About six weeks into maternity leave with my firstborn, I decided to return to work part-time instead of full-time as we had planned. I was fortunate to have the support of my husband, my family and my employer to make this possible, and it ended up being an ideal scenario for our family at that time.
But it wasn’t planned. So all our careful calculations around the economics of adding a baby to our family were suddenly about as useful as that swaddle blanket thingy I never learned how to use. Not only did our income take a (beautiful! sweet! worth it!) nosedive, but I found myself with three completely unscheduled days each week at home with a newborn. In the summer. And as if that weren’t enough to make a new mama a little stir-crazy, our new financial reality meant that just getting out of the house for a change of scenery and a much-needed Starbucks felt like a luxury we couldn’t afford.
That first summer as a mom I had very few friends and a budget tighter than my post-partum jeans. I started to look for things to do that met just two criteria: (1) free and (2) air-conditioned. Lucky for me, I found some. And then I found some friends. And then together we found some more free stuff to do with our kids. And today I don’t start to hyperventilate if there’s nothing on the calendar and not much in the piggy bank.
So if you’re new to parenthood (yay!), new to the Valley (welcome!), or are just looking for ways to keep spending in check without losing your mind, here are some ideas for free (or cheap) local fun with little ones:
Get Outside! Soon it’ll be too hot to play outside, but the next couple of months are what we live for around these parts.
- Splash! Splash pads abound in the Valley and provide great free fun for babies and big kids alike. My absolute favorite is at Altadena Park because the playground and splash pad are right next to each other with lots of shade around the perimeter. A note about mall splash pads: there are great splash pads at both Desert Ridge and Kierland Commons, but it’s easy to spend money while you’re there (Starbucks for Mommy, Cold Stone for kiddos, not to mention retail temptation at every turn). To keep the water fun budget-friendly, pack snacks and drinks for yourself and the kiddos and set clear expectations with older kids about when and whether you’ll be stopping for a treat.
- Play! The park may be an obvious choice for free outdoor fun, but it deserves mention nonetheless. One of our favorites is Sereno Park in Scottsdale because when the kids tire of the playground you can walk across the park to watch riders exercise their horses in the corral. We also love the McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park, where admission is free and carousel and train rides will only set you back a couple of dollars.
A/C, Please! Before we know it the heat will be here, and that’s when it really gets tricky.
- If you’re a first-time mom with an infant, check out the weekly Moms on the Move (MOM) support groups at Scottsdale Healthcare. You can drop in anytime during your baby’s first year and meet other new moms, listen to speakers, and socialize. I first sought out the group because it fit my two criteria (free and air-conditioned) and it ended up being the source of some lasting friendships.
- Arizona Sunrays gymnastics studio holds Open Gym time for toddlers and little kids. For $5 your kids have free reign of their huge gymnastics facility: trampolines, a bouncy castle, foam pits and more. There’s no registration or commitment to attend – just show up and play!
- I remember the first time I took my daughter – then just under a year – to the Scottsdale Public Library. It hadn’t occurred to me that the library would be so much fun for a baby (and again – free and air-conditioned!). We’ve tried a few of the story times and classes, but have actually had the most fun just playing in the kids’ area.
- Both Harkins and AMC have summer movie programs geared toward young kids. Supercheap tickets and convenient showtimes? Yes, please!
Think Outside The Box Sometimes the best free activities don’t fit the typical “mommy & me” mold. A trip to buy dog food at PetSmart entertains my kids as much as a day at the zoo. Free samples at Costco? Better than the food court at the mall! Being on a tight budget doesn’t mean foregoing meaningful experiences with your kids, or denying them any of the fun our city has to offer. And the best socialization opportunities for both moms and kids don’t happen in expensive classes; they happen on the park benches and in each other’s backyards.
Let’s add to the list! What are your favorite free (or cheap) things to do with kids in the Valley?
PS – Want more on free stuff for kids? Check out SMB Contributor Stephanie Carpenter’s recent post on where kids eat free around town!
Sarah Powers is a writer and Scottsdale mom of two. She came to the valley from Southern California by way of Chicago and would take Arizona summers over Midwest winters any day. A perfect day for Sarah starts with coffee, ends with chardonnay and includes lots of baby giggles and sticky-fingered kid kisses in between. She loves high ponytails, showtunes and using her kids as an excuse to stay in and go to bed early, which she would do anyway. Sarah tweets early and often about the messy, tender, fun, funny and irreverent moments of parenthood at www.twitter.com/powersofmine.