20 free (or crazy cheap) fun things to do this winter
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 barometer drops, finding suitable activities gets even trickier.
Parenting Times scoured mom groups on Facebook and interviewed 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’s 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, three minutes after you walk 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, workshops and programs on pregnancy, parenting and early childhood development for children ages 0 to 6 and their parents and caregivers.
4. The Ottawa Public Library (biblioottawalibrary.ca) offers Babytime, a free story time for kids ages 0 to 18 months and their parents and caregivers.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. The Canada Agriculture and Food Museum at the Central Experimental Farm has animal barns with chickens, cows, pigs, sheep, horses, goats, and the farm itself has over 2,000 varieties of trees and shrubs for your budding nature lover.
8. This winter, skate on the 7.8-kilometre Rideau Canal, or indoors at a City of Ottawa arena, which charges $2.55 or less per person. 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 welcome 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.
12. Older kids might also enjoy a tour of the Parliament Buildings and the ceremonial parade and changing of the guard on Parliament Hill at 10 a.m. daily (summer only).
Burn off extra energy
13. Starr Gymnastics (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.
14. The City of Ottawa’s Kindergym program is only $2.50 per session.
15. Boomerang Kids offers a free one-hour “strollercise” fitness program (boomerangkids.com/strollercise) at stores in Westboro, Old Ottawa South, Kanata, Orleans, Barrhaven and Gatineau. Parents can walk, jog or run with baby in a stroller or carrier under the guidance of certified fitness instructors.
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. 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. The terra20 Clean Start Program (terra20.com/cleanstart) will give every registered child a $20 in-store credit every year, starting on his or her first birthday up to age five.
19. Givopoly Ottawa will hand-deliver a free birthday cupcake, 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. Just make sure you’re registered as a Beauty Insider at a store (Bayshore or Rideau Centre) beforehand.