by Katie Virk
Being a mum to small children can be lonely and boring. Baby clubs, baby sensory, baby swimming lessons etc can be really pricey. So here are some tried and tested ideas for completely free destinations to take your baby or toddler.
Remember what seems boring or lame to you is still brand new and exciting to your baby. A morning out, even at a mildly crap location, beats a morning spent playing with the same old toys, in the same old house, with the same old bored and whiny toddler.
I’ve tried and tested everything on this list, (about 50 times each).
It’s inside and out of the rain and you can usefully pick up some groceries while you’re there. Instead of rushing round and keeping little one distracted with your phone, let it take all morning. Let your toddler have a run up and down the aisles if it’s fairly quiet. Give them little jobs to ‘help’ – “can you put that in the trolley / carry that / get one of those?”. Build a throne from packs of toilet roll. If it all goes wrong and they start kicking off, sit them in the trolley seat and ply them with snacks.
2. Skate Park
Monday to Friday during school hours you’ll find the skate park pretty much deserted. The smooth concrete ramps make a lovely alternative playground for your toddler, as long as you don’t mind them wrecking the seat of their trousers on the abundance of new exciting ‘slides’.
3. Garden Centre / DIY Store
My son developed an obsession with tools at a very young age. His first sentence was “sharp scissors, very want”. So we regularly visited our garden centre not to look at plants but to spend hours staring at the sharp shiny tools. In fact we used to tour several different garden centres in the area on different days – one had a dog grooming salon inside, one had a miniature village with a tiny little railway, one had sheds you could actually go in and out of. What more could a toddler want? Sometimes I bought the odd plant, but mostly we just went in, looked around for an hour or so and then left. At Christmas time they have nice twinkly lights for bonus free Christmassy fun.
4. Free Museums
You might be surprised to find that even quite small towns tend to have a town museum. Ours has exhibits of old shops and factories, plus a children’s area where they can try on costumes, play with toys and colour in.
5. Shopping Centre
It’s been tipping down with rain for three days and your child seriously needs to burn off some energy. Take them to your nearest indoor shopping centre and let them run around, go up and down stairs, use the lifts, escalators, ramps etc. It’s warm, dry and free, but easily big enough to wear them out. You don’t have to buy anything, but you can if you want.
6. The Park. Every Single Park Within a 40 Minute Drive.
Have you checked out every single play park within reasonable travelling time of your house? The same old set of swings day in, day out, gets boring, so travel a little further (i.e. 10 minutes down the road) and try out a few different ones. Even the tiniest of villages have a few swings and a climbing frame that is worth the occasional visit for something different.
Take an old towel to dry the equipment if it’s raining, better still always keep an old towel in your car / buggy.
I have fond memories of my mum taking us to the ‘the woods’ when I was a toddler. I was shocked to find out years later that ‘the woods’ were in fact a stand of about six trees at the end of our road. To my two-year-old brain they seemed like a deep dark forest of fairy tales and mystery.
There’s something primal about children in the woods, I’ve yet to meet a child who is not thrilled and enchanted by the experience. Go slow, don’t see it as a walk as such. It’s OK if you only make it five metres into the wood and then your child wants to spend half an hour playing with the first mouldy old stump / stick / rock they find. Take a moment to sit and chill and watch them play (or catch up on your WhatsApp messages).
Libraries are super keen to recruit new members and there is no lower age limit. Our local library specifically states that it will not charge you for any book damaged by a child under five. Most libraries have lovely children’s areas with toys, cushions and bean bags for children to play, relax and read. Most also have weekly story times / rhyme times which are often free. My child was no angel and frequently swiped whole shelves of books to the floor, but the staff were always completely understanding and happy to have us there.
9. Botanical Gardens / Arboretum
You might think it’s just for elderly folk and occasional school trips. But I find with no exception that very young kids adore exploring new places, even if they don’t have swings or slides. My son was captivated by the ornamental ‘maze’ despite it being so tiny even he could see over the hedges.
10. Feed the Ducks
A toddler classic, sometimes the oldies are the best. Remember not to feed them bread. Go for oats, frozen peas, or the old mushy grapes from the bottom of the packet that you were going to have to throw out anyway.
When I look back on my own early years it’s the time I spent doing simple everyday things with my parents that I really remember; treasured memories of a bedtime story with dad or holding mum’s hand as we walked to collect big sister from school. In these days of financial turmoil remember it doesn’t matter if you don’t go to Legoland, or the zoo, or baby sensory, it’s you your child really wants. Don’t let advertising or social media fool you into thinking that you are not already everything your baby wants and needs. Your time and love are infinitely precious and completely free.