Nineteen super-duper, crazy-cool, fun, silly and smart reasons why Madison's an awesome place to grow up
By Tim Burton, Catherine Capellaro, Aaron R. Conklin, Laura Jones, Shayna Mace, Mary Morgan, John Motoviloff, Brennan Nardi, Jenny Price, Gwendolyn Rice, Devin Ross and Katie Vaughn
1. The More Things Change...
Kids these days.
As soon as you say the words, you sound old. But there’s no way around it: Kids today—babies to eighteen-year-olds, or those born from 2013 back to 1995—are different than we were as children.
Your sixteen-year-old is likely free-spirited in a way that you never were—a classic trait of Millennials, the optimistic, diverse and connected generation born from 1982 to 2001, says Rebecca Ryan, founder of Next Generation Consulting and a Madison Magazine columnist.
But would you guess your three-year-old may turn out to be as no-nonsense as your grandparents? Every fourth generation repeats itself, Ryan asserts, and today’s younger kids—the iGeneration, or children born from 2002 and projected into 2020—will resemble those who came of age during the Great Depression. These youngsters either witnessed the recent recession or felt its impact on their parents or families.
“They’re not going to be as free and easy,” Ryan says. “They’re going to be savers, they’re going to be more cautious and they’re going to be very good rule followers.”
And then there’s the obvious difference between today’s kids and youth of the past: technology. Present-day children and teens were born into a world in which the Internet was a reality and constant digital connection, for better or worse, is the norm.
“They don’t know the world without digital technology,” says Joanne Cantor, professor emerita of communication arts at UW–Madison and president of Your Mind on Media.
While not one to advocate giving up technology, Cantor warns that growing up too wedded to digital devices could mean kids miss out on things they need more. So sure, they can play games on the iPad, but they also need to get their hands on blocks and crayons. They can spend time on the computer, but they’d better log just as many hours playing outside. And they still need and want interaction with their parents.
Hmm, creativity, play, stimulation and nurturing ... Maybe kids these days aren’t so different after all.
– Katie Vaughn
2. Their Madison
In honor of Beloit College’s Mindset List, the annual description of the world incoming college freshmen were born into, we offer these facts of life for Madison kids:
To local high-schoolers ...
Both the Badgers and Packers have always been good football teams, and the Kohl Center—not the Field House—is the place to watch college hoops. Monona Terrace is a building, not an idea, and Chris Farley is a hilarious late actor. And they’ve never known Madison without a Starbucks.
For middle-schoolers ...
Summer in Madison has always included a Mallards game (and probably a hug from Maynard). Friday nights in August mean grooving at Dane Dances, while Madison Ballet’s The Nutcracker is a holiday tradition. Madison athletes can be Ironmen and the Boys and Girls Club is a longtime local helper.
To elementary-aged kids ...
Overture Center has always anchored the two-hundred block of State Street, while Hilldale shopping features Macy’s, not Marshall Field’s. The Old Fashioned’s mac ’n’ cheese is way yummier than the boxed kind. And the Goodman Community
Center and the American Family Children’s Hospital are Madison landmarks.
Local babies and toddlers ...
They came into a Madison where access to more than twenty area farmers’ markets is totally normal, Halloween costumes can be bought at two Mallatt’s stores and a commute across town could as easily take place on a B-Cycle as in a car.
– Katie Vaughn
3. A Personal Playground
When I moved to Madison in 2003 with my then two-year-old son, we spent every weekend embarking on new adventures. My toddler’s favorite activity was going to the state Capitol—his own private jungle gym. I remember touring the building once on a fifth-grade field trip and struggling to take it all in. My son had no such limits to his exploration. Many, many Sundays we sat on the well-worn steps of each grand staircase and slid down to ground level one bump at a time. We growled at the statue of a fierce badger leaping out over a doorway. We lay on our backs to study the mosaics that reached up to the rotunda, feeling the cold marble press against our arms and the backs of our legs. We twirled through revolving doors and pushed ornate buttons on elevators. We listened as voices echoed. Then the next weekend, we did it again.
