A Parent's Guide to Summer in Denver

There's no shortage of summertime fun for the young in Denver. From museums and parks to performing arts and outdoor concerts, here's a look at a few favorite family-friendly offerings. 
With the longest days of the year coming soon, there's plenty of time for exploring the city with kids this summer. Confluence Denver offers a few picks for parents in search of places that are a kick for the whole family.

Early educationCutting-edge curriculum at the Auraria Early Learning Center prepare students for elementary school.

Curious little minds don't take the summers off. Located in the heart of the Auraria Higher Education Center's combined campus, the Auraria Early Learning Center, open weekdays from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., is a year-round daycare and school with full- and part-time programs for children ages 12 months to 5 years. What makes this early learning center special is its skilled teachers, who cater to each child's unique needs to support intellectual and social development in a nurturing, age-appropriate environment. Cutting-edge curriculum taps into the latest pedagogy, preparing students for elementary school.

The Center was originally designed for AHEC's students, faculty and staff, but the renowned preschool and kindergarten offerings draw families from the community, too. The kindergarten program, in particular, boasts a low teacher-to-child ratio of 1:8 -- far less than the 1:30 ratio required of public kindergartens by the Colorado Department of Health and Human Services, explains Director of Communications and Campus Outreach Katy Brown. By keeping class sizes intimate, students at the Center "get a lot of hands-on experiences and teacher interaction," continues Brown.  

Food is included in monthly tuition, and healthy meals are served up family-style in an effort to teach the children manners. Parents are always kept in the loop because the Center offers a comprehensive communication plan that includes daily teacher interaction, weekly classroom newsletters, monthly classroom calendars, regular parent-teacher conferences and community-building events. Parents are also invited into the classrooms to observe and participate.

Summer camp

You won't have to travel far for an exciting summer camp experience: the Auraria Early Learning Center runs a day camp for children 8 and under, and the experience is beyond memorable. Campers take field trips all over town, and participants ride public transit, too. Regular excursions include weekly library visits along with trips to local museums, the Denver Zoo, the Denver Downtown Aquarium and the Butterfly Pavilion, among other destinations.

When campers aren't exploring the city, they're engaged in play-based activities on campus via an educationally focused curriculum that helps keep those reading and math skills sharp over the long summer break. All meals are included in the flat-rate tuition.

If you're kids are itching for a legit overnight camp-out, there's the YMCA's beloved Camp Chief Ouray in Granby, Colorado. Approximately 80 miles northwest of Denver you'll stumble upon a century-old overnight camp for children ages 7 to 17. Located on 5,100 acres of mountains, valleys, streams and meadows, one of the only things you won't find at CCO is a bored camper.

Campers live in old-school cabins with two extensively trained counselors and up to nine other kids of the same age and sex. Safety's always a priority; there's a well-equipped health center on the campgrounds, a resident nurse and the staff-to-camper ratio is never higher than 1:5. Beyond traditional camp, CCO also hosts mini-camps for younger kiddos, adventure backpacking -- even wrangling!  

Performing artsYounger children will adore the Denver Puppet Theater in Berkeley.

Are your kids acting up? Bring on the good kind of drama, and catch a special show at Buntport Theater Company, located at 717 Lipan St. Known for their unusual adaptations and quirky original comedies, this non-traditional crew is intent on bringing innovative and affordable entertainment to the metro area.

For theater-loving families, Buntport has Duck Duck Dupe. On the second Saturday of each month, a vibrant ensemble of six full-time collaborators performs three themed stories. Two are true, the other is false, and for a fun, game-like spin on traditional theater, audience members are asked to figure out which story is baloney. Show times are 1 and 3 p.m.; tickets start at $6, with $1 off if you dress as a duck. (Seriously.) Make reservations in advance because these shows fill up fast.

Younger children will adore the Denver Puppet Theater, 3156 W. 38th Ave., featuring old-time marionette shows in a quaint Berkeley playhouse that's chock full of color and character. Through June 27, there's Cinderella -- but, not like you've seen it before; this re-imagining takes place in merry old Mexico. On July 1, the puppet masters shift to Marionette Melodrama, another delightful rollick. Performances happen Thursdays and Fridays at 10 a.m., and on Saturdays and Sundays at 1. Arrive 30 minutes early or stay late to interact with the puppets. Admission to each 45-minute-long session is $7 per person; shows are appropriate for preschool and primary grade children, and reservations aren't necessary.

