If your family lives in Canada like mine, you know how it can get in the winter time: you feel cooped up inside, and if you do go out, your eyelashes start to freeze. Plus there is only so much energy your toddler can get out in his puffy snowsuit... You start to miss those days at the park when the kids would just run and climb for hours.
Like the playground, indoor play places have lots of benefits for a child's development: gross motor of course, but self-confidence, autonomy, social and cognitive skills as well. As an early childhood educator, and in the past a family activities animator at a resort, play places have always been one of my favorite field trips for my groups.
But... these places come with concern for some parents, which is why I wanted to share some pros and cons I've collected from experience and word of mouth, so that you can decide for yourself if going to one is right for your family.
The number one subject that comes up when I speak to other parents about play places is cleanliness. If I had a nickel for the number of times that a parents has said that they wouldn't take their kids to a play place because they are worried about germs and cleanliness... I have to admit, this isn't an unfounded concern. Since I work in an early childhood center, with my kids attending since they were a year old, and I figured they are going to get cold and flu germs at any public venue - especially the airborne ones. Before eating or drinking anything while at an indoor play place, it's hand washing time right away for us.
Most indoor play place companies have a regular scheduled day where they are closed to clean the facilities completely, including ball pits and tunnels. You can find this schedule on the company's website, but if not, don't be afraid to inquire via phone or email. If you really are worried about this, plan to go right after a cleaning day.
Are you a parent of a little toddler just starting to move around more? Some play places have a smaller zone sectioned off with smaller equipment meant for their youngest clients, so you don't have to worry about older kids running around and rough housing.
Once, while we were on a little road trip, we stopped at a play place to blow off some steam. We happened to just swing by so I had not done my usual research of reading reviews or looking at pictures online. As I was going through one of the tunnels with my daughter, I noticed a screw pointing out of a piece of plastic of the tunnel. I notified the person working behind the counter, and then we high tailed it out of there. The point of my story is to do your research of where you visit like I should have: in addition to making sure there is a cleaning schedule (see above), inquire how often the equipment is inspected. If you walk in, and the equipment or facilities aren't up to your standards, ask to speak to a manager and tell them what you think needs work, ask for your money back and leave.
Tip: Indoor climbing play places do not allow shoes inside, and socks are mandatory. I always pick out a pair for my kids that have the little rubber treads on the sole so they don't slip on the hard surfaces of the tunnels, mats and flooring.
I'm sure I am not the only parent that gets overwhelmed with the size of the play place and where you're kids happen to be. We only frequent locations that have a scanning system. Our favorite has bracelets with bar codes for each family member. To leave the premises, the children bracelets have to match those of the adult. Once scanned, they will buzz you through the gate.
Tip: These locations can be huge. As my kids got a bit older and were able to go off and play on their own, I usually spend my time walking around structures and observing my children - remembering what color shirt they were wearing so I can spot them faster as they move at the speed of light through the tunnels and slides.
We have been to many of birthday parties at indoor play places (see below for more about that), so we know just how crowded these places can get on the weekend!
When we had year admission passes at our local place, I always planned to arrive when it opened, what ever day of the week it was. Often we had the place to ourselves for a good hour or so. If it started to become to overwhelming, we would leave.
Tip: If you are planning on going on a week day, call the location ahead of time and inquire if there are any schools or daycares attending that day, and plan accordingly.
Most locations (especially here in the Montreal area) charge for parents as well as children, but usually at a smaller price. This may seem unfair to some who plan to watch their children from the sidelines as they play, and the more parent supervision, the less need there is for them to pay employees to do it. However, I've witnessed lots of families using the games with their children, and even climbing on the structures.
There are ways to save depending on the company. Look for deals on their websites as some have special days where parents or grandparents have free admission, or cheaper admissions for all on ped days and holidays. I have also seen some great prices on yearly passes, that work out to paying off after your third visit; which means you attend for free the rest of the year
When you end up paying for the entire family, I recommend making it a day trip. Which brings me to my next point...