– Gwendolyn Rice
4. Healthy Food is Fun
Getting your kids to complete chores can be a drag. But getting them to eat their fruits and veggies needn’t be—just keep it fun and local. Here are four ways the whole family can join the feast.
From a few containers of tomatoes and basil to a full-blown family garden plot, kids love to play in the dirt and watch things sprout. So do grown-ups. If the garden goes well, go for a compost bin and some chickens.
Southern Wisconsin is blessed with ubiquitous u-pick operations. Take the kids for strawberries at Carandale Farm near Oregon, the full gamut of summer veggies at Tree Farm near Cross Plains or crisp fall apples at Door Creek Orchard near Cottage Grove.
Read Terese Allen and Bobbie Malone’s The Flavor of Wisconsin for Kids. Visit Sassy Cow Creamery near Columbus. Chat with vendors at farmers’ markets to see what they do. Go to a Breakfast on the Farm event.
Make Caprese salad from your tomatoes, basil and some fresh mozzarella. Smother u-pick strawberries with Sassy Cow vanilla ice cream. Kick it up a notch and make summer veggie stew (ratatouille) or spaghetti sauce.
– John Motoviloff
5. We Love Ice Cream
You bet the capital of the Dairy State boasts some stellar ice cream. Three local shops give the scoop on the flavors kids call their favorites.
From top to bottom:
Mint Chocolate Chip, Michael’s Frozen Custard
This classic minty custard with crisp slivers of chocolate is super refreshing on a hot day.
Superman, The Chocolate Shoppe
Resembling a swirly scoop of Play-Doh, this ice cream packs a tangy, fruit-punchy flavor.
Blue Moon, Babcock Hall Dairy Store
Extra soft and a pretty shade of blue, this ice cream tastes like Fruit Loops.
– Devin Ross
6. Pac Man Fever (Again)
I’ve often recounted stories to my eight-year-old son Rowan about the golden age of Madison arcades in the early ’80s and places like Aladdin’s Castle and Space Port. That’s why I was thrilled when I heard about Rossi’s Vintage Arcade and Pizzeria in Monona. Recently Rowan and I made the trip to Rossi’s and realized we’d just stepped into video game heaven. We spent an afternoon plugging quarters into games like Tempest, Donkey Kong and Sinistar. Rowan ended up with a high score on Battlezone while I made it to my highest level on Galaga. What a great way to hit the rewind button on my own life and share a special moment with my kid.
– Tim Burton
7. Looking Good, Kid
Yes, things are officially cuter when they’re pint-sized—just like these kids modeling the latest summer-into-fall looks!
On Nathan, 22 months (left)
Tea pirate T-shirt, $19, and Tea jeans, $49, both from Capitol Kids; See Kai Run “Braxton” sneakers, $47, Playthings.
On Sophie, 3 (right)
Tea “Chrysanthemum” dress, $29, Toobydoo cotton leggings, $25, Bow Arts red flower hair clip, $10, and See Kai Run “Merrilee” silver sandal, $47, all from Capitol Kids.
On Grace, 5 (left)
Tea “Cape Lily” smocked shirt, $26, Tea skinny stripe leggings, $21, and Livie and Luca shoes, $48.50, all from Playthings; Bows Arts sequin bow hair clip, $8.75, Capitol Kids; frog stuffed animal, $22.50, Wild Child.
On Judah, 5 (right)
Fore!! Axel & Hudson Apparel shorts and button-up (both $39.50), and Charlie Rocket hoodie, $47.50, Wild Child; watch, $10, from Playthings; Fore!! Axel & Hudson straw fedora, $28, and See Kai Run “River” slip-ons, $41.50, both from Capitol Kids.
– Styling by Shayna Mace, photos by TImothy Hughes
8. Girl Power!
Thank goodness self-esteem building and enrichment opportunities for girls’ leadership and empowerment are a popular antidote for the constant influx of negative stereotypes of females in society. For every psychologically damaging advertisement of the latest styles barely clinging to anorexic models, there are competing images of athletes, artists or entrepreneurs who are healthy, happy and successful.
