I grew up in Baltimore, but left after high school and returned just five months ago, this time with a 2-year-old. The nuggets of local knowledge I accumulated during my early years—best late-night diner, best coffee shop, best CD store—are not as helpful as they once were. (And frequently out of date: What ever happened to Steak n Egg in Pikesville and Funk's Democratic Coffee Spot in Fells Point? At least The Sound Garden is still around.)
These days, I'm much more keen on scouting out play areas, restaurants, museums, and other locales that will excite, entertain, occupy, and otherwise endure my little Jack. I'm always on the lookout for such places and hope folks will leave suggestions in the comments that will help my wife and I and others like us. In the meantime, here's a list of the some of our favorite spots.
— Port Discovery. The area around the harbor is a trove of kid-focused attractions, but we've found that the Science Center and Aquarium, while incredibly stimulating, are really focused on older kids. Port Discovery Children's Museum, on the other hand, offers exhibits and activities specifically tailored to toddlers. Jack loves the little Royal Farms (even though mom and dad bristle at the corporate tie-in—I know, times are tough), where, unlike at the real supermarket, he can take anything he wants off the shelf. His absolute favorite exhibit is Wonders of Water, a big room with a giant kid-sized sink/play area full of fun pumps, tubes, tunnels, and toys to play with in the water (definitely bring a change of clothes, at least a shirt—I had to buy one in the gift shop my first time). Jack might live there if we gave him the option. After you dry off, the Oasis is a great, quiet area to read books or play with with puzzles and other toys. We try to arrange our visit so that we're there for Circle Times (usually 11:30), when they read stories and sing songs. I HIGHLY recommend becoming a member. For $75, you and your child get in free for a year (admission is normally $11.75 per person). And it's a little known fact that most children's museums (including Port Discovery) offer reciprocal benefits: We joined the Staten Island Children's Museum before we moved from New York and that card is still getting us free admission to Port Discovery and lots of other children's museums whenever we travel.
— It's Groovy Baby. I'm a big fan of fun classes you can take with your toddler, as long as they're not too expensive. My wife usually takes Jack to the Gymboree in Owings Mills once a week and he loves it. I recently added It's Groovy Baby's music classes, taught by Ms. Bettina, to the schedule and I look forward to it every week. Classes are held in a few locations and with at least one other teacher, so I can only speak to our experience: We go to a beautiful sun-lit room at the Divinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Towson, where the wonderful Miss Bettina leads little people ranging from infants to 3 or 4 years old in active, hands-on musical play. Lots of singing, call-and-response, movement, and instruments! Besides the kid-friendly drums and other percussion instruments, Miss Bettina often brings in real, grown up instruments like xylophones and violins for the kids to explore. It's become a real highlight of our week. I know classes fill up quickly, so if you can't find a class, you can also try Kindermusik. They have lots of locations and we had great experiences with them before we left the New York area.
— Storyville. This giant play area in the Rosedale public library (pictured above) is an absolute, guaranteed home run with toddlers. Even if it's a drive—about a half-hour for us—it's worth doing at least once in a while. Specifically designed for children under 5, Storyville is a little play town, complete with a supermarket, library, construction site, theater, a house and other venues for kids to explore. At the theater, they can dress up like animals and put on (or watch) little shows; At the construction site, they can arrange slats of wood and tubes on a magnetic board and drops little balls to follow the path they create; In the house, they can play dress-up in the attic or bake muffins in the kitchen. Best of all, it's totally free. The administrators wisely only allow a certain number of kids in Storyville at a time, so you could wind up on the waiting list (the library has a nice children's section if you wind up waiting). They say weekday afternoons are the best time to go, but we've had pretty good luck on weekends too.
— Rodger's Forge Tot Lot. The weather will eventually warm up again (God, I hope), and when it does, we'll head back out to this great, community-supported outdoor play area. This place is primarily meant to be for community residents (there isn't an online presence, but there's good info here) and it's somewhat of a secret from outsiders—we got lost the first time we tried to find it—so I'm hesitant to trumpet it too loudly. But it hardly seems overrun: Besides the many swings, the jungle gym, playground, and massive sand pit, the Lot's real attraction is the vast collection of donated toys. Locals traditionally bring their plastic mini-houses, mini-cars, mini-kitchens, and tricycles out to pasture here, creating a vibrant plastic mini-town. Jack's favorite was the line of mini-cars mounted on mini-ramps he could ride on like rollerc coasters. Of course, this isn't the only great playground in town. We also love Meadowood, among others.
— Clementine and First Watch. We're very much still sorting out our favorite kid-friendly restaurants in the area and these two, which we've liked best, particularly for beakfast/brunch, sort of represent the yin and yang of what we're looking for. Clementine is a small, very charming spot on Harford Road with delicious food—try the muffins and the little egg casseroles—both for kids and adults. Best of all, there's a play area where kids can draw on an easel, play with dinosaurs, or build with blocks. Because of it's size, though, the place can feel a little crowded and it can be hard to get a table at peak hours. Pikeville's First Watch, on the other hand, is bright and not quite as charming—it's a regional chain, for heaven's sake—but it's the kind of place that makes dining with kids blessedly EASY. Each kid gets a coloring mat and a new packet of crayons, and the place is noisy enough that you don't have to worry about disturbing anybody. The menu has great, cheap kids options (chocolate-chip pancakes with bacon and milk or juice or $4.29) and a wide range of adult choices including some solid healthy plates (guess who's on a diet?) Best of all for parents of young kids, they open at 7 a.m. on weekends.
Please, please, I implore you to help us expand our horizons. If we're still going to First Watch and Storyville every weekend by next year, I think Jack will hate us...