay Water Park (9200 Signal View Drive ~ Manassas Park ~ 703-335-8875)
Open from 11-8 daily during the warm season, the cost in 2005 was $5 for adults and $4.50 for children over the age of one (under one free).
Cameron Run Regional Great Waves Water Park (Alexandria ~ 703-960-0767)
Open daily from 11-7, the cost in 2005 was $10 for folks over four feet, $8 for those under 4 ft, and under 2 are free.
Those early months are precious; seize your opportunities while your baby slumbers! It’s easy to hoist the infant carrier out of the car and place it on a chair while you enjoy a delicious meal out. But what to do when your child reaches that tender toddler age, squirming to get out of his or her high chair? Where can you take your children and be sure that they will be distracted enough not to attempt an escape? How can you elude the incendiary gaze of strangers who desire to dine in greater peace? This section explores two select restaurants that are hospitable to young children.
The Rainforest Café (Tyson’s Corner ~ McLean)
No one will hear your whining child at the Rainforest Café. Her plaintiff cries will be drowned out by the growling gorillas and other jungle noises. She may not even be inspired to make any such cries, with so many scenes to distract her. A host of mechanical animals (including parrots and butterflies) and real fish tanks will keep her entertained while you dine. And the Rainforest Café isn’t about kid’s food-there is a diverse menu replete with specialty adult beverages. It’s a little pricey, but worth the chance to eat a grown-up meal…albeit in a decidedly non-grown-up setting.
Chuck E Cheese (Locations in Alexandria, Herndon, Fairfax, Dale City, and Manassas)
The pizza leaves the palette less than satisfied, but the atmosphere will keep your child satiated. He or she can watch the multiple television screens or mechanical mouse while you eat, and then it’s playtime! Chuck E Cheese is stock full of coin operated games and rides, and it even has a “Toddler Zone” where little ones can climb some stairs and whiz down a plastic slide. Slower paced rides (mainly rocking cars with flashing lights) also populate the Toddler Zone, and then there is the ever popular vat o’ balls. Things can get rather hectic, so if possible, try a weekday lunch and avoid the weekends.
Classes and Gyms for Kids
If you want your toddler to release his or her energy in a structured setting, there are numerous classes and gyms for kids in the Northern Virginia area. All three of the gyms listed below will allow you to sign up for a free introductory class.
Gymboree (Locations in Fairfax, Vienna, Springfield, Alexandria, and Chantilly ~ 1-800-520-7529)
Gymboree offers music and play classes to children as young as six months and art classes for children as young as 18 months. Classes range from 45 to 60 minutes in length. Membership was $25 in 2005 and the cost of classes averaged around $200-$270 for 11 weeks (one class per week).
Little Gym (Locations in Ashburn, Sterling, Fairfax, and Springfield ~ 1-888-228-2878)
Little Gym offers non-competitive, developmental gymnastic classes to children as young as four months. Parents must participate, and activities include aerobics, elementary gymnastic skills, stretching, rhythm, songs, ball play, group activities, and bubbles. Membership was $40 in 2005 and classes are priced at about $340 a semester. Class fees are pro-rated if you want to jump in after the semester has already begun. The forty-five minute long classes meet once a week and are divided by age (4 to 10 months, 10 to 18 months, and 19 months to 2.5 years). As children grow older, Little Gym also offers non-contact, non-competitive karate (in case you want your child to learn how to peacefully protest an attacker, I guess). For potty-trained children over the age of three, Little Gym offers a Parents’ Survival Night: you dump the kids and go out on your own. Summer camps are also available for pre-schoolers and up.
My Gym (Locations: Burke ~ 703-425-5327; Alexandria ~ 703-971-5437; Chantilly ~ 703-378-3100)
My Gym encourages the development of social skills and motor coordination, and classes are divided by age. Waddlers (12-18 months) are exposed to an array of stimulating experiences, while Gymsters (19 mo – 2.5 years) get to climb a mountain, swing on a trapeze, and begin learning gymnastics. My Gym employs music, puppets, rides, and group activities to keep the tots entertained and learning. Classes are held once a week and last about 45 minutes. In 2005, membership was $40 and a 10 week session cost about $135, lower than either Gymboree or Little Gym. A ten percent discount is offered for siblings.
My Gym also sponsors a Parent Night Out (for older, potty trained toddlers and kids) every second and fourth Saturday, which costs members about $20. Free play is offered at certain dates and times as well, and non-members can drop-in for a fee. The Burke location has the look and feel of a padded, in-door playground, complete with a ball pit, slides, and trampoline.
Fairfax County Park System / Parktakes (Locations throughout Fairfax County ~ 703-222-4664)
If you are a Fairfax County resident, this is probably the least expensive way to enroll your child in a semi-structured class. Parktakes offers classes for children as young as six months, including aquatics, “zoom around the room” play classes, and baby sign language. “Baby and Me” swim classes acclimate infants as young as six months to the water, and older “Toddler and Me” swim classes start at 18 months.
Tiny Fingers (Located in Springfield and Alexandria ~ 703-823-5747)
In these 45 minute classes, parents and children will learn 12-15 signs a week for a period of six weeks. Signs are reinforced by activities and songs. The cost in 2005 was $80 for one parent and a child or $140 for two parents and a child.
Parenting Playgroups (6161 Fuller Court ~ Alexandria ~ 703-922-0044)
These groups are designed for parents of children aged 15-36 months. The 90 minute sessions combine parenting classes taught by psychologists with a toddler program. The cost in 2005 was $38.50 per class.
So, now that you know where to get started, pack up your baby or toddler and head out the door for a day of fun!