The Outer Banks is considered one of the best family vacation destinations on the East Coast, and the wide-open natural setting of sand, surf and sun lends itself easily to fun activities for "kids" of all ages. While rival vacation destinations may have more diversions, bars, and beach boardwalks, it's easy for vacationing families to stay simply entertained on the Outer Banks, particularly the younger ones in the group.
In fact, many vacationers find that all they need to keep the little ones happy is a beach blanket, a bathing suit, and a large stretch of ocean and sand to play on. However, there are a number of attractions and activities on the Outer Banks both on and off the sand that are geared towards kids, and families can enjoy a variety of activities to keep the youngest members of their family smiling and enchanted with an Outer Banks vacation.
On The Beach
Many Outer Banks vacationers find that they don't have to wander too far to find plenty of activities to keep kids entertained. The spacious, uncrowded beaches of the Outer Banks offer miles of entertainment for kids of all ages, from splashing in the waves to digging for coquinas and sand crabs. On the beach, there are plenty of diversions to keep children entertained while adults can spread out a beach blanket, relax, and enjoy the sun and sand as well.
One of the best ways for parents to bond with their kids at the beach is a good game of catch or a friendly team competition. Today, there are many casual beach games that are easy to transport, easy to set up, and easy to learn. Check out our picks for the best beach games.
Building a Sandcastle:
With all that sand to dig and shape and form, building a sandcastle is almost a prerequisite to any Outer Banks vacation. A number of local souvenir shops offer pail and sculpting kits to get you started, although in a pinch, a bucket and a shovel will do just fine. Kids can even borrow a kitchen utensil or two, like a spoon or a butter knife, to create castles with intricate doorways and windows, or take advantage of the local pieces of shells and sea glass that regularly wash up for decor.
Check out our picks for sand castle building tools.
While in the construction process, be sure and take plenty of photos: sand castles along the high tide line don't usually last too long.
For children with a true sandcastle building talent, there are several Outer Banks annual sandcastle contest events, at Jockey's Ridge State Park in Nags Head and on Ocracoke Island, generally held on the 4th of July. Even if your brood is not avid sand castle builders, these annual competitions and displays are ideal places to get inspired, with sand sculptures ranging from mammoth sea creatures to mermaids, and First Flight commemoratives to local lighthouses.
Fly a Kite
There's a very good reason why Orville and Wilbur Wright came to the Outer Banks to test out their 1902airplane- the wind conditions on the Outer Banks are second to none for flying machines. Bring your kite along or purchase one at your local souvenir shop for an afternoon of high flying. Several big name retailers, like Kitty Hawk Kites, also offer stunt kites for more intricate and challenging action on the sand. Have a blast while the wind is high, but just make sure it's not too high - kites can have trouble in 20-25 mph breezes, but on sunny days with a light wind, kite flying is literally a breeze.
Take to the Waves
Kids don't have to be a surfing expert with lots of expensive equipment to enjoy the Atlantic Ocean. Many local surf shops and souvenir stores offer body boards, skim board, and rafts, ideal for catching rides close to the beach. Body and boogie boarding is accessible for everyone, and even your youngest family members can enjoy a small but fun ride from the white breaking water onto the sand.
Before you start riding, keep an eye out for beaches with a gentle sandbar. These beaches have a gradual sloping beach, so that young riders can walk out into the ocean, and not have to traverse a steep drop-off. As a result, the waves break further offshore, and don't necessarily have a hard crash onto the sand, making ocean rides on a boogie or body board gentler and more easy-going.
When in doubt, take the youngest ones to the sound, where gently lapping waves still allow young riders to enjoy a boogie or body board ride, but with ankle deep water and little-to-no waves, keeps them protected from the larger Atlantic waters.
Hunt for Sand and Ghost Crabs
What's the best way to get introduced to the Outer Banks' vast wildlife? Start digging. In the shallow surf and along the low tide line, there is literally an ocean of critters to discover, from small but fascination sand crabs, or sand daggers, to the remarkably colorful coquina clams that routinely dig and submerge in the ocean wash, there are plenty of critters to discover just under the sand's surface. Bring a pail and shovel along for quick collecting and study, but be sure and leave all of your marine life at the shore at the end of the day. The critters that call the Outer Banks home are dependent on a rare combination that comprises their natural habitat, and they are not easily transferred to a home aquarium.
At night, hit the beach with a flashlight in hand and discover one of the Outer Banks' most elusive residents, the Ghost Crab. These nocturnal critters come out in abundant at night, and a moonlight walk will expose these crabs by the dozens, if not hundreds, as they scurry across the sand.
Outer Banks Watersports
The Outer Banks is the ideal locale for your outdoor-loving youngsters to try out a new sport or recreational activity on the water. The adventurous types will love the thrill of surfing, kiteboarding, and skimboarding, which combines balance and coordination with the ocean or sound waters for amazing rides. For an activity that's slightly easier and a little less adventurous, try windsurfing or Stand Up Paddle boarding. Both sports are relatively easy to pick up, and stick to the more calm waters of the sound, allowing kids to have fun on the water, but avoid the waves.
