Camps Offer Special Fun for Kids with Special Needs


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For many adults, memories of summer camp may include learning to water ski, making macramé crafts, roasting marshmallows or even feeling a little homesick. But for parents of children with special needs, summer camp may seem like an unattainable fantasy. Whether your child requires wheelchair-accessible facilities, a special diet, medical staff or counselors who understand the full autism spectrum, camps across North Carolina offer a wide range of options - from day camps and overnight programs to camps that include siblings or have no fees.

Finding a camp that fits

The key is to start the search and registration process early. Connect with other parents of children with special needs who may have tips or have already vetted specific camps.

When considering a standard summer camp, ask about the facilities and medical staff to see if it offers what your child needs to be successful. Many local parks and recreation programs include options for children with disabilities, and some YMCAs welcome kids with special needs in summer day camps.

Balancing special treatment with can-do attitudes

If you're open to the overnight option and a short drive, many camps roll out the red carpet for kids who need a little extra attention.

Holly Bolton of Davidson, N.C., never imagined her children going to sleep-away camp. Eleanor, 9, and Jack, 7, have spinal muscular atrophy and use power wheelchairs to get around. But two years ago, a friend and camp volunteer told the Boltons about Victory Junction.

Located in Randleman, N.C., Victory Junction caters to special needs of all types, from craniofacial anomalies to hemophilia and cancer to spina bifida. While a week at camp costs about $2,500, there is no cost to the families whose children attend, thanks to sponsor support.

"We went to a family weekend ... and we had the best time," Bolton says. "The camp is fully accessible; the wheelchairs can go up in a tree house, and [the kids] can play putt-putt, archery and bowling. When my husband and I talk about it, we agree that it was a life-changing experience."

Bolton says bonding with others and gaining confidence were the biggest takeaways from Eleanor and Jack's week at camp. "In the night hours in the cabins while they're unwinding for the day, they have discussions with other kids about their challenges," she says. "I think it is definitely confidence-building, and it gives them a chance to be around other people to prepare them for later in life."

Camp Carefree in Stokesdale, N.C., is another free, one-week overnight camp that welcomes children with special needs. From Neuro Week to Cancer Week to sessions for children with sickle-cell anemia and muscular dystrophy, Camp Carefree aims to emphasize what kids can do, not their illness or disability. There is even time reserved for siblings to attend.

"We call it the 'You Can Do It Camp,'" says Anne Jones, founder and executive director. "It is good for them to see that they can still do things."

Audrey Ganitopoulos, program director at the N.C. Therapeutic Riding Center in Mebane, agrees that the camp experience can build confidence and provide acceptance. The staff works with children who have autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, sensory integration disorder, Down syndrome, and other physical and cognitive issues. Siblings are welcome.

At the day camp, students spend the morning in the barn and take an hour-long riding lesson. The afternoon is filled with arts and crafts and learning to care for the center's chickens, pigs and goats.

"There are so many beneficial things children get out of being around animals," Ganitopoulos says. "For instance, students with autism can get to social interaction more easily through time with a horse."

The country atmosphere provides a calming influence, she says. "Our campers make a connection with their equine partners, and they gain patience and tolerance from the animals," Ganitopoulos says.

At Abilitations Children's Therapy & Wellness Center's Summer Musical Theater in Raleigh, counselors assign each child a role that suits his or her personality and abilities. T.R. Goins, a physical therapist at Abilitations, says licensed medical staff and a small number of students ensure that each child gets the most out of his or her experience.

This year, the staff will stage Toy Story. Children ages 5 and older with physical, cognitive, visual or hearing impairment can take part in the six-week camp that culminates in a production onstage at the Governor Morehead School in Raleigh.

Overcoming challenges builds confidence

Counselors who serve children with special needs stress that parents should not rule out physical activities. In fact, overcoming physical challenges may help broaden horizons and help children realize they can tackle a range of skills.

Camp Friendly, a day camp offered by the City of Raleigh Department of Parks and Recreation, offers children and teens with developmental and physical disabilities an opportunity to build confidence by participating in baseball, basketball, boating, camping, hiking, dance, theater, music, games, arts and crafts and a variety of other physical activities.

