Much of Howard County was developed with families in mind. Parents and children can find lots to do here -- and so can empty nesters or those without kids who are children at heart.
Organizations such as the county's Department of Recreation and Parks (www.co.ho.md.us/RAP) and Howard County Library (www.hclibrary.org) offer extensive programs for children, including one-time events, weekly after-school activities and summer camps.
Ethan Triska, left, digs the pumpkins at Clark's Elioak Farm in Ellicott City. Above, instructor Nichole Brown gives Alicia Whye some helpful lessons on the ice at Columbia Skating Rink. Below, a T-Rex dinosaur casting in the new wing of the Maryland Science Center.
(Craig Herndon For The Washington Post)
The Columbia Association (www.columbiaassociation.com) operates a wide variety of activities, including an ice rink (5876 Thunder Hill Rd., Columbia, 410-730-0322), the SportsPark/SkatePark (5453 Harpers Farm Rd., Columbia, 410-715-3054) and a horse center (10400 Gorman Rd., Laurel, 301-776-5850, www.columbiahorsecenter.com). It also maintains 92 miles of pathways for biking and walking, some of which are linked with the rest of the county. Each of Columbia's village centers (www.columbiavillages.org) also plans activities for children, such as concerts and puppet shows.
The association also runs Splashdown/Columbia Swim Center (10400 Cross Fox Lane, Columbia, 410-730-7000), an indoor pool complex with two water slides. Riders must be 42 inches or taller. Open 7 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Fridays, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturdays and 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Sundays, September-June. On days when public school is out, the center is open noon-4 p.m. Admission is $12; Columbia residents or members of the Columbia Association, $10; Swim Center members, $8.
Clark's Elioak Farm (10500 Clarksville Pike, Ellicott City, 410-730-4049, www.clarklandfarm.com) offers a petting farm with such animals as goats, sheep, donkeys, pigs, alpacas, calves, horses, ponies, turkeys, ducks, bunnies and turtles. It is the new home of the Enchanted Forest Cinderella Pumpkin Coach. Also available are hayrides and pony rides, a hay bale maze, and picnic areas and a museum. The 540-acre farm, dating to the 1930s, is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays through Nov. 6. The farm is closed in the winter. Admission is $4 for ages 1-12, $3 for ages 13 and older, and free to those younger than 1. Hayrides are $2 per person, and pony rides $2 per child.
Larriland Farm (2415 Woodbine Rd., Woodbine, 410-442-2605 or 301-854-6110, www.pickyourown.com) lets customers roam 285 acres and pick their own fruits and vegetables. Depending on the season, strawberries, spinach, blueberries, raspberries, cherries, peaches, apples, pumpkins and broccoli may be available. Hayrides are offered in October. The farm will open for the summer season in late May; hours are 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. In September and October, weekday hours change to 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays. In October, the farm is also open 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Mondays. Admission is free; customers pay by the pound or the quantity for the produce.
Sharp's at Waterford Farm (4003 Jennings Chapel Rd., Brookeville, 301-854-6275, www.sharpfarm.com) provides seasonal family activities. From mid-April through mid-November, the 520-acre farm offers educational tours, nature trails and opportunities to explore the greenhouse and feed the animals. There are living history programs and a farm museum. In September, October and November, pumpkin picking, corn mazes, hayrides and campfires are offered. The greenhouse is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, through mid-June. Educational tours and activities available through mid-November, seven days a week by appointment. Admission is free; prices for tours vary.
Looking for the ultimate playgrounds? For the 12-and-younger set, ExploraWorld (6570 Dobbin Rd., Columbia, 410-772-1540, www.exploraworldcolumbia.com) is an indoor learning playground featuring a hands-on activity center, a kids' construction room, child-size grocery store, a medieval castle, sandbox and room to shoot hoops or throw a football. Open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Fridays, 9:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturdays and 11:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Sundays. Admission is $8.50 for ages 2-12, $4.95 for ages 1-2, $3 for 12 and older, free for children younger than 1.
For a family with children of many ages, look to Rounding Third Family Entertainment Center (corner of Routes 100 and 1, Elkridge, 410-796-0800). This outdoor facility includes Jake's NASCAR speedway go-carts and an 18-hole miniature golf course. It also has a concession stand and is available for birthday parties. Open through November, 4-10 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 4-11 p.m. Fridays, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturdays and 11 a.m.- 9 p.m. Sundays. In the summer, it will be open 4-11 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays. Miniature golf, $6.25; go-carts, $6.
Laser tag is the specialty of Shadowland Laser Adventure (9179 Red Branch Rd., Columbia, 410-740-9100, www.shadowlandadventures.com), a 6,000-square-foot, two-level arena where teams of up to 38 players try to tag their opponents with laser guns while running through mazes, alleys and other passageways. High-tech suits to play the game are provided with the admission price. Games usually last 25 to 30 minutes. The arena is open 11 a.m.-6 p.m. (available for private rental after 6 p.m.) Mondays, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-midnight Fridays, 10 a.m.-midnight Saturdays and 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays. Admission: $7.75 for one game, $14.75 for two, $20.50 for three. Group pricing is also available.
For more indoor recreation, test your ability to score a strike at the two bowling alleys in the county: Brunswick Columbia Lanes (7100 Carved Stone, Columbia, 410-381-7750), and Normandy Lanes (8419 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City, 410-465-0355).
Or try rock climbing at Earth Treks' Climbing Center, (7125C Columbia Gateway Dr., Columbia, 410-872-0060 or www.earthtreksclimbing.com.) There's more than 15,000 square feet of climbing surfaces, with programs for everyone from beginners to experienced climbers.
About a 10-mile drive east on Route 100 from Route 29 is Arundel Mills (7000 Arundel Mills Cir., Hanover, 410-540-5100, www.arundelmillsmall.com), an outlet mall with a 24-screen movie theater and "shoppertainment" such as Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament, where visitors watch a live jousting event while dining on a four-course feast. There's also Jillian's, a restaurant and arcade featuring simulated electronic games, billiards and bowling.
Fun attractions for children of all ages, with a hint of learning, can also be found about 20 minutes north on Interstate 95 at Baltimore's Inner Harbor. They include the National Aquarium in Baltimore (501 E. Pratt St., Baltimore, 410-576-3800, www.aqua.org), the Maryland Science Center (601 Light St., Baltimore, 410-685-5225, www.mdsci.org) and Port Discovery: The Kid-Powered Museum (35 Market Pl., Baltimore, 410-727-8120, www.portdiscovery.com).
-- ALICIA CYPRESS