Programs to Keep Kids Active and Engaged This Fall and Beyond

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programs – Piedmont Wildlife Center
At Piedmont Wildlife Center’s afterschool program, Cora Fletcher, 8, and Teagan Works, 5, watch as Maya Dardess (center), 8, chases Rhys Works, 8, in a game similar to tag, but instead of using their hands, the kids use pool noodles to stay safe and distanced.

By Amber Watson  |  Photography by Cornell Watson

I remember a time when our child’s extracurricular calendar was full of camps, sports and after-school activities; we never worried about having enough social interaction or ways to keep busy. This year, with camps and sports canceled and school shifting online, I find myself, like many other parents, on the hunt for safe, fun alternatives to keep our child active, engaged and social – if not in person, at least virtually.

Creative Outlets

For children who enjoy art and theater, the Durham Arts Council hosts several virtual classes for ages 5-12, including cartoon sketching, anime drawing, dancing, musical theater and after-school art to keep those creative juices flowing. Some online classes meet weekly or monthly and are affordably priced at $50-$60 total for a course. As fall and winter progress, DAC may offer additional virtual options.

Durham Arts Council also provides themed project kits with topics like animals and outer space, created for ages 5-11. Kits can be ordered at any time through the DAC website and picked up from their building downtown or mailed for an additional cost. Each kit includes instructions for five-six projects, educational information on artists/art forms and supplies.

DAC Artist Services Manager Susan Tierney’s 8-year-old daughter, Rosie, participated in almost all of DAC’s virtual summer camps this year, with weeks of puppetry camps and cultural camps focused on Japan, Finland and Trinidad and Tobago. “My favorite camp was puppet making, because I liked all the puppets I made and singing ‘The Rainbow Connection’ [from ‘The Muppets’] with my friends,” Rosie says. She enjoyed using the chat box feature on the Zoom camps to talk with other kids, and Susan liked that the online lessons gave her the opportunity to get comfortable with virtual learning using content that was especially fun and interesting.

programs – Girls on the Run
Lucille Botta, 9, her mom and coach, Jamie Botta, and Flora Gering, 9, warm up together while remaining socially distanced.

Movement Matters

Does your daughter miss taking part in team sports? Girls on the Run of the Triangle offers an eight-week program (the current season runs from Sept. 21-Nov. 14) for girls in grades 3-5 and 6-8 that inspires them to build confidence and other important life skills through dynamic, interactive lessons and physical activity. The organization relies on trained volunteer coaches in their own communities. This year, the nonprofit provides two types of team options in response to COVID-19: fully virtual or in-person with some virtual components.

Teams, which consist of 6-10 girls, meet two times per week for either 60 or 90 minutes; they hold practice, journal and, at the end of the season, run a celebratory virtual 5K. The in-person model practices safety measures, such as wearing masks and remaining socially distant. Even with the virtual options, participants will still be moving, interacting and engaged. 

One benefit of the virtual model is that it allows the flexibility to team up with someone from another state! Perhaps a family member or friend whose parent can co-coach and their children can take part in the same group from afar.

You can find existing teams on the website under “Our Locations.” The cost is $170 per participant, but the organization believes that all girls and communities should have access to its programs, and need-based scholarships are available. Even if you miss signing up this fall, there will be more opportunities in the spring season, which starts in February.

programs - Girls on the Run
Adaora Spector, 9, Sabrina “Breezy” Ingui, 9, Jamie, Kaia Yorkery, 9, Flora and coach Berkeley Yorkery in the middle of a team-building activity.

Jamie Botta, Girls on the Run of the Triangle’s communications and outreach manager,volunteered to coach a team at her daughter’s school when she was in kindergarten and too young to join GOTR. Now, she is excited to have her own child on a team and is thrilled they “just have to walk down the street to meet up with neighbors and friends to practice this season.” 

“As a coach, I found myself surprised (in a good way!) by the Girls on the Run curriculum,” Jamie says. “The program is much more than simply lessons weaving in physical activities – it’s a source of positive energyfor us, while also laying a foundation for resilience in tough situations.”

For families who aren’t part of a team this fall, try the GOTR at Home kit, which includes 16 lessons and interactive activity pages that your daughter can use to capture her ideas and feelings. “It’s OK that we don’t have superpowers, because we really do,” Jamie’s daughter, Lucille, 9, shared with her after one such lesson in the GOTR summer kit. “Our legs help us go really far, and our minds have the power to figure things out.”

Other good skills to practice are yoga and mindfulness, which helps kids (and adults) cope with stressful times. Growga hosts programs that include intentional movement in partnership with businesses, organizations and schools. It recently linked up with Durham Public Schools to share pre-recorded, 30-minute “Wellness Wednesday” videos each week for pre-K to teenage students. The lessons promote physical health as well as social and emotional wellbeing. “They teach children how to deal with stressful situations, big emotions and change, which is even more relevant during COVID-19,” says Growga Founder Emily Behr.

I sat in on a short virtual lesson with my pre-teen, and we both felt it was easy, engaging and calming, providing a little breather in the middle of the day.

programs – Girls on the Run
Kaia leaps toward the end of the cul-de-sac after completing a run around the neighborhood.

