Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
In the days before cell phones and iPads and video games and Wii to keep kids happy — yes, Virginia, that's how it was — there were simpler pleasures that parents could provide their children. For example: I never tired of getting my mother to drive through the state Capitol tunnel and honk, because the echo was so great. I begged to be taken to the Little Rock. For some reason, I really wanted to visit the Governor's Mansion — I guess it seemed grand — but was told I could only after I learned to cut my own meat with a knife. Pitiful, really.
Today, however, there is more to do in Little Rock and North Little Rock with your kids than you can cram in before they hit their teens and no longer want to have anything to do with you. Some are commercial — they'll cost you money — and some are educational and some just let parents sit out for a minute and talk among themselves, a precious time for those who look after short people.
No. 1 at the top of any list for any decade: The Little Rock Zoo. Here goes.
1. Go to the Little Rock Zoo. It's not a travel-many-miles destination zoo like ones in Memphis and St. Louis, but why pick nits when you can watch gorillas do it? Or spy on cheetahs stalking mockingbirds and squirrels? Or see African penguins, so wobbly on land, glide gracefully through the water? Watching animals do what they do — even if that's just lounging magisterially — is fun no matter how old you are. But kids go bananas for it. Plus, there's a lot to see, which means you'll walk a lot and hopefully wear out the young'uns. If you're planning on going more than once a year, buy a family membership. It's a good deal.
2. Take them to a play at the Arkansas Arts Center. The professional company of the Arts Center's Children's Theatre puts on great shows, adapting children's books for the stage with original music. The theater is smallish (just the right size, actually), so acoustics are great and kids are close to the action. Coming in spring of 2015: "Rumplestiltskin" and "The Legend of Robin Hood," adapted by resident playwright Keith Smith, and "Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat," adapted by Katie Mitchell.
3. Discover the laws of nature at the Museum of Discovery. For the little kids, there's Wiggle Worm, science for kids under 6, three days a week, and interactive exhibits on the body (guts!), tornados, electricity, snakes (maybe not so interactive) and other animals — you name it. And for grownups who like their science served with wine, there's Science After Dark, which has included programs on, for example, the science of passion. Interested?
4. Splash around at War Memorial Park and Riverfront Park. Children — who would be otherwise broiling in the hot Arkansas sun — find splash pads' unpredictable shoots of water endlessly entertaining, like a water sprinkler to the power of 10. They're the local version of Old Faithful, but kids get to dance in the spray instead of just admire it, and they're free and good for a spur of the moment cool-off, since the kids don't have to don swimsuits first.
5. Go fish. If you're under 16, all you need to go fishing is a line and a pole and some crickets or slimy alternative, no Game and Fish Commission license required. There are public fishing holes all over Pulaski County, including ponds at MacArthur Park (with the homely Muscovy ducks as a sideshow), War Memorial and Kiwanis Park; creeks in Boyle Park, Burns Park, Hindman Park and Remmel Park; and Victory Lake at Burns Park. There are also access points on the Arkansas River, but that's for older fisherfolk. Make jokes about crappie! Threaten to skin a catfish! It's not all about the sitting and waiting. Bigger kids might want to take the fly fishing seminars at Bass Pro Shop.
6. Ride the Arkansas River Trail. Pile the bikes in and on the car, pack up snacks and water and head to Murray Park to cross the Big Dam Bridge and travel to points beyond on the north side of the river or stay south and head west across Jimerson Creek to Two Rivers Park. From the bridge, they'll get to see boats go through the lock and dam; on the flat trails they'll get to test their mettle with their pedals. If they're old enough, they might be interested in the birdlife along the river: pelicans, gulls, cormorants, great blue herons, even a swan once in a while. You could do this every weekend and not get bored. Take the dog, too, but watch out for the bicyclist bomber types whose egos are more inflated than their tires: Some of those guys will run over Rover.
7. Feed thawed mice to the baby alligators at Witt Stephens Jr. Nature Center. Every Friday at 2 p.m., kids gather round to feed the Nature Center's two 24-inch baby gators crickets, worms and what the staff calls mousecicles. So cute! At 2 p.m. Wednesdays, kids can feed the fish in the Nature Center's 9,000-gallon aquarium. Every third Saturday, there's a drop-in range day, in the Daisy BB indoor range or archery on the lawn of the Clinton Center. The nature center is also into geocaching, every day but Monday. The Nature Center is right on the Arkansas River, accessible from a walkway off President Clinton Avenue.
