Yogurt is not our only live active culture! We strongly believe that kids need to experience a wide variety of activities and see things outside of their everyday scope to become well rounded members of society. Having a small budget doesn’t mean our kids don’t get to experience some of the highlights of living in our culturally rich area! Here are a few activities we’ve enjoyed with our kids, and other free and cheap activities worth checking out.
Many local museums offer free days. I found quite a few here at Kid Matter, including the California Academy of Sciences, where the above photo of Sweet Pea admiring “dishies” was taken recently. The indoor rain forest, living roof, planetarium, and aquarium were all just amazing!
We’ll be taking advantage of the free admission for 17 Bay Area Museums this Mother’s Day – listed on the link above!
Palo Alto’s Junior Museum and Zoo, which has changing, hands-on exhibits for young kids, Museum of American Heritage in Palo Alto, Cantor Arts Center on the Stanford campus, Cable Car Museum and The Randall Museum in San Francisco are routinely free and great for kids, although donations are welcome. Go to The Randall Museum on Saturday if you have a train-loving kid, so you can see the Golden Gate Model Railroad Club’s train layout. The Museum of American Heritage has a Lego train display every December; it’s a $2 entrance fee, but it’s worth it to see the whole model railroad set up in Legos. And Peanut talked about the Cable Car months after a trip with Daddy!
Check out Bay Area On The Cheap for discounted tickets to local events and upcoming free activities.
Of course, parks are the go-to outdoor activity for many families. I found a nice review page for local parks here, and we’ve visited several of the wonderful parks spotlighted. Of course, there are the biggies like Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and Vasona Park in Los Gatos, but there are some special neighborhood parks worth a visit as well. Bol Park and Mitchell Park in Palo Alto are fantastic, and Mitchell has a tot-lot, as does Holbrook Palmer in Atherton, where you can watch the trains come by. (Have you noticed a train theme yet? Trains are a huge hit for our little guy!)
Burgess Park in Menlo Park has a shady, gated tot-lot, and a duck pond, library, community pool, and community center just a short walk away; it is our most commonly visited park! Central Park in San Mateo is fun, with a little ride on train and a Japanese garden.
For walks, we love the Stevens Creek Trail in Mountain View right behind Shoreline Ampitheater along the bay. Seal Point Park in San Mateo is great, too, for walks along the bay and for the playground, which has a water feature the kids can play in. On hot days, that is a great feature! (It is closed until May 2010 for renovation.) They also have a dog park, but we don’t have a dog so that isn’t something we seek out.
Mid-Peninsula Open Space District offers kid friendly hikes and outdoor activities. Check out their calendar for upcoming events.
Hidden Villa is a working farm, and it is free to walk around from Tuesday through Sunday, 9 am to dusk. Guided tours are available for a small fee, and parking is $5 a day.
In the summer, we’ve had a great time visiting local u-pick farms and picking our own fruit.
We enjoy taking a packed lunch to the duck pond in Palo Alto, right next to the little airport, and sitting on a picnic bench to watch small planes take off and land while we eat. Each time we visit we have to explain to the kids why we don’t feed the ducks, as we see other families doing; we show them the signs posted about how feeding the ducks is unhealthy and can hurt them. It’s a fond memory from my own childhood, but we want our kids to respect the animals’ health first and obey the rules in public places, so no sneaking treats for us.
Local towns, and Stanford, often have festivals in the summer. Watch the local paper for events.
The farmer’s market is great for a Saturday morning activity and learning adventure, picking out fresh food, talking to the people who grew it, and often hearing live music. It doesn’t get much better.
And of course, there is the beach! Half Moon Bay is our favorite, with plenty of sand to make castles, water to splash in, and fresh seafood right off the boat. MMmmm, local crab…
Menlo Park is having an Egg Hunt on April 3 at 10 am and Kite Day on April 25 from noon to 4 pm at Bedwell-Bayfront Park. We’ve attended both, and hid our own eggs last year after a run in with a particularly aggressive bunny and big kids the year before, but we may attempt it this year. Palo Alto Art Center is hosting a hands-on family art day called Project LOOK! on April 4 from 2-4 pm for children ages 5 and up.
Both Palo Alto and Redwood City have parades in May – the May Fete Parade is on the 1st in downtown Palo Alto, and the annual Pet Parade is at the end of the month in Redwood City.
Menlo Park and Redwood City both offer outdoor concerts in the summer. Menlo Park has concerts in the park on Wednesdays, and Redwood City has a number of offerings, including music on the courthouse square, salsa dancing, and other musical activities. The series’ calendar will be posted later in the year.
