Best Place to Take Kids When It’s Raining: The Imaginarium I asked my 8-year-old niece why The Imaginarium was so cool. She summed it up perfectly: “It’s. Got. Everything.” Says owner Jill Madariaga, “It makes me so happy when kids get it. The truth is that we sat down and said, 'OK, let’s think of everything that kids adore,’ and we made a list and said we are going to create all of these things in one way or another.” Madariaga and her business partner (her mother) have succeeded in doing just that at their expansive new facility in Cool Springs. The impressive list of exhibits and activities includes: a dinosaur exhibit, complete with excavation pit, dinosaur bones and even dinosaur poop; a theater with an extensive costume collection; a grocery store; an art studio; a fire station; a rain forest with live reptiles and insects; the WKID television station; a bank and much more. Coming soon is an outer space exhibit and a gas station. While The Imaginarium is particularly suited for ages 2 to 10, it encourages parent interaction. “How do you interact with your kids when they’re playing Game Boy?” asks Madariaga. “Here, you can put on a tutu or help your kids excavate for dinosaur bones.” The Imaginarium also does great birthday business, having just been voted the “#1 Birthday Destination” by Nashville Parent Magazine for the fourth year running. “It’s really hard to overcome Chucky Cheese,” says Madariaga. “That mechanical rat is hard to beat.” The Imaginarium is open 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Tues.-Fri. and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat. Admission is $6 for kids, $4 for adults, and kids under two are admitted free. Call 373-9596 for information.

—Erin Edwards

Best Playground: Crockett Park Yes, it’s located far from the central city, but Crockett Park has the best darn playground around. It’s two full acres of all sorts of slides, intricate wooden structures, jiggly steps, parallel bars, rubber tire tubes and even a head-high (for a 4-year-old, anyway) tic-tac-toe board. Best yet, all ground surfaces are padded or mulched, making skinned knees a thing of the past. The park is fully enclosed, so the wee ones can ramble about but not ramble off. Don’t forget the miles of kid-friendly paved bike paths—those winding thoroughfares work nicely, allowing mom and dad to do their workouts behind the jogging stroller after playground time is over. Crockett Park is located in Brentwood off Crockett Boulevard on Volunteer Parkway just next to Crockett Elementary and Woodland Middle School.

—Willy Stern

Best Free Water Park: Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park To cure your kids of water fright, introduce them to the Bicentennial Mall’s Riverwalk and its bank of 31 vertical fountains. They’re intended to represent each of Tennessee’s 31 major waterways, about as dry a description of a water attraction as you’re likely to find. Not to worry: The thing’s really just a giant state-sponsored Slip ’N Slide—a sunny plaza with jets of water that shoot out of the ground at computer-programmed intervals, perfect for leaping kids in swimsuits and wary toddlers. And whenever a train crosses the gleaming white Bicentennial Mall trestle, high above the plaza, kids can usually coax a wave and a whistle from the passing engineer. The only thing missing is a guy in a bandleader’s outfit singing “Seventy-Six Trombones.” It continues until cold weather sets in, then reactivates in spring; call 741-5800 for more information.

—Jim Ridley

Best Summer Camp: Whippoorwill Farm Summer Day Camp Our kids caught the bus to Whippoorwill this summer from the St. George’s Episcopal Church parking lot, and they nearly ripped the doors off the car on their way out the backseat. At Whippoorwill, the kids sign up for their own activities, and at the end of the first day, I asked our kids what they’d done. “WE DID CREEK TIME!” they shrieked. “What’s that?” I asked. “YOU WALK IN THE CREEK!” they screamed. Whippoorwill, located outside Fairview, is the kind of place where kids return covered in mud and smiling like happy pumpkins. What I myself would give for some creek time.