The Wrightsville Beach Surf Camp makes accommodations for children with special needs and their families who want to learn to surf.

Participants gain confidence and have fun, says Chelsea Thornhill, operations manager. "The surf lessons can help fill a void that having a grave illness can create," she says. "It's very healing."

Thornhill says children with any disability - ranging from those with autism to paraplegics - are welcome to take surf lessons, but a two-week notice helps ensure proper staffing the day your family attends.

"If your disability prohibits you from standing, you can still ride a wave on your stomach," she says. "We want to make sure if you need two or three instructors to help out, we have them ready. We hope to show people that they can do something completely new and different."

Some camp directors aim to fill a need that isn't covered by other camps, special needs or otherwise. Camp Royall in Pittsboro offers services throughout the year to people with autism and their families. The camp's summer program is a popular overnight option for a wide range of children on the autism spectrum.

Charlotte-area Camp Holiday fills a gap, too. Director Marcia Stern says it targets an often-underserved population: children ages 5 to 16 with Down syndrome. These kids learn about yoga, martial arts, music, nature, science and computers. Older children can take part in the Counselors in Training program, which offers leadership and team-building training.

"I want these children to be given the same opportunities as everyone else," Stern says.

Justin Thomas, camp coordinator and director of the American Diabetes Association Camp Carolina Trails in King, N.C., says the overnight camp for students in rising grades three through 11 who have diabetes, is assigned a staff of 35 counselors who also serve as role models.

"Thirty-three of them have diabetes," Thomas says. "They are great examples of how these kids can be happy, healthy, successful, go to college, get married and have a great career. It's so helpful to see others in their peer group and older people who are in the exact same shoes."

Camp Carolina Trails' 1-to-10 medical staff-to-camper ratio with a medical member in each cabin every night reassures concerned parents.

Children with specific dietary needs present their own set of challenges, and at least one camp has addressed this. Kids with celiac disease who require a gluten-free diet can enjoy Camp Kanata in Wake Forest without worrying about food during Gluten-Free Week Aug. 5-11.

Researching, asking questions and touring the facilities help parents feel more comfortable before registering for a specific camp or session. Follow your child's individual interests to begin your search.  n

Anne Woodman is a Morrisville-based writer and mother of two.

For More Information & Resources

  • Find contact information for each camp mentioned above in the following list::

    - Abilitations Children's Therapy & Wellness Center Inc., Raleigh. The website has a helpful "Resource Corner" to aid your search efforts. 919-844-6611 or www.actwc.com.

    - Camp Carefree, Stokesdale. Free, overnight camp for specific health issues and disabilities. 336-427-0966 or www.campcarefree.org.

    - Camp Carolina Trails, King. Overnight camp for children with type 1 or type 2 diabetes. 919-743-5400 or 888-342-2382 x3217 or jthomas@diabetes.org.

    - Camp Holiday, Charlotte. Day camp for children with Down syndrome. 704-998-1740 or www.dsacnc.org.

    - Camp Friendly, Raleigh. www.raleighnc.gov/arts/content/PRecRecreation/Articles/CAMPFRIENDLY.html.

    - Camp Kanata, Wake Forest. Offers a Gluten-Free Week for children with celiac disease. 919-556-2661 or www.campkanata.org.

    - Camp Royall, Pittsboro. Overnight camp for children on the autism spectrum who are residents of North Carolina. www.autismsociety-nc.org.

    - North Carolina Therapeutic Riding Center, Mebane. Day camps for children with or without disabilities. 919-304-1009 or www.nctrcriders.org.

    - City Parks & Recreation Departments and YMCA programs often serve children with special needs; check ones near you.

    - Victory Junction, Randleman. Free, overnight camp for a wide range of special needs. 336-498-9055 or www.victoryjunction.org.

    - Wrightsville Beach Surf Camp, Wrightsville. Surf lessons scheduled for children with special needs with two-week notice; also offers alopecia and cancer charity day camps. 866-844-7873 or www.wbsurfcamp.com.

  • Check the Recreation and Enrichment resource listings category in the Carolina Parent Special Kids Guide for more options.
  • Check out ourcamp directory for a list of mainstream camps, if you'd like to explore those options for your child.

