My husband, Sam, and I run a business from home, plus (try to) do a lot of writing, while at the same time raising our two-and-a-half-year-old son, Mikko. To that end, we do a lot of trading off of childcare duties, but due to constraints of square footage and Mikko’s propensity to target whoever most needs to concentrate, the caregiver on duty generally has to remove both child and self from the premises.
Now, this worked just great in the summer months, and into a benign autumn, when one parent would roam the beach with Mikko, spend hours on the playground, or take long bike rides with one very cute passenger in the child seat.
But then winter — and reality — struck. We live in Seattle. It rains a lot here. I try not to play that up too much, because I think it’s often overstated. But the truth is, when you’re trying to go down a playground slide, it doesn’t matter that it’s an occasional drizzle and not a Midwestern downpour, or that New York City gets more annual inches of precipitation — your pants are still going to get wet. And no matter if it’s raining or not, even a mild Northwestern winter chills your bones if you’re outside long enough. I mean, sure, we still spend time outdoors — going on walks and bike rides — but there’s only so much time you can spend in 40-degree drizzle before you start feeling waterlogged.
Sam and I, therefore, have had to get creative in finding locations to bring a rowdy toddler that are shielded from some of the worst of the winter weather but are away from home and affordable to us.
The suggestions below are some we’ve come up with. There’s a range of how indoors they are, so you can decide your cold tolerance. There’s also a range of expense involved, from free on up. Some options are better for younger babies, some for our age of tot, and some for older kids.
1. One splurge for us this past year was to pony up for a combination zoo and aquarium membership. We chose the family option, which lets the three of us in for free whenever we choose, plus gives us a few passes to bring along friends and visiting guests. If you can’t spring for the cost, hint around that you’d love this as a present. I realize Christmas is over, but maybe a child’s birthday is on the horizon. What we love about having a membership is that we can go for a short period of time without feeling like we’re “wasting” our hefty admission fee. Once we’d visited three times, we’d paid for the annual membership. In our particular circumstances here in Seattle, we do have to pay for street parking for the aquarium or to take the bus, though there is free street parking near the zoo if you don’t mind walking; my point is that there might be incidental fees you have to factor in. Now, I know you’re probably thinking: How is the zoo indoors? It’s mostly not, but there are sections that are. The same is actually true with our aquarium — portions inside and portions out. If it’s not a miserable day, this is a great compromise activity, because you can grab a respite under a roof to warm up and dry off, then head back out to soak up some scarce vitamin D and feel the wind on your face. Some potential indoor places at your zoo might be the reptile, insect, or night creatures exhibit, a roofed area might be a farm-animal area, and our zoo even has an indoor play place just for kids.
2. Another membership to consider is a pass for a kid-friendly museum, like the science center or children’s museum. Is it repetitive for me to include another membership idea? Yes, but I have ten of these to fill, so let’s allow it, shall we? You can usually try out a museum with a regular admission and then upgrade to a membership if you think it would be worth the annual cost, so make sure your children will enjoy a venue before paying for the full year. We chose the science museum here, because there are a variety of exhibits to hold Mikko’s interest, from the full-on science exhibits about dinosaurs and parabolas and levers, to various indoor animals like a boa constrictor and naked mole rats, to a toddler-themed play area with vehicles and structures to climb in and under, blocks to stack, and a water canal to splash in. If you have older kids, more sophisticated museums might appeal — and be a fun educational experience without feeling like one.
3. If you have a very young baby and want some time to feel like an adult again, check out your local movie theaters. We found three near us that had some form of infant-in-arms movie showing, usually an early matinee on a weekday. One such program had the charmingly apt name of Crybaby Tuesdays. Some theaters restrict the age of the children you bring, such as up to 12 months. Some welcome older siblings as well. Other theaters near us have cry rooms built into the back of the theater — you can see the screen through the window front, and the sound is piped in on speakers. We enjoyed taking Mikko to the theater until he was mobile — and then it was all over, at least until he’s old enough to sit through a whole movie once again. Once he is old enough, I have grand dreams to take him to children’s live theater productions, puppet shows, and enjoyable ballets, as well as kids’ movies, depending on our budget at the time.
4. Check local community centers for indoor play times for toddlers. Sometimes they go by the name of “play gyms.” That suggests more of an organized workout, but really it’s just a bunch of toys thrown into the center of the gym floor, with toddlers let loose upon them. The ones around here alternate between the various community centers, so that there’s generally at least one a day, open for a few hours at a time, with a low admission fee of a couple bucks. Children in the age range of about one to five can enjoy a selection ride-on toys, a small bouncy house, a pretend kitchen and dolls, and various other noisy plastic toys that you would much rather have them visit than own. The only catch with the indoor play gyms is keeping your child from mauling or being mauled as the tots learn to share the popular toys — but, hey, it’s a social learning experience for everyone, right? You might even get to strike up some friendships with the other supervising parents.
