Inside the Decline in Youth Sports

What’s causing it and how do we fix it?


Published:

Dave Herpy coaches his son, Jacob, and his teammate, Nina.

Photo courtesy of Ana Choto

Participation in youth sports is declining in the U.S. — and parents may be partly to blame. According to a report from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, youth ages 6-12 who played team sports in 2018 was down almost 8% from 2008. As a father of four, camp and youth development professional, and youth sports coach in the Triangle, I’ve witnessed the decline firsthand, and I’d like for us, as parents, to do something about it.

The Washington Post recently published a couple of articles that cite a variety of reasons for the decline in youth sports. Its June 1, 2016, article titled, “Why 70 percent of kids quit sports by age 13,” highlights several reasons for the decline, including participants not having fun and feeling pressured to specialize in a single sport and achieve at an elite level. An Oct. 4, 2015, article published by The Washington Post titled, “Are parents ruining youth sports? Fewer kids play amid pressure,” discusses the ultra-competitive youth sports culture parents have helped create.

 

Causes

So what is causing the decline in youth sports participation? Jason Bocarro, a professor in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management at North Carolina State University whose research includes youth sports, says he is “living this as both a researcher and a parent. ... It is a complex problem without a single solution.” 

A primary reason is cost. Youth sports expenses range from registration fees to travel equipment, making it difficult for some families to afford it. This creates an access issue for low-income families.

The second reason is specialization. With the goal of acquiring a college scholarship in mind, many parents push their athlete to specialize in a single sport, which not only reduces participation numbers across all sports, but can also have a negative impact on the athlete. Specialization in one sport often leads to travel team participation, which not only requires athletes to achieve at the highest possible level, but also leaves out youth who don’t compete or play at that elite level. Specialization can also result in overuse injuries, which can prevent the athlete from playing that sport altogether.

A final cause that goes along with travel sports is the pull of qualified coaches away from recreational teams to travel teams. Since travel sports clubs strive to hire the most experienced coaches, less qualified coaches are often left to manage recreational teams, which may also hurt participation on those teams — especially if a child has a less-than-positive experience and opts not to play again, or feels he or she is not good enough to play.

 

Parents vs. Youth Perspective

If you ask a parent and child what they get out of youth sports, you’re likely to get very different answers. The Oct. 4, 2015 article in The Washington Post surmises that “youth sports is the new keeping up with the Joneses.” While many parents take a humble approach to travel sports, this observation by The Washington Post appears to be directed at parents who consider their child’s participation on a travel team a “badge of honor.” 

For children, it’s supposed to be — and often is — about having fun, learning new skills, teamwork and experiencing positive coaching. That same article in The Washington Post reports that a George Washington University survey of nearly 150 youth found that winning was ranked very low — at 48 out of 81 factors contributing to happiness in youth sports.

Aaron M. Brown, owner of Brown Strength and Conditioning, a sports performance gym in Raleigh, is a also certified strength and conditioning specialist who is accredited by USA Weightlifting and works with elite athletes in his gym. “In my experience training young athletes for youth sports, I have seen many kids losing their passion for the game due to unreasonable expectations put upon them by their parents,” he says. “In order for us as parents to allow our kids to enjoy youth sports, it’s time to step back and let them play, fail, succeed and most importantly, have fun!”

 

Negative Impacts of Parental Pressure

In November 2018, a 40-year-old father of a youth football player from Princeton, North Carolina, was arrested after assaulting an 11-year-old player from the Selma Yellow Jackets youth football team during a youth league game taking place on the field at Smithfield-Selma High School in Johnston County. According to the Johnston County Sheriff’s Office, the man was arrested after witnesses say he picked up the player and slammed him on the ground. They charged the parent with assaulting a child under 12. This is just one local example of parents getting out of hand during youth sports games.

Photo courtesy of Dave Herpy

Herpy and son, Jacob, recently enjoyed a break from spring sports.

As part of an effort to curb unruly sportsmanship, the Town of Clayton’s Parks and Recreation Department requires parents to attend a preseason meeting and sign a “Parent Code of Conduct” that they must adhere to for the season, helping ensure a positive experience for all participating youth athletes.

“We strive to provide a fun and engaging environment for all of our youth sports leagues, and we believe this starts on Day One with the conduct of our parents,” says Nick Rummage, athletic program coordinator for Clayton Parks and Recreation. “We set out our expectations before the season even starts. Parents know they are expected to positively support the players, coaches and officials at all times. The children playing the game will emulate the behavior of the adults around them, and sour attitudes lead to an unenjoyable experience.”