A number of locally owned businesses and larger regional franchises, like Kitty Hawk Kites or Real Watersports, offer hourly lessons and even "camps" to allow your children to get a small taste of their newfound sport, or immerse themselves completely to radically increase their skill level. Surfing, kiteboarding, windsurfing and stand up paddle boarding lessons are all available for all age levels, and are can be booked well in advance or while you're on your Outer Banks vacation.
Young nature lovers in search of an excursion on the water can also sign up for kayak tours and cruises. These water excursions allow paddlers of all ages to explore the canals and open waters of the Pamlico, Currituck, Roanoke and Albemarle Sounds with an experienced guide who can both help younger riders get the hang of paddling, and point out the sites along the way. Perfect as a family outing, kayaking is a good way for young and old Outer Banks lovers to get their feet wet in the local watersport scene.
Outer Banks Mini Golf
There's no shortage of mini-golf courses on the Outer Banks, and every community on the coast seems to have at least one course for kids to explore. From the Golf Links in Corolla to the more elaborate courses of Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head featuring Blackbeard, lost treasures, and out-of-this-world galaxies, the northern Outer Banks has a healthy handful of mini golf-courses that are open seasonally to summer vacationers. On Hatteras Island, vacationers can play putt-putt pier side at the Avon Pier course, enjoy a frozen custard with their 19 holes in Buxton, or play golf under natural Live Oaks and Cedars in Frisco.
During the summer months, most mini-golf courses stay open until 8:00 p.m. or 9:00 p.m. for day or evening putting, and the majority of Outer Banks mini-golf courses offer concessions on site, including ice cream, drinks, snacks, and even game rooms.
It should be noted that summer mini-golfers should bring bug spray and plenty of sunscreen - the sun off the Atlantic Ocean and sound waters can cause a painful sunburn if not properly protected.
Outer Banks Go-karts and Speedways
If your family has the need for speed, then check out the local speedways and go-kart tracks that are scattered throughout the Outer Banks. In the northern villages of Duck and Corolla, vacationers can put the pedal to the metal at the Corolla Raceway at the Timbuck II Shopping Center. Visitors to the central Outer Banks will find three different tracks in Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head, including the Colington Speedway which boasts three separate tracks as well as kiddie karts for the youngest riders. On Hatteras Island, speed lovers can head to Frisco Mini Golf and Go-karts, which features a scenic 18 hole mini-golf course adjacent to the speedy Go-kart track.
Most Go-kart tracks and speedways are open daily seasonally, from spring until the fall. Rates very, and many request that young riders are accompanied by a parent or guardian at all times.
Outer Banks Skate Parks
With the allure of surfing a decades old draw for young locals and visitors, it's no surprise that skating became popular on the Outer Banks as an alternative for days without waves. In fact, even in the 1960s and 1970s, when visitors were still relatively scarce, the Outer Banks still had a strong local skating scene and a skate park for locals and visitors alike to catch a thrill off the ocean.
Today, there are four skate parks scattered along the Outer Banks for skateboarders of all ages to check out. In Corolla, vacationers can head to the Island Revolution Skate Park at the Corolla Light Town Center, and all-concrete 5,000 square foot skate park with a street course, half pipes and dual bowls. In Nags Head, the Outer Banks' newest skate park is at the YMCA, a 15,000 square foot facility with a 10ft deep concrete bowl and an expansive street course. Finally, on Hatteras Island, vacationers can head to the little-known Frisco half-pipe, which is tucked behind a small brick plaza in the heart of Frisco Village.
For skateboarders who want to stick to the roads, most villages offer bike and pedestrian paths that are safely off the highway, including Duck and Southern Shores in the Northern Outer Banks, and Buxton along the Buxton back road on Hatteras Island. No matter where you roll, encourage the young family members to bring their boards along, as the Outer Banks is clearly skater friendly.
Outer Banks Hang-outs
One of the most popular hang-outs is clearly the beach, as on most areas the Outer Banks shoreline bonfires are legal and vacationers of all ages can enjoy an evening on the beach, talking, listening to music, chasing ghost crabs, and catching up with the family. If you choose to have a family beach bonfire, be mindful of local noise ordinances, make sure you fire is below the high tide line and is completely extinguished when you leave, and leave the fireworks at home, as they are illegal in North Carolina.
Off the beach, there are a handful of local Outer Banks establishments that are designed with teens in mind, so that the older kids in your group can go out and explore the Outer Banks scene.
One of the most popular teen destinations is The Pit, a combination surf shop, restaurant and club in Kill Devil Hills hosts a weekly Teen Night designated for patrons who are 18 years and younger. On teen night, a strict no alcohol policy is enforced, and teens are invited to hang out and dance the night away to local DJs and bands. There is a small cover charge, and non-alcoholic drinks and food is available.
There are also a number of combination pizza places and game rooms throughout the Outer Banks that are ideal for the teens in your group to enjoy a night out. On Hatteras Island, Angelo's Pizza in Buxton has an extensive arcade and game room with air hockey, pool tables and Foosball that's adjacent to their pizza parlor and Burger Burger for good grub and a little fun.
