It seems like I’m always running: Running to work, to dance or swimming lessons, to the grocery store…Logically, I must want to spend my downtime at home relaxing as much as one can with a 3-year-old daughter and 6-month son, right?

Contrarily, I practically climb the walls when shut in, especially in winter. Instead, I look for inexpensive adventures outside of the house where Lela runs (safely) and arrives home hurting for a nap (sanity for me). By staying aware of local resources and events, we venture out without depleting financial resources, and while avoiding mind-numbing, commercialized characters and their junk plastic, high-dollar trinkets (that usually break before we get home).

Barnes & Noble Storytime

Every Friday night, my local Barnes & Noble offers “Storytime,” featuring a different children’s book and often a craft project. At the last event to which I took Lela, they read two books and even had one poor awkward teenager – I ’m assuming it was the teen employee who drew the short straw – in costume as Spot the Dog, the main character of the featured book.

Last week’s Storytime was themed around the Chinese New Year and included “Chinese lanterns and a special dragon as a craft”…for free (and a bit more durable)!

One more perk that I learned accidentally: Pair up with friends so one parent can watch your kid while you browse and vice versa. While the bookstore entertains my daughter and Troy and Johwey make sure she doesn’t jump Spot the Dog, I get to stroll around with Oscar and my latte.

Your Local Museum’s (Free) “Donation Day”

Call your local museum and ask if they have a donation or free admission day. Burpee Museum of Natural History in Rockford, IL, would have cost $17 admission for two adults and my three-year-old. Seeing as I spent most of my time chasing said three-year-old, rather than absorbing the exhibits, I was grateful for the waived admission cost.

On our last trip to Denver, we found Denver’s Children’s Museum. The exhibits included interactive pretend play and an art activity (and take home) every day. A quick stop to the museum’s website calendar shows “Target Tuesday Nights,” when families play for free the first Tuesday of each month.

Free Nature

Despite the obvious fact that there are free parks, reserves, gardens, etc., all around, many of these facilities also have rangers and volunteers conducting free talks and nature walks. A schedule for this resource can often be found on the park website. I stumbled across fliers for the Nygren Wetland Preserve’s Walkabout Children’s Day, a free fundraising and awareness event. Lela and I rode wagons to an assortment of learning stations where she caught bugs to examine under a magnifying glass, held minnows, and even sat through a discussion and exhibit of (live) birds of prey.

This event had to be one of my favorite free educational events. The volunteers were engaging and enthusiastically spoke about the park and its conservation. Additionally, Lela ran, explored, and came home exhausted.

Plan the “Free”

Targeting these free dates can takes some forethought when timing them around my work schedule. I try to watch the local papers and websites, and actually sign up for mailing lists (gasp). Our days off and family trips are so much sweeter when not riddled with buyer’s remorse. And our kids are enjoying learning experiences that we may have waited to introduce them to until they were old enough to “get more out of it.”


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