There is an overarching theme each month, and each week integrates an element from that theme. Take “compassion,” for instance. Along with some light physical activity, there is a prompt to write down some thoughts. There are also prompts for parents to elicit healthy discussions.

Growga also provides virtual classes that are open to the public, a number of after-school classes, and flexible, private home school sessions for small groups and pods. These in-person, child or family sessions can be held safely at parks, parking lots or other open spaces.

For pre-K and elementary-age children, try the lively, interactive options at Tinkergarten. It began its fall season in mid-September with two sets of weekly online circle time (one for ages 2-5 and one for 5-8), which consist of 30-minute sessions for kids to sing, move, share and learn together. Each week has a different lesson built around the season’s theme of creativity. Parents receive a book list and weekly read-aloud, printable resources to help set up and support play throughout the week as well as videos about children’s learning and development.  

“It’s all designed to help us connect to our community and the outdoors, [and] to launch hours of purposeful (and independent!) play at home,” says Kate Macartney, a Tinkergarten leader.

The cost per family for an eight-week session is $72, and you can choose any class that works best for your family (even one from the other side of the country). 

If your family loves getting on the water, try Frog Hollow Outdoors’ child and family kayak classes, clinics and tours. Self-guided traveling outpost trips occur on weekends through mid-November and rotate between Falls Lake and Jordan Lake.

Piedmont Wildlife Center
Kyle Tompkins, 5, Rhys and counselor Micah Segal-Miller work on building a bridge from nearby logs.

Active After-School

Piedmont Wildlife Center is located at the 82.8-acre Leigh Farm Park, which dates back to a mid-19th century working farm that included almost 1,000 acres and at least 16 enslaved people; PWC staff are upfront in sharing the land’s history and its people with visitors. 

Already well-known for its nature-based summer camps, PWCcontinues its after-school and Wednesday programs through the first semester, and its conservation team shares many of the animal encounters as virtual field trips for schools from all over the country. Staff also instated robust virtual options for all ages as a way to connect with nature from home, including encounters with some of PWC’s animal ambassadors, a citizen science project in the Triangle Turtle Trekkers, who catalog box turtles they come across, and virtual birthday parties.

“I like that it gives me a chance to go outside,” says Maya Dardess, 8, a third grader at Creekside Elementary School who’s been a camper at Piedmont Wildlife Center for several summers and is now enrolled in its after-school program. “Their trails are really fun to go on and the counselors are silly and fun to hang out with.” One of her most-loved activities is climbing Grandmother Cedar, a large cedar tree with low branches at the front of the property.

Maya was eager to get moving after sitting in front of a screen during the first week of remote learning. Her parents both work full time and could not take a break at the end of Maya’s school day to play; when they learned that PWC had an after-school program that fit with Maya’s school schedule, they jumped to sign her up. Maya’s mom, Pam Dardess, was comfortable sending her daughter to an outdoor camp that had specific COVID-19 safety measures in place, such as small groups, well-trained staff, masks, and a detailed plan and protocols. 

“When Maya comes home from Piedmont, she is often muddy and tired, but always happy,” Pam says. “She always has a ton of stories about what they’ve done. A couple of weekends ago, Maya and I had a ‘mom-daughter’ day where she requested to go to the park where Piedmont has their camp so that she could show me her favorite spots. We visited the swamp area, saw her group’s camp circle and an obstacle course they had made from natural objects, and then she showed me the ‘big mud pit’ where they play capture the flag.”

Piedmont Wildlife Center
Maya, Cora and Rhys continue work on the bridge. Kyle decides to take a quick dip in the creek.

Another after-school option is the Museum of Life and Science’s “Museum Clubhouse,” created in response to school closures this fall, which offers small, in-person groups from two to five days per week for a full day (8 a.m.-4 p.m.). MLS also runs in-person home-school classes that are open to all elementary- and middle school-age students as a way to supplement virtual school experiences with hands-on STEM learning.

Both programs have safety modifications in place: masks, physical distancing, cohorts of 10 or fewer and heavy sanitation. It’s an ideal way to get outside and socialize, especially for home schoolers.

Durham nonprofit SEEDS runs programs for elementary (SEEDlings), middle (SAPlings) and high school (DIG or Semillas) students. SEEDlings Coordinator Felix Pittman felt safest beginning the fall as mostly virtual for grades 1-3 which meet virtually Monday and Thursday, and grades 4-5 which meet Tuesday and Friday from 3-5 p.m. On Wednesdays, small groups of up to five students come for an in-person afternoon at the SEEDS campus. 

SEEDlings are provided kits that include gardening tools, notebooks, craft supplies and other materials they use during virtual programming. During the first half of the week, they cover gardening, farming and nature, and during the second half, they focus on social-emotional learning goals such as mindfulness, coping and communication skills.

“While I have skills and really enjoy farming and nature, I’ve been a social worker for eight years and feel like my best skills shine through in our social-emotional programming,” Felix says. “We will also have dance parties, music time (during which I play my ukulele and sing for the students), scavenger hunts and yoga.” 

Programs are getting their pandemic footing, and it’s a lot easier to find options for our children compared to last spring. Our lives look different this year, but we can also take advantage of some of the new and creative ways to keep our children involved, active and social.    

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Amber Watson

Amber Watson

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