5. The public library system offers more than just a repository of books, though that’s reason enough to take your kids there. There are often scheduled story times during the day for kids of various ages, from baby to preschool. Sometimes they’re offered in different languages, like Mandarin, Spanish, or American Sign Language, perfect if your child is learning multiple languages or if you just want some exposure to a new culture. Mikko attends a German preschool, so we like to try to make the German story time at the library system one over from ours. (There’s another tip: Just because you don’t live there doesn’t mean you can’t drop in for the free programs.) Regardless of whether we go for an organized time or not, though, Mikko loves hanging out in the library. This sort of depends on how quiet the library is, and how correspondingly quiet your child is. Often the bigger the library, the noisier your kid can be, and those in the children’s section tend to be more tolerant of ruckus. Take the opportunity to read a few books you don’t have at home, check out a selection to take with you, chat up the librarians to score stickers (they have some — trust me), and just enjoy the new environment. Mikko loves to fool around on the computers, even the card catalog ones. He gets a kick out of pushing the mouse buttons, probably because we don’t have a traditional mouse on our laptops at home. He also loves to take those little scraps of paper and the tiny golf pencils and scribble indecipherable notes on them, then put them back in the container to bewilder future patrons. He also loves loves loves the elevator that’s in the big library. One time it was broken, and he helpfully announced it to everyone as we trudged slowly up the stairs: “Elevator broken, go stairs. Elevator broken.” Fortunately, he likes the stairs, too. You never know what adventures you’ll find in mundane places like a library until you see it from a two-year-old’s perspective.
6. Speaking of mundane, run errands. I know, it can be a pain getting kids in and out of car seats and pulling them away from items you’d rather they not ruin or purchase. That’s why, when it comes to killing time while out, I try not to plan for my shopping trips to be terribly efficient and instead just go with the toddler flow. For instance, a certain young man has discovered that the local drug store has very small shopping carts just for him, which he has named “baby carts,” and that the local grocery store has a cart shaped like a firetruck. It’s a pain for the parent to maneuver down the narrow aisles, but he has a blast “steering” it around, and I make the siren noise to amuse him and our fellow shoppers (and to warn them to watch their toes). We’ve discovered that home-improvement stores have lots of buckets you can push around and vacuums to test. (There’s a slight obsession with vacuums here.) Toy stores, of course, have all sorts of things you can borrow and then put back. (Note: Do not try this with children old enough to have good memories.) Even better are consignment and thrift stores, because if you do find something tempting, it will likely at least be cheap. Shopping malls often have dedicated play places (as does Ikea) and are open late if you need something to into the evening hours. (We’re night owls in this house.) And there are always escalators to ride. Thirty times. In a row. Ask me how I know this. If you don’t want to deal with popping a baby into and out of a car, try making public transportation part of the excursion. Mikko could happily ride the bus all day, with no particular destination in mind. He likes to sing “Wheels on the Bus” to the other passengers, which brightens their day, too. I have it on good authority that a two-year-old can kill a lot of time exploring a parked car as well, pushing radio buttons and writing in the condensation on the windshield, which is sustainable as long as it’s not so cold that you have to leave the engine idling to keep warm.
7. It strikes me that I used to play outdoors during the winter, but that was because, when I lived elsewhere, it was often clear weather, if cold. You might be in a location where winter weather is perfect for outdoor activities like skiing and sledding, but in our clime, the incessant drizzle makes staying outside for hours a good opportunity to get soaked through and through. That said, there are still opportunities for wintery fun. I know of a couple good ice skating rinks nearby, one downtown at Seattle Center, which would be a fun adventure in itself. If twisting your ankles and bruising your bum isn’t your thing, a nice, warm indoor sport is swimming. Community center pools often have public swims throughout the week and at various times of day and evening. There’s one per week at our local pool that’s discounted and is family-oriented — the shallow end is roped off and filled with floating pool toys, and the diving boards are opened for older kids who’ve passed their swim tests.
8. Speaking of which, if you like organized activity, there are always classes you can sign up for. With younger kids, parent involvement is often encouraged and sometimes mandatory. There are parent-child classes for swimming, yoga, dance, music, martial arts, crafts, and others. Check your community center pamphlet to see what’s offered or look around town at what signs relevant businesses have up. Some classes are pricey, but often you can find a cheaper alternative, and there is usually an offer of a free initial class to try it out and make sure it’s the right fit for you.
9. If your house is off-limits, try crashing someone else’s. We love visiting friends, even ones without kids or toys. One good friend of ours has a favorite Sharpie that Mikko always gravitates toward. (We make sure he also has an appropriate paper surface on which to use it.) At Christmastime, Mikko has loved getting to examine other people’s Christmas trees and decorations. When kids are involved, it’s the little things that catch their eye! You don’t always have to worry about choosing somewhere child-specific to hang out at, as long as your friends are cool with letting some new creatures explore their digs. Of course, if there are other kids there, so much the better — the children can amuse themselves with new friends and unfamiliar toys while the adults enjoy some rational conversation.
10. One of the easiest places to duck into, if you’re out of more creative ideas and need a pit stop, is a casual restaurant or coffee shop. You can grab a drink or a bite to eat, use the restroom, and sit for a spell at what ends up being very low rent. If you go to the same place often enough, you might even make friends. Assuming he’s not being too intense, watching our kid usually brings smiling people to our table to comment on how cute his curly hair is and to make conversation with him. Sure, there are cranky people out there, but usually taking your time at a local eatery is a fun way to attract positive attention and feel part of the neighborhood.
That’s what I’ve got, and I’ll be adding to the list as we discover new locales this winter.
Now, if you don’t have the restriction or the wish to leave your house, I did put together a previous list of activities to keep kids hopping at home. But I hope this gives you some ideas for what to do if staying put isn’t an option.
Please feel free to share: What are your best ideas for keeping kids warm and entertained during the winter?