All play places are different in the food area. A lot have restaurants and do not allow food brought in, while we have been to a couple that have a peanut free picnic zone.
A lot of the restaurants can be focused on kid friendly junk food, so it's not the healthiest option. But if you consider the amount of exercise your family is getting, you might not mind it as a treat.
I always preferred the ones that have a picnic area - I'd pack mostly healthy food, and then buy a big bag of chips from the counter to go with our sandwiches for a treat that was more cost effective.
A glance at an indoor play place price list for parties can come at a shock for some, especially for those with their first born, just starting to plan those "friends" parties as children get older. It'll all come down to personal preference on the amount of money, time and effort you want to put towards a birthday party. There are options that include everything from meals, snacks, the cake, a private room... even favors or loot bags! If you want all of that taken care of for you, it may be worth it to you to pay that little bit extra.
Out of the 10 kids birthday parties I have thrown, my favorite by far was the one I threw at our favorite play place for my daughter when she was three. It was easy to plan and came out to just about the same price compared to if I had planned entertainment and decorations at home. The best part was that the kids were entertained the entire time; and I didn't have to worry about my own house (and anxiety level) as they ran around and screamed and climbed. Since we just showed up, set up a treat table, and then left, we came home to a clean house, and had time for a nice long nap!
Did I leave anything out? Do you have some advice or experience to share about frequenting play places? Let me know in the comments below!
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Val-Jalbert Ghost Town: Family Exploration
My love for abandoned buildings and ghost towns always brings me to the most beautiful places to explore. There is just something about the history, the feeling of adventure and exploration, and the photo ops (see the photo gallery below for what I`m talking about!)
Val-Jalbert had been on my urbex radar for years. Located about 249km/155 miles north of Quebec City, I had seen it online on a few urbex databases for being a really cool place to explore.
To my delight, in 2010, they turned it into a historical park. They preserved some buildings, refurbished others, and added a 4D movie experience in the mill, a cable car up the mountain side. To complete the atmosphere, they have actors in period garb walking around and acting just like the real civilians that did back in the 1920s. One of my favorite parts, of course, was the railroad still visible in the camp grounds - at one point with a giant tree growing right in the middle of it!
While some houses are not structurally sound, there are others that have been preserved for tourists to wander through with some antique and vintage relics still on site to see.
We traveled there when our little ones were 6 and 22 months. The trails were well maintained with some boardwalk so it was so easy to get around by foot and with a wagon that we were able to rent at the main entrance. There is also a trolley car that travels from one end of the park to the other - from the main entrance to the mill at the back of the town.
Since this ghost town is pretty much in the sticks in the middle of nowhere, there are various quaint locations to stay the night on site.
Being campers, we made it a family affair and camped out in Val-Jalpert's park with Grandma and Grandpa in their trailer. Tent sites are also available here, as well as mini cottages to rent if you don't have camping gear.
Looking to immerse yourself into this experience even more?
Our Bags for the Homeless Story
Volunteering, charity, and helping our community is really important to me, and it is a goal of mine to encourage my children to have these same values.
Always on Pinterest, I of course noticed the Blessing Bags posts circulating. I always thought it was a great idea, but then would keep scrolling.
Last Christmas, my friend Rebecca from Spoonfed Nomore told me she received $75 for Christmas to put towards a charity of her choice and asked me who I would donate to. I said, "There's this 'Blessing Bags' thing I keep seeing online, I've been wanting to do..." and she said, "Let's do it."
With my birthday coming up, I thought it would be a great idea to get my family involved too. I told them for my birthday that year, I didn't want gifts or cake, and to instead spend the money on 20 small items to put into 20 toiletry bags I could hand out to the homeless for my birthday.
As a mom, I want to teach my children the importance of helping each other and the less fortunate, and this is a simple way to get them involved. My daughter loves putting together a gift bag like this for someone.
A lot of people had given me money to go get what we needed and I was able to fill 20 Ziplock bags. I get the kids to help sort and pack the bags. Sometimes our daughter will put a drawing or note inside too.