Here in Madison, girl power is in. Girls on the Run is a unique way for third through eighth graders and their volunteer coaches/mentors to train for a 5K run while learning important life skills en route. Each practice incorporates a lesson—antibullying, positive media images, substance abuse awareness—in or around physical activity. The program culminates in a race with family and friends cheering from the sidelines. A few years ago I coached third and fourth graders, including my daughter, so I can tell you firsthand that the sense of accomplishment—and in some cases, immense relief—those girls feel when they cross the finish line is powerful stuff.
Girls Rock Camp is a weeklong jam session, led by local rocker Beth Kille, of learning, practice and fun ending with a real-live concert—with screaming fans to boot—as reward. New this year is a DJ session for teens during the August 5–9 camp.
YWCA Madison runs Girls Inc. out of three Madison community centers and comprehensively tackles life skills, learning and fun. Its tagline, “Inspiring girls to be strong, smart and bold,” pretty much says it all.
In this golden age of girl power, the matriarch of the movement, Girl Scouts, is now more than a century old and as vital as ever. While the Girl Scout brand is forever tied to Thin Mints and Caramel deLites, cookie sales are the mere fudge topping on the Thanks-A-Lot. My twelve-year-old came for the Peanut Butter Patties and stayed for the friendships, discovery and, of course, the badges and patches, which her Grandma Kathy dutifully irons on her green Cadette sash. While coed opportunities for kids are important, too, a little girl time can go a long way.
– Brennan Nardi
9. Wild for the Zoo
There’s lots to love about the Henry Vilas Zoo. It’s open every day of the year. It’s free. It has penguins, giraffes, a tiger and more. But to find out the very best time to visit—and where to go once we’re here—we turned to zookeeper Elizabeth Petersen for advice.
Arrive early. The zoo grounds open at 9:30 a.m. Why come right away? The animals are peppiest and the zoo’s the least crowded.
Visit the lion first. “Henry almost always roars first thing in the morning,” Petersen says, adding that it’s his daily way of reestablishing his territory.
Head to the Children’s Zoo. The gibbons, meerkats and red pandas will just be coming outside to play. You don’t want to miss that.
Go to the Primate House. When it opens at 10 a.m., the orangutans and chimpanzees emerge to happily find fresh food and new toys.
See the seals anytime. “Their activity level remains high all day,” says Petersen.
For more tips on navigating the zoo, download the new free app at vilaszoo.org.
– Katie Vaughn
10. Bring the Kids
The party's not over just because you're a parent
The Situation: Friends are in town and want to do brunch.
Pre-kids: You’d sleep in and head to Sardine or Cooper’s for bloody Marys and mimosas.
With kids: Two words: Crema Café. This cute Monona spot boasts great scrambles for adults and a healthy, delicious kids’ menu.
Bonus: You can linger with friends over coffee while the kiddos play with Crema’s toys.
The Situation: It’s festival season and you don’t want to miss out.
Pre-kids: You’d close down the Orton Park Festival and Dane Dances, reveling late into the night.
With kids: Both events are great for kids! Just come earlier rather than later and check out the family-friendly activities in addition to the music.
Bonus: Diverse food goes hand in hand with great tunes at community events.
The Situation: A new season at Overture Center’s about to kick off.
Pre-kids: You’d score tickets to the latest Broadway musical or take in the symphony or opera.
With kids: Check out a Children’s Theater of Madison play or Madison Ballet’s annual holiday production of The Nutcracker.
Bonus: Kids in the Rotunda offers fabulous free performances by local entertainers.
The Situation: You’re craving a beer.
Pre-kids: You’d meet buddies out for a round of brews—or perhaps for a pub crawl around the Square.
With kids: The Great Dane is your new best friend. Good beer plus a lively atmosphere means no one blinks an eye if a child is loud.
Bonus: On certain Saturdays, December through April, the Hilldale Dane hosts Kid Disco.
– Katie Vaughn
11. Freedom in Religion
As parents, one of our primary responsibilities—outside of not humiliating our progeny by posting family photos on their Facebook timelines—is to use our own experiences to inform (and improve) our children’s growth and development.