 

What to Know Before You Register

 

Jamie Harris of Morrisville, a former teacher and mother of an autistic child, suggests the following questions to ask when considering camps for children with special needs:

  • What is the camper-to-staff ratio? The fewer campers to each staff member, the better.
  • Are the teachers trained to work with special-needs children?
  • Are the facilities clean and accessible to your child, and do they meet his needs?
  • What activities will the campers be doing? How will they help your child achieve his goals?
  • Does the camp provide any transportation?
  • Can you apply for a scholarship if the camp is not free?
  • Also, be sure to register early to ensure a spot for your child.
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August 2017

Kids can enjoy a free cookie with any purchase, and enjoy kid's books, chess, tic tac toe, and card games. 

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Clowns, daredevils, dance groups, contortionists and more highlight this lively circus act. Purchase tickets online.

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PNC Arena
1400 Edwards Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
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Cost: Suggested donations are $8 for kids, $15 for adults

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123 S. Boundary St.
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4709 Ten-Ten Rd.
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Lake Crabtree County Park
1400 Aviation Pkwy.
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760 S.E Maynard Rd.
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Read With Me Book Shop
111 E. Hargett St., $110
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Where:
Walnut Creek Wetland Park
950 Peterson St.
Raleigh, NC  27610
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Sponsor: Raleigh Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources
Telephone: 919-996-2760
Contact Name: Stacie Hagwood
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Crowder District Park
4709 Ten-Ten Rd.
Apex, NC
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Whole Foods North Raleigh
8710 Six Forks Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27615
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Cost: $19-$35

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PNC Arena
1400 Edwards Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
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2 E. South St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Sky Zone Durham
1720 Guess Rd., Ste. 90
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Fitness4Life
6701 Glenwood Ave.
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Telephone: 919-787-2250
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760 S.E. Maynard Rd.
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720 Ninth St.
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Cost: Free

Where:
Read With Me Book Shop
111 E. Hargett St., $110
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Cost: $19-$35

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PNC Arena
1400 Edwards Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
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Crowder District Park
4709 Ten-Ten Rd.
Apex, NC
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Cost: Free

Where:
Lake Crabtree County Park
1400 Aviation Parkway
Morrisville, NC  27560
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Sponsor: Lake Crabtree County Park
Telephone: 919-460-3355
Contact Name: Carol Cunningham
Website »

More information

Orphaned in India, 11-year-old Mary Lennox returns to Yorkshire to live with her embittered, reclusive uncle Archibald and his son Colin. The estate's many wonders include a magic...

Cost: See website for fees

Where:
Fletcher Theater
2 E. South St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Website »

More information

Clowns, daredevils, dance groups, contortionists and more highlight this lively circus act. Purchase tickets online.

Cost: $19-$35

Where:
PNC Arena
1400 Edwards Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
View map »


Website »

More information

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Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Rd.
Raleigh, NC
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Telephone: 919-856-6675
Website »

More information

Clowns, daredevils, dance groups, contortionists and more highlight this lively circus act. Purchase tickets online.

Cost: $19-$35

Where:
PNC Arena
1400 Edwards Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
View map »


Website »

More information

Orphaned in India, 11-year-old Mary Lennox returns to Yorkshire to live with her embittered, reclusive uncle Archibald and his son Colin. The estate's many wonders include a magic...

Cost: See website for fees

Where:
Fletcher Theater
2 E. South St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Website »

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Cost: Free

Where:
Southern Village Green
400 Market St.
Chapel Hill, NC  27516
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Cost: $5/nonmembers. Free for members

Where:
JC Raulston Arboretum
4415 Beryl Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27606
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Sponsor: JC Raulston Arboretum
Telephone: 919-513-7011
Contact Name: Elizabeth Overcash
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Cost: $18

Where:
Open Arts
1222 Copeland Oaks Dr.
Morrisville, NC  27560
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Sponsor: Babies On The MOVE
Contact Name: Rebecca Quinones
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Parent and child explore the gardens together to find the perfect spot to spread a picnic blanket for garden stories and crafts. Ages 3-5. Program begins at the Bobby G. Wilder...

