Playtime: Science museum and skate park during Bellingham day trip

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Tana Granack gives a Mega Zapper demonstration.

Using social media as a parent is like a blessing and a curse to me. Just recently, I’ve felt better to see that the son of someone I went to high school with is also losing his teeth later than most kids, like my son is. On the other hand, I run into things that make me feel like there’s just no way to avoid that whole “I’m doing this wrong, aren’t I?” feeling. Most recently, it was some headline (are they ALL clickbait now?) about family vacations keeping your kids out of therapy. Ok, so it didn’t exactly say that, but that is how it felt.

Once I relaxed a little and checked out the info, I realized that maybe this wasn’t the precise way in which I was ruining my kids. There were two big points being made: first, there was a study published by the Journal of Consumer Research that looks into what type of gift is “better at strengthening relationships:” Was it material gifts or was it experiential gifts?  You guessed it, experiential gifts “produce greater improvements in relationship strength” due to the “intensity of the emotion that is evoked when they consume the gifts.” When I was reading the different articles about this, even something like a “joke a day” calendar, a CD, or a framed picture of a family vacation was considered experiential.

This brings us to the next part, and the hook in the headline, the “family vacation.” What became clear after reading about the first study, and then this next research, is the part that concerned me the most about this was the financial part. I felt better once I got the idea that the research wasn’t suggesting yearly European vacations or even that Disney place in Hawaii, but “time together in a new place.” This can mean lots of different things as budgets vary — but I also know, sometimes the real privilege is the time off or transportation.

So what are the lasting effects of this time together? The Family Holiday Association reported that nearly half of the respondents in their survey said their happiest memory was on a family vacation. Association Director, John McDonald told the Huffington Post, “By using these memories as an anchor to take us back to more cheerful moments, we’re often able to approach problems with a fresh sense of perspective.”

“Happiness anchor?” but no pressure, right? My stomach dropped a bit when I read the findings of child psychotherapist and Director of Education and Training at the Center For Child Mental Health, Dr. Margot Sunderland. She said that vacations can also play a part in brain development, but was heartened to hear her examples in the Telegraph “Think: family together in the pool; walking together through the forest; touching long tall grasses waving in the wind; toasting marshmallows on campfire; hanging out together under warm sun, feeling sand between the toes.” Heck, we’ve accomplished half of those things in a day trip to Whidbey, only using the ferry in one direction or playing Pokemon Go together after one of the few family dinners we get a week.

This last bit, before I tell you about the great options we found for a day trip in Bellingham, I feel compelled to add because they are from a world-leading neuroscientist at Washington State University, Professor Jaak Panksepp. He explains to Dr. Sunderland that these family trips trigger the neurochemicals opiods, oxytocin and dopamine which he called “nature’s gift to us.”

“They reduce stress and activate warm, generous feelings towards each other and a lovely sense that all is well in the world. With all the anti-stress aspects of these systems firing, family members get to emotionally refuel,” he said. Dr. Sunderland adds that this time bolsters executive functions like attention and concentration. While I think I can see some of these positives after we’ve spent some time together away from our home and responsibilities, it’s a little hard for me to read “generous feelings towards each other” without also remembering all the back-seat fights over nothing, both mine with my own siblings and my children with each other.

This past summer, we realized we hadn’t seen that much of Washington and now that the kids were able to travel easier (we mainly know because of out-of-town family weddings and hockey tournaments), we should start taking some day trips. The kids’ favorite stops thus far have been The Hobbit House at The Brothers Greenhouses in Port Orchard, Point No Point in Hansville, the hands-on submarine exhibit in Bremerton’s Naval Undersea Museum (all free admittance) and after this past weekend, pretty much every stop we made in Bellingham. It was such a fun day, though not without kids fighting and one kid getting sick that night, I had to share it with you.

A rotary phone on display.

It all started when I was googling a skate shop. Google Maps showed me the location and also filled in some places around it, one of those was The SPARK Museum of Electrical Invention, 1312 Bay Street. Knowing that at least 75 percent of our crew would likely enjoy this place, we decided to just make a day out of checking out a new area, including the skate shop I googled, and the local skate park.

With easy street parking in downtown Bellingham, which was very walk-able and architecturally interesting, we headed to the museum. It was reasonably priced as far as museums go, $8 for adults and $5 for those 11 and under, and so we picked it over the other museum on the map, The Family Interactive Gallery, which is also not too spendy comparatively.

We were greeted by Director of Operations and presenter of the Mega Zapper Show, Tana Granack, who gave us the rundown, which was, basically, if it has a green dot you can touch it and if not, don’t! We saw early radios and phonographs, the kids learned about old technology like Morse code and rotary dial phones. I never would have guessed that the rotary dial phone, which is set up with an interactive message, would have been one of the bigger draws for my kids, but my annoyance at dialing a number with a 9 in it was their joy. We hadn’t set aside enough time to see the Mega Zapper show, which is billed as a place where “history meets Frankenstein’s laboratory,” but Granack rounded up those of us in the museum and gave us a little taste of the program which he says he tends to do a few times a day considering the full show only runs on the weekends.

