It’s Sunday morning and the sights and sounds of sports are all around. Young kids run up and down two soccer fields as parents line the sidelines, cheering their children on. A few steps away are the unmistakable hollow sounds of volleyballs striking forearms and fingertips as a league starts up its games. And the ping of baseballs meeting aluminum bats resonates above it all. Sure, this is a common scene in New Hampshire’s parks during the spring, summer and fall. But, it’s January, it’s 30 degrees out, and these sounds are all contained within the four walls of Derry’s SportsZone.
Throughout Southern and Central New Hampshire, there are places like this that allow you, in the middle of winter, to hit a baseball, kick around a soccer ball, rock climb or try something new (pickleball anyone? maybe a little fencing?), all with a roof over your head. Playground season doesn’t have to end for kids either, with indoor play centers that feature inflatables for bouncing, mazes for crawling and games like laser tag to keep the younger crowd moving and having fun.
So grab your glove, lacrosse stick or running shoes (or just some non-holey socks if you’re going to an indoor playground), and check out these hot spots.
The grass is greener inside
It’s never too hot or too cold, the “grass” is the perfect length and rain delays don’t exist — it’s a sports utopia for kids and adults alike. Even in the dead of winter, indoor sports facilities let you stay in shape, play your favorite sport and even keep biking throughout the winter.
At the Concord Sports Center, general manager Bryan Caruso said bringing baseball and softball indoors is the primary focus. But the center’s turf fields let soccer, lacrosse and golf enthusiasts also stay active.
“We have instructional clinics where we can really break down each aspect of the game and prepare players to get outside,” Caruso said. “That’s our main focus.”
For those who don’t want to commit to one-on-one instruction or participate in a clinic, batting cages can be rented out for baseball or softball, and batters can take as many swings as they like within their rented time frame.
With or without instruction, winter practice sessions of some sort are almost becoming a must for school-aged kids. Caruso said in recent years youth skill levels have been improving, so to succeed in team tryouts and play on par with peers, young athletes can’t just sit around all winter. Indoor sports facilities allow them to shake off the rust.
“Sports have become more competitive,” Caruso said. “More athletes are participating at the college level, and it takes a commitment at a young age.”
In other sports, Caruso said golfers have also been flocking to the facility to tee off on the turf. For years, Caruso said, customers have asked to hit balls on the fields. Now, on Tuesdays and Fridays from noon to 3 p.m., Concord Sports Center becomes one of the few indoor driving ranges in the area.
“A lot of guys were looking to do this before they go away on vacation to get some swings in,” Caruso said. “And they want to do that when spring gets closer. Some golf pros come in and use the place as well and can use it for lessons.”
In Milford, the Hampshire Dome can also accommodate just about every outdoor sport underneath its air-supported roof. In addition to the standard outdoor sports turned indoor, its turf fields can also be used as baseball diamonds and as a driving range.
But the dome’s most unique factor is its rollerway, a concrete banked track that Mike Caravella, a manager at the facility, said can be used for just about any athletic activity on wheels. He said it’s frequently used by speed cyclists, but it’s also open to roller skaters, in-line skaters and skateboarders. Recently, Caravella said, he even saw a unicycle circling its way around the track.
“People come in and you should see how fast they go,” Caravella said. “We have designated times for groups to come in with those type of speed bikes. People also come in and want to hang out on mountain bikes. … It’s mostly just bikes, but we see little kids bring scooters in.”
Drop-in times and pickup games are also available at the dome, and currently there are times set aside for pickup soccer and ultimate Frisbee. Because the dome’s fields have varying schedules, director of operations Tom Sapienza said the best way to find out what pickup games are available is to keep an eye on the dome’s website.
The SportsZone in Derry also has turf fields for soccer players, lacrosse players and football players, and hardwood courts can quickly be converted for basketball or volleyball. Baseball and softball players can take swings in the batting cages, and above it all, climbers can take on a rock wall and scale their way to the ceiling.
Director of operations Matt Lewis said the SportsZone provides yearly membership options and also has a walk-in price of $10. As long as the courts, fields or cages were not previously booked, anyone can spend the day practicing or playing their sport of choice.
“School cancellations are big walk-in days for us,” Lewis said. “Kids will come in and hang out all day.”