So it’s been with making a grilled cheese sandwich, and so it’s been with faith and religion. In my case, my mother’s church-shopping landed me in the Catholic Church, where I spent a mostly happy decade-plus before becoming disillusioned by a string of organizational failures. My wife and I decided that when the time came, we’d let our children decide their faith for themselves.
But not in a vacuum. For the last year, my oldest has been part of something called In the Mix, a weekly youth program created and run by Tammy Martens, pastor at Orchard Ridge United Church of Christ on Madison’s southwest side.
In the Mix swirls together exploration and action. Some weekly meetings involve guest speakers from the major religions or field trips to places like the Sikh temple in Milwaukee, where a mass shooting occurred last year. But there’s also a strong element of community service: Road trips to food shelters in Milwaukee are a regular event, and last summer, my daughter joined a large group of middle and high schoolers who bused to Tennessee to perform community service; this summer, a group headed to New Mexico to do the same.
It works thanks to a supportive, no-pressure environment. “We honor where youth are at with spiritual development, and set the table for them to explore,” says Martens. “We’re helping them develop their own faith and be articulate about what they believe.”
Children who choose to can use the program as a bridge to confirmation. Others can just use it as a way to explore their spirituality on their own terms, while being exposed to—and learning to respect—religious views they wouldn’t otherwise encounter.
“A big part of what we try to do is nurture a sense of community,” says Martens. “Community has a powerful place in a teenager’s life. It’s not like a drive-thru.”
– Aaron R. Conklin
12. Let's Get Crafty
The Sewcial Lounge offers a beginning sewing class for kids, plus an instructor-led sewing club where you can choose your own project. thesewciallounge.com
Midwest Clay Project holds group wheel pottery classes for kids and teens, plus private wheel or hand lessons for kids. MCP also hosts open studio time for kids and birthday parties. midwestclayproject.com
At Lakeside Fibers’ private and semiprivate knitting lessons, kids practice basic knitting skills before starting a scarf project with yarn of their choice. lakesidefibers.com
Anthology is devoted to unique projects. The shop supplies the materials and instructor, and kids enjoy craft time at the table. Craft parties offer creative activities for larger groups. anthology.typepad.com
If your kids want to get crafty on your next road trip, Kinkoona Farm in Brodhead makes felting kits complete with foam backing, needles, colored wool—from their own sheep—instructions and templates. baabaashop.com
– Mary Morgan
13. Guitar Hero
David Landau stands onstage in the Overture Center rotunda and orders the audience to go to sleep.
His fans do as they’re told—which may come as a surprise to their parents—before jumping back up when Landau yells, “OK, wake up and dance!”
They are part of what the Shullsburg, Wisconsin, native affectionately calls “my three-foot posse.” It’s a following built over more than ten years of performing at birthday parties, libraries, preschools and summer festivals.
“If we have a bunch of superheroes and little princesses and lots of pink—that’s my crowd right there,” Landau says.
Landau was teaching first grade at Stoner Prairie Elementary School in Verona when he saw a glimpse of a different career. He was accompanying his class on a field trip to the old Madison Civic Center and the performer was late. Landau saw a theater filled with three hundred squirming schoolchildren and decided to try to entertain them with an original song he would sometimes sing for his class called “Icky Sticky Bubble Gum.”
They ate it up.
Landau left his teaching post in 2002 after eleven years. A few years earlier, he’d helped start the Cork n’ Bottle String Band, a bluegrass group that plays backup on his three children’s CDs, and he realized he wanted to make a go of it.
“When I was teaching, I was reaching twenty kids per year and now I can reach a thousand kids a year, or more,” he says.
And parents wary of “kids’ music” should know Landau considers them when building his set list. On his most recent album, he covers a classic Johnny Cash song, “Cocaine Blues,” albeit with a different title and lyrics. “I change it to ‘The Firefighter Song,’” he says with a laugh.
– Jenny Price
14. Special Opportunities for Special Needs
As a mother of a child with disabilities, I usually find guides aimed at “normal” kids to be of little help—my own child may find the suggestions too noisy, too difficult or too overwhelming to enjoy. While all disabilities and people with disabilities are unique, here are three Madison-based activities that meet special needs and pack a whole lot of fun.
