Ten years ago, I was young(er) and single and thought it was the perfect time to buy a place of my own. I chose a condo, with a five-year plan to upgrade to a house. The economy, however, did not like my plan and took a nosedive before I could get off my butt and sell. So here I am, married with two (very active) young boys. We are quickly outgrowing my two-bedroom condo, which has no yard for play time. Arrgh!
Since I’m also on a budget, I’ve had to get creative in providing my kids the activity and, whenever possible, vitamin D that they need. Below are a few of my favorite (and free!) neighborhood finds (barring child-loving friends’ and relatives’ backyards, which I highly recommend). To find similar venues near you, crack open a phone book or conduct an Internet search for:
8 Free Things to Do with Toddlers
Libraries. I’ve found many local libraries that offer free story, song and/or craft times for youngsters. My favorite library offers something every day of the week and for all age groups—from traditional storytimes to midweek meetups for caregivers in serious need of adult conversation while the children play. (I’ve heard that bookstores and children’s stores also offer storytime events, but I haven’t taken advantage of those yet.)
Forest preserves. There are quite a few county-owned forest preserves by me where you can hike through trails or just picnic in open grassy areas. There’s plenty of room for children to run and play when you don’t have a yard for some outdoor fun. (Bonus: Some forest preserves are also home to free nature centers so you and your children can have fun while learning about the local ecosystem.)
Shopping malls. Desperate times call for desperate measures—especially when you and your kids are stir crazy in the middle of rainy weather or winter. If there’s a shopping mall near you, chances are there is a children’s play area at the center of it. If the mall is a newer facility, or has been updated within the past decade, that play area is probably pretty cool looking. If you’re still in the stroller stages, you can walk a lap or two around the place first to get your own self some exercise. Just sayin’.
Fire stations. A firefighting friend of mine once told me that his station welcomes visits from kids, and to stop by anytime. If you call ahead, you might find that your local firehouse has a special program coming up for little ones like yours.
Free museum days. I live in an area with plenty of museums to visit, and quite a few are geared for smaller children. I’ve never even heard of some of the local children’s museums until after I had kids. Have you ever heard of a shoe-free museum? When I was growing up, most museums were free on Thursdays, but times are tight even for these venues. Nowadays the free days occur once a month, or even seasonally. Museums’ free-day schedules are usually found on their websites.
Pet stores. My dad likes to take his grandchildren for a walk through the neighborhood, and they usually end up strolling through the nearby shopping center for a visit to the pet store. They love watching the birds in their cages and the “fishies” in the aquariums.
Splash pads. When I was young, we just opened up a fire hydrant! Who knew that was illegal? Nowadays, there are all sorts of free or low-cost options to have some water fun in the sun. In my area alone, I have half a dozen splash pads to choose from and most are free. I usually take advantage of free splash pads, but my favorite one costs $3 a child (and that’s the nonresident rate; adults are free). I love it because it’s just a five-minute car drive away, is gated so my kids are contained in one area, and has grassy areas and picnic tables.
Park districts. I’m talking about more than just the playground that’s down the street from you, or the splash pads mentioned above. My go-to park district offers toddler play times in their gym as well as an indoor park. This is perfect for rainy, snowy or just plain cold days. The district’s outdoor park system also includes two gated toddler parks with equipment geared for children aged five and under. It creates a much safer alternative than all-ages parks. Many park districts in my area offer all sorts of free or nearly free services for residents, and very affordable fees for non-residents.
The last two options on my list are free or may cost a few dollars.
What are some of the free resources in your community? Share some of your ideas in our comment section.