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KIDS CROWN AWARDS: CHILDREN'S ACTIVITIES
Steering your active children toward quality fun can be challenging. Our judges point you in the right direction with these premium activities.
Best Art Studio for Little Ones(and a Great Mom's Night Out)
PETITE PICASSOS ART STUDIO
1800 Forest Hill Blvd., West Palm Beach, 561-248-5706
Pablo Picasso said: "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up." This sentiment is embraced by Amber Schullstrom, owner and operator of Petite Picassos, an art studio and party center that encourages children ages 2 to 12 to express themselves. But it's not just kids who get to dabble in paints and paper. Petite Picassos features a Ladies Night Out one Friday a month. Shullstrom came up with the idea while watching mothers trying to take over their children's projects or begin works of their own. "I thought, you know, we don't get to just relax and color and paint," she said. Women can get together and chat over dinner and cocktails catered by Ginny Viau, discuss an art theme and create a collaborative work together. The evenings are so popular there is a waiting list, and Shullstrom expects to add another Ladies Night to the month's schedule. Activities for the tots include classes for different age groups and weekly camp through Aug. 10 from 1 to 4 p.m. Call or visit the web site for class schedules, camp schedules and themes, registration forms and fees.
Best Place for Indoor Free Play
ENCOURAGYM FUN FITNESS
7525 S. Dixie Highway, West Palm Beach, 561-582-3900
It's July, and Florida sits under a suffocating blanket of moist heat. No wonder it's hard to get the kids out for a bit of exercise. That's what makes EncouraGym ideal. In this climate-controlled space, kids can run, jump, climb, swing and slide without risking heat stroke. While all this air-conditioned fun comes at a price of a membership fee, parents find it's worth it. EncouraGym also offers a full range of fitness classes, including yoga for children from birth to age 14. Personal training sessions are available, as well as birthday parties and Parent Night Out every other Friday for ages 3 to 11. "We want the kids to get the exercise they need while having a great time in a safe setting," said Felix Ortiz, a personal trainer for 20 years and co-owner of EncouraGym.
Best Place to Learn to Sign With Baby
What mom hasn't experienced that feeling of frustration and even inadequacy at not being able to figure out what her baby wants? This new trend of communication between parents and babies creates stronger bonds and even decreases the tantrums that often come with a child being unable to convey his or her needs. Here, parents of infants as young as 4 1/4 months learn several new signs each week through stations that incorporate play, music and eating into the communication process. Classes run 45 minutes to one hour. Ongoing. Also in Boca Raton, 561-483-4105.
Best Indoor Play Zone for Babies
Cutler Ridge, 305-255-4442
Some moms see a need for something and just go for it. The owner here opened Jungle Jimbo's when she couldn't find a place for open play for her 1-year-old son. Outdoor playgrounds and parks are weather-dependent and not always age-appropriate for little ones; playgroups are on someone else's time schedule. Here, kids and parents play on their own schedule in activity areas for newborns through age 4. The tummy-time area gives parents of newborns a comfortable, social setting in which to mingle and has play-mats and bouncy seats for babies. Play guides are on hand to interact with kids in the clubhouse, on slides and through tunnels, and the media center displays educational and enriching videos such as Baby Einstein. Equipment is sanitized constantly throughout the day, and kids and parents must wear socks. Snack bar on site, but it's OK to bring your own food, too. Birthday parties, adult-ed classes also available; $10 for the day; $3 siblings; monthly memberships available.
Best Place for Baby Enrichment
A Kids Crown favorite since it opened, Baby Stars takes infants as young as 3 months old through a series of fun, interactive, stimulating and educational games. Babies go from one activity room to the next -- sensory room, puppet theater, science room, gym and discovery room -- with a parent. What appears to be a simple, fun playgroup provides skills, growth and enrichment that sets the foundation for educational success. Owners say teachers see a difference in the performance of students who have attended programs here. Parents travel with their babies from as far south as Key Biscayne and as far north as Boca Raton. Class lengths vary from one hour to 90 minutes, depending on age. Also available is an alternative preschool program for children age 3 and older, as well as sibling classes.