 

How to Reverse the Problem

So what can we, as parents, do to help reverse this problem? We can and should change our focus from that of winning and being No. 1 to that of positive youth development. There are many life skills learned through youth sports that we should focus on as parents: cooperation, goal setting, sportsmanship and teamwork, to name a few. 

We can also help keep the “youth” in youth sports by empowering young athletes to take the lead in this area. Let’s allow them to decide whether or not to play, and give them the power to choose what sports they want to play. Let’s encourage them to play a variety of sports and try new activities. Let’s also allow them to take a break if they want to.

I experienced this myself recently when our oldest two children both decided to take a break from spring sports and activities. Our 8-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter had been playing sports for more than three years, season after season. They started with soccer through the Greater Cleveland Athletic Association in Johnston County. From there, our daughter went on to participate in gymnastics at Dream Gymnastics in Garner, and our son played basketball and tennis through Clayton Parks and Recreation, as well as PGA Jr. League golf through Pine Hollow Golf Club in Clayton. We respected their decision to take a break from sports. (To be honest, the break from practices and matches three days a week between the two children was somewhat of a relief for my wife and me, too.)

I believe that when children are intrinsically motivated to play sports, as opposed to extrinsically motivated by parents, they have a much better experience and will be more likely to stick with it. I witnessed this when coaching our children’s soccer teams. You could tell the players who were there because they were genuinely interested in playing, versus the children who were there because their parents forced them to be there.

 

Benefits of Youth Sports

There are numerous benefits of youth sports — mainly life skills and positive youth development. As I stated previously, youth athletes learn many life skills through sports — cooperation, goal setting, sportsmanship and teamwork — that are valuable to a child’s learning experiences, especially later in life.

One final benefit is the development of lifetime activities. As someone who grew up running cross-country and track, I have been able to continue running later in life as a competitive age-group runner, which helps me maintain an active and healthy lifestyle. Similarly, when children develop an interest in lifetime activities such as golfing, running, swimming or tennis, it helps them stay active and healthy later in life. Encouraging this in our children should be our ultimate goal and joy as parents.

In the book “Youth Development Principles and Practices in Out-of-School Time Settings” (Sagamore-Venture Publishing, March 2018), Bocarro co-authored a chapter titled, “The Status of Youth Sports in American Society.” He opens with an example from a local youth female athlete who was a top recruit and had committed to playing college soccer on a scholarship. The opening states:

Photo courtesy of Ana Choto

Parents form a spirit tunnel as a youth soccer team gets ready to play. 

“As I lay on the field that day, I knew my leg was broken; I heard it and I felt it. I didn’t even try to get up and I heard my dad yelling from the sideline. ‘Come on, Hannah; you’re fine. Get up!’ My mind raced. I thought about my parents and how much time, money and emotion they had invested in my soccer career since I was little. I thought about my coaches and teammates and how much they were counting on me. Our team had a great chance to win the state championship that year. Then I thought about how much of my life had been consumed by soccer since I was 6 years old. At that moment, I realized that I wouldn’t have to play soccer anymore. It was the happiest day of my life.”

It is the responsibility of coaches and parents to provide inspiring youth development experiences for children. As they grow into adults, these athletes will remember and hold onto their youth sports days. If we want our children to have positive memories of playing youth sports, let’s do everything we can to help make that happen.

 

Dave Herpy is a father of four, camp and youth development professional, and youth sports coach in the Triangle. He has a master’s in recreation and sport science from Ohio University and more than 20 years of experience directing camps and coaching youth sports.

 

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USNWC
5000 Whitewater Center Pkwy
Charlotte, NC  28214
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Sponsor: USNWC
Telephone: 704-391-3900
Website »

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Skate on an ice trail or free skate on 17,000 sq. ft of ice. Located in the Upper Pond of the Whitewater Center, the skating environment features three distinct programming areas and an on-ice...

Cost: 20

Where:
USNWC
5000 Whitewater Center Pkwy
Charlotte, NC  28214
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Sponsor: USNWC
Telephone: 704-391-3900
Website »

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Spanish Alive is providing Family Spanish classes starting in January! Join us to learn Spanish as an entire family in an immersive, fun environment. Our teachers are trained Spanish educators and...

Cost: $75-$216

Where:
Spanish Alive
156 E. Chatham St
Cary, NC
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Website »

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Short class advertising for local class   I am a mom and retired CPA who is passionate about teaching teens about the high cost of their choices. I teach a fun, interactive "Game of Life meets...