He turned on music and a Tesla coil and showcased bright lightning strikes whose proximity lit fluorescent tubes. We learned about lightning rods and were on the edge of our seats learning info often grumbled about in school. The full show, which comes with a slightly higher admission of $12 for adults and $9 for those 11 and under, is for those ages 5 and over and is about an hour long. The actual MegaZapper show features something called the “Cage of Doom” which is why we’ve already enlisted friends for a summer trip back to see the full show.

Besides all of the high voltage magic in this museum, it is housed in a century old building that creeks in a comforting way that new construction never could and there was that feeling you get when the people you are around are excited to be doing what they’re doing. I truly enjoyed the kind, generous docent who showed us an early phonograph and answered every question as if it was the first time he’d been asked, and Granack is as charged at the Tesla coil while flipping switches during the demonstration or answering follow up questions about why a lightning rod needs to have a pointed tip and not a round one.

For those of us who had to tell kids “don’t touch that” about a million times, you can release that pressure by heading to the second floor which has a lot of kid friendly activities from art to science to building. For more information or to plan a visit, you can call 360-738-3886 or check out SparkMuseum.org.

Unknown skateboard shop in Bellingham.

Next stop was Unknown Board Shop, 105 Grand Ave., to look at some skateboards and protective gear, and because we heard it’s a great shop. My youngest has just entered the world of skateboarding – I can’t wait to share what I’m learning once I know enough to help others out – and “Unknown” is a name we’ve heard a few times already.

Inside Unknown skateboard shop.

We entered to what is starting to be the familiar components of the skate shops we’ve visited: gear, stickers, beanies, Vans, a nice young person working the register, a video of skaters doing things that likely affect their life insurance rates, and an encouraging, inclusive vibe. The nice young person this time was Craig, who threw in a couple extra stickers after letting our youngest test drive – I don’t think that’s what you call it, but it’s all I’ve got – his own personal board to get an idea of a good size. We wanted to take our beginner to the local skate park, so we asked Craig if it would have a good spot for him. He said it would work and gave us an idea of where to start. You can call Unknown Board Shop at 360-671-7425 or find them online at UnknownBoardShop.com.

Rocket Donuts in Bellingham

Before heading to the Bellingham Skatepark with Craig’s approval, we decided to check out Rocket Donuts, 306 West Holly Street. Despite being full of donuts as well as Acme Ice Cream, this place is also a draw due to the large silver rocket outside and it’s big metal robot friend inside. Due to previous post doughnut behavior, we went in expecting to split a couple of donuts. Well you know what they say about the best laid plans. For just over 4 bucks we got an old fashioned, chocolate sprinkle, a Bismark, and a chocolate cake doughnut with Butterfinger on top for me.

While they were all good doughnuts, this Bismark doughnut was incredible. This large doughnut had the consistency and flavor of newly baked, homemade bread which just happened to be filled with custard and topped with chocolate. You can contact Rocket Donuts at 360-671-6111 or find them online at RocketDonuts.com.

The Bellingham Skatepark

After a quick stop at an antique mall, we loaded back into the van to head to the skate park. I am new to this whole skateboarding thing, but the Bellingham Skatepark, 1400 Puget St., seemed great for everyone. It was much bigger than the parks we usually go to and there was space for our beginner to kick around and stay out of the way. It is also right next to a lot full of dirt jumps for bike riders. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Purely from a spectator’s perspective, it was a great stop.

A dirt lot full of jumps for bicycle riders next to the skate park.
Inside Cabelas

When we were headed back from our week’s too-early trip to the tulips during spring break, we decided to check out Cabela’s, 9810 Quil Ceda Blvd., Tulalip, the first time and it was so entertaining, we decided to pop in on our way back from Bellingham. Cabela’s seems to be full of two kinds of people: those shopping and those looking around. Of the two, we were definitely the latter. They sell so many things we aren’t in the market for, like kayaks, GPS for boats, crossbows and plastic deer, BUT they do sell fudge and have an aquarium, so we were in. The kids enjoy the taxidermy throughout the store and both aquariums and this time we got the bonus of watching someone try out a crossbow right in the store.

My one last suggestion is an audio book. We get ours from the library and are currently on the fourth installation of Harry Potter. It seems to cut down (notice I am not saying “eliminates”) on the “are we there yet’s?” and “he’s looking at me’s.” We have been using them for the last six months or so, when reading together at night just became impossible due to distractions, time constraints and a tired reader. It is also a nice way to introduce kids to a CD, which after their interest in the rotary phone, makes much more sense!

— By Jennifer Marx

Jen Marx

Jen Marx, an Edmonds mom of two young boys, is always looking for a fun place to take the kids that makes them tired enough to go to bed on time. You can find her on Twitter trying to make sense of begging kids to ”just eat the mac n cheese” @jen_marx.

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