Best Toddler/Preschool Enrichment
Enrichment activities are all about building self-esteem and confidence in kids. Though music and sports spring to mind, educational enrichment shouldn't take a backseat. Research indicates that by the time kids start kindergarten, many of the most formative years of their brain development have already passed. Here, kids as young as 3 1/2 learn traditional subject matter in a fun, engaging, hands-on environment that includes learning stations, computer technology, LCD projection and an interactive "Smartboard." Programs expose kids to the concept that learning is fun as they create and learn about volcanoes, the solar system, human biology and more. Two-hour classes, once a week, ongoing.
Best Indoor Exercise for Little Ones
From 4 months old up to age 6, kids will get plenty of health benefits from programs here, but they'll just think they're having fun in this 3,500-square-foot gym with air mattresses, climbing areas, inclines, mats, balance beams, bars and other apparatus. Classes incorporate basic gymnastics and sports skills, as well as crafts, cooking and even yoga for little ones as young as 18 months. Mommy-and-me classes take place weekly for one hour. Toddler Academy is for children 18 months to 3 years and meets daily for three hours (and they'll even help with potty training), and a new, three-hour after-school program is available for ages 3 to 6, with sports, gymnastics, yoga, crafts and cooking.
Best Outdoor Enrichment for Little Ones
Secret Woods Nature Center, Broward County Parks
Ranger Rick and the staff at Secret Woods Nature Center celebrate all things nature in their monthly Nature Tots Program. The program is an hour long for 2- to 4-year-olds and generally costs $3. Each month there is a different nature-related theme, starting with a little story time. Then there's a puppet show, a craft or activity if time allows and a short nature walk. Each segment is short to go along with little kids' attention spans.
Best Story Times
WEST PALM BEACH PUBLIC LIBRARY
100 Clematis St., West Palm Beach
At this city library on a beautiful stretch of waterfront where Clematis Street meets Flagler Drive, librarians Jeanne Taylor and Lisa Webb host a variety of programs for children 3 months to 5 years, including weekly story time. "As a librarian, I want kids and families to fall in love with reading. The only way to do that is to truly incorporate active participation into story times," Webb said, who leads the preschool story time. "Yes, I read great books, but you need more than that." A great story time gets kids and caretakers involved, too, and that's what Webb does, as does her colleague, Jeanne Taylor, whose "Toddler, Family and Friends Story Time" is an interactive session for a mixed-age group. Music, movement, finger play and rhymes keep even the youngest tuned in. Each time they visit and learn new rhymes, the child collects a laminated copy to keep on a "Ring of Rhymes." The effort and consideration that these two librarians put into making this time one of great learning and discovery is clear.
Best Children's Book Signings
BOOKS AND BOOKS
Coral Gables, 305-442-4408
Our readers sure know how to pick a winner. In addition to the Kids Crown Award, Books and Books recently received the Lucile Micheels Pannell Award for Excellence in Children's Bookselling, which recognizes the work of booksellers that stimulate, promote and encourage children's and young people's interest in books. What better way to do that than with author appearances that include Lemony Snicket, Dave Barry, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jan Brett and Gloria Estefan. Who better to read aloud the stories kids love than the imaginative minds who invented them? Interactive author appearances involve kids in stories through theme-related crafts and activities, costumed characters, live animal presentations and hands-on workshops. "You'd be surprised at how impressed young children are with meeting an author of one of their favorite books," said staffer Emily D'Amour. Visit web site for a schedule of author visits and other free events.
Best Place to Learn Etiquette
THE ETIQUETTE ACADEMY
Doral Conservatory, Miami, 877-406-0076
Learn not only to set a table but eat politely from it, too. The courses are offered through Doral Conservatory, where children (and adults) learn in small groups, often gender-segregated. Students first learn the benefits of please and thank you, and then they move on to table manners. Topics include utensils and their uses, the need for thank-you notes, common courtesy, planning a party, and telephone and computer manners.
Best Place to Teach Kids to Build Stuff
HOME DEPOT SATURDAY WORKSHOPS
Kids and husband driving you nuts? Send them off to build a project at Home Depot's How-To Clinics. Children ages 5 to 12 are invited with their parent to stop by from 9 a.m. to noon the first Saturday of each month at any Home Depot. Kids learn to make fire trucks, mail organizers, bughouses and toolboxes from pre-fabricated kits. Parents can use the tools to teach their kids how to create something useful and practical, as well as reading, following directions and tool safety. As an added prize, kids get a pint-sized orange apron and an achievement pin to decorate it. And it's free.
