Free or Affordable Local Activities for the Full-time Caregiver
Two years ago my life took a 180 degree turn when I had my son and became a full-time mom. I went from having a demanding job to having a demanding newborn. Being a full-time parent has been an adventure and has come with its own challenges, and I have loved every minute of it! Now, some people may call me crazy for the following statement, but having a newborn was easier than having a toddler. Toddlers need to be entertained! Newborns, on the other hand, mostly sleep, eat, and poop, all of which can easily be done in the comfort of my own home. Toddlers, on the other hand, don’t take too kindly to being cooped up all day. They have to roam free and discover the world.
As my son has gotten older, I have had to find daily activities to get him out of the house and active. The challenge is, of course, being able to do this on a daily basis without spending a lot or any money. There are plenty of very nice parks in the area, but the weather doesn’t always cooperate, and at some point, you just need a change of pace. So, here is my list of tried-and-true activities:
1) Storytime and other events and the local libraries. I love the Prince George's County Library System. It has a lot of free programs for kids and a convenient app where you can find all the activities in one place. Living in the Chestnut Hills area of Beltsville, I have found that there are four libraries within a 15-minute drive: Beltsville, Laurel, Greenbelt, and Hyattsville. I tend to frequent their events most often, but I have also been known to go to events in Bowie, Bladensburg, and New Carrollton because they are only about a 25-minute drive. My favorite activity is Storytime on the Screen at the Old Greenbelt Theater on the second and fourth Mondays of the month. The kids have popcorn and get a story and “movie” (a show segment like Daniel Tiger or Curious George) on the big screen. There is also a coloring sheet and crayons afterward.
If you are willing to drive a bit, you can find an age-appropriate storytime every morning of the week (except Sunday) if you cycle through the libraries. Not all Storytime librarians are “made equal,” so you may want to cycle through a few of them to find the ones that best suit your child and you. They also have some fun, random programs like Play and Grow done in conjunction with Infants and Toddlers of PGCPS, movie nights, evening Storytimes, Bibliobop Dance Parties, performances, and much more.
2) Open gym for walkers to 5 year olds at the Fairland Aquatic Center in Laurel. It is Mondays and Wednesday at 10:30–11:30 am and Tuesdays and Thursdays at 11:30 am–12:30 pm. The cost is $5 per visit. The kids basically get to run around and play in the gymnastics training gym. It has trampolines, a foam block pit, a large play floor with balls and hoops, a small "obstacle course," and access to balance beams. If your child is having some gross motor development issues, this is a great space for working on some skills. It's the best $5 I spend all week. My son never makes the 9-minute drive back to the house without falling soundly asleep. They do have some rules for the class, so call in advance and make sure you understand their requirements.
Side note: the Fairland Aquatic Center also has a fantastic playground. The jungle gym is very appropriate for a 2 year old because it's not too far off the ground but is very large. It has a sand area, so bring some sand toys and let them have at it! It’s a great place to kill some time on a nice day.
3) IKEA. Yeah, I know this is an odd one. However, on a rainy, cold, hot, or humid day, it’s awesome. My son loves to wander around the showrooms. He can explore, open doors and cabinets, climb on the furniture, use their kiosks to "build a couch"—all well supervised by me of course—so he doesn’t break anything. And there is always the actual "kids" play area. There is an actual “daycare” area where you can drop off your child, but I have never personally been able to do because there are height and potty training requirements my child doesn’t meet.
Bonus: If you an IKEA family member (which is free and easy at their kiosks) you can pick up a free coffee at the cafeteria with no purchase necessary.
I always find a new food, candy, piece of furniture, storage solution, or even light bulb I need to pick up while I am there, so I don't feel guilty about coming in for an hour or so of entertainment. On another note, my house is starting to look very much like an IKEA showroom, but that can’t be related, right?
Pro tips: Go around and park in the underground garage. It always has more available parking and keeps you out of the elements when walking to and from the store. Also, never go on the weekends; it’s a madhouse.
4) The play zone at Wheaton Mall. Or as we call it—Lord of the Flies. This is my furthest suggestion, but it is totally worth the drive. The mall is a great place to get indoors and let your kid wander. They have those little cars that he can "ride" (my son still doesn't know that they turn on) and a play zone where there are always other kids. Weekends there are NUTS (hence the nickname), so I stick to the weekdays. They also have a super small bounce house "store" where you get 30 minutes for $7.50.
Bonus: There is a Costco food court open to the public for a cheap meal and a Target. (There is always something you need to pick up at Target, right?)
Pro tip: Park on the Target/Costco side parking lot. If you enter through the Costco door entrance, you can take the stairs straight down and be right at the play zone.
5) Events offered by the PG Parks and Rec. They have a very useful website with a ton of activities in the area. There you can find some events worth going to free or a small fee. I have easily filled my weekends with events by spending a little time once a month going to the site. You can also take a look at the Montgomery Parks site for events in nearby Wheaton Park/Brookside Gardens (though their events almost always have a fee).
With these activities, I have always been able to fill my son's days with one morning Storytime and some play-based activity in the afternoon no matter the season. Next time, I'll share my "further away or costly but totally worth it" options. Until then, we hope to see you around!