Budding stars in your group might enjoy showing their stuff at Karaoke, and a number of local restaurants feature evening Karaoke, generally during dinner hours, with young singers in mind. For example, the Froggy Dog in Avon allows Karaoke singers of all ages before 10 p.m. when it becomes adults only. For teens and youngsters, there are plenty of places on the Outer Banks to hang out and make new friends, both on and off the beach.
Outer Banks Playgrounds
If your little ones need an afternoon off the beach, there are a number of playgrounds on the Outer Banks for a full afternoon of play.
Northern Outer Banks
Corolla has a small playground on Schoolhouse Lane, just a short walk from the Currituck Beach Lighthouse. On the mainland, vacationers can head about 4 miles north over the bridge to the Currituck Sound Park, which features a playground, baseball field, soccer field, and tennis courts, as well as walking and bike paths. This expansive park also features grilling and picnic areas, as well as a boat ramp and pier for boating access.
Central Outer Banks
Kitty Hawk has two shady playgrounds and parks to explore: the David Paul Pruitt, Jr. Playground and the Sandy Run Park. The David Paul Pruitt, Jr. Playground is perfect for the youngest family members with a swing set, slide, merry-go-round and jungle gyms. The Sandy Run Park is a collection of wooden and natural walkways for scenic nature walks, as well as picnic areas, skate areas, and a full playground with benches and picnic areas.
In Kill Devil Hills, visitors have a number of playgrounds to choose from, including Hayman Street Park, Meekins Park, and Rec Park. All of the parks in Kill Devil Hills feature picnic and sitting areas, full playgrounds, and fields for baseball, soccer, and just general running around.
In Nags Head, the Nags Head Town Park features a nice playground as well as a picnic area and nature trail that leads to a quiet soundside beach, ideal for little ones. In Manteo, the Waterfront Park in historic downtown allows visitors to stroll the harbor's edge while watching the boats, wildlife, kites, and all the scenic daily activity that Historic Manteo has to offer.
Southern Outer Banks
Hatteras Island's newest playground is located in Avon, across the street from the Avon Fire House. A community project and endeavor, the small playground features slides, swings, a jungle gym, and picnic tables and benches.
In Avon, visitors can also visit the Oceanfront Club Koru for a kids' pool and spacious play area, or The Club Hatteras at Hatteras Realty for a playground, small putt-putt area, and Hatteras Island's largest pool.
The Cape Hatteras Elementary School's playground in Buxton, (home of the "Tropical Storms"), is also open to visitors, and just south in Hatteras Village, the Hatteras Landing complex at the Hatteras - Ocracoke ferry docks also features a playground for the young ones, adjacent to a number of shops and restaurants.
Children at Play Museum
One of the Outer Banks' newest attractions with kids in mind is the Children at Play Museum. Founded in 2007 as a series of different locations where children could play and learn, the official museum opened its doors in 2010 and moved to its new location at Buccaneer's Walk Center in Kill Devil Hills in January 2013.
The museum offers a number of kid-friendly exhibits that not only honor the Outer Banks' culture but also give kids an opportunity to learn while they're playing. Kids can explore the Gone Fishing exhibit, where they can cast for local species and get an up-close look at boat building, or make a mini-visit to one of the region's many renowned lighthouses at the Lighthouse Exhibit, which encourages kids to learn about the long history of lifesaving stations and the modern US Coast guard that currently protects the Outer Banks.
In addition, children can also explore the OBX Wellness Center, AKA, the Teddy Bear hospital, the Wonder Wall, the Tree Fort, and the Open Air Market, a spacious area for kids to interact and role-lay as a shop keeper, chef, or visitor.
The Children At Play Museum is open year round to visitors and locals and annual membership is also available and provides extras like birthday party discounts and free newsletter subscriptions. For more information, visit the Children at Play Museum's website.
North Carolina Aquarium
The North Carolina Aquarium in Manteo on Roanoke Island is one of the Outer Banks' most treasured kid-friendly attractions. From toddlers to teens, children of all ages love exploring the tanks of alligators, sharks, sea turtles, sea otters, and countless other maritime species that are represented in abundance at the aquarium.
Little ones, (and older ones too), will love the touch tank exhibits that allow aquarium visitors to touch and feel a number of local Outer Banks inhabitants including hermit crabs, giant horseshoe crabs, and even gliding Manta Rays. In an adjacent exhibit, young marine biologists can get a taste of the business by "caring" for replicas of injured wildlife and eventually sending them back into their natural habitat. Real life marine hospitals also show the care and procedures involved in helping marine species get back on their flippers again.
Children's programs, from daily talks and activities to seasonal events, like the Trick or Treat Under the Sea Event on Halloween, are also regularly available to the aquarium's young guests, and visitors and locals alike are welcome to attend.
The aquarium is open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., all year long, and offers special rates for children. There is also a gift shop so kids can bring home a reminder of their North Carolina Aquarium discoveries.
As one of the nation's highest ranked family friendly beaches, it's clear that there's no shortage of kids' activities to enjoy on and off the sand. Whether kids are digging and playing in the sand to exploring the Outer Banks' newest Kid-friendly museums and attractions, there's plenty to do for kids of all ages - even the long time Outer Banks lovers who never grew up.