The Baby Brain-Language Connection


Published:

One-year-old Dylan Janes of Lacey, Washington, said his first words, "I love," shortly after his first birthday. (Say it with me: "Awww.") He was right on track, developmentally. According to the First Words Project at Florida State University, parents report that 12-month-olds say from one to three words. Like Dylan's mom, Tiffany Janes, parents of babies have to keep the video camera charged, because for most parents, this milestone is as exciting as it is unpredictable; nobody knows just when baby's first words will tumble out, or exactly what they'll be.

But new neuroscience research is providing some clarity — insight that has implications regarding our understanding of language learning throughout childhood. According to breakthrough research from the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences (I-LABS) at the University of Washington, Dylan's brain was probably practicing these sounds for months before he made his heart-melting statement.

Speech Study
A new study released this past July suggests that infants' brains are laying groundwork for early words and phrases as early as 7 months of age. In the study, researchers use state-of-the-art brain scanning (called magnetoencephalography, which is noninvasive and completely safe for infants) to record brain activity in the cerebellum, the part of the brain responsible for planning and coordinating the movements required for speech. Brain activation patterns in 7-month-olds and 11-month-olds indicate that babies' brains are hard at work on speech perception and speech movements long before the little munchkins say their first word.

"What's exciting is that we can now study early learning in a new way, using this technology," says Sarah Roseberry Lytle, I-LABS director of outreach. "This imaging technology is completely silent and sits over the baby's head like an old-fashioned hair dryer. It doesn't require the baby to be completely still, and it doesn't make noise that can upset them."

The study is the first major published research to come out of the Ready Mind Project from I-LABS, sponsored by the Bezos Family Foundation and established to advance research in six key areas: growing brain; critical periods of learning; diversity and bilingualism; behavioral transitions and milestones; early learning education; and early learning technology.

This research helps support school readiness in several important ways, says I-LABS co-director Patricia K. Kuhl, a University of Washington professor of speech and hearing sciences. "I-LABS is working to understand the sequence of events that helps children transition from sounds, to words, to sentences and then to reading. We're now working to understand how the step-by-step changes in the brain make the child 'ready' for reading."

The findings suggest that so-called "parentese" — that ubiquitous, sugarcoated, exaggerated speech we often slip into when we talk to infants ("Hoooow's my liiittle baaaaaaaayyyyybeeee toooodaaay?") — can benefit their speech perception at a time when new brains are rehearsing mechanics for speech, Roseberry says.

This doesn't mean using baby talk or made-up words, she notes. It means speaking distinctly yet slowly, to help babies understand.

What Doesn't Work
Other new research in early learning holds some surprises for parents, too. "The critical phase for learning sounds happens in the second half of a baby's first year," Roseberry says. If babies' brains are particularly receptive to speech sounds during this developmental window, then hearing certain words and phrases over and over should boost language skills, and language-focused educational programming should be a baby-brain boon, right?

Except, it isn't. Research shows that "educational" videos and television shows designed to boost infant speech development just don't. In fact, they can actually hurt speech acquisition.

According to research by Kuhl, babies' brains can pick up phonemes (distinct sounds that form words, such as "aw" or "er") in their native language by 6 to 9 months of age. Creators of educational DVDs, including the Baby Einstein series, parlayed this research into educational programming that exposed infants to repeated words and phrases with the intent of strengthening neural pathways related to speech and boosting language recognition and acquisition.

As it turns out, learning language isn't quite that simple — and the DVD experiment didn't work. In fact, studies show that spending more time in front of educational DVDs actually hurts babies' language skills.

In one study, each hour per day of viewing baby DVDs was associated with a 17-point drop in word recognition for babies 8–16 months old. The study used the MacArthur Communicative Development Inventory (CDI), an index of 89 simple words that babies may recognize and say, to measure language skills in infants and toddlers. A widely accepted benchmark for early language acquisition, it has been translated and used around the world.

In other words, spending an additional seven hours per week parked in front of an "educational" DVD robbed six to eight words from a child's vocabulary.

That's significant, because the average 11-month-old boy only recognizes 16 CDI words, according to NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman.

