Ten places for kids in the Amherst (MA) area

Published: November 12, 2014

If you're reading this article, chances are good that you're not looking for a one-time day trip. You have bored children. You need a rotation of things to do, if not every day (for your toddler), then certainly every weekend (for school-age children). Some special events might spice things up, too, right?

Well, dear reader, this author has got your back. Here is a list of three family-centric festivals spread across the year and seven excellent "anytime" activities, all within a 30-minute driving radius of Amherst, MA. All are worthy of repeat visits, most are free, and every one of them will hold your attention as much as your child's.

Happy exploring, and please add your own "best's" when sharing!

  1. Garlic & Arts (September)

    Garlic & Arts, "the festival that stinks," is hosted in Orange (30 minutes north on Rt. 202) every September. It features surprising garlic-flavored foods, music and dance on an open-air stage, and plenty of craft demos, adventures for kids, and live animals. Farmers offer taste-tests of their freshly harvested veggies. Chefs and artisans come out to demonstrate their skills.

    It's a big Pioneer Valley party your kids won't ever forget - and the price is certainly right, at $5 for adults and free for kids under 12.

  2. Mutton & Mead (June)

    Mutton & Mead is the awesome little sister of King Arthur's Faire, hosted in June up in Montague (20 minutes north on Rt. 63). Like the larger regional Renaissance fair, it's packed with knights, princesses, fairies, and sorcerors in elaborate costumes, but Mutton & Mead is comfortably small, welcoming to small children, and well-priced at $15 ($10 in advance, with discounts for food donations for local pantries).

    You can spend quite a lot here at the many booths for food, costumery, and medieval housewares at the fair, but your child is more likely to fixate on the horeseback jousting arena, the chance to practice fencing or archery, and the traditional music performancees. You could spend an hour or more with the volunteer fairies in the enchanted forest, who wordlessly invite children to join in their forest crafts. If you have very little ones, there's even a traditional children's games tent with blocks, water play, and pillows for storytime.

  3. ConBust at Smith College (March)

    ConBust is one for the tweens and teens, especially the bookish or movie-fiend, dragons-and-unicorns or spaceships-and-light-sabers types. This is the all-women's college, one-building version of Comic-Con, and it's three days of excellent fun.

    While Smith college ladies are the majority, the "con" sees a good number of children (mostly 10 and older) and routinely invites such young adult fiction greats as Bruce Coville and Tamora Pierce. Kids can learn to handle historic and replica swords, play at "boffing" (swordfighting with foam), join in the panel discussions on their favorite "fandoms", and play videogames and board games with family and friendly fellow con-goers in the quiet rooms upstairs.

    Tickets are $10 for one day or $30 for Friday-Sunday, with half-price for kids up through high school. It's not exactly a bargain, but for certain kids, it's an awesome opportunity to meet grown-ups who do what they love for a living.

  4. Mill River Recreation Area & connection to the Robert Frost Trail

    The best park in Amherst for kids of all ages, the Mill River Recreation Area in North Amherst offers public swimming pools in summer, playground structures and swings, ball fields, and pavillions with grills for picnics.

    The best part, though, is the trail along the little Mill River that eventually leads to that ever-popular swimming destination, Puffers Pond. If your kids are extra energetic, Puffers Pond is a connecting point in the Robert Frost trail, one of five longest hiking trails in the state! It's well-marked and never far from civilization, so don't worry about getting lost in the woods. A good plan for hiking is to decide how much time to spend, then hike out for half the time and back for half the time.The park, pond, and trails are a great way for kids to experience nature. They can mix play with walking and seeing the woods, and it's never hard to get home when they're tired.

  5. Norwottuck Rail Trail bike path

    If you're looking for the safest, coolest place to take kids biking, this is the one: a paved, seemingly never-ending bike path well away from the roads, crossing such marvelous features as the Brickyard Conservation area, a retired rail bridge over the Connecticut River, and working farms and nurseries. The most popular section of the bike path runs between Amherst and Northampton, with its only street crossing at the Hampshire Mall. You can stop there for ice cream from Maple Farm Foods, or go on to the bridge or beyond. If your kids are a little older or gaining endurance as bicyclists, this path runs all the way to Easthampton and beyond (supposedly to New Haven, CT!), so you will never run out of route.

