To say that this hasn’t been the spring we imagined is an understatement. Our usual free and frugal fun adventures are comprised of library visits, playground adventures, and children’s museum explorations. So when the pandemic and subsequent lockdown more or less shook the Etch-a-Sketch of options clean, we had to rethink what free and frugal fun with a toddler looks like.
Of course, we’re doing tons of gardening and landscaping. Now that the weather is nicer, we’ve pulled out his water table and baby swimming pool. We’re playing catch, dabbling in myriad sports, and crossing our fingers that HP has my husband’s coordination, not mine. There are miles and miles of nature trail that we won’t even come close to covering. We’ve aced potty training but forest preserve bathrooms are closed, and I have no desire to outwalk HP’s ability to hold it.
In addition to the great outdoors, we’re making the indoors really great, too. From rotating toys to reading
dozens hundreds of books, there’s no shortage of things to do.
Over these past few months, we’re also trying to pick up where HP’s preschool teacher left off. Oh, and we’re absolutely positively giving into more educational screen time than ever before and feeling zero guilt about it. Here’s the best part: We’ve found a blend of quality parent-tot activities, engaging independent play time ideas, and good educational tech that hasn’t cost us much of anything.
Whether you’re looking to stretch your toddler resources a bit further or simply buy yourself a bit of peace and quiet without spending any money, here’s our list of free and frugal toddler fun lockdown style.
PBS Game App – Free
Our son is obsessed with these games. He doesn’t spend a ton of time playing them, but when he is connected, I’m actually really OK with it. In the Before Times when my husband and I weren’t trying to teach Zoom classes simultaneously, I would have thought twice about handing over my phone so readily. But now? It buys us five minutes of time here and 15 minutes there. His vocabulary is expanding dramatically, he’s doing really simple math, and we can plow through a necessary task long enough to go back to alternating kid corralling.
Kanopy Kids – Free
We cut the cable cord finally. Initially, I thought we could make do with the same few PAW Patrol DVDs we’ve been watching on repeat since our last library visit (over two months ago!). Then, I thought I could maximize our Prime Video use. I quickly learned that offerings like Dinosaur Train are incomplete–unless you want spend more money. So I hooked up our library’s Kanopy account and started to explore. There’s definitely a wealth of content here on Kanopy Kids for free, and we’ve only scratched the surface. Most of HP’s PBS favorites are ready to stream, plus a lot of his beloved books are animated in read-aloud-form.
Accidental Homeschooler – Free
I am not a Pinterest mom. I aced our applesauce pouch Valentines, and I don’t think I’ve been back on Pinterest since. But I did find these Accidental Homeschooler freebies from ChooseFI. The toddler options are really fun and haven’t required me to buy anything or possess any sort of crafting skills. Plus, we’ve been having a lot of fun together.
Children’s Museum Social Media – Free
Illinois has a handful of amazing children’s museums. Our membership unlocks access to almost all of them. However, the pandemic means we aren’t setting foot in any actual museum for quite some time. However, I’ve found their social media accounts to be pure gold, albeit mostly undiscovered. The YouTube channels like this one and this one have lots of simple crafts on them with an emphasis on upcycling what’s already in your home. We are still making our own sidewalk chalk paint thanks to them! Plus, they captures activities and read alouds. It’s not the same as storytime in the museum, but it’s still enjoyable.
Scavenger Hunts – The Cost of a Sucker
The last thing that we do at least once a day is a scavenger hunt. They’re easily modified into inside activities, though we try to get out for a few miles every day rain or shine. If we’re doing an outdoor hunt, I throw together a list of things that I’m pretty sure we’ll cross paths with. It might be numbers (addresses! license plates! for sale signs!). And it might include other objects like squirrels, chipmunks, birds, flags, fire hydrants, stop signs, white trucks, red cars, and other things I’ll see around the neighborhood or nature trail.
(Pro Tip: Do not hand the reins over to the uninitiated unless you are willing to push a stroller for miles and miles because there are actually zero green cars in your neighborhood.)
Once HP finds the right object and quantity, he checks off a box. Or sometimes we just do the list verbally because we forget the notebook or don’t realize we’ve set out on yet another hunt until HP declares it so. At the end of the hunt, HP picks out a sucker or another sort of bribe to keep him content for the rest of the walk.
We’ve tested this out in every neighborhood in walking distance, at a handful of forest preserves, and along every trail the trailhead behind our house connects to. It works beautifully. Unless your husband writes down “green car.”
So Tell Me: What does free and frugal fun with a toddler (or anyone, really!) look like at your house lately?
PS – If you want to work on your money goals, swing by last week’s post and learn more about the giveaway! I’m closing it tonight!
Oh wow Penny, you’re doing an amazing job of doing cool, free stuff with HP. I feel like we haven’t been very frugal parents, or very good parents during this time. We’re mostly managing the best we can but the 4 year old has watched quite a bit more PBS kids than we ever would have felt comfortable with 6 months ago. But she’s doing fine. And she’s super into space and astronauts after watching Ready Jet Go.
My best frugal family moment was biking out to a park with the kids where they had some road construction debris and they spent hours smashing rocks to find “crystals”. (there were small pieces of quartz in the rocks). And I’ve trained the 4 year old to ride her bike next to me while I run. That’s such a small window where a kid’s biking speed is close to an adult’s running speed. 3 months or something? Luckily I’ve managed to catch that with all three of them now.
Happy Memorial Day!!
I am so glad I let go of that “too much screen-time” hang up! If I actually clocked it, I don’t think it would be THAT much more. But he’s honestly learned a lot and I’m not going to manufacture stress when life is stressful enough!
I love the idea of them mining for crystals. I don’t want HP to grow any faster than he already is, but I can tell that there’s so many fun memories to be made. Bravo to you for all the running you must be doing, too!
Lazy Man and Money
I am so happy that you differentiated between educational screen time and pure entertainment.
Unfortunately a lot of that educational television starts to become hard to find at around the second grade it seems.
We’re getting in lots of the “unstructured free play” that childhood experts say is so good for kids. And it has resulted in very strange, but funny, sibling games. The latest is where 5 yo rides 8 yo like a horse, using pants as reins and brandishing a Barbie sword demanding I do various things in the name of the king.
We grew caterpillars into butterflies–not free, but not too expensive. Biking, nature, dirt digging, backyard camping, baking, art, reading, board games, and increased screen time. Sounds like we’re all kinda doing the same things.
Desperately miss free public spaces (playgrounds, libraries, and pools, especially).
I know, it’s been too long. Just wanted to say hi and thanks for these resources. We’re all about the free and frugal summer entertainment, but our usual list has been cut very short this year. The kids are BEGGING to go to a playground. Just. One. Little. Playground 🙁
Good luck and best wishes.
You’re doing such an amazing job! We’ve been doing a lot of walks (free) and arts and crafts (frugal).