Keeping active, curious children happy and engaged with stimulating activities – and trying to balance that with a tight family budget – can be a challenge, and as the temperature drops, finding suitable activities gets even trickier.
Break out the boots, grab your coats and ban cabin fever this season. Parenting Times scoured mom groups on Facebook and asked parents at play groups to bring you 20 of Ottawa’s best free and wallet-friendly things to do on days when nothing else seems interesting and someone (you, perhaps?!) is about to have a tantrum.
1) Ottawa is home to a number of world-class museums and galleries, but let’s face it – admission isn’t always worth it when your little one decides that he’s had enough and needs to go home immediately after you’ve paid. No matter how small the admission fee is, it’s never worth it when that tantrum happens three minutes after you’ve walked through the door. Fortunately, the Canadian Museum of History, the adjoining Children’s Museum and the Canadian War Museum offer free admission after 4 p.m., and the National Gallery of Canada and the Canadian Museum of Nature after 5 p.m. on Thursdays, making those unplanned exits less painful on the pocketbook. The Ottawa Public Library also lends out free family passes to these museums that can be used at any time. Museum admission is also free on certain days of the year, like International Museums Day, Canada Day and Culture Days.
2) The National Gallery of Canada isn’t the only game in town when it comes to art. Numerous public art galleries offer free admission daily, including the Karsh-Masson Gallery and the City Hall Art Gallery at City Hall, six galleries at the Shenkman Arts Centre and the Atrium Gallery at Ben Franklin Place.
3) In various locations, free Ontario Early Years Centres programs include drop-in play groups, a toy lending library (perfect for aspiring minimalists), workshops and programs on pregnancy, parenting and early childhood development for children ages 0 to 6 and their parents and caregivers.
4) When it’s cold outside, go for a stroller walk at the St. Laurent Mall – and window shop and connect with other parents at the same time. The Mom and Baby on the Move group meets at 9:30 a.m. every Monday and Wednesday, at Guest Services.
5) Explore art! The National Gallery of Canada has Artissimo, a program just for kids where they can play games, make their own artwork and share art with other kids across Canada and around the world. The program is free with regular admission and runs weekends and holidays including holiday Mondays, Ontario Family Day, the winter break from December 26 to 31 and January 2 to 6, and both Ontario and Quebec March Break (March 11 to 15 and March 4 to 8, 2019 respectively). An adult must accompany the participating child.
6) In the east end, walk through the Mer Bleu Bog, one of the largest bogs in southern Ontario. Mer Bleu is more typical of the Arctic than the Ottawa Valley, and has been designated an internationally significant wetland. In the west end, walk along the Rideau River wetlands in the Chapman Mills Conservation Area.
7) Hike the Greenbelt. The Jack Pine Trail features a 40-minute loop, while the bike path between Hog’s Back Falls and Vincent Massey Park is great for strollers.
8) This winter, skate on the 7.8-kilometre Rideau Canal, or indoors at a City of Ottawa arena, which has drop-in recreational and family skate times. Kids under two are free.
9) Go for a nature walk at the bird sanctuary on Moodie Drive, where wild birds and chipmunks will eat right out of your hand. Buy birdseed there, or bring your own.
10) Tour the Royal Canadian Mounted Police horse stables, which welcomes visitors on Tuesdays and Thursdays from September through April.
11) Provided it doesn’t interfere with their bedtime, kids and their parents can head downtown to check out Christmas Lights Across Canada, which illuminates federal buildings and historic sites along Confederation Boulevard from early December to early January. On weekends, park underground for free at the World Exchange Plaza.
Burn off extra energy
12) Want to get your bounce on – but are worried about the big kids bumping into your littles? Bring your child to toddler time (10 a.m. to 1 p.m. daily) at the Flying Squirrel (1901 Cyrville Rd.) the world’s biggest indoor trampoline park, where little kids can jump for only $10 an hour in a nearly empty space.
13) Starr Gymnastics and Parkour (www.starrgymnastics.com) has a free playgroup for children ages 12 months and younger. The Starr Babies Playgroups allow babies to explore and parents to socialize. Older children (ages one to five) can participate in one-hour drop-in sessions for only $5. There are three locations to choose from.
14) The City of Ottawa’s Kindergym program is only $2.50 per session. Check out the city’s website for details (Ottawa.ca).
15) Check out Toddler Games, a non-profit play space in Ottawa South that provides the community with a safe, fun and affordable environment for toddlers to play. It’s closed for December but opens again for 2019 on January 7. It’s located at 1860 Bank St. Unit 3B. Check out toddlergames.ca for more info.
16) IKEA has a free ball pit and play centre for kids between 37” (94 cm) and 54” (137 cm) tall. Children who are out of diapers can be dropped off for up to one hour.
17) Does your child have a library card yet? If not, pick up a free Ready to Read Baby Bag, which includes an age-appropriate book and an invitation to get baby his or her own library card, at your local Ottawa Public Library branch.
18) Stressed? What parent isn’t? Find your centre with free yoga – PranaShanti Yoga Centre (pranashanti.com) and Yogatown (myyogatown.com) both offer a free class for your birthday. Check out their websites for more information.
19) Givopoly Ottawa will hand-deliver a free birthday cupcake to you, or a friend or family member, for your birthday. It arrives right to your door! Visit www.ottawa.givopoly.com/products/birthday-cupcake.
20) This one’s just for mom – Sephora will give the birthday girl a free gift that she can pick up from a store anytime during her birthday month, with no purchase necessary. Just make sure you’re registered as a Beauty Insider (also free) at a store (Bayshore or Rideau Centre) beforehand.