Best Place to Learn About Computers
INSTITUTE FOR MATHEMATICS AND COMPUTER SCIENCE
It's a high-tech world, and kids not only need to learn the technology available to them but, more importantly, to think logically and solve problems. This enrichment program for third-graders and older is self-paced, so kids work at their own speed, with an instructor to guide them. Much like a foreign language, introducing logical reasoning at an early age before the window of opportunity closes achieves optimum results. In the virtual-robot lab, kids are given their own toolbox with wheels, gears and mechanisms to design and build robots with genuine physical behaviors that model real-world physics. Enrollment is quarterly and weekly in the summer. Classes run two hours, once a week with a maximum of 14 students per class. Prices vary.
Best Place to Teach Kids to Cook Without Messing Up Your Own Kitchen
YOUNG CHEF'S ACADEMY
Coral Springs, 954-344-1292
Pembroke Pines, 954-438-7768
Boca Raton, 561-393-3800
You'll be asking your kids "what's for dinner?" after they take classes here. Young Chef's isn't so much about gourmet cooking as it is about teaching what parents generally don't have time for these days: good, healthy food and recipes that are fun to make and taste delicious. Kids learn to use basic kitchen utensils, safe food handling, as well as math, reading, history and science skills, as they measure ingredients, learn the history of the cultures behind recipes, create food and sample the result. "You have no idea how many kids discover they love spinach and don't like cocoa after making some of the recipes here," said owner Shari Hoffman. Drop-off classes for ages 4 to 6, 5 to 8 and 7 to 12; Mini-camps, birthday parties and adult classes available. Membership: $79 registration fee, (includes apron, backpack, notebook, complimentary passes, merchandise discount) plus $79 monthly or $30 per class.
Biggest Youth Sports Program in the Country
CITY OF CORAL SPRINGS
Coral Springs has sports, that's for certain. This city had 1,018 teams with 10,894 participants last year. "This does not include over 40 traveling baseball teams and 20 different schools and nonprofit organizations that use our facilities for their leagues," said Media Relations Coordinator Maria Fuentes-Archilla. "We also hosted over 15 various tournaments at the gymnasium, including gymnastics, table tennis, basketball, martial arts, volleyball and cheerleading." The city's aquatic center was host to an international water polo tournament in addition to many swimming events. Youth sports? Coral Springs.
Best Flag Football Program
North Broward, 954-227-9955
Greater Palm Beach County, 866-968-8449
West Central Broward, 954-849-9811
South Broward, 954-437-0089
North Palm Beach, 561-723-8954
South Miami-Dade, 305-254-3215
It's a competitive world out there, but when you're a kid, it should be a fun world, too. This recreational league gives kids a chance to be outdoors, run around, learn athletic skills and sportsmanship, be part of a team, increase their self-esteem and have fun without the pressures of tryouts, drafts, mandatory practices and fundraisers. The emphasis is on instruction and inclusiveness (everyone plays), not winning a game. Team practices are on the same day as games -- a relief for busy parents. Ages 5 to 14. Some i9 locations have soccer, lacrosse and cheerleading. (If you're wondering, the name stands for: imaginative, innovative, interactive, integrity-driven, impassioned, inspirational, instructional, insightful and inclusive.)
Best Place to Learn Inline Skating or Skateboarding Tricks
ONE COOL WORLD
Peacock Park, Coconut Grove
Mini ramps, a vert ramp, bowl and multiple street courses, with hubbas, handrails, hips, boxes and all kinds of movable obstacles. Don't worry if you don't know what most of that means. Your kids will after they attend a few classes or summer camp here. A new novice and intermediate facility helps skaters track their improvement as they take their tricks to bigger obstacles as they progress. Novices will learn how to fall, rolling-in and dropping-in. All skaters must wear a helmet, elbow and kneepads. Weekend training classes (11 a.m. to 3 p.m., $35) introduce balance techniques, board-riding skills and park awareness with focus on safety, equipment maintenance and progressive tricks and riding skills. Skateboarding camp offers sessions for all ability levels: beginner to advanced, plus kayaking, fishing, hiking, video games and more. All counselors receive leadership and safety training and are skateboarders and instructors who can teach virtually any trick. Visit web site for weekly summer camp sessions, full or partial day, extended-care options and pricing.