Redwood City’s community events calendar offers a variety of fantastic free outdoor events throughout the year. Over the summer, we enjoy concerts and movies in the courthouse square in Redwood City. The annual Independence Day celebration starts off with pancakes at the firehouse for a small fee, parade, festival and fireworks, a very fun, very full, free day. Last year, there was also a series of “Target Days” – kids activities sponsored by Target, including bands, clowns, and street artists, crafts, a bounce house, and a bug discovery area where kids could touch enormous insects, a BIG hit for my little guy! Hopefully they offer this again in 2010.
In October, a trip to Half Moon Bay’s Art and Pumpkin Festival is a must! We pick a pumpkin, enjoy live music, and appreciate the art, for the price of the pumpkin. The city of Menlo Park has a Halloween parade and trick or treating as well, for more fun, free holiday celebrations.
Hometown Holidays are our favorite! A full day of free fun, including snow (which in our area is non-existent), meeting Santa, bands, a parade, and fireworks! Santa and his singers coming through on CalTrain to sing carols, and the finale is an outdoor movie in the courthouse square. Last year, it was the original cartoon “How The Grinch Stole Christmas.” We bring a bag of popcorn and hot cocoa in a thermos for the movie, and a very full day of entertainment costs nothing.
We’ve also enjoyed going to California Missions in the area (Fremont, San Jose, San Francisco so far), which often ask a small donation, and the lighthouse at Ano Nuevo is a fun day trip.
Our community offers a lot of free activities, and I’m always on the look-out for free things to do!
Westgate Mall offers a Mommy & Me kids program on the first Wednesday of every month from 10 am – 12 pm games, puppet shows, face painting, balloon artists and educational programs. (I will not be getting the free gift for having spent $300 in the mall during the previous month!!)
Home Depot’s Kid’s Workshop
Free how-to workshops for kids 5-12, from 9 am – 12 pm the first Saturday of each month. Contact your local store to see if they offer the Kid’s Workshop.
Lowe’s Build and Grow Clinics
Free wooden projects every Saturday at 10 am for kids in 1st through 5th grade.
Lakeshore Learning Stores
Free craft activities every Saturday from 11 am – 3 pm.
Over the summer, check out Kids Bowl Free to see if your local bowling alley participates. Kids get two free games every day for the whole summer!
We’ve also had fun at IKEA, wandering around, trying out furniture, playing in the kid section, eating lunch overlooking the street, buildings, bay, and hills across the bay. It’s free if you don’t buy anything! They also have Smaland, where you can leave your (fully potty trained) kids for up to 45 minutes to play in the ball pit or giant shoe. If you need a quiet cup of coffee on a rainy day, it’s an option!
Kepler’s in Menlo Park offers stories every Sunday morning at 11:30. They often have author events for kids and adults; they hosted Barbara Kingsolver back in November, and it was so awesome to see one of my favorite authors read from her new book and answer questions, for free, in the small venue of the high school’s performance art center. (She signed my copy of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and I nearly swooned from the excitement, haha!)
Of course, local libraries are a great resource for inexpensive activities for kids! Story time for toddlers and preschoolers at our local library is always a hit, and local libraries often have the scoop on upcoming free activities sponsored by the community; make friends with your childrens’ librarian!
I frequently check the calendar at the Bay Area Parent Magazine, free in the Auto Trader and apartment magazine section of the grocery store. They list upcoming community events, including free activities, and have a Family Navigator edition out now that includes a Freebies section. Our community activities calendar, with the community center schedule, is another handy resource.
A friend recently e-mailed me to recommend the Stanford newsletter for families in the area as a source for family activities. Here is what she says:
Subscribe free to Stanford’s excellent monthly e-newsletter called “Stanford for You: Inviting Neighbors to Campus.” It is designed beautifully, so you can skim it quickly for what might interest you. It only comes monthly, so it doesn’t clutter up your inbox. It includes many free or low-priced on-campus events suitable for all family members, including: tours, dance, continuing ed for adults, summer camps for kids, art, music, health and wellness, sports, parenting (infants, toddlers, kids and teens), readings, film, lectures, faith and religion, public service, global issues, and links to other Stanford resources. You will soon be amazed by the abundance of affordable activities available right in our own back yard. It could also give you ideas to keep houseguests happily entertained when you’re busy. Here’s where to subscribe: http://4you.stanford.edu
As you can see, culture and fun can be found for free in the Bay Area, and I’m sure I just scratched the surface. Do you know of other free or cheap activities for families in the Bay Area? I’d love to hear them! What kind of activities are available in your neck of the woods?
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(Photo credits all belong to their respective linked sites.)