Frolicking at the park for hours hasn’t really been an option this winter, one of the coldest on record. Lucky for us, New Jersey is home to a robust variety of indoor spots where kids can act, bounce, and climb on an arctic day. And we’ve compiled some practical advice from local moms on how to prepare for a stress-free outing.
Want to take your kids on their own grocery-shopping excursion, to the wood workshop, to the hair salon, and then back to the store? Imaginative play places offer sprawling square footage, separated by rooms of different activities. Kids will get a kick out of trying their hand at various enterprises. Mom and Dad, though, might get a little bit overwhelmed.
“I took my two sons to one of these places for the first time recently,” says one mom from Central Jersey. “Holy heart attack!” With so much going on around them, children will invariably be interested in different things, at different times. While one is just putting on her construction hat and vest, the other will dart out toward the diner. “I guess it’s silly that I didn’t expect to be chasing one while trying to keep my eyes on the other. But that’s pretty much what I did for two-and-a-half hours.”
The lesson? If you have more than one kid, it might not be a good idea to go to a place like this on your own, says Renee Sagiv Riebling, New Jersey Family’s resident expert on Jersey jaunts. “My son’s a runner,” she says. “So I wouldn’t go to one of these places by myself, it’s just too stressful.” If your partner cannot go with you, Riebling suggests tag-teaming with another family.
Also, you don’t want to be hauling tons of stuff with you, so leave the coats and diaper bags in the car if you can get away with it. “If you can just run in, do it,” says Riebling. You’ll be thankful for the lighter load.
Another word to the wise: Pick a quieter time for a visit, such as a weekday morning. The Central Jersey mom had taken her boys at 1 pm on a Saturday. “I should have known better!” she admits. “There were six—yes, six!—birthday parties going on.”
If you’re heading out to an arcade, talk with your kids beforehand about limits. “Tell them, ‘this is the amount of tokens that you’re gonna get,’” suggests Riebling. “When they’re done, they’re done.” Also recognize that younger kids are going to spend a shorter amount of time playing each game because it’s not likely they’ll reach the next level. Keep that in mind if there’s a big age difference with your children.
Have kids who are bouncing off the walls? Indoor gym-type places offer a more physical outing to help them work out some energy (and maybe even get in an afternoon nap). Active kids will have a blast playing in centers which feature slides, obstacle courses, and bounce houses.
Remember: “Socks only” here, of course. Make sure those that your kids’ put on that day are hole-free. (And in warmer weather, remember to bring them! One mom recalls a summer trip when her kids wore sandals. Imagine buckling them all back up in their car seats for a quick return home.)
Also know that these places might not have “open bounce” at all times. Some hours might be reserved for private parties and what not. So, make sure to always call ahead to confirm schedules and availability.
Keep in mind that at places like this, 2-year-olds will mingle on various apparati with 6-year-olds. Worried that your toddler might get bounced around herself in such a setting? Always follow the posted height restrictions. And “if you sense that there’s physical danger in any way, mention something to the operator immediately,” explains Riebling. “There is usually an employee stationed at each area.”
Find Fun for the Family
At specialized places that offer, say, rock climbing and laser tag, parents can get in on the action, too. “While I like to joke around that I’m lazy at heart and would rather sit with my coffee and watch, I had a really good time playing laser tag,” says Reibling. “It never occurred to me to do this, but we ended up having a blast.”
Reibling explains that you will get a bit of work out playing laser tag; her family ran around for quite a bit of time. And if you feel that you might not be adventurous enough for rock-climbing, Riebling points out that the staff offers brief tutorials that are sure to make you comfortable.
Know that different places have different age and height restrictions. Always call ahead to confirm.
Make Your Own Magic
While there are all sorts of crafts you can make at various speciality venues, there are two good ground rules that apply to all. First, make sure your kids have the temperament to sit down and make a craft. If your child is a bit more active or restless, you might want to skip this activity.
Second, while the sitting fees at these places are usually very reasonable, be prepared to pay for the finished work. “It’s better for kids to have an idea of what they’re gonna paint before they walk in,” explains Reibling. “Always look online first.”
Plan the Day
Before a visit of any of these places, you might want to feed your kids. The offerings might be more expensive than you’d anticipated, and, let’s face it, you shouldn’t really expect gourmet food. (Although it should be noted that some places are better than others—with one offering “halfway to real pizza,” said one mom, while another raved about the salad bar at another popular franchise.) Know what to expect in the digestible department by asking your friends. “Just post a question on Facebook,” suggests Riebling. Moms love to share info.
To extend your outing, plan another activity by going out for a treat. (It’s never too cold for ice cream.) “Plan that secondary thing before you go, though,” advises Reibling. “So you’re not scrambling on your GPS to find something nearby!”
When in doubt about anything—age limits, height restrictions, best times, even nearby dining options—call the place, Riebling says. “I’ve found that the people who answer the phone are usually really helpful.”
And, again, rely on your friends! If there is a place that piques your interest, ask around if anyone’s been and if they have any suggestions for your day of play.