In a study published in Pediatrics, viewing television from birth to age 2 didn't correlate with gains in language or visual motor skills at age 3.

Brainbuilding
So why do language-focused baby DVDs — even ones based on research and noble intentions — fail to deliver? According to NurtureShock, it may be because babies learn speech partially by reading lips, and most educational programming features disembodied voiceovers that don't allow infants to pair the auditory signal with the appropriate facial cue. At 7 months old, babies can begin to segment words they hear into phonemes, forming the building blocks of language. The caveat: They can't perform this feat unless they're looking at a face; if they hear a word while gazing at an abstract, it sounds like so much gibberish. So hearing the word "blocks" while looking at an image of blocks has less value than hearing — and watching — a parent say the word.

Talking to your baby face to face is vital and has potential long-term implications in their acquisition and building of language and later academic success. But according to new research, it's not enough just to send a barrage of words in baby's direction in the parenting equivalent of a one-sided conversation. It's important to pick up on baby's cues, too. Researchers from New York University and the National Institutes of Health found that infants of mothers who responded to baby babble were a full six months ahead of those with less responsive moms. Echoing back a child's vocalizations or picking up and naming an object that a child seems to be gesturing toward helps babies assign meaning to words, moving a baby toward fluent speech faster.

In a Cornell University study, 9-month-olds with mothers who responded to baby babble in a back-and-forth, conversational way picked up and mimicked speech sounds faster than babies with less responsive moms. Another study from Cornell found that "object labeling" in infancy — that is, pointing to an object and naming it after a baby's gaze meets the object — is linked to increased vocabulary in toddlerhood. The well-documented "language gap" between toddlers with larger vocabularies and those with fewer words widens over time.

In a Stanford study, 18-month-olds from poorer families were several months behind their peers in language development. By 24 months, the same tots were nearly seven months behind. By age 5, children of lower socioeconomic status showed a two-year delay in language development. To put the Cornell research into practice, observe what your baby is looking at (instead of what he's trying to say, which is often misinterpreted, says NurtureShock coauthor Merryman) and name it: "That's the kitty" or "See that tree?" Instead of wildly guessing about what a baby wants, it's about following a child's lead.

Overzealous parents eager to stack the deck toward, say, a Harvard acceptance letter, take note: Researchers don't recommend overstimulation. It's not necessary to be in your baby's face all day long. But responding and interacting naturally with baby in a conversational way has profound benefits, Merryman says.

"Babies don't need specialized toys or educational programming," she notes. "They need responsive parents."

Malia Jacobson is an award-winning health and parenting journalist and mom of three. Her latest book is "Sleep Tight, Every Night: Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers Sleep Well Without Tears, Tricks, or Tirades."


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June 2019

For almost 200 years, farmers brought their wheat and corn to what is now Yates Mill to have their grains ground into flour and meal. Today, you can stop by the Yates Mill visitor center to see a...

Cost: Free

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Historic Yates Mill County Park
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500 S. Salisbury St.
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Cost: $5/Adult, $4/Senior (ages 60+), $3/Child (ages 7-16), Free/Child (6 - under)

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Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Crowder County Park
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Cost: $12/resident, $16/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
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Telephone: 919-387-5980
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Cost: Free

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100 N Greensboro St
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Sponsor: Orange County Public Library
Telephone: 919-918-7387
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Crowder County Park
4709 Ten-Ten Road
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Telephone: 919-662-2850
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Cost: See website for fees

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Downtown Raleigh
500 S. Salisbury St.
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Sponsor: LetsRoam!
Telephone: 833-202-7626
Contact Name: LetsRoam!
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Kids hike, make projects and engage in nature activities. Ages 5-8. Register online. Choose course #124691.

Cost: $9/resident, $12/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC  27518
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Telephone: 919-387-5980
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Kids hike, make projects and engage in nature activities. Ages 5-8. Register online. Choose course #124963.

Cost: $9/resident, $12/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC  27518
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Telephone: 919-387-5980
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Travel 238,900 miles above the earth as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of humans’ first landing on the moon. What's it like to travel in space? With the help of some volunteers, kids...

