By Rachael McMillan
The middle school years are all about spreading your wings a bit and figuring out who you are. At least, those seemed to be the themes that repeatedly popped up when I asked my sixth and seventh grade students to basically write this for me by listing what they like to do in their spare time.
Using their invaluable input, I’ve compiled the following list of the top ten local places and/ or activities for middle school-aged kids in Champaign-Urbana. As always, let me know if there’s anything I forgot.
- Walking around downtown C-U
I was surprised to see this one make an appearance on their lists more than once, but it makes sense: there are great coffee shops, restaurants (more on that later), and interesting stores that will appeal to kids in that age range. I would suggest a stop in at my own beloved Ten Thousand Villages (a fair trade store where I volunteer), G-Mart Comic Books, and Jane Addams Bookshop for some quality browsing.
Put together, ice and roller skating were popular choices. The ice rink at the U of I just announced it will be open through the Summer. Skateland in Savoy is open year-round and also features a laser tag facility. Bonus: children aged 12 or under can participate in the Kids Skate Free program, which provides them with two free skating session per week (skate rental is extra).
I’ll be perfectly honest; only one student mentioned museums as a top choice (she would also want me to put in a plug for Krannert Center for the Performing Arts). However, having supervised middle school field trips to both Krannert Art Museum and Spurlock Museum, I would hazard a guess that taking your child to one of those places for an afternoon would go over pretty well. Not quite in our area but a perfect destination for kids during the middle school years is the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, which never fails to amaze.
The Kids Bowl Free deal sweetens this option, as it will provide your child with up to two free games per day, at your choice of any of our Champaign/Savoy bowling alleys. Shoe rental is extra, but if you think your kid will want to go frequently, you can always purchase your own.
I was also surprised to see these make so many of the students’ lists. However, it seems that physical activities such as biking, rollerblading, and playing volleyball are all pretty popular ways for tweens to spend their time and—wouldn’t you know it?—we have a lot of community-owned land perfect for just those things. Meadowbrook Park in Urbana got mentioned as a favorite a few times.
We are lucky to have a variety of area public pools (four of which are actually aquatic centers with slides and other cool features) and two open-to-the-public indoor facilities—the one at the Champaign YMCA and the Urbana Indoor Aquatic Center—where kids can splash the hours away. Silver lining moment: yes, your child is growing up way too fast. However, now that his/her age is securely in the double digits you’re less likely to need to don a suit to supervise when they go swimming. Can we say YAY?
- The Library
Once again, I was stunned to see this choice appear so often on the girls’ lists. Again, though, I see the appeal: it’s a public place where tween friends can gather, run into other kids, sip fancy coffee shop beverages, and peruse any number of great rentable materials to keep their minds occupied. And, really, it’s a testament to how great all of our local libraries really, truly are.
This was one of the top choices. What’s nice, too, is that middle schoolers are still enough into family flicks that you may be able to sell them on the free/cheap movies our local theatres offer seasonally. Incidentally, The Savoy 16 Theatre recently released its schedule of free spring movies, which begins with The Boxtrolls on the weekend of 2/28-3/1. The Carmike 13 in Champaign has offered cheap movie deals in the past, which include popcorn and a drink.
- The Mall(s)
If you guessed that this would be the number one pick of middle school-aged girls, you’d be right. But, I’m making it number two anyway. After all, I didn’t get a chance to poll the boys (although I’m thinking our malls would be decently popular with them, too). Really, we are lucky to have some nice ones in this area. Marketplace Mall is, of course, the main one, but that’s not to discount the awesome shopping opportunities at Tanger Outlets in Tuscola (for your newly fashion-conscious offspring) or Lincoln Square Mall in Urbana with its hip, conscientious consumer vibe.
- Dining of all sorts
Restaurants came in a close second to malls (it’s nice that in junior high the picky eating of the younger often years gives way to a desire to brag about the exotic foods one has tried). This ranks number one because, in my opinion, our dining options are the crown jewel of C-U living. I would be remiss, though, if I didn’t mention that especially popular with my students were local favorite Jarling’s Custard Cup, as well as our various purveyors of fro-yo.
Rachael McMillan teaches sixth and seventh grade history at Campus Middle School for Girls. She also tutors at The Reading Group and volunteers for Ten Thousand Villages, a fair trade retailer in downtown Champaign. She is totally in love with her Chambana life, which she shares with husband Scott, fourth grader Jack, third grader Kate, and William the Toddler.