HOUSTON – The name of the game with toddlers is manageability. How much can everyone handle when you’re out and about? When will the first tantrum hit?
At KPRC 2, we’ve covered the near, the far, wherever you are (sings like Celine), but not all trips and travel are for everyone – especially for those readers who have young children.
If that’s where you are -- living in a land full of sticky snacks, tantrums and mandatory nap times – not all trips are for you. Let’s just get that straight right now. You can do the big trips every once in a while, but the get-out-of-the-house-so-you-don’t-lose-your-mind trips have to be managed thoughtfully or you’ll end up worse off than you started.
Tell yourself this before you start looking toward the weekend:
You can’t just go to the zoo.
You can’t just go to the museum.
You can’t just go to the beach.
You can’t just do anything that’s that big of a day with toddlers.
There is planning. There is preparation. There are snacks to be packed and water bottles to fill and sunscreen and bug spray to be stuffed into bags brimming with your house in miniature. And that’s all before you get your kids dressed and buckled in and driven to the location and parked.
So many times I’ve gone out into the world for a day, a weekend or a full-fledged weeklong vacation with the best of intentions and my pre-children mindset still working. The trip quickly turns bad when I forget You. Can’t. Do. Everything. Anymore. Over and over I found myself in an unfamiliar locale or situation feeling regret over how miserable my children and spouse are and how much cash I dropped for this Fun Thing that went wrong. In other words, a domestic nightmare.
Thankfully, my children and spouse still love me despite my overbooking and planning. I’m still learning, y’all.
But let me tell you what I’ve learned being a mom in the Houston area with two young, active kids: I keep it simpler than I ever thought I would. One place is the goal. When we get us all there, the aim is to experience some, if not all of it – whatever it is – and as parents we must end the day when kids start getting fussy. A full day anywhere isn’t the goal – and never should be – no matter how much you invested in the experience.
Here are my suggestions based on now years of experience with kid activities in the Houston area. These have been manageable trips that have worked for my family through the very challenging experience of at one point having two under 2.
There are plenty of train museums and excursions in the Houston area, but this one is my favorite for an outing with the kiddos. It’s small, it’s fun and it’s got a great train setup for kids to watch at their level. The renovated luxury train car and tower are especially fun for kids to explore. The museum also covers some quirky history including a walking stick used and signed by railroad wanderers. If your child is not walking-age yet, I would skip the tower because the stairs are rough carrying a baby.
An ice cream shop is located across the street from the museum if you need something sweet and cool to end the excursion. But get the heck out of there if your kids are having a meltdown. There are treats at home. If you don’t have treats at home…here’s a great list for healthy, tasty options.
This park is a great option for families. The beach is close to the parking lot so if you know kids and all their stuff needed for the beach, this is an important fact. Bring a wagon and dress your kids in their swimsuits so you don’t have to change your little ones at the park. The beach is small and the space open with lots of shade trees. There are often a lot of families in the area, so they’re understanding if your little one wanders into their space or cries at the top of their lungs for a few minutes…OK. Multiple minutes over a missing toy car…but I digress.
The George Ranch Historical Park is a great option for an outing that’s educational, in the outdoors and fun. The grounds are a choose-your-own-adventure situation, so you can visit what you’d like and stay for as long as you -- or your kids -- want.
You can visit the historical homes, see the cowboy and primitive pioneer home presentations and ride around the ranch on a tractor-pulled cart. Strollers are great for this excursion, but bring along an easy-to-fold, light one because you will need to pull it up and down a lot as you move through the day.
For a long time, I felt like I was depriving my children during visits to Hermann Park. We’d see the train go by and I continued to say “not today” based on the family vibe that day.
It was a good decision, though. The train is a full excursion on its own. Doing the train and the park in a day is a bad choice. It’s just too big, especially if there’s a line for the train. The waiting is just too much for the kiddos.
And then there’s the fact that finding where to purchase the train tickets is a bit of a puzzle. You buy them at the window outside the gift shop -- officially Conservancy Gift Shop at Kinder Station in Lake Plaza. Don’t go inside the gift shop. Children will start pulling things off the shelves. Avoid this if at all possible, for your own sanity. Or buy up the place. That’s fun, too.
On those big places. The zoo. The big museums.
These Houston Zoo, the Houston Museum of Natural Science and the Children’s Museum Houston, among others, shouldn’t be skipped. They’re wonderful, but try to take them a piece at a time if possible. The permanent exhibits are permanent, so you can put those off in favor of high-interest limited exhibits.
Another option is to buy a family membership, so that way you can come back multiple times to experience the massive attractions chunk by chunk. The museums also have free days. If it helps, think about it this way: membership can be a birthday gift that keeps on giving; skip the toys that little ones will break in a week. This is also a great thing to suggest to relatives if they ask for birthday or holiday gift ideas.
For toddlers, the Cockrell Butterfly Center can be an outing on its own. This is a separate entry fee from the Houston Museum of Natural History, so think of it like its own attraction. This will help you not feel rushed as you’re traversing the paths. Take your time, enjoy your family’s own pace without the pressure of seeing the entire center and the adjoining museum all in one day.
If you need a Gulf beach outing, Stewart Beach in Galveston is a great option. There is parking nearby and views and waves and everything that make the beach the beach. I recommend going on a weekday to avoid crowds. Bring a wagon, all the snacks and water and buckets of sunscreen. Dress your kids in their swimsuits, again, to avoid the additional suiting up experience. It’ll be a good day if you’re prepared. Stewart Beach has amenities like showers and restrooms, a pavilion, gift shop and chair and umbrella rentals.
Don’t do too much in one day in Galveston. It’s easy to get carried away with The Strand nearby and all of the beautiful historic homes to discover. If you want to do more, go for a long weekend and stretch out the outings so your little ones are not overwhelmed by activities.
If you need time near the water and fun but want to avoid sand, Kemah is a great small trip only about 45 minutes away from downtown Houston. The Kemah Boardwalk is the central attraction, but you can walk around Kemah and enjoy small shops -- like this amazing coffee shop, enormous shaved ice confections and fudge. It’s manageable with toddlers, but a stroller is a must. There is walking involved, but if you pace yourself and your littles, it’s a good time.
We love the idea of planning a one-night overnight trip with the family. Drive in, have dinner at one of the Kemah restaurants, wake up the next morning and enjoy the boardwalk, have lunch and then go back to your lodgings to put the little ones down for a nap. Pack up while they’re sleeping and end the excursion with a leisurely dinner and drive home.
Library visits are pretty much my favorite outing with toddlers. They can touch everything in the library and can take pretty much anything they want home. There is freedom in the library, education at your fingertips, often toys for the kids to play with and a helpful staff that will empower your kids to find the books they love no matter their age. At some libraries, you can ask for kid project packs that librarians have on-hand for families to do at home. The only thing that’s hard for kids to leave alone at the library is the technology. There are computers that can be a huge distraction. Try to steer your little ones toward the books first. If you’re visiting with a spouse or a friend, you can step away and snag a few books for yourself.
What manageable trips with toddlers would you suggest? Let us know in the comments.