Montreal Homeless Support Group
How we found the Montreal Homeless Support Group was pretty serendipitous. We (My husband Bob, our eldest, our friend Rebecca and I) set out towards downtown Montreal on a tip from one of Rebecca's friends who suggested visiting some of the parks near Montreal's popular shelters. We drove around for a while not noticing many people outside - it was a cold January day after all.
Driving in circles, Bob was about to give up when I said, "Let's go down this way, I see a park just up ahead." When we approached, I noticed some tables set up with lots of people at the other side of the park and yelled "There!" and pointed. When we got closer, we saw they were serving food. I asked if they minded if we handed out the toiletry bags with them. Anne, the person who runs the group, asked if I had heard about them on Facebook, and I said, "I didn't, we were driving around looking to where we could hand out our toiletry bags, and we just happened to have spotted you." That's when she told us that they usually meet on Saturday evenings at the same park (Parc Emilie-Gamelin) but couldn't make it, so they came on a Sunday afternoon instead. And we just happened to have run into them.
We returned to the park this summer on our own during Formula 1 weekend. It was the perfect time to go, no other groups were there, probably because race weekend in Montreal can be really busy. It just so happened that it was clear sailing from our place - not an once of traffic. One person said to me "I didn't think I was going to get to eat today."
We went with 24 toiletry bags, and 30 lunch bags with sandwiches, cookies and vegetables that day. Everything was gone in about 20 minutes.
How to Collect Toiletries for the Homeless
We got the word out on my own Facebook that I was collecting travel sized and sample sized items for this purpose, and included a list. Coworkers were ready to help out and work together: sharing the post saying they will collect items, and going out and purchasing what we needed.
After the word got out, my family and friends know to save the items listed below for me. The bags in the photo below were collected from my aunt's travels in hotel rooms and from samples she receives.
Do you often get samples in the mail? Maybe when you make a purchase at a store? Sometimes you can find small one-use samples in magazines!
What to Collect
This is the top item requested at shelter, and the least item donated. I always include socks in our Ziplock bags. Check out the Toe2Toe organization in Montreal, created by Chris Costello who came to the realization that the majority of homeless people that were coming into the ER while he was on duty was to be treated for foot-related problems. Walking outside, often in harsh weather conditions, is the norm for the homeless, so having new socks to change into is a necessity. I always include new socks - a big bulk bag from Walmart or Costco is not very expensive, but it can help out so many people.
We like to add a granola bar but you can add any lunch box snacks that they can keep to snack on later: cookies, fruit cups, crackers, etc. We have also added a water bottle or juice box to each bag. I also like to add gum or mints.
One tip I have seen online was to add a $5 gift card to a common fast food restaurant. This would allow not only a warm beverage or snack, but a place to use the rest room or get shelter from the cold or rain, since you have to be a paying customer.
Dental Hygiene Products
Dental hygiene is an important part of maintaining good health. These products are on the cheaper side, but it all adds up: toothbrushes, toothpaste, mouthwash, floss, My sister and law is into extreme couponing, and has scored us free toothbrushes and tubes of toothpaste.
For Rebecca, it was important to add dental floss to our bags - as she puts it: "there's nothing more luxurious than a piece of dental floss." and I have to agree. It's the little things. It's the little things we take advantage of. Plus, it's what all dentists ask their patients: "are you flossing every day?" Does your dentist give you samples after your cleaning or check up? Save them!
As mentioned above, if you travel often, save the items from your bathroom where hotel chains often leave out small travel-sized bottles of shampoo, conditioner, body lotion and shower gel or small bars of soap. Even shower caps - they can protect someone in the rain or snow. Especially if you're someone who likes to bring your usual products with you when you travel, these little items can go to someone who needs it.
Side note: Since these bottles will be used once, or carried around with them, I always ask for and buy travel-sized items.
Small Toiletry Tools
Combs, nail files, disposable razors... we have also collected small toiletry bags (pictured below) so that they will have something to carry their items in.
