If your toddler is anything like mine were at that age, he/she has more energy than you think you’ve ever had in your entire life (ask your parents, and I’m sure they’ll say you’re wrong about that). So, how do you get your little ones to use up some of that seemingly endless supply of energy?
Get them outside!
Summer is the perfect time for engaging in more outdoor activities, especially if you live in my neck of the woods. In Kentucky, it is much too cold, snowy, and — lately — even icy in the winter. The snow usually isn’t even the kind with which you can make a decent snowman.
Talk about disappointing.
And, anymore, spring and fall seem to be an extension of winter and summer, respectively. So, summer is really the only decent time of year to get outside and play.
But what do you do if you have very young children and limited funds? I’m well-acquainted with this problem.
You can’t afford to take them to amusement parks, and they can’t really ride many of the rides anyway, at that age. There just isn’t that much for little kids to do in the summer that is free (or at least cheap).
Or is there?
Here are three ideas this budget-conscious mom has used in the past to keep her little girls happy and occupied during the hot summer days.
Go for a hike in the woods
My girls, like most young children, love to be outside — and they always have. Since we are in Kentucky, there are lots of national park and forests to explore within just a few hundred miles. One of the best of these is Mammoth Cave National Park. It’s only about a two-hour drive from us, and they have a number of fantastic, family-friendly hiking trails that are all free to use.
The cave tours themselves cost some money (from $15-$70 for a family of four). The park only charges for children over the age of 5.
When we were there just after the birth of my second daughter (my oldest was two), we didn’t bother with the cave tour. My toddler was not (still isn’t, as an almost eleven-year-old now) terribly fond of the dark or strangers, so that didn’t seem like a viable option.
Having been on a few cave tours myself over the years, I have to say that taking a toddler on a cave tour just doesn’t seem like a very good idea. It’s a much better idea to just take them exploring around the park, which is what we did with our two-year-old and four-month-old.
Since I was still recovering from my last c-section delivery, we didn’t want to try anything too strenuous. We found a short trail (about a quarter-mile one way) and set off into the woods. It was one of the best times my older daughter had had in a long time. We saw several deer, and a couple of them got really close to us.
It was amazing!
Then a tree fell in the forest and scared my little girl, so that wasn’t very fun for her. But my husband and I did our best to explain that sometimes things like that happen in nature. The tree wasn’t trying to hurt her, and we were completely safe as long as we stayed on the trail and kept our eyes open for any hidden dangers (my husband is always watchful for poisonous snakes when we’re out in the woods).
All in all, it was a wonderful day.
When you’re hiking in a forest, you have the added bonus of all the natural sun protection from the tree leaves. So, when you’re walking through the nice cool shady forest, you get a little break from the summer heat!
Of course, if you don’t live very near a national forest, you will have to spend some gas money to get there. For our family, though, the gas money we spent was very well worth the fun we all had hiking through the woods and enjoying a bit of nature together.
Even the baby seemed to enjoy that family outing!
Try Googling “hiking trails near me” to locate something closer to your front door, if you don’t live in Kentucky. I did that recently and found a wonderful little hiking trail about 10 miles away from us I’d never heard of before — and it even leads to a beautiful waterfall!
Now I know where our next hiking trip to is going to be.
Find a church playground or other neighborhood playground
When my children were toddler age, we attended a large church that put a major focus on helping children and families. They had a wonderful large playground with slides and swings and monkey bars that they left open year-round for anyone to come to visit anytime (except in the afternoons on weekdays because that’s when the school used it). I loved it because it was fenced-in, even though it wasn’t locked, so you didn’t have to worry so much about your child escaping (or someone taking your child) without you noticing. We visited this playground at least once a week when my children were young — sometimes twice!
If you don’t have a church nearby, try looking for local parks that have playgrounds in the city where you live. Sometimes local schools will leave their playgrounds open during the weekend. We’ve made use of at least one of those before.
Even if you don’t live in the city, your community might have something similar. I’ve seen some little bitty towns here in Kentucky that had a public park and playground area larger than the town itself!
Again, Google can be your friend here. Just enter “playgrounds near me,” and I bet you’ll find something you can get to quickly and easily.
Go “shopping” at Meijer
Go shopping? Are you kidding? How is that going to be free? Or even almost free? And why, specifically, at Meijer?
What is Meijer, anyway?
If you live in one of six of the United States — Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Kentucky — you probably know about Meijer stores. There are about 242 of them spread out across these states.
So, why should you take your toddler to Meijer? Because of Sandy, one of those old-fashioned motorized horses I used to see all the time in or outside grocery stores when I was a child.
Yes, all the Meijer stores have horses that are named Sandy (at least all the horses in the Meijer stores in my city are named Sandy). While it’s not free to ride Sandy, it only costs a penny, and the ride lasts a surprisingly long time.
All you have to do is take your full penny jar, and your toddler can ride Sandy for hours (or for however long you want to stand there waiting and feeding the coins into the machine).
My daughters are now getting to the age where they just don’t feel like riding Sandy much anymore. The eight-year-old will, on occasion, but the ten-year-old wants nothing to do with it. I don’t know if that’s because she’s getting older, or if it’s because we’re now shelling out a lot more money than that for her to ride a real horse every week.
But, when they were small, my girls loved riding Sandy. And I was always amazed that, most of the time when we were there, there were no other kids trying to ride Sandy. I don’t know if that was because nobody else liked Sandy or if it was just because no other parents took their children shopping with them. Or maybe they just didn’t have a penny. There were times, though, when we wouldn’t even need to put in a penny. Someone else had already done that for us.
Or else the machine was broken.
But, parents beware: if you come to the Meijer stores here in Louisville with your toddler, you might have to spend a little more than a few pennies. See, the marketing people at Meijer are really smart. They’ve made it so that when a child is riding Sandy, he/she has a great view of all the balloons in the card/gift section, so if your toddler is anything like mine, you will most likely be faced with having to either break down and buy a balloon or else experience the temper tantrum of the century when you refuse.
Still, the price can’t be beat, and it’s a great excuse to get away from the heat and into some cool air for a minute!
No Meijer in your area? You might still be able to find a cheap mechanical horse somewhere around you. Don’t try Google for this one, though. It’s probably not going to be much help.
Quit dealing with a bored toddler
They may be small, but they’re mighty.
And their anger is especially powerful.
There is nothing worse than listening to an angry, bored toddler — except maybe listening to an angry, tired toddler — but now you don’t have to.
No matter what your budget, you can keep that little one entertained all summer long with these three activities, and you can do them over and over again (in fact, your child will probably beg you to). They never get old or boring (at least not for the toddler).
So, tear your child away from the preschool cable channel, fasten him/her into the car seat, and get going!