And while getting a competitive edge by keeping skills honed year-round is a huge benefit of an indoor facility, Lewis said the SportsZone is also a fun place to escape the elements and get exercise.
“If you’re not filling a space like this at this time of year, you’re doing something wrong,” he said.
Rock your body
In Manchester’s Waumbec Mill, there are three ways to reach the top floor. You can take an elevator. Or, for more exercise, take the stairs. But Everett Baker’s preference is rock climbing. The Vertical Dreams rock climbing gym has had a home on the top floor of the mill building for 14 years. The gym has a section of 25-foot-tall walls and a bouldering area. But its claim to fame is a 70-foot-high elevator shaft, converted into a rock wall extending from the second floor to the top.
Baker is an avid climber and also works at the gym, where he’s been climbing since he was 8 or 9 years old. Baker said what drew him to the sport was how it’s a different experience every time he puts on his harness.
“It’s all about being creative,” he said. “You can climb the same thing four or five times and always see an easier way to do it. There’s always a way to try something else.”
Assistant manager Mike Thompson said what draws a lot of climbers to the sport is that anyone can do it, and it’s a great full-body workout. He said he’s seen successful climbers from age 4 to 84 and has seen people with little upper body strength climb just as well as muscular 300-pound climbers.
He said the common misconception is that climbing is all about arms. In actuality, if you’re climbing properly, you will feel it all over the next day.
“It works your full body and core muscles,” Thompson said. “It’s a lot more leg-oriented, which opens up climbing to everyone.”
Thompson said new climbers are surprised to find that climbing also works muscles like hip flexors, abs and leg muscles.
Keith Nadeau is in charge of installing the handholds and setting the routes at the gym. He said one of the aspects of climbing that roped him in was the idea of getting a full workout without the repetition of something like weightlifting, but also having the ability to track personal improvement.
“You can work out everything without going to the gym,” Nadeau said as he drilled a handhold into place. “You can see your progress because all of the different routes are graded.”
Hilary Harris founded, manages and co-owns Evolution Rock and Fitness in Concord, the newest climbing gym in New Hampshire and the largest in northern New England. It has walls and routes for all levels of cliber, and visitors can head to the gym anytime for climbing, bouldering and rappeling. Like most gyms, in order to belay at Evolution, one must pass a belay certification.
Evolution offers other fitness opportunities as well, including various machines, free weights and aerial yoga, a form of yoga more akin to acrobatics. Using silks that hang from the ceiling to the floor, participants lift themselves off the ground while doing yoga poses.
By combining climbing, traditional workouts and other fitness classes, Harris said her goal is to differentiate the new venture from a typical rock climbing gym.
In spending so much time around the sport, Harris said she has noticed the social benefits and wants that to carry over to Evolution.
“I’ve started to see more people get introduced to climbing and I’ve watched it change their lives when it comes to fitness,” Harris said. “People find that mental challenge, and there is a social aspect you don’t see in other training. Climbing is a big social community, and there’s always people who are sitting and cheering others on.”
Play (pickle or dodge) ball!
There are three nets set up in a gymnasium at the downtown Manchester branch of the YMCA. They’re too low for volleyball or badminton and smaller than a standard tennis net. As players fill the gym, they find a space on the court, standing two to a side as in doubles tennis.
Using paddles about three times the size of those used in table tennis, players hit a ball similar to a wiffle ball back and forth over the net.
Jim Eddinger, who plays in the indoor pickleball league at the YMCA, said the sport has been around for about 40 years. It originated in warm locales like Florida and Arizona and is working its way northeastward.
Eddinger said anyone from kids to senior citizens can play pickleball. One of the advantages to the sport is that there is no offseason. When it’s warm out, pickleball can be played outdoors, and on snowy January nights, the YMCA gym works just as well.
Though the sport is mostly popular among seniors, Chris Webster, the sports director at the downtown branch, said the league is open to anyone 18 and older, including non-members. There is a community membership option, which allows the participant to pay just the league fee.
Elijah Quimby is the general manager of the New Hampshire Sport and Social Club, which was founded by the owners of Murphy’s Taproom. He said the club started in 2006 as a dodgeball league, but as its popularity grew, so did the number of activities it was able to offer.