Best Place to Learn to Surf
ISLAND WATER SPORTS
1985 NE Second St., Deerfield Beach
Whether you're a beginner, an avid regular or haven't caught a wave since college and need to brush up on your skills, Island Water Sports' free (that's right -- it's free!) surfing lessons at the Deerfield Beach International Fishing Pier will have you riding in no time. Every Saturday at 7 a.m., the store sponsors lessons for age 7 and older at all skill levels. "We teach everyone whether it's their first time or their 100th time," said Marcos Smith of Island Water Sports. Island Water Sports even provides all the gear. "It's really a whole package," Smith said. "Start out with a beautiful morning on the beach, get out in the ocean, then head out and have breakfast at one of the great spots here in Deerfield." Every member of the family can benefit from the amazing workout of surfing, and kids "seem to really make a connection with the joy of the lifestyle of surfing -- that it's not just a sport; it's a mental state."
Best Place to Learn to Sail
PALM BEACH SAILING CLUB JUNIOR SAILING PROGRAM
4600 N. Flagler Drive, West Palm Beach
With classes in the fall and spring and camps all summer, the Junior Sailing program teaches kids ages 7 to 19 how to be the captain of their own sailing vessel. Starting with Sailing 101, children progress through a series of levels, from water safety and boat handling to capsize recovery and crisis management. Once they reach a certain proficiency, they're encouraged to discover sailing as a sport, racing in regattas. During summer camp through Aug. 17, campers are classified according to age, weight and skill level then assigned to a suitable group and boat type. Camps are weekly, half-day or full day. The club maintains a fleet of Optimist dinghies, Sunfish, Capri 14s and Vanguard 15s for sailing in the Intracoastal Waterway.
Best Overall Day Camps
JEWISH COMMUNITY CENTER CAMPS
Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties
With an incredible roster of activities, a consistent and enthusiastic group of counselors and great facilities, it's no wonder readers repeatedly cast their vote for JCC summer day camps at all eight Jewish Community Centers from West Palm Beach to Kendall. "The staff really gets to know each child. They are accessible to working with parents," said Eileen Cohen of Davie and mom to camper Elaine. The camps also offer special sleep-away opportunities, programs that focus on sports, dance, cheerleading and science, and camps for children with special needs. Activities vary by location and can include swimming, tennis, theater, crafts, canoeing, archery, music, karate and cooking. At Camp Kadima in Davie, the staff spends the off-season looking for new programs to keep each year fresh for returning campers. "This year we are having a story time for first-graders, claymation and video production, and a former Disney cartoonist will join us to teach animation," said Julie Malin, director of Family and Children's Services and Camp Kadima at the David Posnack JCC. She said kids keep coming back because of the impact the camp makes. "You begin the summer with a group of kids who don't know each other, [and by] the end of summer they are crying because they don't want to leave each other. The kids find a new community and become a family," she said. The camps accept all campers regardless of religious affiliation.
Best Beach and Broadcast Camp
PUMP HOUSE OCEAN ARTS CAMP
118 Linda Lane #B, Palm Beach Shores
Life's a beach at this action-packed summer day camp at the pump house on Singer Island -- an idyllic setting for a summer camp full of recreation, education and creative activity. Various ocean-inspired arts-and-crafts projects are lead by locally recognized artist Kathy Ammendolia, while her son Bryce leads water sports. Camp Director Christina Plotkin, a veteran broadcast journalist, helps kids discover their own inner journalist with the Pump House Newspaper and the Pump House TV Show. Other activities include beach walks lead by ocean experts, dance, beach yoga, music, creative writing and storytelling and trips to MacArthur Beach State Park. There's also the Junior Ocean Lifeguard Program. "We really want kids to appreciate the wonders, the beauty and to respect the ocean," Plotkin said. Camp runs through Aug. 10 in two-week sessions, full or half-day. Visit the web site for more information including registration forms and fees.