Cost: $225

Where:
Hope Community Church- Apex
2080 E Williams Street
Apex, NC  27539
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Sponsor: Beyond Personal Finance
Contact Name: Charla McKinley
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I am a mom and retired CPA who is passionate about teaching teens about the high cost of their choices. I teach a fun, interactive "Game of Life meets Dave Ramsey" class that has teens experience...

Cost: $225

Where:
Hope Community Church- Apex
2080 E Williams Street
Apex, NC  27539
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Sponsor: Beyond Personal Finance
Contact Name: Charla McKinley
Website »

More information

Short class advertising for local class   I am a mom and retired CPA who is passionate about teaching teens about the high cost of their choices. I teach a fun, interactive "Game of Life meets...

Cost: $225

Where:
Hope Community Church- Apex
2080 E Williams Street
Apex, NC  27539
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Sponsor: Beyond Personal Finance
Contact Name: Charla McKinley
Website »

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Azevedo Family Psychology and Kym Azevedo will host an Art for Life group each Thursday from 5:30-6:30PM beginning January 16 and running through March 26. This group is completely free, kid...

Cost: FREE

Where:
1903 N. Harrison Ave
Suite 201
Cary, NC  27513
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Sponsor: Azevedo Family Psychology
Telephone: 919-624-9568
Contact Name: Kym Azevedo
Website »

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Explore astronomy, biology, architectural and engineering principles, technology and so much more through our hands-on, play-based activities. Spend an evening with your preschooler, experiencing...

Cost: free

Where:
Saint Raphael Preschool
5801 Falls of Neuse Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27609
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Sponsor: Saint Rapahel Preschool
Telephone: 919-865-5725
Contact Name: Katie Mistele
Website »

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The goal of the How To Talk So Kids Will Listen Group workshop is to help you communicate more effectively with children.   In each session of the workshop you'll be introduced to an...

Cost: $12.95 materials fee

Where:
Wildflower School at Belle Vie Farm
3100 Damascus Church Road
Chapel Hill, NC  27516
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Sponsor: Wildflower School at Belle Vie Farm
Telephone: 919-260-6859
Contact Name: Shelley Welch
Website »

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Hounded by Death, the character of Everybody desperately seeks out everyone and everything they know in hope of finding something meaningful to take to the grave. These 90 minutes of theatrical...

Cost: Ticket prices start at $15

Where:
PlayMakers' Repertory Company
120 Country Club Rd
Chapel Hill, NC  27599
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Telephone: 919-962-7529

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Forget tourist-filled museums, make your own memories with a photo scavenger hunt tour in Raleigh! On a Let’s Roam scavenger hunt, you and your team will work together to wander throughout...

Cost: $11

Where:
500 S Salisbury St
raleigh, NC  27601
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Sponsor: Let's Roam
Website »

More information

Amongst the ancient oak trees is the heart of Raleigh. We'll help you see the forest for the trees and all its magic splendor. Tourist, local, or new to town, this is a lively small group activity...

Cost: $11

Where:
Downtown
500 S Salisbury St
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Sponsor: Let's Roam
Telephone: 833-202-7626
Contact Name: Kelly
Website »

More information

Summer Garden Camps at the JCRA invite your child to investigate nature during half or full day camps.  Campers tend to the garden, harvest vegetables, catch insects, and create crafts from the...

Cost: Varies depending on camp week

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
Website »

More information

Kindermusik is a research-based early childhood curriculum that includes 45-minute classroom lessons with materials and resources that encourages parental involvement . Research has linked...

Cost: $70/month

Where:
Hope Community Building
2080 E Williams St
Hope Community Building, Fuquay Varina Room
Apex/Holly Springs, NC  27539
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Telephone: 191-990-25432
Contact Name: Leigh Hamm
Website »

More information

Skate on an ice trail or free skate on 17,000 sq. ft of ice. Located in the Upper Pond of the Whitewater Center, the skating environment features three distinct programming areas and an on-ice...

Cost: 20

Where:
USNWC
5000 Whitewater Center Pkwy
Charlotte, NC  28214
View map »


Sponsor: USNWC
Telephone: 704-391-3900
Website »

More information

Lights is a half-mile walking trail that leads viewers through a series of immersive light installations featuring  honeycombs, vines, crystals, and other natural features integrated into the...