    You can hop on the bike path at several convenient points. From Amherst, the best is the bike path's bridge over Snell Street, accessible from the Rt. 9 intersection with University Drive. From Northampton, there's a great little picnic area with parking at the bike path's Connecticut River bridge, on Damon Road off Rt. 9.

  6. Great Falls Discovery Center

    The Great Falls Discovery Center is a children's museum focused on natural history and the Connecticut River. It's small, but the walk-through dioramas with posed animal models are fascinating to look at. For touchers, there are hands-on exhibits and some really cool programs on the events calendar. Some kids will find this interesting for a one-time visit, while others can become attached to a particular room or animal and demand return trips. That's fine, because there's no charge for admission!

  7. Family days with Kestrel and Mount Grace

    Kestrel Land Trust in Amherst and Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust for the North Quabbin are "land trusts," non-profits dedicated to environmental conservation in cooperation with the community. Both these organizations host frequent family outtings like stargazing, owl prowls, animal tracking, and family camping. This is another great way to get kids outdoors, exercising, and learning about animals and nature. You might even meet some new hiking buddies or playmates!

    These events are typically free - just check the event calendars linked above, as certain events require pre-registration.

  8. Local Library Events

    The Pioneer Valley and North Quabbin area holds some incredibly active public libraries, the CW Mars network. Among their many offerings, these libraries host a rotation of local celebrities such as Library Lego Lady and Toto the Tornado Kitten, as well as weekly sessions or special events by locals.

    In Amherst, check the Jones Library calendar and kids' room programs to get psyched for the coming month!

  9. Hobby Clubs at Greenfield Games and A2Z Science & Learning Store

    These weekly clubs offer the unique opportunity for kids to make friends of all ages, since they'll be learning and playing games with a mix of kids, a few teens and college kids, and grown-ups. Some games are more challenging than others, so kids can progress as they learn and grow older. The sessions are free, although of course you'll end up paying for the hobby materials sooner or later.

    Greenfield Games hosts clubs for several board games and tabletop games, but the most notable for kids 10-and-up is Magic the Gathering learning sessions on Saturday afternoons (Hampshire Mall location). If you remember the Pokemon trading cards, the game is a little like that. The Saturday sessions are taught by a patient store employee who's destined to be the goofy uncle of some lucky child. The game itself is not hard to learn, and makes for some great family time after dinner or on rainy days.

    A2Z Science & Learning Store in Northampton hosts Yo-Yo School three times a week, with a rotation of seven friendly instructors. Yo-yo may not sound like a fascinating hobby at first, but A2Z structures mastery of the many tricks in a levelled system that competitive kids will latch onto. For those who find a passion for yo-yo, there are national competitions, as well as the more immediate lure of becoming an instructor someday.

  10. Interskate91

    Although you'll pay once for entry, again for your skates, and more for any food or drink, Interskate91 is such a unique venue that it just had to go on the list. The Hampshire Mall location is a small, indoors roller-skating arena, located upstairs from the food court. The same company operates laser tag across the hall, but unlike laser tag, roller-skating is self-directed play with no time limit. Your kids will be thrilled when they match your skills or learn to skate faster than you, and you can easily keep an eye on them in this enclosed space with padded walls.

    Interskate91 is popular with tweens, seldom high school or college age, but they also host special matinees and nights to separate their audience.

It was a tough job to rank these activities in a list. The festivals win hands-down for the most excitement, best opportunity to wear a costume, newest foods to try, and coolest stuff to see. Garlic & Arts and Mutton & Mead are a close tie, with Garlic & Arts pulling slightly ahead with a few more hands-on activities. ConBust might be the absolute favorite for the indoors kid who can't get enough of fairy tales or science fiction worlds, but it's not a defnite for everyone.

Among the rest, it really depends on the child's personality. For the outdoorsy kid, the park and trails from Mill River Recreation Area, the Norwottuck bike path, and events by Kestrel and Mount Grace are a must. For the natural competitors and the brainiacs, game and hobby clubs are a great way to shine outside the school environment. For the very little ones, the best recommendations would be Great Falls Discovery Center, library events, and a selection of the Kestrel and Mount Grace events.

Don't stop now! If you're sharing this list, be sure to comment with your stories about any of these and favorites of your own. See you around, neighbor!