8. Do time traveling. Take the kids to Toltec Mounds State Park. No, it's not in Pulaski County, but it's just across the line in Lonoke County, and it's a great place to teach little kids and older ones alike about the prehistoric residents of Arkansas. Tall mounds are surrounded by an embankment, built basketful of dirt by basketful 1,500 years ago. There's an exhibit space that displays some of the artifacts made by the Plum Bayou people who inhabited the site and shows what an archeological dig looks like.
9. Climb Pinnacle Mountain. Or just stay at the bottom of the mountain, where there is a nice playground, a picnic area and a wetland trail to the Little Maumelle and its ancient cypress trees. There's a trail up the mountain, though you'll have to do some boulder climbing, but the reward, a view of the Arkansas River Valley, is great. Wait, there's more! The park has a visitor center with stuff to touch and buy, lots of trails (the 250-mile Ouachita National Recreation Trail starts here and goes to Oklahoma), organized floats down the Maumelle, classes in birds, butterflies and plants, guided trail horse rides and an arboretum where the trees have names on them so maybe you can learn them.
10. Learn to ice skate, even body check. At the Arkansas Skatium, a Southern kid can catch up with his Northern counterparts who hit the ice the minute they can walk. There is even a youth hockey league here, for "mini-mites" (ages 6 and under) to midgets (for 15- to 18-year-olds who don't mind being called midgets). Bring a blanket if you're just watching. Ah, how fondly we remember watching our 3-year-old stand stock still on the ice to the strains of "The Ants Go Marching In" in the class' graduating performance. There's roller skating here, too.
11. Let them play their hearts out. There comes a time in every parent's life when she will pay nearly any amount of money to get the kids out of the house. When you've exhausted all the other free-to-cheap options, there's dozens of trampolines for your little rascal to jump on at Altitude Trampoline Park in West Little Rock, all sorts of giant inflatables for him to flop around on at Jump Zone in North Little Rock, and arcade and carnival-style games (plus laser tag and putt-putt and all sorts of other stuff) at Playtime Pizza in Southwest Little Rock. Our favorite pay-to-play spot is The Wonder Place, geared toward kids 8 and younger. There's an indoor playhouse, a puppet stage, a pretend farmers market and vet clinic and all sorts of other blocks, dolls and art supplies on offer.
12. Go get a frozen treat. It makes a good bribe, and you get a treat, too. It's difficult to drive anywhere in the city without passing by chains that sell ice cream, frozen custard, gelato, fro-yo or Dippin' Dots (still the ice cream of the future 25 years after its invention). While it's pretty hard to mess up frozen desserts, there's ice cream and then there's Loblolly's "made with real, high quality ingredients by hand" ice cream. It's available at various restaurants around town, but home base — and the place you can find the widest selection of Loblolly ice cream, plus homemade sodas, marshmallows and other treats — is the soda counter at The Green Corner Store. You'll be hooked for life. Ditto for ZaZa's impossibly creamy gelato and Le Pops' inventive takes on iced lollies (or popsicles) in The Heights.
13. Buy them something special. There's still a hole in our toy-buying heart where the Heights Toy Store used to be, but we're really fond of Cheeky Marshmallows, the downstairs offshoot of Box Turtle in Hillcrest. Aside from the chains, there are also Learning Express in the Pleasant Ridge Town Center, Knowledge Tree on North University and The Toggery in the Heights and Pleasant Ridge Town Center. For books for young readers, WordsWorth in the Heights is your best bet. We also like to check out River Market Books and Gifts and the Central Arkansas Library System's discount used bookstore; there are always deals to be found. For your budding superhero, Collector's Edition on JFK Boulevard in North Little Rock and The Comic Book Store in the Treasure Hills Shopping Center in Little Rock are chock-full of awesome.
14. Play ball. The Junior Deputy Babe Ruth Baseball program has been teaching that most American sport to kids since 1947, from the Astro League for 4-year-olds to the Babe Ruth League for 13- to 15-year-olds. Unlike the old days when the program first started, girls are welcome, though they typically play in the younger leagues, where their advanced coordination and powers of thought typically surpass their boy teammates. Or so it's said. Parents get to take a break and let someone else boss their kids around, and if you show up with a plastic cup in your hand, no one is going to mind.
15. Take them to the Little Rock. What the heck. There's not much of it left, but if your child is curious about where Little Rock got its name from, just head to Riverfront Park, to the base of the Junction Bridge. There 'tis. Then explain that early explorers called it La Petite Rocher, since they were French, a name that folks changed in the 1950s to "La Petite Roche," since they weren't French. Or just let them look. Won't take long.
Lindsey Millar contributed to this story.
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