The Autism Society and AMC Theaters team up monthly to provide first-run kids’ movies with dim lighting, quieter sound and an invitation for kids to get up, move around and make noise. Families can even bring their own gluten- and casein-free snacks. autism-society.org/get-involved/events/sensory-friendly-films
When I wanted my daughter to learn to swim, I was at a loss until I found SwimWest. The pool’s private lessons provided her with safe, quiet, tailored instruction, and they even welcomed me in the water with her. SwimWest has three locations and twenty years of experience working with physical challenges, hearing and visual impairments, Down syndrome and autism. Our instructor was both flexible and sensitive. swimwest.com
If your child has a passion for the diamond, the West Madison Little League Challenger Division runs a compassionate program to allow all kids to enjoy the sport. Athletes are grouped according to ability rather than age, and all participants get their own supportive buddy for help at bat, in the field and in the dugout. Parents can sit back and enjoy the game. wmll.org/A1-InfoPages/ChallengerBrochure.pdf
– Laura Jones
15. Child's Play
Meet Deb Gilpin, the new director of the Madison Children’s Museum.
How does a children’s museum reflect the community it serves?
By showing that we care about our children and that we want to give them multidisciplinary experiences to really build them up as whole people. This museum takes in the local culture: the lakes, the dairy, the farmland and the technology that represents that this is a university city. I’m really excited about the commitment to being green in every way we can be and every way we can teach about it.
What’s special about our museum?
This really is the best of the best museums in the country. What’s cool is that it’s not the big monster museum; those don’t have the intimacy or the funkiness. This museum matches my beliefs, which are that you have to take risks and think differently, and you’re gonna fail on some of those things but that has to be OK. That’s what kids do every day.
What advice do you have for parents and adults who visit the museum?
As adults we multitask—a child’s playing and we’re not really paying attention. But to observe their parents playing shows them it’s OK to try something and have it not work out. Or it’s OK to get silly and laugh and to see your parents in a non-stress situation. The interaction is a key part of the experience.
Do children’s museums have a lasting impact on kids?
When you let a child play in a very open-ended way, they learn how to explore unknowns and how to think about them. “What do I want to try next? What will happen?” These choices are developing curiosity, critical thinking and problem solving skills.
Do you have a great idea you’ll bring to Madison?
Madison is so far ahead of the rest of the country in so many ways that nothing jumps out at me right away. I’m sure there’ll be something. A lot of it is about showing our best sides to kids so they can show theirs.
– Brennan Nardi
16. Beyond the Chicken Nugget
Some parents manage to make going out to dinner with kids look like a dream. You can occasionally spot them, fashionably dressed, enjoying mussels alongside their easygoing and adventurous little eaters at some of the more elegant dining spots around town (you know, the places most people hire a sitter to go to).
For mere mortals with children, dining out typically involves more affordable fare. It also means coming to terms with children’s menus that include items like hot dogs, grilled cheese and breaded chicken in some unnatural shape. Case in point: the Dino nugget.
So what is a guilt-ridden, twenty-first-century parent to do in this situation? Some actively avoid the kids’ menu altogether, opting to share their adult portion-sized meals with their children and save a few calories themselves. That’s a sensible plan, but it assumes they will actually eat what Mom or Dad decides to order.
Thankfully, some Madison-area restaurants have moved their children’s offerings beyond macaroni and cheese. Many eateries, including Buffalo Wild Wings, Culver’s, the Great Dane, Hubbard Avenue Diner and Pasqual’s, to name just a few, offer sides like applesauce, carrots or fruit as alternatives to French fries.
At The Old Fashioned, kids can enjoy grilled salmon served with broccoli and fresh fruit. Liliana’s Restaurant cooks up kids’ meals from scratch and each entrée is served with fresh vegetables and fruit salad. And at Paisan’s and Uno Chicago Grill, picky eaters can decide what shape of noodles they want to order and whether the sauce should be on the side. That’s music to the ears of parents who dream of wine, rather than whining, with dinner.
