Kids of all ages get excited, educated, and enlightened by the seemingly ordinary. Excursions with your children to even the most common places can become an adventure for all, as you learn to view the everyday world through their enthusiastic eyes. There are so many things to see and do for free, it is hard to know where to start!
Become an Explorer
Outdoor adventures don't always require long vacations. What beautiful natural features are right in your own county? Are there any waterfalls, creeks, lakes, or oceans to explore? How about hiking trails, nature centers, or museums in the woods? On a nice day, be on the lookout for caves or apple orchards, farms or wildflower fields. If you live in the city, you may find hidden parks or courtyards brimming with mystery, buzzing farmer's markets filled with new tastes and textures, or ethnic neighborhoods packed with exotic sights and sounds. There are loads of outdoor excursions to share with your child—just look around you!
A favorite childhood memory of mine includes an overnight camping trip where we cooked our own beef stew over the fire and woke to the birds singing in the morning. There are many lessons in nature and our environment, from the vastness of the night sky to the peaceful breeze rushing through the trees, to the quiet majesty and endurance of a mountain range. To share the sites and sounds of the great outdoors with your kids is to amaze them free of charge!
Find Indoor Adventures
When the weather is disagreeable, a trip to the mall may calm cabin fever, but window shopping gets old (and is not free unless you have great discipline!). Instead, try planning a trip to visit local buildings of interest with your kids or find a free indoor play area.
Some retailers are taking their lead from the McDonald's' playland concept and offering play areas in their stores. IKEA, for example, has incorporated a free play area into its shopping space and offers a 99-cent breakfast deal to boot. Keep your eyes open for free play areas in your neighborhood—they don't have to be big or costly for your toddler to enjoy them.
Older kids have usually spent time inside the family's house of worship, but have they visited anyone else's? A Christian child's first visit to a Temple or Mosque is full of intrigue and excitement, as may be a Protestant child's first trip inside a Catholic cathedral. Showing your children where other people worship exposes them to other faiths and teaches them tolerance and respect. You may even be able to arrange a meeting with a leader or family of the congregation who can explain their traditions.
Check with your local historical society or municipal hall for buildings of historical interest—you can often find information on a website available for your state's historical society, too. Kids love hearing stories related to old buildings in their area while learning how life used to be. Was there really a time before cell phones, iPods, and DVDs? It's fun to show kids how people survived without these modern conveniences, while breathing new life into the history they learn from their school books!
Even little kids can be fascinated with how things work and would love to learn what goes on behind the swinging kitchen doors at their favorite restaurant. Most restaurants have a slow time in the late afternoon, and if you phone ahead they may give your family a behind the scenes tour. The first time your child sees a walk-in freezer and observes the chefs do their magic can be amazing!