Cost: $5/nonmembers. Free for members

Where:
JC Raulston Arboretum
4415 Beryl Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27606
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Telephone: 919-513-7011
Contact Name: Elizabeth Overcash
Website »

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Preschoolers enjoy a story.

Cost: Free

Where:
Barnes & Noble
8030 Renaissance Parkway, Ste. 855
Durham, NC  27713
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Telephone: 919-806-1930
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A wonderfully kid-paced hour featuring music, play and dancing with toddler stars singing on the mic at Cotton's gently amplified & participatory music show. Children delight in...

Cost: Free with admission

Where:
Pump It Up Raleigh
10700 World Trade Blvd, #112
Raleigh, NC  27617
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Sponsor: Pump it Up
Telephone: 919-828-3344
Contact Name: Owner/manager Kellie Paterson McHugh
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Hear a few of tales about corn, learn corn facts, and make a corny craft to take home. All ages with adult. 

Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Rd.
Raleigh, AL
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Telephone: 919-856-6675
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More information

Take part in a class that teaches individualized ways to foster motor development for your child. Learn about carry positions, best positions for your baby, how to help your child learn to crawl,...

Cost: $18

Where:
Open Arts
1222 Copeland Oaks Dr.
Morrisville, NC  27560
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Sponsor: Babies On The MOVE
Contact Name: Rebecca Quinones
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Preschoolers enjoy a story.

Cost: Free

Where:
Barnes & Noble
5959 Triangle Town Blvd.
Raleigh, NC  27616
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Telephone: 919-806-1930
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More information

Discover wildlife, their habits and their habitats through hikes, activities and crafts. Ages 5-8. Register online.

Cost: $12/resident, $16/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC
View map »


Telephone: 919-387-5980
Website »

More information

Kids explore nature, play games and make a craft. Dress to get dirty. Ages 5-10. Register online. Choose course #203560.

Cost: $4/child

Where:
Walnut Creek Wetland Park
950 Peterson St.
Raleigh, NC  27610
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Sponsor: Raleigh Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources
Telephone: 919-996-2760
Contact Name: Stacie Hagwood
Website »

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Play super-sized classic favorites, become a mini golf master, build and drop parachutes off a treehouse, design your own gamepiece and more. Purchase tickets online.

Cost: $25/family

Where:
Kidzu Children's Museum
201 S. Estes Dr.
Chapel Hill, NC  27514
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Sponsor: Kidzu Children's Museum
Telephone: 919-933-1455
Contact Name: Kidzu Marketing
Website »

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Enjoy the spectacle of giant puppets, stilt dancers, shadow puppets and live music. All ages. A pre-show begins at 6:20 p.m.

Cost: Suggested donations are $8 for kids, $15 for adults

Where:
Forest Theatre
123 S. Boundary St.
Chapel Hill, NC  27514
View map »


Telephone: 919-962-0522
Website »

More information

Play nature games, observe nocturnal animals, and roast s'mores around the campfire. All ages with adult. Register online.

Cost: $1/person

Where:
Crowder District Park
4709 Ten Ten Rd.
Apex, NC
View map »


Telephone: 919-662-2850
Website »

More information

Orphaned in India, 11-year-old Mary Lennox returns to Yorkshire to live with her embittered, reclusive uncle Archibald and his son Colin. The estate's many wonders include a magic...

Cost: See website for fees

Where:
Fletcher Theater
2 E. South St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

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Cost: Free

Where:
Marbles Kids Museum
201 E. Hargett St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Website »

More information

Toddler Time is a special time for ages 5 and younger to bounce under the supervision of their parents, and without interference from the big kids. Purchase tickets online.

Cost: $7-$10

Where:
Sky Zone Durham
1720 Guess Rd., Ste. 90
Durham, NC  27701
View map »


Website »

More information

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Cost: $5/adult, $3 ages 7-16. Free for ages 6 and younger

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Rd.
Raleigh, NC
View map »


Telephone: 919-856-6675
Website »

More information

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Cost: Free

Where:
Park West Village
Village Market Place
Morrisville, NC  27560
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Sponsor: Triangle Children's Business Fair
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Go nutty for nature as children satisfy some of their curiosity about the world around them and parents share in the joy of discovery. Ages 3-5 with parent. Register online.

