Photography by Beth Mann
Anyone raising a family in Durham has undoubtedly spent many hours at some of the best-known family attractions, like picnics and playtime at Sarah P. Duke Gardens or the many wonderful exhibits at the Museum of Life and Science. These spots are always worth a visit when trying to entertain the kiddos. But what other options are out there for families to enjoy? We asked several parents with children ranging in age from 7 months to 17 years to share some favorite family rituals, hidden gems and local events that they enjoy together.
Christina Riley and Carl Hedinger are the husband-and-wife duo behind nctripping.com. Last year, they found themselves taking lots of adventures with their then-20-month-old daughter, Charlotte, but one of Christina’s top traditions was what she calls “lattes and laughs,” where she drives to Oval Park and takes the stroller down to Cocoa Cinnamon on Hillsborough Road. “We spend a little time outside on their patio and then walk back to the Oval Park playground,” she says. “There are a ton of community-donated toys in addition to the awesome playground equipment, so we can easily spend the whole morning together. Momma gets her coffee, and toddler gets to run wild!”
Crystal E. Taylor is the founder of the Beats n Bars Festival, and co-founder of The Underground Collective and Black August in the Park, which is one of her favorite local events to attend with her infant son, Mansa Godwin, and older kids. Other special newborn-friendly activities include Black Genius Fest, the Durham Farmers Market and strolls through downtown. “I usually always stumble across things or people hosting events that I can attend and bring him,” she says.
Holly Guss and Heather Brown love exploring Durham with their two 4-year-olds, Tyson and Juniper Guss-Brown. They highly recommend the kids programs hosted by Durham Parks and Recreation, but warn that events requiring registration fill up quickly.
Total Tot Time, which is set up at local gyms/rec centers on different days, features lots of toys and projects for toddlers and is one of their favorite free pastimes, as are the toddler-themed activities hosted at the Eno River State Park, such as history and tracking hikes, and crafts, like making a bird feeder.
The Eno River is also a fantastic place to explore outdoors with energetic kids. Holly and Heather recommend Hollow Rock Nature Park. There are also several outposts along the Eno where kids can wade in the water, explore tadpoles and fish in the shallows, and even a few swimming holes for older kids to enjoy.
Notasium is no longer very “hidden,” but it’s a local spot worth mentioning. Its music-themed playhouse is reasonably priced for free play, and Holly notes that it is not very busy during lunch and nap times.
Durham County Libraries are also a great resource for families and kids of all ages. Weekly trips to check out new books or rent videos and CDs are a must, or take advantage of free programming, such as themed story and craft time, or even off-site events.
Shannon Mallery, her husband, Sam, and their two children, Evie, 7, and Grant, 5, are big proponents of the Arts Discovery Series and Family Saturday Series at The Carolina Theatre.
Shannon and her family have gone to the Arts Discovery Series for two years and appreciate that it is aimed at young audiences. “We have been introduced to dancers, told about their training and the world of ballet theater intermixed with excerpts from ‘The Nutcracker,’ and taken on crazy mad-cap adventures by lively theater troupes,” she shares. It’s a wonderful opportunity to experience the beautiful Carolina Theatre.
Shannon also recommends taking advantage of the theater’s Family Saturday Series where shows are $5 per ticket. “The cost allows us to make live theater an ongoing part of our children’s life experience,” she adds.
Toriano and Serena Fredericks are the owners of Boricua Soul food truck and parents to Devin, 7. Music plays a big part in their lives, so they really enjoy Thursday night jam sessions at The Durham Hotel. They also spend a lot of time at Durham Central Park (either working on the food truck or hanging out) and rave about the free summer concert series.
“Downtown’s Third Fridays is a fun way to get out and listen to one of the many live buskers and stroll through the art galleries,” Serena says. “We always stop by Major the Bull and head into The Parlour to cap our night.”
Scott J. Richie, owner of The Accordion Club on West Geer Street, has a 9-year-old daughter, Isabelle, and a 5-year-old son, Oliver. His Saturday family ritual is a mini tour of downtown: Walking to the farmers market, and then over to Cocoa Cinnamon on Geer Street for a round of hot cocoa, coffee and pastries. They usually make a long stop at Mount Merrill’s play area followed by breakfast pizza from Pie Pushers. Then they head back to the family business where Scott can give his kids quarters for games while he tries to get a little work done.
City Council member Charlie Reece and his wife, Laura Helms Reece, spend a lot of time trekking through Durham with their two daughters, Elle, 11, and Gwyn, 8; they take selfies with Major the Bull and pick up yummy pastries at Loaf or ice cream from The Parlour. They recently discovered the roller skating rink at Wheels Fun Park – not yet overly crowded, it has some arcade games, go-carts (in nice weather) and an indoor play gym.
Local blogger Jade Jackson is always out and about with her two kids, Sydney, 12, and Christopher, 10, sharing their adventures and eats on her Instagram, @jadeandginger.
“One of our favorite free things to do in Durham over the years has been to go to Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University during Family Day, which takes place every other month,” Jade says. “The last event we attended was screen printing, and my kids would have happily stayed there for hours had I been in agreement.” The next Free Family Day takes place March 24, and the Nasher will partner with Duke science departments and students to explore the crossover between art and science.
Another top pick for the Jackson family is Atomic Empire, a comic book and game store on Westgate Drive. “This is a place where we can spend time in one location while feeling like we are transported to multiple universes,” Jade says. The kids each have their personal favorite comic series to read and expand upon.
Jason Cunningham, executive chef of the Fairview Dining Room at the Washington Duke Inn and Golf Club, and his wife, Laura, are busy with four boys: Daniel, 11, Andrew, 10, Connor, 7, and Javier, 2.
One of their preferred outings is catching a Durham Bulls game at the ballpark. “As a dad, this is the best way to spend a summer afternoon,” Jason says. “You get to watch a game, hang out with the family and actually relax for a bit in the stands. When the kids get antsy, there’s a fun playground area for them to run around. They love the excitement of the game with Wool E. Bull and other fan entertainment. The fireworks display is an added bonus on the weekends.”
Trains are also a hit with the boys. From Durham’s Amtrak station, you can plan a fun day trip to a number of nearby cities. Jason’s family loved their recent round trip Amtrak ride from Durham to Greensboro.
Jennifer and Evan Julin have four kids and various ages to cater to: Asa, 18, Farrah, 15, Ansel, 12, and Vendela, 8.
A favorite family ritual of theirs is to enjoy beverages and food together every Saturday and Sunday morning at Joe Van Gogh’s Woodcroft location. “We love all the employees there and the various coffee drinks: Americanos, lavender steamers, lattes … it’s all delicious,” Jennifer says. “It is much more affordable than a dinner out and a great way to start the day, especially on the weekend.”
The Julins also like to bike together along the American Tobacco Trail because it’s so pedestrian-friendly and fun for all ages.
Her oldest daughter is an active dancer at Barriskill Dance Theatre School off Shannon Road. She practices six days a week, so they find themselves supporting all the local businesses nearby, like Pop’s Backdoor South and Bull and Bean, plus locally owned Linden’s Dancewear.
They also frequent local shops, such as Oliver’s Collar at SouthPoint Crossing (they have a new puppy, Daisy), One World Market, Morgan Imports, The Regulator Bookshop and Parker and Otis. “We are downtown every day for school, and it’s not uncommon to stop at Parker and Otis for a treat after school or to meet up for coffee with friends in the mornings … not to mention, it’s a perfect place to shop for gifts,” Jennifer says.