First Aid Items
Bandages, hand sanitizer, sunscreen, lip balm, wipes, tissues, antibacterial cream...
Where to Donate
If you're not in the Montreal area, try calling a local shelter to inquire if there is a meeting point for the homeless if there is no space left in the shelters. You may even be able to donate these items directly to the shelter.
A great tip I saw online is to always have a few in your car in case you happen to cross paths with someone who can really use it. We make sure to pack a couple of bags whenever we do go downtown.
Do you have any ideas for what else can be added to the toiletry bags? Leave me a comment below! If you're curious to know what the park is like, or would like to see more about the toiletry bags we make, head on over to my Instagram story highlights under "Giving Back" for some videos.
Have you taken a family cruise?
Hi, I'm Ilana from Life Well Cruised and I am so happy to be guest posting and sharing
my experience and love for cruising as a family with you.
My children grew up cruising and we truly had some of the most wonderful vacations as
we cruised together. Our family has amazing memories that keep us connected as we
look back and reminisce. Memories are priceless, aren't they?
Our Family's Cruising Story
My children first cruised in June 2005 on the Voyager of the Seas for a 9 day Caribbean adventure. At that time, this ship was one of the biggest cruise ships in the world (to this day, I think this class of ship is fantastic!). It had pools, a rock-climbing wall, mini-golf, and a skating rink. In comparison to some of the "family" ships out today, this might seem tame (no zipline or waterslide lol). However, it was amazing, and it fuelled our love of cruising as a family.
Why did we love cruising so much and why do I recommend cruising to other families?
1. Cruising has something for everyone!
This is something we loved about cruising and I still think it’s the greatest benefit for families. Cruises are something that everyone can enjoy - and there really is time for kids to be with new friends, for Mom and Dad to have some adult time to reconnect, and for the whole family to be together and enjoy and appreciate each other!
2. We created amazing memories in our close quarters.
We all stayed together in an inside cabin for many years, with my kids bunk beds above our queen bed below, but it was always so cozy. In those days we really didn't spend much time in our cabin, and this way we were able to put any extra money towards our shore excursions and activities.
If you're not bothered by smaller spaces, this is a great way to keep cruising affordable and still have an amazing experience! I've often joked with my children, that we could be camping (and nothing wrong with that!), but an inside cabin is like way more luxurious, believe me!
Of course if you take a balcony cabin, you will just add another level of enjoyment, so I don't want to discourage this. Sitting out on your own balcony watching the sea is incredible. However, it isn't the cabin that makes or breaks your cruise holiday.
3. Kid's Club
Our kids loved the kids club. We always made sure to visit the kid's club on embarkation day together as a family, and hang out and talk to the staff and other kids and families. In this way, they were pretty comfortable when they joined the organized activities the following morning. They were able to go in the morning, afternoon and evening, with 2 hours breaks for lunch/dinner and family time in between. I remember being really happy that the kids club had breaks, otherwise I may not have seen them at all!!
We also found that most cruise ships had great kids clubs with professional, fun staff and activities that kept everyone happy. I remember our first Princess Cruise, and how we worried as there were less "sporty" activities that Royal Caribbean (which we had more experience with). Our kids both loved it! The staff was friendly and engaging - and they enjoyed games, hanging out with new friends, hot tub parties and DJ booths. Not a bad life, right?
If I can impart some advice, don't get caught up thinking that you need the newest ship with absolutely every "bell and whistle". You know your child best, so look at what the ship offers and read some reviews to see if it's a good fit.
5. Shore Excursion Adventures
We have had some great family adventures. Some that were pure fun, and others that didn't go as well and we laugh at today. But memories we made!!
Some of our memorable adventures include climbing Dunn's River Falls, Banana Boating in Grand Cayman, and going to Paradise Beach in Cozumel where the kids climbed on inflatables and kayaked and we all ate nachos!!
We also laugh about a major fail when we went swimming with stingrays in Grand Cayman, and all that went wrong that day! My oldest son recently asked me why all his friends swam with dolphins, while I took him to swim with stingrays. Here's the story for context.
