By Emily Lugg, Cheapism.com
Whether it's too hot or too cold outside, parents are always in need of fun and cheap indoor activities for the kids. Check out our list, broken down by age, for a variety of affordable or free ideas.
Infant (0-1 year)Attend a "Baby and Me" class. While most variants of these classes charge a fee, the price is usually the equivalent of a few dollars a session. You can choose among yoga, music, gymnastics, or even exercise classes at locations like the local Y or children's gymnasiums. Classes generally meet weekly for six to eight weeks with a run-time of 30 to 45 minutes. If you're unsure whether a specific class would be right for you and the baby, most venues let you try one for free.
Visit a Play Cafe. These part-coffee shop/part-play areas are popping up in towns everywhere. For several dollars you can enjoy a cup of coffee while your little one enjoys an indoor play space designed for kids his or her size. Most of these cafes are outfitted with cheap indoor activities suitable for the youngest children -- foam blocks, scooters, jump houses, slides, climbing structures, and the like. Some indoor play areas are even supervised by the cafe's staff, allowing you to kick back even more. You can pay per visit or buy a membership, which can save you big bucks if you plan to make it a regular hangout.
Make a sensory center. Before putting items into the recycling bin, think about how you might use them as part of an indoor sensory center for your child. Fill an empty water bottle with dry beans to make a shaker; stack old newspapers for crinkling 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 as they teach your child about the sounds, shapes, and colors all around. Better yet, a sensory center costs next to nothing if you use items already in the house.
Toddler/Preschool (1 - 4 years)
Find a library story time. Nearly every library offers a free story time organized by age group. These get-togethers often take place a couple a times of week, so if your child really enjoys the experience the price of this cheap indoor activity is definitely right. The children's librarian typically sings songs, plays games, reads books, and even blows bubbles with the youngsters for an entertaining and interactive 30 minutes. This is also an opportunity to introduce children to the practice of checking out new books from the library (and returning the old) with each visit.
Put together a treasure hunt. While your child is in bed, hide a few items around the house for him or her to find the next day. You can build the hunt around a theme, such as a coloring book, a box of crayons, and a smock or things to play with in the bath; scatter around some packaged snack foods to enjoy after the hunt. Place the items in various (age appropriate) locations and help keep your child on track. Hide as many or as few items as you like, but enough to keep this cheap indoor activity going without it becoming tedious. This is completely free if you draw on items you already have.
Go to the $1 movie theater. Seeing a movie can be hit or miss with this age group, but for $1 it's worth a try. Beware of the snack bar, though, as this can turn your cheap indoor activity into an expensive excursion. Be sure to eat before heading out or throw a small snack in your bag for the kids. Most kids' movies run less than two hours, so if you pick something you think they will like, or even a movie they've already seen, the outing is more likely to be a success.
School age (5 years and up)
Head for the bowling alley. Bowling may ding your wallet but it can fill up an entire afternoon. For a few dollars a game, plus shoe rental, this is an indoor activity that suits any time of year. Many bowling alleys offer specials (e.g. buy one game and get the second free), primarily during the week, so keep your eyes open for such deals. Although it might be tempting to get a pizza while the kids are bowling, eat lunch at home to keep the outing on budget.
Related: Best scooters for kids
Write a book or a play. Let your child's creative juices flow as you help him or her write their own story. Depending on the age, you can transcribe or just guide the actual writing. Work through the process of brainstorming, forging a rough draft, and then writing a final version. Bump it up a notch by having the kids illustrate the story once it is complete. They can mail the finished product to grandparents or present it to a sibling or cousin. If acting out a story appeals, write the narrative as a play and have the kids perform at the end of the day.
Visit the fire station. Most firefighters are more than happy to show you and the kids 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 the firefighters eat and sleep and an up close and personal view of the equipment.
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