—Bruce Dobie

Best Kid-Friendly Restaurant: Bobbie’s Dairy Dip Sure, the view from the five picnic tables alongside Bobbie’s Dairy Dip is of two big, red neon signs that continuously blink “WHISKEY.” And even as you pull into the parking lot at 53rd and Charlotte avenues, cars whip by all too close. But Bobbie’s Dairy Dip still is the kids’ favorite—and with good reason. For shakes, sundaes, banana boats and swirlies (your kids can explain), Bobbie’s rich, creamy, soft-serve ice cream can’t be beat. Then there’s “The Kitchen Sink” (as in everything but...), which runs $15.95 and is perfect for birthdays. Young’ns adore the burgers, dogs and fries (regular or sweet potato). “I love the ice cream and milk shakes,” 5-year-old Sam Kuster explained on a recent summer day. “And you get to eat outside and see animals like flies, bees and ants.”

—Willy Stern

Best Alternative to Game Boy, Yu-Gi-Oh or Teletubbies: Nashville Public Library For kids who really crave adventure, not just the push-button isolation of digital gamescapes or the tube, the place to go is the card catalog. From the outside, maybe, a library looks quiet and stuffy—an oasis of calm to adults, a pit of smothering tedium to kids hooked on media speed. But kids, have you actually seen what goes on in these places? Don’t be fooled by the airy, cathedral-like space of the new Church Street main branch: hidden within its spacious second-floor children’s section are monsters, trolls, sharks, pirates and dinosaurs, confined only temporarily between the covers of books. The downtown branch is also the home of the Tichenor Theatre, a plush forest hideaway of an auditorium where live performances and marionette shows take place throughout the fall, winter and spring months. And most every library branch from MetroCenter to Edmondson Pike offers free events for all ages, whether it’s story hours, read-aloud parties or Internet investigation. Not only is this the cheapest children’s programming in town, it’s the kind that introduces a child to a lifetime of excitement—and the awareness that the greatest toy any kid could ever have is an imagination. See www.library.nashville .org for calendars and a comprehensive children’s catalog.

—Jim Ridley

Best Pediatrician: Robert E. Mallard, M.D. A search of the online database of the American Academy of Pediatricians turns up 192 pediatricians with a Nashville address, another 18 in Brentwood, 24 in Franklin and who knows how many more in the rest of the metropolitan area. Labeling one as the “best” is like picking a favorite George W. Bush malapropism: There’s inevitably a great one you haven’t seen. But Robert Mallard gets our attention by combining zeal for the science of medicine with a gentle spirit and empathetic bedside manner that charms patients and parents alike. A graduate of Vanderbilt Medical School, Mallard has practiced in Nashville for a quarter of a century. In the late 1990s, he left a larger Green Hills pediatrics business for a more patient-friendly practice that features a congenial staff, infrequent busy signals and generally on-time appointments. His development-focused approach to children’s health means spending as much time in well-child visits talking to your kid as kicking the tires. One hopes the docs-in-training at Vanderbilt, where Mallard maintains an appointment as a clinical professor of pediatrics, are paying attention.

—Bruce Barry

Best Indoor Playground: Bellevue Mall Bellevue’s large, recessed center-court playground may likely have been the mall’s salvation—the edge that sets it apart from competitors like Opry Mills and Green Hills. With its many “soft” features, from springy board-game tiles on the floor to a climbable giant dragonfly, it’s big enough to keep bored tots diverted for an hour, yet small enough for parents to keep easy watch over the little scramblers. Other malls may have more stores or more accessible locations, but the playground alone makes the trip to Bellevue worth the effort—as the weekend throng of latte-sipping moms attests.

—Jim Ridley

Best Kid Treat: Las Paletas Chiquitas are chubby, stubby, little kid-sized popsicles that come in a variety of tropical flavors, from mango to peach to pineapple. Unlike the sugar-water sticks you get in the grocery store, the chiquitas at the Mexican popsicle store Las Paletas on Twelfth Avenue South are made on the premises with fresh pureed fruit. And because of their abbreviated size, they don’t have time to melt into a puddle before your young’un is finished. Best of all, the Paz sisters behind the counter make a fuss over every child who comes through the door. Your kid will leave with a smeared face and an ear-to-ear smile—and you might be able to brown-bag yourself a pineapple-and-jalapeño paleta for the ride home.

—Jim Ridley


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