Cost: Free

Where:
USNWC
5000 Whitewater Center Pkwy
Charlotte, NC  28214
View map »


Sponsor: USNWC
Telephone: 704-391-3900
Website »

More information

Sign up for a Raleigh scavenger hunt and put on your best Nick Cage impression as you seek out the national treasures hidden in Raleigh. Via an app, be guided through the cultural, historical,...

Cost: See website for fees

Where:
Downtown Raleigh
500 S. Salisbury St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Sponsor: LetsRoam!
Telephone: 833-202-7626
Contact Name: LetsRoam!
Website »

More information

Join us for Family Trivia Night!  Test your knowledge of pop culture, books, music and more. Pizza and drinks provided.  Call or stop by to register: 919-245-2532. Best for kids ages 8 and up...

Cost: Free

Where:
Orange County Main Library
137 W Margaret Ln
Hillsborough, NC  27278
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Sponsor: Orange County Public Library
Telephone: 919-245-2539
Contact Name: Libbie Hough
Website »

More information

Art Walk featuring local galleries and artist studios in historic downtown Hillsborough on the Last Friday of every month (no Art Walk in December).

Cost: FREE

Where:
Downtown Hillsborough (multiple locations)
102 N. Churton St.
Hillsborough, NC  27278
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Sponsor: Hillsborough Arts Council
Telephone: 919-643-2500
Contact Name: Torey Mishoe
Website »

More information

Kids! Are you sick of the Winter? Enjoy a Summer's night at Peach Road Center. Enjoy a Summer-like evening with us. Get into the luau spirit and play summer games!  

Cost: Free

Where:
Peach Road Community Center
911 Ileagnes Rd
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Sponsor: City or Raleigh Parks, Recreation & Cultural Resources
Telephone: 919-807-8545
Contact Name: Christy Famolare

More information

Hounded by Death, the character of Everybody desperately seeks out everyone and everything they know in hope of finding something meaningful to take to the grave. These 90 minutes of theatrical...

Cost: Ticket prices start at $15

Where:
PlayMakers' Repertory Company
120 Country Club Rd
Chapel Hill, NC  27599
View map »


Telephone: 919-962-7529

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Forget tourist-filled museums, make your own memories with a photo scavenger hunt tour in Raleigh! On a Let’s Roam scavenger hunt, you and your team will work together to wander throughout...

Cost: $11

Where:
500 S Salisbury St
raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Sponsor: Let's Roam
Website »

More information

Join our bird enthusiast, Vernon, for an easy walk while looking and listening for our feathered friends. Discover different types of birds and their habitats.​ No preregistration required. Meet...

Cost: FREE

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

More information

How did people predict the weather before The Weather Channel, and can animals really help? Come to the Finley Center to put our colonial weather proverbs to the test and make a pop-up woodchuck...

Cost: For all ages; FREE. Registration is not required

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Rd
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Telephone: 919-856-6675
Website »

More information

Amongst the ancient oak trees is the heart of Raleigh. We'll help you see the forest for the trees and all its magic splendor. Tourist, local, or new to town, this is a lively small group activity...

Cost: $11

Where:
Downtown
500 S Salisbury St
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Sponsor: Let's Roam
Telephone: 833-202-7626
Contact Name: Kelly
Website »

More information

Summer Garden Camps at the JCRA invite your child to investigate nature during half or full day camps.  Campers tend to the garden, harvest vegetables, catch insects, and create crafts from the...

Cost: Varies depending on camp week

Where:
JC Raulston Arboretum
4415 Beryl Rd
Raleigh, NC  27606
View map »


Sponsor: JC Raulston Arboretum
Telephone: (919) 513-7011
Contact Name: Elizabeth Overcash
Website »

More information

Kindermusik is a research-based early childhood curriculum that includes 45-minute classroom lessons with materials and resources that encourages parental involvement . Research has linked...

Cost: $70/month

Where:
Hope Community Building
2080 E Williams St
Hope Community Building, Fuquay Varina Room
Apex/Holly Springs, NC  27539
View map »


Telephone: 191-990-25432
Contact Name: Leigh Hamm
Website »

More information

Join us to meet the educators, see the farm and learn more about our Preschool for 3-5 year olds and Camps for 4-10 year olds. We'll have a campfire for some warmth but please come dressed for the...

Cost: 0

Where:
Longleaf Forest School
4826 Mt. Moriah Road
Durhan, NC  27707
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Sponsor: Longleaf Forest School
Contact Name: Tara Lawson
Website »

More information

Chinese New Year Festival, also Lunar New Year Festival. Largest public event in the Triangle. MAIN STAGE has vocal and orchestral music, folk dance, Lion and Dragon dances, martial arts, and comic...

