When it's too cold to play outside, parents are constantly seeking fun and cheap indoor activities for the kids. Try the affordable or free ideas on this list to keep children occupied all winter.
If you're getting cabin fever, friends and neighbors with kids probably are too. Even going to someone else's house, or having them visit, can feel like a real outing without having to spend a dime -- just put out a snack or two, along with a few toys, and it's a playdate. If there aren't enough friends or neighbors around with children of the same age, join a local parents' group, reach out to parents at day care, meet friends of friends, and expand your social circle through playdates.
While most variants of these classes charge a fee, the price is usually a few dollars a session. Yoga, music, gymnastics, and exercise classes are common choices at facilities such as the local YMCA and children's gymnasiums. Classes generally meet weekly for six to eight weeks with a runtime of 30 to 45 minutes. Most venues let people try a class for free to see if it's right for them.
Before putting items into the recycling bin, think about how they could be used as part of an infant sensory center to teach a child about sounds, shapes, textures, and colors. Fill an empty water bottle with dry beans to make a shaker; stack old newspapers for grasping practice; gather up a handful of (unused) cotton balls for a softness experience; set aside a spoon and a piece of cardboard to bang for noise; or pack a jar with cornmeal or sand for tipping back and forth. These playthings are fun and educational and cost next to nothing.
Many YMCAs, gyms, and community centers offer open swim times when non-members can use the pool for a minimal fee. Some may require accompaniment by a member, while others let anyone come and swim for a few hours. Some have special features such as slides, fountains, and dumping buckets that provide a mini-waterpark feel at a fraction of the cost. Bring snacks (so you don't have to buy there), towels, and a change of clothing.
This used to mean going to the play area at the mall, but nowadays parents can enjoy a cup of coffee and a muffin at dedicated indoor play spaces while their children burn up some energy. Most cost less than $10 per hour of play. Those that cost more typically staff the play area with an employee, allowing parents to catch up with friends or finish some work. There are also free indoor play options at some restaurants, such as McDonald's and Graeter's Ice Cream, that feature attractions including ball pits, slides, and rope bridges.
"Star Wars" might beg to be seen on opening weekend, but kids won't realize they're watching a second-run movie. Seeing a movie can be hit or miss with the preschool age group, but most kids' movies run less than two hours, and for a couple of dollars it's worth a try. Beware of the snack bar, though, as it can turn a cheap indoor activity into an expensive excursion. Be sure to eat before heading out or bring a small snack for the kids.
There are many recipes that children 5 and up will enjoy making as well as eating. The best part? Parents need to prepare food anyway. Choose items that can be frozen or used in meals during the week. Most baked goods, including cookies, muffins, and cakes, contain a reasonable number of ingredients that children can assemble with some supervision. Soups, stews, and casseroles are other low-maintenance recipes that lend themselves to little helpers.
Bowling may ding the wallet, but for a few dollars a game, plus shoe rental, it can fill up an entire afternoon. Many bowling alleys offer specials (for example, buy-one-get-one-free games), primarily during the week. Although it might be tempting to buy a pizza while the kids are bowling, eat lunch at home to keep the outing on budget.
Most firefighters are more than happy to show families around the station, but call ahead to check on procedures for a visit. This free community activity is exciting and informative; tours typically include a discussion of fire safety rules. The kids can get a peek at where firefighters eat and sleep and an up-close-and-personal view of the equipment.
While the kids might not jump up and down at the first thought of going to an art museum or local historical museum, they'll be asking to go back. Many museums have whole areas designed just for kids to learn and explore their themes -- a craft space, hands-on fossils, or areas to explore, for instance. To make things even more appealing, there are often days of the week (Sundays, for many cities) where the institutions doors are open for free. Some museums are free all the time, but have recommended donations for entry.