It was an overcast day in Grand Cayman, and we had booked a private excursion with a local vendor. Soon after we boarded the small boat, the sky became grey and ominous and the water seemed dark and rough as well. My younger son and I were slightly seasick and I was regretting this excursion big time! We didn't even go in the water!
My older son and husband did, but really not for long. The look of fright on his face as he asked to just get back on the boat was not our favorite cruise moment for sure! You know all the gorgeous photos of crystal clear water and beautiful stingrays? This was not going in the promotional video for sure! But truly, we laugh at this now - and full disclaimer, my husband and I did this excursion the year prior on our first cruise (on our own) and it was amazing!!
6. Cruising is stress free
OMG this is the best!!
For one thing, I love not having to plan out what everyone is doing for every meal. As a Mom, I do this a lot at home, and I don't love to do it while on vacation! When we've taken some land trips, we've had some bickering about which restaurant to go to. As parents we were a bit preoccupied with how expensive it was going to be - especially when one of our kids decided he wasn't that hungry after the meal arrived!. Has this happened to you?
On a cruise we all choose what we want to eat whether in the dining room, or even at the buffet. During the day my kids would grab a slice of pizza at the pool deck or a soft ice cream just whenever they wanted. We almost never said no to anything, as we just didn't have to. I cannot tell you how great it is to just enjoy and not have to manage everyone else's hunger!
7. Cruising has down time
So many kids and families lead lives where we are pretty scheduled - homework, tutoring, sports, language lessons, etc. It's nice not to have to be on a hectic schedule while on vacation! If you've done a land trip or even visited Disney, you know what I mean.
A cruise has a lot of options "to do", but also provides a lot of downtime. Read by the pool, catch a seminar, hang out and nap on your balcony. Do as much or as little as you want, and this applies to our kids too! When on a cruise, you're on holiday mode and pretty disconnected from work, school and life stresses, and I think this brings out the best in all of us.
8. Travel Opportunities
Do you love to travel and dream of showing your children the world? You can do this on a cruise! Whether you crave the heat and head for the Caribbean at March Break, or prefer to experience nature and wildlife in Alaska, or even visit historic cities of Europe, you can do it all by cruise! Our Mediterranean Cruise with visits to Rome, Florence, Pompeii and Barcelona was an incredible experience for us, as well as our teen son. He expressed how amazing it was to see and experience all the places he had learned about in History Class. As someone who really enjoys travel, I love this!
9. You feel like Super Mom!
I did, I really did! Whether we planned and chose excursions together before our cruise, or when I let the kids order free room service at 11 pm, we were just enjoying the moments. Looking back, during those times I felt like I was the best mom ever! My kids were the most well traveled and happy kids (in those moments too of course!) and it was the best! Don't we all need more spontaneous as well as planned fun in our lives?
Choosing a Family Cruise
These are my reasons for choosing to cruise as our family vacations. Still not sure cruising is for you? Read this to know if cruising is for you and what you need to know to plan your best cruise.
For us, there is nothing like the relaxation and fun combined that a cruise provides. Life is about enjoying the good times and making memories. So go on, don't wait until next year or even longer for things to be better or things to change... plan that family cruise! You won't regret it, promise :-)!
Have you been on a family cruise? What has been your favourite part and why would you recommend it to other families like yours? Let me know in the comments below.
If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy these ones:
A First Time Cruiser's Guide to (Unnecessary) Insecurities
Yes! Kids Need A Vacation Too!
Our Top 5 Favorite Beach Supplies
I was invited to guest post on the Life Well Cruised blog about our trip to Blue Lagoon Island in the Bahamas. It was a lot of fun reminiscing about our day here, I was inspired to start looking at excursions for our next family cruise!
Check the post on LifeWellCruised.com !
Have you been on a cruise with your family before? If not, I highly recommend it! Check out my post about being a first time cruiser - I'm sure it will change your mind if you don't think you'd like a cruise!
Melissa is a mom, wife, and early childhood educator who blogs about her journey looking for new experiences for family time.