Cost: $10 entry at door, military and senior discounts, kids<6 free

Where:
Dorton Arena, NC State Fairgrounds
1025 Blue Ridge Road
Enter Gate 1,2,4,5,11
Raleigh, NC  27607
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Sponsor: NC Triangle Area Chinese American Society
Contact Name: Michael, Shin
Website »

More information

Chinese New Year Festival or Lunar New Year Festival, largest public event in the Triangle. MAIN STAGE with musical and dance performances, Lion Dance Dragon Dance, martial arts, comic skits emceed...

Cost: $10 entry at door, military and senior discounts, kids<6 free

Where:
Dorton Arena, NC State Fairgrounds
1025 Blue Ridge Road
Enter Gate 1,2,4,5,11
Raleigh, NC  27607
View map »


Sponsor: NC Triangle Area Chinese American Society
Contact Name: Michael, Shin
Website »

More information

Skate on an ice trail or free skate on 17,000 sq. ft of ice. Located in the Upper Pond of the Whitewater Center, the skating environment features three distinct programming areas and an on-ice...

Cost: 20

Where:
USNWC
5000 Whitewater Center Pkwy
Charlotte, NC  28214
View map »


Sponsor: USNWC
Telephone: 704-391-3900
Website »

More information

Lights is a half-mile walking trail that leads viewers through a series of immersive light installations featuring  honeycombs, vines, crystals, and other natural features integrated into the...

Cost: Free

Where:
USNWC
5000 Whitewater Center Pkwy
Charlotte, NC  28214
View map »


Sponsor: USNWC
Telephone: 704-391-3900
Website »

More information

Sign up for a Raleigh scavenger hunt and put on your best Nick Cage impression as you seek out the national treasures hidden in Raleigh. Via an app, be guided through the cultural, historical,...

Cost: See website for fees

Where:
Downtown Raleigh
500 S. Salisbury St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Sponsor: LetsRoam!
Telephone: 833-202-7626
Contact Name: LetsRoam!
Website »

More information

Spanish Alive is providing Family Spanish classes starting in January! Join us to learn Spanish as an entire family in an immersive, fun environment. Our teachers are trained Spanish educators and...

Cost: $75-$216

Where:
Spanish Alive
156 E. Chatham St
Cary, NC
View map »


Website »

More information

Did you know that Disney, Netflix, Google and NASA, just to name a few, are all using Python? Python can be used for creating web applications, automation, programming robots and artificial...

Cost: Free: registration required

Where:
, NC


Website »

More information

FEB. 1, 2020 | 1 – 4 P.M. | BLUE JAY POINT COUNTY PARK Spend a winter afternoon getting to know Blue Jay Point County Park at our Winter Open House. Whether you’re a regular visitor or have...

Cost: Free

Where:
Blue Jay Point County Park
3200 Pleasant Union Church Road
Raleigh, NC  27614
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Telephone: 919-870-4330
Website »

More information

Hounded by Death, the character of Everybody desperately seeks out everyone and everything they know in hope of finding something meaningful to take to the grave. These 90 minutes of theatrical...

Cost: Ticket prices start at $15

Where:
PlayMakers' Repertory Company
120 Country Club Rd
Chapel Hill, NC  27599
View map »


Telephone: 919-962-7529

More information

Come on out to support the NC State Gymnastics team as they take on North Carolina in a RED out on February 1st! The first 300 fans in attendance will receive an exclusive red NC State Gymnastics...

Cost: $3-$7

Where:
Reynolds Collisuem
2411 Dunn Ave.
Raleigh , NC  27607
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More information

Come on out to support the NC State Gymnastics team as they take on North Carolina in a RED out on February 1st! The first 300 fans in attendance will receive an exclusive red NC State Gymnastics...

Cost: $3-$7

Where:
Reynolds Collisuem
2411 Dunn Ave.
Raleigh , NC  27607
View map »

More information

Hounded by Death, the character of Everybody desperately seeks out everyone and everything they know in hope of finding something meaningful to take to the grave. These 90 minutes of theatrical...

Cost: Ticket prices start at $15

Where:
PlayMakers' Repertory Company
120 Country Club Rd
Chapel Hill, NC  27599
View map »


Telephone: 919-962-7529

More information

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Annual Guides

Education Guide

The 2019-20 Education Guide offers 718 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 Triangle Go-To Guide connects you to family fun resources across the Triangle. In our 2019-20 issue, explore 1,028 resources for family fun.