If you've never taken your kids bowling you are missing out on a golden nugget of family fun every parent should have in their back pocket. Rainy day cabin fever? Go bowling. Playdate with that kid that leaves a wake of chaos in his path, able to destroy a playroom in a single bound? Go bowling. Birthday party with ten boys under the age of, well, any age really — take them bowling.
It does not matter if you're "not the bowling type." Anyone with kids that need to blow off steam with some full-body play and a bit of structure to keep it focused, is the bowling type. Anyone who loves beer while enduring, I mean engaging, in this kind of activity with their kids, is the bowling type.
How to do it
Bowling is a classic easy-to-learn-hard-to-master type of game. It's pretty simple — put on the fugly shoes, find a ball you can lift and get your fingers into, pick an alias for the score board (my nine year old goes by "Slick" every time, the rest of us mix it up) and you're ready to go.
When to start: Kids can start bowling as early as three years old, as soon as they are old enough to heft the lightest ball — they usually start at 6 lbs. Ask at the front counter if you can't find one near your lane, the staff can usually spot them easier than you can.
Bumpers and ball ramps: For little ones, you can ask to use the ball ramp — a metal frame the kids can use to launch the ball. The policy varies from place to place — some reserve the ramps for special needs patrons (they were designed to be used by wheelchair users.) The ramps are always first come, first served and subject to availability. And you will want to ask for a bumper-friendly lane, meaning that balls will not go in the gutters.
Form: Form isn't important for the little ones, many will use the squat and push method at first, but as they get more comfortable they try to bowl like the grown-ups. It takes some practice to walk up to the lane, swing, release and not tangle your legs up. I'm still working on it. The only other advice I have, being "not the bowling type," is aim for just off center of the front pin, don't step over the line, and if there is a serious bowler next to you, wait until he completes his release before you chuck your ball down the lane. Oh yeah, and it's okay to use the bumpers, in fact, I encourage it.
Life lessons: There are lessons aplenty whenever you engage in any kind of structured game and it's no different for bowling. Kids have to wait for their turn, but the turns are fairly short, keeping that attention focused. There is some math involved, even for the little ones -- it's a perfect opportunity to practice those 1-10 math facts.
Everybody wins: In my experience the game gets the competitive juices flowing, but in a healthy way. Although you play against each other, or divvy up into teams, the emphasis is on beating your own score and there is a lot of encouragement of fellow players — everybody celebrates when someone gets a strike.
You don't even have to knock down all ten pins to get a sense of accomplishment. At a family party years ago, my then 6-year-old cousin heaved a ball down the lane and it took a painfully slow meandering towards the pins, bouncing every so often off the bumpers until it finally reached the end in a nail-biting finale. When it grazed the corner it knocked over two pins and we all went crazy. She turned to the crowd, threw her arms in the air and proclaimed "I AM AWESOME AT THIS!" And so she was.
Where to do it
Most alleys have league nights during the week, meaning that lanes will get crowded. You may want to avoid that time slot and opt for days and weekends instead. Many bowling alleys have specials on Sundays, a great time for family bowling. In either case, call your local alley and reserve a lane — be sure to mention you will have kids in tow so they can put you on a bumper-friendly lane. Many of the alleys listed below participate in the Kids Bowl Free program (more details on that below, too).
West Seattle Bowl
32 lanes with a full service lounge and a restaurant with family-friendly eats. Visit their website to reserve a lane.
Kid amenities: Bumpers, ball ramp, and kids' birthday packages with pizza, soda and shoe rental included.
A casino, an arcade and a grill attached to this bowling alley means fun for the whole family.
Kid amenities: Bumpers available on all lanes but ask for lanes 1–6 — they are more forgiving of those super slow rollers. They offer kid birthday parties. Avoid going on Friday and Saturday evenings for Rock and Bowl, as it's loud and geared toward adults.
North of Seattle
Modern and hip bowling alley with an arcade and party packages for kids and teens.
Kid amenities: Check out ParentMap's full family guide to Bowlero here!
Spin Alley, Shoreline
Kids Bowl Free participant! We recommend going during a non-peak time for a slight discount on your lane.
Kid amenities: Bumpers, ball ramp and 4 and 5lb. balls with 5 finger holes — great for little grips!
Evergreen Lanes, Everett
Saturday afternoon is the best family time, but call for availability, as they have league bowling daily and that can affect open bowling.
Kid amenities: Birthday parties and bumpers.
Lynnwood Bowl and Skate, Lynnwood
Kids Bowl Free participant. A 24 wooden lane bowling center. They have Cosmic Bowling on the weekends, with black lights and other light effects. See their website for hours and prices.
Kid amenities: A skating rink and the Asteroid Climb make this one of the most fun alleys around — a real kid haven. Bumpers, ball ramps and kids' party packages.
TechCity Bowl, Kirkland
Try attending the family-friendly Cosmic X rock n' bowl on Fridays and Saturdays. Cosmic X is advertised for kids ages 5 and up, but we recommend going with your teens, as it's loud and "high energy" with a DJ, strobe lights and a smoke machine. See their Facebook page for special events.
Kid amenities: In addition to family-friendly public events, they also offer kids' party packages.
Lucky Strike Lanes, Bellevue
Walk-ins are welcome, but they sometimes book private parties so it's best to call ahead.
Kid amenities: Birthday party packages, bumpers and ball ramp. This alley is kid-friendly until 8 p.m. and becomes more night-life-y after that. Lucky Strike has unusually good food for a bowling alley and features gluten-free and vegan options.
Aztec Lanes, Olympia
Kids Bowl Free participant with 12 lanes and a very family-friendly feel.
Kid amenities: Bumpers. The ball ramp is reserved for wheelchair users only. Try out Lightning Bowl for music, lights and high-energy fun.
Ocean5, Gig Harbor
Bowling, laser tag, arcade games, food, birthday parties and more.
Kid amenities: Check out ParentMap's family guide on Ocean5!
Keep on rolling
If your kid takes to bowling like a polished ball to waxed wood, you may want to encourage it. There are numerous bowling scholarships to help out with college tuition and youth leagues are a great opportunity to enhance socialization and sportsmanship as well as one more way to keep junior active. To get more serious about the sport you can check out the USBC, the United States Bowling Congress, for all things bowl-related. For a full list of bowling alleys in your area area check out the association list on their website.
While it's a great option for the drizzly Northwest spring, winter and fall, don't rule it out during the summer months. Kids Bowl Free is a national summer program a few of our local alleys participate in — you sign your kids up and get two free games, per kid, every day, all summer long. Yes, really, for free. You can sign up online or check it out at the participating alley nearest you.
Editor's note: This article was published in 2013 and updated in 2022.