The kids and I roam Ashland looking for fun like revelers on Friday night. My requirements are: cheap or free, within the city limits and relieves me of being an entertainer for a fleeting moment. The kids, ages 4 and 2, have their own requirements: fun, more fun please and the most fun. Winter puts the clamp on many of the outdoor activities we enjoy in the fairer months, but there's still plenty to do while we watch for that elusive sunshine.
Ashland train tracks and Railroad Museum
Do you have a train aficionado in your house? We love to celebrate trains by going right to the source: the Ashland train tracks. My son spots rusty bolts, bent railroad spikes and heavy nuts split in half. So captivated by these railroad relics, he's fallen asleep cuddling a 3-pound railroad spike, no doubt dreaming of a hobo life, riding the old Southern Pacific. Rose, 2 years old, is more interested in scampering about, perfecting her quirky toddler balance on the uneven railroad ties and jumbly gravel. I am happy to be outside absorbing the winter sun.
The railroad tracks lead to the Ashland Railroad Museum, tucked away on A Street. It's a repository of cool antiques, such as dining car menus from 1887, when a meal of tenderloin and syrupy figs cost $1. More important for the kids are train toys, puzzles and books. Once a month they offer a train-themed story hour.
Story time at Ashland Public Library
Attending story time is worth it just to witness the sheer miracle of 20 urchins sitting quietly on their carpet samples, waiting to hear what happens next. Even my active, busy son will sit with nary a wiggle for the full show. Perri, the magical librarian who leads story time, comes armed with a bag containing props to lead a half hour of book reading, songs, puppetry and felt storyboards. The front row is populated with plucky girls in catalog-cute outfits whose hands shoot up whenever a question is asked. Perri knows the kids by name and, at the end of each session, offers a group hug which is the stuff of grandmothers' dreams.
ScienceWorks Hands-On Museum
We might never scratch the surface of ScienceWorks. Rose likes anything her 2-year-old self can do for goodness sakes, like pour sand onto a spinning wheel, arrange the colorful innards of a kaleidoscope or push balls through a chute that takes them on a wild journey, plopping them out in a faraway land 20 feet away. My son has the attention and dexterity to build little wooden and rebar houses, testing his architectural mettle against a simulated earthquake. Perhaps the most amazing thing is that the exhibits change as often as my children's culinary tastes. We have learned about motion, the senses, gravity and optical illusions — all under the pretense of playing. The bubble room is everyone's favorite. We never tire of the opportunity to stand inside of a bubble.
This 93-acre park's grassy fields are perfect for tag, Frisbee, snowman-building, sledding and getting the ya-yas out. The playground features a spider web of a climbing structure that makes kids proud and parents nervous. Award for Most Unexpected and Thrilling is the western screech owl, inhabiting the mammoth oak tree across the park. As unlikely as it seems that an owl would make its home amongst rambunctious children, there it is most days, fluffed out and scowling from its hole.
The tennis courts, when vacant, are great for learning to ride bikes and scooters. The upper duck pond, offering enthralling views into mallard mating rituals, is always a crowd pleaser.
The Wellsprings are Ashland's answer to winter. Unlike so many of our activities, slanted in favor of children, the Wellsprings are win-win for everyone. Dan and I catch up on conversations we started last summer while kicking back in the healing waters that embrace us like a big hug.
The water temperature is perfect. We big people submerge our tired bodies while the little contingent roams the steps serving us "hot-springs tea." Other soakers comment: "Your kids are so happy!" I've nearly choked on my mineral tea recalling the whining duo just hours ago. But it is true: At the Wellsprings, we are all happy.