Best Computer Camp
ID TECH CAMPS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI
This is not your typical summer camp. While learning about the newest innovative technology, kids actually get to use state-of-the-art, industry-standard products to design web sites, create and edit digital movies with flash animation, produce special effects, create 2-D and 3-D video games or build robots to compete against classmates. The benefits will last long after summer is over, as kids incorporate their skills into the classroom and even become mentors to other students and teachers. Besides being fun and engaging, the program gives kids the opportunity to work with the same stuff the pros use, as well as the experience of being at a university. Ages 7 to 17. Classes are one week long and can either be day ($729) or overnight ($1,129). Visit web site for various class offerings and availability.
Best Beach Fun Camp
FUNKY FISH KIDS DAYS
Kids who love water can spend the day splashing away with Funky Fish Kids Days. Professionals teach snorkeling, boogie boarding and scuba diving to children as young as 4 at three sport-specific camps. They have almost daily sessions of snorkeling at select locations from Boca Raton to Miami. At Ocean Adventure Day, snorkeling equipment and instruction to children ages 4 to 14 are provided. Then they make a fishy art project, go shelling, learn about coral reefs and design seascapes. In Liquid Playground, kids learn to catch waves on the beach during boogie-boarding lessons but not without a good stretch first. After a pizza party, participants Hula-Hoop and limbo, then create their own surf necklace to complete their surfer look. Scuba camp teaches children about gear, buddying up, breathing underwater, theory of diving and water experiments. The cost for camps is $45 to $59 daily.
Best Environmental Camp
CAMP LIVE OAK
Hugh Taylor Birch State Park, Fort Lauderdale, 954-491-2917
Oleta River State Park, North Miami, 305-940-4748
You may not want to spend July or August outdoors, but the kids at Camp Live Oak never seem to mind (or even notice) the heat because they're having so much fun. Every week is a new adventure in environmental science at this Kids Crown favorite, with topics such as "Nature's Fury" and "Killer Bugs and Creepy Creatures." Even though the emphasis is on the outdoors, there's regular camp stuff, too: canoeing, archery, fishing, sports, wall climbing, tree climbing and fort building. Because this camp is at two beach state parks, there's beach time, too. With well-trained staff, American Camping Association certification and an on-site camp director, this camp has been one of the best-run summer camps in South Florida for more than 20 years.
Best Do-It-All Party Business
ALL ABOUT ENTERTAINMENT
All About Entertainment owner Jennifer Wilson prides herself on being, well, all about entertainment. The company doesn't cater to those looking for a bounce house, but when it comes to magicians or impersonators, they are tip-top. "We don't do everything from soup to nuts; we specialize in entertainment," she said. "We do anything to do with interactive entertainment for children." They have balloon artists, face painters, jugglers, magicians and age-appropriate DJs. Have a pirate son, call Salty Sue, or for your princess daughter, Princess Reina waits. "All of the entertainers are licensed and have full background checks," she said. The site offers services by theme or age group, making planning a breeze.
Best Kids Party You May Never Think Of
305-444-9293, ext. 1
It's the most dreaded planning of the year, birthday-party time. But what to do when your child has outgrown Diego impersonators and is too young to send to a movie with his friends to celebrate? Have a bounce-house-free party at Actor's Playhouse. Bring your child and friends to a show, and get special-priced tickets, reserved seats, a T-shirt for the birthday child and a special rendition of "Happy Birthday" from the cast on stage. For additional fees, Actor's Playhouse will handle the food for the party, including pizza, cake and soda.
Best Co-ed Birthday Party
LASER FUN ZONE
Coral Springs, 954-344-4386
Laser Fun Zone offers parties to please girls and boys alike or even the dreaded co-ed party. They have neon-inspired laser tag, new video games and Build-A-Bear station. Separate packages are available, with only laser tag and video games, starting at $13.50 per child, or Build-A-Bear for $22 per child. Combo packages offer the best amenities, including a laser-tag game, $5 game credit, choice of $10 bear and outfit, party room use, pizza or chicken nuggets, ice cream cake and party coach. Coaches keep the party moving, take care of food, help bring gifts to your car and clean the room.
Best Active Kids' Party
From the outside, this big green bus looks unassuming, but step inside for a world of color and fun, where you see seats, acrobatic mats, rock walls and other contraptions sure to tire out your child. Rings, swings, ropes and other hanging equipment decorate the ceiling. The structured programming is geared to ages 2 to 7 with stretching, games and tumbling in an air-conditioned address. Parties include fitness fun, music and games. Additional packages include personalized bags of treats, T-shirts or a piñata.