Getting outdoors

For an epic outdoor urban adventure, head to Confluence Park, 2250 15th St., at the intersection of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek. Kayak on the river, take in scenic views of Denver's skyline or sunbathe on a sandy shore. Then, hop on the Cherry Creek Regional Trail, a popular 40-mile biking and hiking trail with paved paths, idyllic views and easy access to both the Cherry Creek Shopping District and Cherry Creek State Park.

After your bike ride, head up to the flagship REI store, 1416 Platte St., where you can cool off with an iced tea at Starbucks while your children attempt to scale the big boulder in REI's front lawn. Don't forget to visit the store's third floor, nature-inspired indoor playground. Tucked away between kid shoes and women's clothes and constructed back in 2000, this play space was designed to connect kids with the outdoors in an indoor environment, and it boasts a bridge, tree house, tunnel and two slides, along with rocks, boulders and a mock stream. If you stay long enough, you might catch a free summer concert back at Confluence Park.

Escaping the heat For an epic outdoor urban adventure, head to Confluence Park.

From a first-floor outer space station with a Mars exhibit and dress-up nook for wee astronauts to authentic animal dioramas, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, 2001 Colorado Blvd., is jam-packed with hands-on educational offerings. Consider coughing up the dough for a membership because there's no way to squeeze everything into one day. In no particular order, visitors stumble upon a massive cast of a T-Rex skeleton and other dinosaur bones, Egyptian mummies, a butterfly and insect display, gems and minerals, shooting stars at the planetarium and a variety of special IMAX shows. For the 5-and-under set, there's the newly remodeled Discovery Zone where experiential learning -- and water! -- rule.

When it's really scorching, head to Water World, 8801 N. Pecos St., the largest youth employer in metro Denver, and a massive water park boasting more family tube rides than any other in America. The facility houses several twisty slides named for local rivers like the Rio Grande, Eagle, Gunnison and our beloved Ragin' Colorado. There are 49 attractions in all, 25 of which have been dubbed family-friendly: Tortuga Run, Screamin' Mimi, Pirate's Plunge, and Thunder Bay Wave Pool, to name a few. Bring a picnic lunch to enjoy at the covered pavilion or on a grassy knoll, or nosh on park food -- it's free all-you-can-eat for tots under 40 inches. Mid-day admissions pricing and season passes are available, along with locker rentals.

Local spray pads offer are great places to cool off, too. H2Odyssey, 1700 N. York St., is where families go to get really wet. Located in City Park just west of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and open Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., kids delight in guessing where the water will shoot up next at this big, mysterious spray pad. The beauty of Parkfield Lake Park, 15555 E. 53rd Ave., is its natural design scheme that extends from the playground's giant boulders to a skate arena -- all the way to a wildly amusing water spray-ground that's open daily 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Great Plains Park Spray Park, 20100 E. Jewell Ave., Aurora, might be a little tricky to find, but trust us: It's there, and, the colorful, inviting water feature, open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. through early October, is worth a visit. This spray park is huge, produces immense puddles, and draws large crowds.

Family-friendly nightlife Denver Botanic Gardens' 2015 summer series kicks off on June 16 with Hot Rize, and continues through August.

Nothing says summertime like an outdoor concert, and the Denver Botanic Gardens serves up an unparalleled line up at its UMB Bank Amphitheater at the York Street gardens. By pairing its breathtaking setting with world-class acts and performances that start well before bedtime, DBG knows how to deliver an unforgettable experience to local families. The 2015 summer series kicks off on June 16 with Hot Rize, and continues through August. Tickets and a full schedule are available online.  

The York Street site also holds Family Fun Nights, a time when parents and kiddos gather for a unique opportunity to explore nature at night in the stunning Mordecai Children's Garden. There's a new theme each month, along with special performances on Sagebrush Stage and other fun activities. This summer's series begins on June 20 at 5:30 p.m. with a pollination party celebrating National Pollinator Week. Parents and kids will learn about the importance of pollinators while observing them in their natural habitats and planting a pollinator seed mix to take home. Special guests from the Colorado Conservatory of Dance will put on an interactive themed performance. Prices start at $20 for member families of four, and children 2 and under are free. Families are encouraged to bring a picnic dinner. Reserve your spot online.

This story was produced in partnership with the Auraria Higher Education Center.

Read more articles by Jamie Siebrase.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer who who writes about art, culture, and parenting for Westword and Colorado Parent.
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