“It’s a great way to meet people,” Quimby said. “When you’re playing sports, it creates that commonality. If you have two strangers on a field or a court, they’re going to end up socializing.”
While the club does offer outdoor sports — softball, flag football, soccer — Quimby said the indoor options are hugely popular. Dodgeball continues to draw people in. So does basketball. The club just finished its first bowling session at Spare Time in Manchester, which Quimby said was a huge success with 14 teams and a thrilling playoff round. The indoor season for all leagues actually begins in the fall, Quimby said, but those offerings are not as popular.
But after the holiday season, when the snow and ice have set in for the long haul, the signups start to roll in.
“We have a large selection of indoor sports so people don’t just end up sitting on the couch and going into hibernation,” he said. “Indoor sports are definitely popular this time of year with people getting cabin fever and gearing down from the holidays.”
To mix things up, Quimby said the club is hosting its first inner tube water polo league at the Allard Center YMCA in Goffstown. The rules have yet to be finalized, but teams will be six a side, including goalies, and games will be on Sunday afternoons beginning Feb. 24.
NHSSC players must be 21 or older and Quimby said some participants in the leagues are in their 50s and 60s. While it’s clear everyone on the field would rather win than lose, Quimby said fun tends to prevail over competitiveness.
“When you’re in that post-college stage, you want to play to win, but this is a more relaxed atmosphere,” he said. “We know we’re not a professional league but you get competition and can have fun.”
Learn something new
Pickleball may be fairly new, but around the corner on Wilson Street, kids and adults practice a sport that dates back hundreds of years. The Seacoast Fencing Club has locations in Manchester and Rochester and provides lessons in the sport for all ages.
Chris Pullo, the club’s owner and head coach, said fencing is a sport anyone with any body type can enjoy.
“Someone who is 6 feet 4 inches will have a longer reach than me,” Pullo said. “But he will be a bigger target.”
Men, women and children have been successful. One 14-year-old girl who trained at the Seacoast Fencing Club went to nationals, competing against adult fencers, Pullo said.
Club member Connor Higgins said it’s more physically strenuous than it looks. When he first got started, Higgins didn’t expect to be wiped out by the end of a fencing session, but he gradually got more accustomed to it.
“People don’t think that it’s going to be as much exercise as it is,” Higgins said. “But they work you into it.”
Ryan McKenzie, 22, has been fencing for eight years and said what hooked him about the sport is learning how fencing has developed.
“I got into the history and traditions,” McKenzie said. “It’s martial arts, and the history extends back 300 years.”
Though at its core fencing is an individual sport, Pullo said the club’s community makes it feel like a team atmosphere. There are opportunities for the older club members to work with the kids just starting out and to help train one another during practice sessions.
But when it comes to competition, the individuality of fencing is front and center. Pullo said that can be a big draw for people to start fencing, since there are no teammates relying on your performance.
“When you’re on the strip, you can either win or lose, and you’re the only person being affected,” Pullo said.
Tracy Nabstedt, who owns the Concord Fencing Club, said kids as young as 7 can fence, and it can be a lifelong activity — the oldest member of the Concord club is 74. While the vast majority of the club’s members are heavily invested in the competitive aspect of fencing, Nabstedt said it is also an exceptionally social activity.
“We encourage all fencers to compete,” Nabstedt said. “It’s not necessary but we like to see them get in there and mix it up with other people. For some of our people, it’s strictly a fun thing or a social thing to be with their buddies.”
Lessons are available at the Concord Fencing Club for all ages and ability levels, and Nabstedt said he often sees newcomers enjoying the sport more than they expected they would.
“The romance of the sword gets a lot of people through the door, but it’s not what you think it is – it’s better,” Nabstedt said. “It’s not grim and it’s not painful. Getting poked doesn’t hurt.”
One of the things that Mike Colby says he loves the most about teaching his weekly indoor archery classes at Get Fit NH in Concord is that it’s something families can enjoy together.
“It’s not just for kids, it’s for families,” Colby said. “Fathers, mothers and kids can all shoot together. I love it, especially when they start talking smack to each other and you’ll see a mother and daughter high fiving.”
An archer also doesn’t have to be a star athlete, Colby said.
