I hate winter, and not just because it's cold. I hate it because there are limited things to do with my 2-year-old daughter -- and they tend to be expensive.
Gone are the free jaunts to the playground and the beach; now I've got to ponder $100 music classes and Gymboree memberships.
Luckily, in my search for cheaper options, I've unearthed a ton of ideas that cost nothing at all! Here's a list of my favorites to tide you over for the next few weeks:
1. DIY Play-Doh
Why buy the stuff when you can make your own -- and have fun doing it? Mix together one cup of flour, ½ cup of salt and ½ cup of water. Separate the mixture into balls and add food coloring. Here are 10 more toys to DIY.
2. Indoor Mall Play Areas
Forget that Gymboree membership; many shopping malls have elaborate indoor recreation areas that kids can climb on for hours. At a loss for where to go? A simple web search can help you find good indoor playgrounds, like this list of indoor playspaces in New Jersey.
3. Crafty Building Projects
Kids love constructing things, and local DIY chains can help. Lowe's hosts free "Build & Grow" workshops that teach kids how to make everything from birdhouses to mini Santa sleighs. And Home Depot has "Little Helper Headquarters" workshops where kids can create toolboxes, mail organizers and frames.
4. Free Museum Days
Love museums, but hate the price of admission? Many institutions have certain days of the week or month that are complimentary. For example, here's a list of free times for museums in New York City. Aquariums and other attractions also have gratis days, so a little research could pay off big.
5. Story Times and Puppet Shows
Check out your local public library or large chain bookstore for these free events. If you live far from a metropolitan area or can't find any good options near you, try Barnes & Noble's online storytime -- authors and celebrities read books aloud via online video.
6. Get Cooking
Make dinner and keep your kids entertained by turning your kids into chefs. They'll love rolling out pizza dough and then sprinkling the pie with their favorite toppings. Tacos and chocolate chip cookies are also big hits, and easy enough for kids to tackle.
7. Play With Animals
If your kids love the zoo, head to a free alternative -- your local pet shop -- where you can cuddle rabbits, talk to parrots and ogle reptiles and fish. Ask store owners about their feeding times and you'll get a real show. You can also do a good deed by volunteering at a local animal shelter, where you can walk dogs or play with cats a few hours each week.
8. Make Snow Graffiti
Mix food coloring and water in a couple of spray bottles, and then let your kids create "snow graffiti" using your backyard as their canvas.
9. Set Up a Toy Swap
Kids with new toys rarely come down with cabin fever, so arrange for a swap with some of your mommy friends to refresh your child's interest in playing at home. Here's our guide for hosting an accessories swap -- follow the same guidelines, but ask parents to bring toys and children's books.
10. Canvas Greenhouses
Get a taste of summer by touring a greenhouse, where kids can learn about all sorts of flora.
11. Teach Kids About Volunteering
Take your kids to a local food bank or senior center, which exposes them to the joy of helping those in need.
12. Camp Out ... Indoors
Pitch a tent inside or allow your kids to build a blanket fort. For lunch, lay down a blanket and have a picnic.
13. Design Your Own Scrapbook
Gather together old photos, paper, glue, crayons, markers, ribbons and anything else that could make for fun decor. Here are some ideas for preserving your family memories. You can also create holiday cards to mail to friends and family.
14. Homemade Snow Ice Cream
Got snow on the ground? Make your own ice cream by mixing together one bowl of fresh snow, one cup of sugar, two cups of milk and one tablespoon of vanilla. Here are 7 more fun ways to play with ice.
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