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: Orange County Main Library
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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: Orange County Main Library
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Ages 11 and older with special needs stroll through the woods. Register online. Choose course #124383.

Cost: $2/resident, $3/nonresident

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Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC  27518
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Website »

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Vacation Bible School includes dinner. Register at wpumc.com/vbs

Cost: Free

Where:
White Plains United Methodist Church
313 S.E. Maynard Rd.
Cary, NC  27511
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Sponsor: White Plains UMC
Telephone: 919-467-9394
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Come out to the millpond and fish the old-fashioned way - we'll provide you with a cane pole, tackle, and bait, along with basic instructions and assistance with identifying fish species....

Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Telephone: 919-856-6675
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Celebrate our #1 pollinator by learning about the busy bees of Crowder Park. Learn the dances of bees and how they communicate, discover how pollination works, and taste different types of honey....

Cost: Free

Where:
Crowder County Park
4709 Ten-Ten Road
Apex, NC  27539
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Telephone: 919-662-2850
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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!
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Vacation Bible School includes dinner. Register at wpumc.com/vbs

Cost: Free

Where:
White Plains United Methodist Church
313 S.E. Maynard Rd.
Cary, NC  27511
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Sponsor: White Plains UMC
Telephone: 919-467-9394
Contact Name: Michele Vansteen
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Cost: Free

Where:
East Regional Library
946 Steeple Square Court
Knightdale, NC  27545
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Preschoolers (ages 3-5 with accompanying adult) learn about different frogs and toads that live in our area and what they sound like.  Make frog sounds, hop along the park trails and look for...

Cost: $5

Where:
Wilkerson Nature Preserve
5229 Awls Haven Drive
Raleigh, NC  27614
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Sponsor: City of Raleigh Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources
Telephone: 919-996-6764
Contact Name: Martha Kane
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Bees are really important in our gardens! Read The Honey Robber and the Bee by Eric Carle and discover the world of bees and honey! Find your fellow bees by following your sense of smell, make a...

Cost: Free

Where:
Crowder County Park
4709 Ten-Ten Road
Apex, NC  27539
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Telephone: 919-662-2850
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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!
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Enjoy tea time for the whole family. Samples of hot tea, cold tea, and kombucha will be provided, along with games and family fun.

Cost: Free

Where:
IngenuiTea Kombucha Coffee & Tea
514 E Williams St
APEX, NC  27502
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Sponsor: IngenuiTea Brews
Telephone: 919-438-3684
Contact Name: Mark Poole
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Vacation Bible School includes dinner. Register at wpumc.com/vbs

Cost: Free

Where:
White Plains United Methodist Church
313 S.E. Maynard Rd.
Cary, NC  27511
View map »


Sponsor: White Plains UMC
Telephone: 919-467-9394
Contact Name: Michele Vansteen
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Enjoy an out-of-this world space spectacular event. Preschoolers and their families are invited to fly in for space-themed games, crafts, and more. No registration required.

Cost: Free

Where:
East Regional Library
946 Steeple Square Court
Knightdale, NC  27545
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Website »

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Ages 11 and older with special needs enjoy yoga and breathing exercises. Register online. Choose course #125022.

Cost: $9/resident, $11/nonresident

Where:
Bond Park Community Center
801 High House Rd.
Cary, NC  27513
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Join park staff for an informal fishing experience for the whole family. Bring your own poles or borrow one of ours through the Tackle Loaner Program. Bait and basic instruction are provided. All...

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
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Cost: Free

Where:
N.C. Museum of History
5 E. Edenton St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Enjoy giant checkers, giant jenga, bubbles, and special art activities in Downtown Park. All other permanent games (ping pong, bocce ball, chess) will continue to be available.

Cost: Free

Where:
Downtown Park
319 S. Academy St.
Cary, NC  27511
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Website »

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Parent and child ages 2-5 water plants in the native wildflower gardens. Register online. Choose course #124907.

Cost: Free

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC
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Telephone: 919-387-5980
Website »

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Join Optimist Aquatic Center as thousands of kids and adults around the world unite for the world's largest swimming lesson. The World's Largest Swimming Lesson will celebrate its 10th...