“In archery you don’t have to be a big jock,” he said. “If you don’t play ball or are a little uncoordinated, then do archery. It’s an independent thing. It’s about hand-eye coordination, and you’re shooting against yourself.”
Dana White teaches indoor classes throughout the winter at the Goffstown and Londonderry YMCAs and through the Goffstown, Milford and Concord Parks & Recreation Departments. He said that for kids, picking up a bow and learning the sport helps them become more focused in their daily lives. For adults, it becomes a sort of therapeutic activity.
“A lot of the adults say they like archery because it relaxes them,” White said. “You really have to think about your breathing and muscles.”
Keep the kids on their feet
As her daughter spun around a miniature merry-go-round, Lisa Roche of Nashua watched from a bench nearby, forgetting momentarily about the snow falling outside. It’s that kind of weather that drives people with kids to places like Bobo’s Indoor Playground in Nashua.
“It’s great to have a safe warm place to interact with other kids,” Roche said. “It’s small so she can run around and I can keep an eye on her, since it’s a contained area. She can spread her wings and play.”
Bobo’s, which is approaching its third year in the Gate City, is aimed toward younger kids, from birth through 8 years old. Roche said it’s a perfect place for kids to spend those developmental years, getting exercise and making friends.
“We’ve been coming since she was 6 months old,” Roche said. “She asks me to come.”
Adam Razzaboni co-owns Bobo’s Indoor Playground with his wife Jennifer. He said they have two younger children and designed the playground with them in mind. It’s smaller than many other nearby facilities, which Razzaboni said allows parents to keep an eye on their kids more easily, but it’s large enough for them to safely run around.
Not all indoor playgrounds are the same, and at each one, kids can find new ways to climb, swing or bounce.
NUThin’ But Good Times, an indoor playground in Merrimack, has many features similar to what kids could find outside. With a number of slides to choose from and ladders to climb, kids can explore multiple levels of the play structure.
NUThin’ But Good Times is approaching its two-year anniversary in February but has already become a popular destination for families looking for some indoor recreation. Lisa Campbell is the founder and owner of the indoor playground and said it allows kids to exercise away from the cold during the winter, or in an air-conditioned environment in the summer. With an adjacent cafe and free wireless Internet, parents can comfortably watch from close by.
Most of the play structure is visible from all angles, so parents can have nearly constant supervision of their kids’ activities. But there is enough separation between the two spaces for kids to explore freely.
“It doesn’t have to involve an adult, but they can still be present,” Campbell said. “You always know where the kids are and can feel safe.”
Cowabunga’s in Hooksett is all inflatables, all the time, providing kids with countless ways to bounce around. That indoor playground is also new on the scene, having opened in November 2011. The facility, opened by husband and wife team Matt and Kelly Pearson, specializes in all things bounce.
With an inflatable race track, slides and obstacle courses, kids will have far more options than just a traditional bouncy house.
Pembroke’s Krazy Kids also features a number of obstacles, including a laser maze for kids to work their way through, James Bond style.
Rick Latham, who co-owns Krazy Kids with his wife Debbie Latham, said their goal in bringing the facility to the Concord area was to provide a place that’s all about exercise. Within the walls of Krazy Kids, Latham said, there will never be video games or redemption games.
Instead, there is a massive climbing structure, a mixture of inflatable elements and the new laser maze. In addition to drop-in times, Latham said Krazy Kids specializes in birthday parties.
“Our party hosts don’t just pass out pizza and drinks,” he said. “We get them out there to play games with the kids and be interactive with them.”
Indoor exercise for kids doesn’t have to be at a playground. Many gymnastics facilities, including Flipz in Concord, have open gym times for kids to try out the equipment.
“We have a good appeal and wide range because of the gymnastics and jump facility,” said Robyn Grant, the owner of Flipz and Jumpz, which is right next door. “Everything is matted and safe and the kids can come and practice gymnastics and other kids can enjoy swinging, playing and doing things upside down. It doesn’t matter because they’re getting exercise.”
Grant said that for kids who haven’t been previously introduced to gymnastics, the open gym sessions are a good way to start.
“Moms will come with the tiny ones, the 2-year olds, and then I’ll start seeing them in classes,” Grant said. “If kids are always jumping on the bed or hanging on the towel bar, I say ‘That’s a gymnast.’”