I know how hard it is to get young kids out of the house to go somewhere - even quick outings require you to pack enough snacks, diapers, and toys to make you think you’ll be gone for a week. And who wants to wrestle kids in and out of carseats just to find out that your destination isn’t kid-friendly? That’s why I’ve decided to visit Triangle area sites to see if they’re worth your trip. I won’t use a rating system but I’ll try to describe what you’ll see well enough for you to decide if your kids would find it interesting. I’ll also give you the heads up on bathrooms, stroller accessibility and any other SNAFUs I encounter.


The Story of North Carolina exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of History - Raleigh


          I've taken the kids to the NC Museum of History a few times before. Usually the Museum has one admission charging exhibit downstairs and a handful of free exhibits on the third floor (second floor is reserved for offices). The free exhibits are permanent - like the NC Sports Hall of Fame - or long-term like the Thomas Day exhibit about an African-American cabinetmaker. On this visit we went to check out the new permanent exhibit, The Story of North Carolina Part I (Part II will debut November 5, 2011), which is free and on the first floor.

      Part I covers NC history from its Native American inhabitants to shortly before the Civil War. When you enter the exhibit hall you're greeted by a re-created roundhouse (see photo above). This part of the exhibit is also one of the best parts for young children because several touchable replicas of Native American artifacts are provided. You can also see an original dugout canoe that came from Washington County, NC.

     Another kid-friendly part of the exhibit is the pirate ship hull. It contains artifacts from NC's history of piracy - like swords - and it also holds a miniature replica of Blackbeard's ship, the Queen Anne's Revenge.

Pirate ship hull

     For the adults, there are a number of placards to read, but the text is broken up into manageable chunks so you can skim it easily. There are also short films interspersed through the exhibit that can entertain your kids while you take a minute to read.

    Towards the end of Part I of the exhibit is a nineteenth century farmhouse that you can walk in, as well as a cow that young children can pretend to milk. My preschooler also enjoyed gathering eggs from the chicken.

      It's cool that my preschooler can now identify numbers because she was able to refer to items in the displays by their number and ask me to tell her what they were. She seemed to enjoy the exhibit, especially the Native American part and the cow at the end. She must be heading into the 'know-it-all' years because her frequent reply to my explanations was: "I know that, Dad."

    My toddler enjoyed the Native American part of the exhibit because he was allowed to touch things. He was also engaged by some of the films, but overall I think my preschooler got more out of this exhibit. I'm sure the other visitors to the Museum were glad when we left because my toddler was using his 'outside voice' today.


Artspace and Raleigh City Museum - Raleigh


      Artspace is an arts center where you can walk around the building and peak into different local artists' studios. When we were there on a Friday morning there were only 3 or 4 artists in their studios. One of the artists - a portrait painter - was very welcoming and took time to explain to us all of the things she has been working on. Another artist down the hall explained to us the process behind making felt which, according to her, is the oldest textile process.

      There are two floors of studio space to explore, about 30 studios total, and there is an elevator to get your stroller to the second level. The stroller is a good idea if you have a toddler like mine who would love to run rampant and get into all the tools, paints and other paraphernalia he could find.

      Artspace provides both adult and children's classes in various media. There is a large learning studio on both floors.

      I asked the front desk attendant if there was a certain time when most of the artists are in their studios, but she said it was impossible to forecast since all the artists keep different hours. Artspace is open Tuesday - Saturday starting at 10am.

     My kids were somewhat restless while we were there so it's probably better to visit with older kids. A visit to Artspace won't take up your whole morning so you'll probably want to combine it with another nearby attraction.


The Raleigh City Museum


         The Raleigh City Museum is only about 3-4 blocks away from Artspace and it too is best combined with another attraction. Only the first floor is devoted to museum space and it's broken up into 3 different exhibits. The first one depicts Raleigh city life in the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries when the building itself was Briggs Hardware. The second exhibit focuses on Raleigh's experience during the Civil Rights Movement. And the third exhibit looks at the evolution of local media from newspapers to television.

        All of the exhibits are text heavy, with the Civil Rights exhibit being the text heaviest, but there are a lot of artifacts to look at in the Raleigh City exhibit, and the media exhibit houses a couple of interactive displays. The Raleigh City exhibit contains a podiatrist's chair, which seems like a very odd piece of equipment to display. And the media exhibit has a spot where you can watch old local television shows from the 1950s through the 1970s.

      While my preschooler liked playing with the interactive radio in the media exhibit, the Raleigh City Museum is probably best enjoyed by older children, at least ones old enough to read.

    But for some reason my preschooler was so thankful that I brought her 'downtown.' I guess she just enjoyed the change of scenery or maybe it's the mystique she attributes to downtown. I remember being spellbound by the thought of going downtown when I was her age.