Cost: Free

Where:
Optimist Aquatic Center
5902 Whittier Dr.
Raleigh, NC  27609
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Website »

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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

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Cost: Free

Where:
East Regional Library
946 Steeple Square Court
Knightdale, NC  27545
View map »


Website »

More information

Vacation Bible School includes dinner. Register at wpumc.com/vbs

Cost: Free

Where:
White Plains United Methodist Church
313 S.E. Maynard Rd.
Cary, NC  27511
View map »


Sponsor: White Plains UMC
Telephone: 919-467-9394
Contact Name: Michele Vansteen
Website »

More information

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Every year on June 21, we enjoy the most hours of sunlight during the whole year. Discover the science and cultural celebrations behind this special summer day. Make a pretty sun catcher to hang in...

Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
View map »


Telephone: 919-856-6675
Website »

More information

What do Historic Yates Mill County Park and the woodland faeries have in common? They both love nature! Take a short walk near the millpond to search for evidence of faeries (sightings are not...

Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
View map »


Telephone: 919-856-6675
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

Enjoy magic, storytelling and origami with Yasu Ishida. Grades K-5.

Cost: Free

Where:
East Regional Library
946 Steeple Square Court
Knightdale, NC  27545
View map »


Website »

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Enjoy an indoor/outdoor vendor market with food trucks, coffee, live music outside and plenty of fun for all ages.  

Cost: Free

Where:
Pine State Coffee
1614 Automotive Way
Raleigh, NC  27604
View map »


Sponsor: Raleigh Night Market
Website »

More information

Vacation Bible School includes dinner. Register at wpumc.com/vbs

Cost: Free

Where:
White Plains United Methodist Church
313 S.E. Maynard Rd.
Cary, NC  27511
View map »


Sponsor: White Plains UMC
Telephone: 919-467-9394
Contact Name: Michele Vansteen
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Cost: Free

Where:
Crowder County Park
4709 Ten-Ten Road
Apex, NC  27539
View map »


Telephone: 919-662-2850
Website »

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Every year on June 21, we enjoy the most hours of sunlight during the whole year. Discover the science and cultural celebrations behind this special summer day. Make a pretty sun catcher to hang in...

Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
View map »


Telephone: 919-856-6675
Website »

More information

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Cost: $12/person. Free for ages 2 and younger.

Where:
Raleigh Convention Center
500 S. Salisbury St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Cost: Free

Where:
Duke Homestead State Historic Site
2828 Duke Homestead Rd.
Durham, NC  27705
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Website »

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Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Telephone: 919-856-6675
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Cost: Free

Where:
The Scrap Exchange
2050 Chapel Hill Rd.
Durham, NC  27707
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Website »

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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 »

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Want to get inside Historic Yates Mill? Join us for a half-hour tour (starting at 1, 1:30, 2, 2:30 or 3 p.m.) to view the main power drive and milling machinery while exploring the mill's history...

Cost: $5/Adult, $4/Senior (ages 60+), $3/Child (ages 7-16), Free/Child (6 - under)

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

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Cost: Free

Where:
NC Cooperative Extension
721 Foster St.
Durham, NC  27701
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Sponsor: March of Dimes/Duke Family Medicine
Telephone: 678-246-9027
Contact Name: Courtney Simpson
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Ages 5-8 embrace science and nature while developing skills and knowledge about the natural world. Register online. Choose course #124927.

Cost: $8/resident, $10/nonresident

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


Telephone: 919-387-5980
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More information

Enjoy all-things blueberry, food trucks, pie-eating contests and more at Vollmer Farms' annual Blueberry Festival. The Back-40 Country Playground will be open and features a...

Cost: $12 advance tickets, $15 at the door. Free for ages 12 and younger

Where:
Vollmer Farm
677 NC Hwy 98 East
Bunn, NC  27508
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Sponsor: Vollmer Farm
Telephone: 919-496-3076
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Enjoy a movie under the stars and play games at 7:15 before the movie starts. 

Cost: Free

Where:
E. Carroll Joyner Park
701 Harris Rd.
Wake Forest, NC  27587
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