By Leanne LaBo
Before becoming a parent, my idea of a fun activity was having some Belgian brews at the Trappist with friends on a warm day. Alas, those days are long gone. Now, my daily priority consists of attempting to burn off the limitless energy of my three-year-old son. I have found a lot of fun places and things to do as a parent in the East Bay, all within a short drive from our home in North Oakland. And best of all, I’ve rediscovered my inner child along the way.
Quirky Lake Merritt gem Children's Fairyland was the first children’s amusement park (it was the inspiration for Disneyland) and has been entertaining tots for more than 60 years. Enjoy live puppet shows, train rides, a petting zoo, and a myriad of other activities best suited for kids under eight years old. Grown-ups are not allowed unless accompanied by kids, but once a year that rule is broken for a 21+ fundraising costume gala. This year it falls on the first Thursday in June, so get your tickets soon!
Oakland Ice Center
Did the Sochi winter Olympic Games get your kids excited about trying out ice-skating or hockey? Sign up for a skating class for children three and older at Oakland Ice Center, or just do a drop-in during the public skating hours. The center also offers birthday party packages for the kiddos that include skate rental, lessons, and two hours of skating, along with pizza and soda for all the guests.
Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! The Oakland Zoo is just the right size for young children. It’s compact but filled with attractions such as African Savannah, Rain Forest, and plenty more to explore without feeling overwhelmed. The rides area adjacent to the zoo has a roller coaster, merry-go-round, and miniature train that kids and adults can ride. For families that love camping and nature, Sundown Safari sounds like just the thing for a quick getaway without leaving the city.
Friday Nights at Oakland Museum of California
Fill your belly with delicious food trucks eats and local beers and wines on Friday Nights at the Oakland Museum of California. Off the Grid and OMCA join forces to bring fun times for the whole family at this weekly night market. There’s live music, family activities, and dance lessons too. Friday Nights also means half-price admission for adults and free admission for those 18 and under!
Having made an appearance in the Pixar movie Up, Fentons Creamery on Piedmont Avenue is a genuine local institution that’s been in business for more than 100 years. Every time I drive by this place it is packed with customers. Taste the ice cream made fresh daily on-site and get a behind-the-scenes look with Fentons Arctic Tour for kids six and up. Besides having a gazillion flavors (bubble gum ice cream is a fave with the little ones), old-fashioned hamburgers and hot dogs are also served. Fentons is a no-duh hit for birthday parties.
Museum of Children’s Art
Do you want your kids to explore and discover their inner Van Gogh without worrying about getting paint and glue on everything at home? Then you need to check out the Museum of Children’s Art in Uptown. Drop in during open studio hours to let the kids unleash their creative energy. The art supplies are kept stocked so you don’t have to. It’s also a good place to go if the playground is all rained out.
Chabot Space & Science Center
Explore the universe through interactive exhibits and planetarium shows at the Chabot Space & Science Center in the Oakland hills. The center is home to the three largest public telescopes in the country. Kids and adults alike can gaze at faraway stars and planets. And the educator-led night hikes through the woods are fun times, with or without kids.
Redwood Valley Railway
This beloved miniature steam train in Berkeley’s Tilden Regional Park takes its passengers along a scenic ridge through the redwoods. If you’re here on a Sunday, don’t forget to check out the Golden Gate Live Steamers museum (just below the Redwood Valley Railway station), whose members operate an even smaller miniature train for both parents and kids to ride on.
This cute working farm in Tilden Park has been in operation since 1955. Visitors to Little Farm can feed farm animals and learn about heirloom herbs and vegetables in the Children’s Garden. Pack a picnic and enjoy a short hike around the surrounding hills afterwards. There’s also a really easy trail nearby that loops around Jewel Lake, perfect for toddlers.
Codornices Park features hiking trails, ball courts, playgrounds, and a 40-foot concrete slide! There’s also a creek and an underground tunnel that lead to the Berkeley Rose Garden. Bonus point for the (not so) secret waterfall nearby.
Lawrence Hall of Science
The oft-overlooked Lawrence Hall of Science museum features fun activities for young kids through hands-on science exhibits and brainteasers. Learn about water flow and erosion at the outdoor fountain, or get a closer look of the city through the on-site telescope and check out the 18-foot sun sculpture. The epic view of the San Francisco Bay from either the fountain area or outside the museum can’t be beat. And the gigantic DNA and whale sculptures in front of the museum are kid magnets.
Adventure Playground is a unique outdoor play area in southwest Berkeley, where kids are encouraged to build and create things using real nails, hammers, and saws. All the structures look like they were built and painted by the kids themselves. Did I mention, there’s a zip line for both kids and adults?
Virginia-McGee Totland in North Berkeley is like your usual neighborhood playground, but with the added bonus of being filled with hand-me-down toys! It’s such a cool way to keep the outgrown playthings from going to the landfill. Parents just leave their used scooters, trucks, outdoor toys, etc., in the park for everyone to enjoy. There are plenty of shaded areas and picnic tables to keep things nice and cool.
Beach Play Field
Beach Play Field, connected to Beach Elementary School in Piedmont, deserves an honorable mention here. It has a toddler area with a sandlot filled with tons of well-loved-but-still-got-lots-of-life-left-in-them toys. The last time we were there, my son was happily entertained for hours.
Museum of Paleontology
There is surprisingly very little dinosaur stuff in the Bay Area, but one of the most complete T. rex fossils is found in Berkeley. The Museum of Paleontology in the Life Sciences building on the UC Berkeley campus is small but will satisfy those future paleontologists. Besides the main attractions, there are small fossil pieces on display. It’s free to go inside the building, but unless you have a campus-parking permit, leave your car at home or park away from the campus. We found out the hard way with a hefty ticket.
Set in a former grocery store, Playland-Not-at-the-Beach is a volunteer-run funhouse aimed to preserve the historic artifacts and memorabilia from Sutro Baths and Whitney’s Playland in San Francisco. One of the more iconic pieces here is Laffing Sal, the mechanical doll with the crazy laugh that often scared small children. As a matter of fact, there are three of them here, the traditional looking one, a second called Sinister Sal, and the third one for the Halloween season named Psycho Sal. Ditch the Nintendo and play some games the old-fashioned way.
El Cerrito Splash Park
I have yet to meet a kid who doesn’t like playing with water. During the summer, the splash park at the El Cerrito Swim Center is a favorite of local kids, especially on those hot East Bay days. There’s also a lap pool and a recreational pool with a waterslide! Unfortunately, the slide is open only during recreational swim time. Be sure to check the Swim Center schedules for both the park and the pools.
Pacific Pinball Museum
Learn about the evolution of pinball from its beginning days to the present at the Pacific Pinball Museum. With more than 100 playable machines regularly rotated from the 400 in its collection, you and the kids will never get tired of playing. The museum also has three galleries of rotating pinball-related exhibits. Best part, no need for hoarding quarters; all the machines are free to play with an admission price of 15 bucks, half price for kids under 16.
Crab Cove Visitor Center
I can see making a really fun day out of this place with my preschooler without spending a dime. Discover bay flora and fauna at the Crab Cove Visitor Center’s giant aquarium and use interactive stations to learn about the underwater ecosystem in the Bay. Just outside the center is an estuarine marine reserve, an important wildlife habitat. A special ramp makes it accessible to wheelchair users to explore the tide pools at low tide. The sandy beach is not too shabby either.