Cost: $10/resident, $13/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC
View map »


Telephone: 919-387-5980
Website »

More information

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Cost: Free

Where:
302 West Main Street
Durham, NC  27701
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Sponsor: Social Justice Storytime
Telephone: 919-714-3377
Contact Name: Jessica Hulick
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Where:
Northgate Mall
1058 W. Club Blvd.
Durham, NC  27701
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Website »

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Kids ages 6 and younger enjoy stories. Take part in an optional arts and crafts session after storytime for $5.

Cost: Free

Where:
Read With Me Book Shop
111 E. Hargett St., $110
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Website »

More information

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Cost: $30 (tuition + materials)

Where:
The Scrap Exchange
2050 Chapel Hill Rd.
Durham, NC  27707
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Sponsor: The Scrap Exchange
Telephone: 191-921-31278
Contact Name: Anna Graves
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Discover what's happening in the forest as the sun sets and listen to stories around a campfire. All ages with adult. Register online.

Cost: $18/resident, $24/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC
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Telephone: 919-387-5980
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Explore how bees pollinate flowers and help gardens grow. Discover how bee hives works, exploring the ways that bee-keepers have historically housed and cared for their hives, and see what a...

Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Rd.
Raleigh, NC
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Telephone: 919-856-6675
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Step back in time with a 19th-century costumed interpreter and watch the millstones at work grinding corn into meal. Registration encouraged online. Tickets available at the...

Cost: $5/adult, $3 ages 7-16. Free for ages 6 and younger

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Rd.
Raleigh, NC
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Telephone: 919-856-6675
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Explore the historic nature of Leigh Farm Park with a friendly guide. Venture inside the historic farmhouse while being captivated by tales about life at Leigh Farm throughout the years.

Cost: Free

Where:
Leigh Farm Park
370 Leigh Farm Rd.
Durham, NC  27707
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Sponsor: Durham Parks and Recreation
Telephone: 919-560-1116
Contact Name: Natalya Buckel
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Take part in an all-day block party and community festival on Hillsborough Street. The rain-or-shine event, features more than 325 booths and dozens of departments, student organizations and...

Cost: Free

Where:
Hillsborough Street
2011 Hillsborough St.
Raleigh, NC  27607
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Sponsor: Live it Up! Hillsborough Street Community Service Corporation
Contact Name: Lara Bannister
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Find out more about the coderschool's programs and discounts. If you're ready to jump in, we'll be offering two free coding workshops for a Back-2-School event, so sign up below...

Cost: Free

Where:
thecoderschool - Cary
201 Davis Grove Circle
Cary, NC  27519
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Sponsor: theCoderSchool - Cary
Telephone: 919-234-5193
Contact Name: Nidhi Joshi
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Orphaned in India, 11-year-old Mary Lennox returns to Yorkshire to live with her embittered, reclusive uncle Archibald and his son Colin. The estate's many wonders include a magic...

Cost: See website for fees

Where:
Fletcher Theater
2 E. South St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Enjoy the spectacle of giant puppets, stilt dancers, shadow puppets and live music. All ages. A pre-show begins at 6:20 p.m.

Cost: Suggested donations are $8 for kids, $15 for adults

Where:
Forest Theatre
123 S. Boundary St.
Chapel Hill, NC  27514
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Telephone: 919-962-0522
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Orphaned in India, 11-year-old Mary Lennox returns to Yorkshire to live with her embittered, reclusive uncle Archibald and his son Colin. The estate's many wonders include a magic...

Cost: See website for fees

Where:
Fletcher Theater
2 E. South St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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See Raleigh native Tift Merrit and friends perform and enjoy food trucks, family play and more. Purchase tickets online.

Cost: $29-$39. Free for ages 5 and younger; ticket required.

Where:
N.C. Museum of Art
2110 Blue Ridge Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
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Annual Guides

Education Guide

The 2016-17 Education Guide offers 643 education resources in the Triangle, including area preschools, private schools, public school systems, charter schools, boarding schools and academic resources.

The Triangle Go-To Guide

Our debut Triangle Go-To Guide connects you to family fun resources across the Triangle. Plus, find out who our 2017 Readers' Favorites are.