things to do with kids in Guelph

(This was originally to be posted in the Guelph Mercury but cut for length and fairness to other merchants/organizations).

It’s getting to be that time of year when the kids (and us) start to go a little bit stir-crazy, isn’t it? The cold weather has set in, there’s not much snow to even try and get out and enjoy it, and Christmas is still far enough away that you aren’t caught up in the hustle and bustle quite yet. I’ve been trying to offset that a bit this year by sampling some of Guelph and area’s plethora of fun family cultural events and entertainment and it’s been doing a pretty good job of keeping us amused and occupied in recent weeks.

Now that I’ve visited (and in some cases, revisited) many of the area’s finer points of interest with my two young kids, I can finally say I’m feeling attuned to Guelph’s cultural beat – and I’m completely impressed with what I’ve seen thus far. I’ve focused the list on what my kids (2.5 and 6) and I have deemed as our favourites – and most of these places certainly cater to the above-6 crowd quite expertly as well.

A list of our top faves:

River Run Centre

What a great place to introduce your young ones to theatre and impart in them a lasting appreciation for theatre and the arts (the building’s architecture and surrounding scenery are pretty amazing too). All of River Run’s programming is done particularly well but where they really excel is in the family component.

The regular Kinderconcert series, in conjunction with members of the Guelph Symphony Orchestra, is geared towards families with preschoolers and serves as a great introduction to classical instruments through stories and music and typically runs a reasonable 40 minutes in length.

The aisles are wide enough that restless tots can have a bit of space to work it out, and also enables quick exits just in case it’s a bit too much for them to take in.

My family and I recently took in a Sharon and Bram concert and what a great ambience the Centre’s lovely, sophisticated setting provided for the beloved duo’s cherished music; it made the nostalgic music and the day out a little more magical.

The most recent Kinderconcert, Jack and the Beanstalk, was priced at $11 ticket for kids, $14 for adults.

Guelph Civic Museum

Guelph’s museums offer a multitude of family-friendly activities and we try to take advantage of as many of their ongoing events as we can.

Fourth Fridays is a free monthly event that runs past the museum’s usual closing time (5-9 p.m.) where music, entertainment, and special activities are always on the agenda: The most recent date highlighted a special performance by Guelph Youth Dance Company and the Concorde String Ensemble.

Weekends are pretty lively for families too. Art Break on Saturdays features organized focused or themed projects inspired by current exhibits, and Batteries Not Included runs Sundays where families can play with the games and toys set up in the programming room. The holiday break and P.D. days always have special programming going on too.

Although my littlest one and I have yet to check out the monthly Tiny Tots Thursdays, I hear nothing but rave reviews from friends that frequent it. It offers an hour of free-play in the museum’s family gallery – a special spot for those with small children that includes a play kitchen, pretend rail car, puppets, and train table – followed up by themed craft and circle time with stories and songs.

The John McCrae House is especially popular amongst families in summer when programming is at its peak and takes advantage of the lovely setting – Canada Day celebrations and the family garden party are always busy. Remembrance Week sees quite a few families visit as well.

Family admission: $10 / $4 adult / $3 child over age 2.

Children’s Art Factory

I cannot stress enough what a magical spot this is for kids (aged 2-7) and their traveling grown-up accomplices. If you’re like me and wish you had more time and energy to set up fun art projects and science experiments at home but get squeamish thinking about the mess that will require days of scrubbing and vacuuming afterwards, this is the perfect spot for you to take the kids and unleash their creativities! Pure, unadulterated, mad fun! Mess is encouraged!

Owner Melissa advocates open-ended, child-led activities and has different weekly themes so there’s always something new. Painting, chalk drawing, moon sand, and a stage in the back room with costumes and (real) microphone are always accessible.

My six-year-old mini scientist LOVED concocting his potions with vinegar, baking soda (they sure love the sound of that fizz), coloured water, and glitter. Recent themes included sensory sandbox, stamp your feet dance party, painting 3D objects, and playing with light.

$8 child / $15 two siblings / $5 each additional sibling.

Play with Clay

I can see this place becoming incredibly addictive for families (mine included) with kids of all ages. I recently dropped in to this amazing little spot on a Saturday with my boys. The place, located in St. Georges Square in the heart of downtown, was packed and buzzing with families, teens, college students, single ladies, groups, and mom-and-kid dates. Owner Nina quickly greeted us and cleared off a table that had somehow magically emptied as we entered. I had spoken to her prior to our visit to ask whether she recommended I bring my younger son and she encouraged me to do so as he’d have tons of fun making a mess. Truer words were never spoken.

To the pottery newbie, the space features a wall of shelves crammed with gorgeous, cute and unique items ($5-20) that you’re able to choose from and add your own personal painting touch. I was a bit nervous about my typically rambunctious boys but a transformation seemed to come over them as they looked at each item and calmly but excitedly pondered what the best project would be. Alas we each chose an item (my eldest son a Spiderman trinket box, my youngest a small elephant trinket, and I took on a small dish with fossilized leaves), then headed to the counter to pick out the paint colours we wanted to use. Once we were back at our table we immediately set to work and it was a full 10 minutes before I even looked up to check on how they were doing. We spent over an hour there, happily, peacefully, painting and perfecting our items, lost in our thoughts and periodically exclaiming how much fun it was to be there. When we were done we reluctantly handed them over to staff who told us they’d bake it in their ovens and we could pick up in a week.

This was some serious fun for my crew – a totally fantastic way to spend some family time working on our own projects, and nice to see the boys so incredibly focused and absorbed while painting their clay projects.

Additionally, the shop offers kids’ clay camps for ages 4-9 where they focus on clay hand-building and pottery painting, and tween pottery camps for ages 10-16 where they get to try their hand spinning on the potter’s wheel.

The Museum, Kitchener

A long-standing family favourite, The Museum, located in downtown Kitchener, is worth the drive. The rotating exhibitions and events never make it old, and there’s truly something for everyone.

The main atrium is a great spot for kids to socialize, build structures with giant blocks, and check out the fish tanks, and gives parents a chance to catch up on some email or talk with other parents. Totspot is perfect for babies and toddlers to hang out; the padded play area is great for non-walkers to cruise around in, and the sensory walls and toys, puppet theatre and tunnels keep the older ones occupied. I’ve been taking my older son there since he was 8 months old and he still loves to hang out in the space with his younger brother.

Upstairs features a virtual graffiti wall, animation station, water table, walking piano, bed of nails, reptile area and monthly reptile parties, and pin and magnetic walls. If we have time and energy left over, we love to check out the exhibits (most are covered with admission fee), which is a great springboard for giving your child an introduction to more cultural topics and conversation.

General admission (ages 14+): $14.95 / $10.95 children (ages 3-13) / $5 Wednesdays (ages 3+).

Guelph Public Library

With six branches spread out across the city, there’s always something happening at the library. My youngest and I drop in to story time and play circles as often as we can while the bigger guy is at school, but we also spend a crazy amount of time here after school where we’re getting to know some of the regulars.

Each branch has their own kids’ section that features trains and other toys that the little ones can’t get enough of, and books are displayed at their level. We always intend to go for a few minutes and often end up staying for a couple hours. For families with older kids, they offer art projects, chess, and more. Check out your nearest branch’s calendar of events. All free.

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