– Jenny Price
17. Pool Party
Childhood memories are not complete without a trip to the neighborhood pool. You in your brand-new bathing suit because last year’s is already too small or has one too many holes from living in it all summer—if you’re lucky your parents don’t notice you’ve slept in it. Mom slathering on the SPF 50 before you wriggle out of her slippery grasp and fast-walk it—because running will get you in big trouble, young lady—to the deep end. Stand tall, scan the water to avoid any life forms below, then 1-2-3 jump! into the cold, chlorinated wonderland until a teenage lifeguard whistles you out for the break. The only good thing about rest time is the snack bar, if the grown-ups didn’t get all annoying and healthy on you and pack the cooler with granola bars and water. I can taste the Fun Dip crystals—grape, cherry and orange, so sweet they make you pucker—like it was yesterday. Madison’s kids are making their own lazy-summer-by-the-pool memories as we speak. We love the city’s Goodman Pool because it’s fun for all ages, friendly, reasonably priced and safe. Blissfully, the only thing that feels like it’s changed after all this time is the year on the calendar.
– Brennan Nardi
18. Making Peace
We tried raising them without TV and fed them organic food. We marched against the Iraq War, while they were toddlers on our shoulders.
Now they are fourteen, and I barely note the irony that my sons prefer to spend their time amid empty chip bags and soda bottles—shooting, blasting, kicking, stabbing and slashing away at the enemy in a bombed-out landscape.
As they approached adolescence, we didn’t own a gaming console, but their friends did. What were we supposed to do—lock them up? We relented, allowing a PS3, a Sony gaming console. We looked at the ratings and helped them pick games. They reassured us that they can distinguish between violence onscreen and off. (Note: They’re still kind to people and animals.)
The American Association of Pediatrics reports that children spend an average of seven hours per day on devices. I’m comforted that we’re below average, but that’s because we strive (not entirely successfully) to help the lads establish priorities: Homework, piano, chores and outdoor play should come first.
Recently, my twins gave me a lesson in Call of Duty: Black Ops, the best-selling game in U.S. history. The three of us giggled as I bumped into walls and shot into the bathroom mirror trying to aim at Leo’s character. It was enjoyable and tricky, and even the spattering of blood onscreen did not awaken any actual bloodlust.
Video games are part of the world we live in. Maybe it’s time to move into the acceptance stage. We’ll still intrude upon teen space and ask annoying questions about what they’re playing—and with whom. And we’ll encourage them to turn off the screens and go out into the world. A world with real violence—and real beauty.
– Catherine Capellaro
19. Go Outside and Play!
Rent a canoe, kayak or paddleboat at Wingra Boats to explore quiet Lake Wingra, or bring your own to one of Wisconsin’s 15,000 lakes.
Take a walk along the Lakeshore Path to Picnic Point and check out the turtles and fish living in Lake Mendota. Or hit a trail in one of Wisconsin’s sixty state parks and forests.
Go east and bike along gently rolling prairie on the Glacial Drumlin State Trail. Go west and mountain bike the bluff trails at Blue Mounds State Park.
Pitch a tent close to home at quiet Lake Kegonsa State Park. Go north and camp among the maple and hemlock trees at Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.
Fish the lily pads for bass and muskie at no-motor Lake Wingra. Try the deep bends of Black Earth Creek for trout.
Scan Madison’s lakes in spring and fall for loons and tundra swans. Take the pontoon boat tour of North America’s largest freshwater cattail marsh, Horicon Marsh, an hour east of Madison.
Like berry cobbler? Try a u-pick farm like Eplegaarden or Carandale or brave the brambles at state parks like Governor Dodge or Governor Nelson.
Learn about everything from fish to forests at Wisconsin state park nature programs at Devil’s Lake and Kettle Moraine–Northern Unit.
Follow the torches
On winter evenings, feel like you’ve stepped back in time as you trek along torch-lit trails during Candelight Hike/Ski events at Kettle Moraine State Forest–Southern Unit.
Shoot for the stars
Gaze at—and learn about—the stars during regular public viewing times at the Washburn Observatory on the UW–Madison campus.
– John Motoviloff