J C Raulston Arboretum at NC State - Raleigh

The Necessary House (bathrooms)


         The Arboretum is named after the NC State professor who started it in order to study how different plants from all over the world would survive in the Piedmont of North Carolina. The 8 acre garden is separated into different areas with different themes. There is a Japanese Garden, a White Garden, a southwest garden, a rooftop garden, and a rose garden, among others. The longer you spend in this place the more you will discover peaceful little nooks and crannies interspersed throughout the property. And the Arboretum has got you covered when it comes to bathrooms - there are 3 separate places within the park where you can access a washroom. There is a small visitor's center with books you can purchase (potty stop #1), an educational center with a striking waterfall where Koi and tiny frogs play (potty stop #2), and then there is the colorful Necessary House at the far end of the park (potty stop #3).     

        This was a fun place to spend the morning even though it was one of those days with record heat. As soon as we started down the trail my preschooler was so excited about all the different plants to see that she kept calling me over to see plant after plant.

      Now I know you're wondering how an over sized garden could be fun for young children, and it is true that I have instilled an appreciation for gardening in my kids. But, even if your kids couldn't care less about plants, the Arboretum has created some really dramatic landscapes with some eye-popping plants that would cause any child to stop and take a closer look.To see these dramatic landscapes, start in the southwest garden which is closest to the entrance. On a hot day like the day we were there, it wasn't very hard to imagine myself in the desert surrounded by yuccas and agaves.

     But even if you're kids are bored with the plants, there are waterfalls and ponds with fish.Or you can play the ever popular game 'dodge the sprinkler' since there are occasional sprinklers set up around the garden. The trails are very easy for a stroller. There was only one place where I needed to lug it up stairs and that was to the roof garden which is definitely worth seeing.

roof garden

      My preschooler's favorite part of the park was the Japanese garden with its crooked bridge. She wanted to go through this garden again on our way out of the Arboretum. Another highlight for her was being presented with a fresh cut rose by one of the staff in the rose garden.

Japanese garden

      My toddler's memories of the Arboretum won't all be pleasant. He was pretty upset when he stepped in the fish pond. I was leading him by the hand as we crossed the stones that span the pond, but somehow he lost his footing and got his leg wet up to his knee. Being the good father that I am, I immediately started laughing. His crying told me that he thought his mistake was more alarming than funny.

The pond - the site of my toddler's embarrassment

     The Arboretum is a great place to go if you want to feel like you've stepped out of North Carolina and into an English tea garden, or a desert, or a tropical island. The Arboretum has a reputation for constantly changing its' landscaping so you can be assured of seeing something amazing no matter when you visit.My kids and I both really enjoyed this scenic retreat in the middle of Raleigh.


Raven Rock State Park - Lillington (near Angier)


         With this visit to Raven Rock I've added another Triangle-area state park notch to my belt. The park is famous for its' large rock outcropping - Raven Rock - that extends down a cliff towards the Cape Fear River. Raven Rock is definitely my favorite state park of all the ones we've visited. The rock formation is really amazing and the overlook of the Cape Fear River is like something you'd see in the mountains.

       We took the Raven Rock Loop Trail which is 2.1 miles roundtrip and wasn't too difficult with the stroller. The surface of the trail alternates between small gravel and dirt. There were a few steps along the trail that I had to maneuver the stroller over. Once we got to a long line of stairs heading downward I took my toddler out and carried him the rest of the way to another set of stairs that descended down the rock face. About a quarter of a mile after you see Raven Rock, there is an overlook close to the trail that gives you an amazing view of the Cape Fear. The overlook is so elevated that you can see over the tree line of the opposite bank of the river. If you look upstream you can also see the small rapids created by the remnants of the former dam.

      My preschooler was doing her best impersonation of 'Negative Nelly' at the beginning of our hike, but once she saw the Rock she was in a much better mood. We even had a conversation about how she wants to marry her brother when she grows up (please tell me this is normal).

The overlook

       The Visitor's Center looks brand new and is super nice. There is a very short intro video in the Visitor's Center as well as several very informative and kid-friendly displays. My kids liked pretending that the exhibit listening devices for the visually impaired were phones.The attendant at the Visitor's Center was extremely helpful in identifying points of interest that my kids would enjoy. She was even nice enough to give my kids stickers. In addition to the Raven Rock Trail, she suggested seeing the Fish Traps - a rock outcropping with deep holes, that extends out into the river, where small acquatics sometimes get trapped. We weren't able to make it to the Traps on this trip, but I plan to bring the kids back to see it.

Visitor's Center

     There are clean bathrooms and a water fountain at the trailhead, as well as a really nice new picnic shelter.

     I can't wait to find another temperate day to bring the kids back to Raven Rock. It's a little over an hour drive from the east side of Raleigh, but it's worth the trip and most of the drive is through scenic rural land.