By Brandee Gruener / Photography by Beth Mann
Sporting rain boots and clutching combs, a group of toddlers and their families braved the mud on a mild December day at Old Mill Farm. Toby, a miniature rescue pony wearing fake reindeer antlers for the occasion, munched on feed in a bucket while the kids brushed his long coat. They then climbed into the saddle one after another. While waiting for a turn, some tots wandered off with their parents to collect eggs laid out in the grass, to push ride-on tractors or to practice “mucking out” a stall full of straw and rubber duckies. Old Mill Farm is one of many unique venues in Durham offering a chance for parents and their little ones to both learn and spend time together in a variety of subject matters.
For its part, the My Little Farmer program at Old Mill Farm is rain or shine and holds farm-education classes – which cover themes including riding, art and music – every day of the week. Children as old as 5 have a chance to meet with pigs, donkeys, a goat, chickens and a very talkative turkey. All the animals are rescues who have been socialized to spend time around young children who might have little experience with farm animals outside of storybooks. As an educational farm, Old Mill has none of the usual sharp tools lying around, but instead has plenty of sweet touches like a cheery sunflower mural, farm animal cutouts, and an indoor play area with a kitchen and baby animal-sized barn stalls.
“Every class has a theme, and everyone has a story, a song, and an animal focused on the theme,” says Lindsey Schwartz, owner of My Little Farmer. “It’s all about bringing to life everything kids [younger than] 5 love.”
The educational programs are a family affair. The Schwartzes rent the property from a family who has passed it down for a century. Lindsey’s father, David Schwartz, started farm camps at 1870 Farm, their property in Chapel Hill. His wife, Dr. Amanda McKee, runs a Kids Vet Club on the other side of the Old Mill property that allows older children to learn about veterinary medicine.
Lindsey plans to expand My Little Farmer to farms rented in Wake Forest and Greenville, all operating under the family’s Kids Farms Foundation, a nonprofit that is “built on the principles of saving vanishing small farms and providing opportunities for children to learn on farmsteads in North Carolina.” The classes bring life back to farms that lie fallow or simply need another stream of income. And they give more families an opportunity to have fun together down on the farm. Classes cost $130 for six one-hour sessions.
Need other ideas for year-round family activities? Here are a few options:
Crack the Code
Tinker together and find out what makes clocks tick, robots move and circuits light up at the Museum of Life and Science. You and your children will develop problem-solving skills, use technological tools and become critical thinkers. Members pay $39 for one child and one adult, plus $20 for each additional attendee. Non-members pay $67 for one child and one adult, plus $34 for each additional attendee. Multiple workshops and dates are offered February-April.
Meet at the gothic gate at 9 a.m. on the first Saturday of the month for a free family walk at Sarah P. Duke Gardens. Explore new spots in the gardens as you learn about the creatures who live there, with a different theme each month. Duke Gardens also holds occasional family workshops in the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden, a display and demonstration garden featuring vegetables, herbs, fruits, chickens, beehives and lots of fun spots to play hide and seek. Visit gardens.duke.edu/events for an updated calendar.
Star Light, Star Bright
Bring your 3- to 5-year-olds to Tiny Trekkers at Little River Regional Park & Natural Area and take a short hike to learn about the forest and the animals that live there. Tiny Trekkers meets most Mondays at 10 a.m., and the programs are free. The park and natural area in Rougemont also hosts occasional visits from wildlife rehabilitation organization CLAWS, providing a great opportunity to learn from volunteers about birds of prey and other rescued animals. Plus, Morehead Planetarium & Science Center hosts a few stargazing opportunities at Little River throughout the year. Durham Parks and Recreation (DPR) also hosts a stargazing series at West Point on the Eno with astronomers from Chapel Hill Astronomical and Observational Society, N.C. Central University, NASA and DPR. Join them on March 20, 7:30-9:30 p.m., for a moon viewing.
Pops and Puzzles
Bring an old puzzle and exchange it for a new one on the second Monday of the month from 4-8 p.m. at LocoPops. Sit around a table with your family in the century-old home and put the pieces together while savoring a homemade popsicle. Your kids might prefer an old standby like cookies and cream, while you try a seasonal special like pomegranate ginger. LocoPops also hosts old-time music jams, book exchanges and other family events.
See LocoPops’ Facebook page for updates.
Get the Picture
The Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University offers a permanent art collection and traveling exhibits that spur all kinds of interesting family conversation. On free family days, they add kid-friendly art activities and education. The next program, on March 22 from noon-4 p.m., focuses on the art of science and the science of art. Duke faculty and students will explore that crossover, create artful chemical reactions, explore genetics through art making, investigate art materials with high-powered microscopes and more. Find further details at nasher.duke.edu.
Nurture in Nature
Bring your 1- to 4-year-olds to explore and learn about nature on the third Saturday of each month (except January) from 9-10 a.m. at Piedmont Wildlife Center. Visit enclosures with rescued birds and play in the forest, or in case of rain, visit the cabin to see turtles, snakes and other natural curiosities. The cost is $15 for one caregiver and one child, plus $5 each for additional attendees.
Break the Mold
Offered through the Durham Arts Council at their Clay Studio at Northgate Mall, Parent and Child Clay Workshopsgive children ages 2 and older access to a fully equipped clay studio for $15. Help them make fun projects like animals, piggy banks or fairy houses, which they can glaze in a rainbow of colors. The staff will fire the work in the kiln for pick up a few weeks later.