Having a toddler at home practically full-time, as my husband does, creates a need to get the heck out of the house on a regular basis. The park is a good option, but as the weather cools or it rains for a few days straight, the need for free or very low-cost fun pops up.
So here's what we've dug up around us so far:
Free intro classes at Gymboree and Little Gym. Enrolling costs, but taking the intro classes is free, and spread over 2 weeks, gives a great thing to look forward to.
Our nearby mall has a great playspace for kids. It's free, and it's a good place to go when the weather isn't great.
Our local library has a toy area, a fish tank, and free story hour. Plus all the DVDs and kids books we could want to bring home, but not keep. It's great for a 'try before you buy' book acquisition strategy.
Groupon recently offered $5 admission for adults (kids under 2 are free) to the Stone Zoo. For someone as animal-crazy as my daughter, this is a really good time - $10 for the family for the afternoon.
For $5, Monkey Joe's is a great place to go and play, with bouncy houses galore and a toddler area. Big red balloons are an additional $1.75. This is a huge winner for us.
For the book-loving kids, a visit to the Used Book Superstore is not to be missed. For very little money, about $1.25 each, often less on sale, a child can get a 'new' book. Most are in very good condition. An additional perk is parent recommendations from the parents browsing in the store. A random Mom was the reason we came home with Counting Our Way To Maine, which is a perpetual favorite in our house.
A nearby farm, Russell Orchards is always a hit for us - there's ducks and chickens to feed ($0.25 feed dispenser), horses to pet, a playground that's appropriate for a lot of ages, hay rides and apple picking in the fall, ice cream, and hay rides. And the animal visits and playground are free and open to the public.
While apple-picking isn't free, $15.00 last weekend brought home a tote bag (probably 20 lbs?) of apples at the aforesaid Russell Orchards, and was a good 90 minutes of running around and having family fun.
Later this month we'll be driving up to Quichee, Vermont to camp overnight in the local state park. A cheap tent, an air mattress, and some food, plus the $18.00 camping fee makes for a fun weekend getaway. We have the tent and air mattress, so aside from gas and some marshmallows, chocolate bars and graham crackers, there isn't much we need.
Just typing this list, which is probably a very small subset of the fun things to do with a toddler, makes me appreciate how many no-or-low-cost things to do are around me. And all are things that we'd enjoy whether the economy was good or bad.