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Family Activities: Cheap, Fast, Fun!

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I was sitting with my daughter Anna at an outdoor concert. We'd walked eight blocks in the hot sun from the parking lot, skipped naptime and stood on long lines twice—once to pay the $20 entry, then for our $5 ice cream cones. And as I sat with Anna on my lap, thankful the loud music was covering her tired, cranky cries, I tried to remember why I'd thought taking a 3-year-old to a concert was such a great idea.

As moms, every day we see that kids love doing small, simple things. But we often can't resist doing the big, elaborate ones, despite their cost and hassle. And though we know they probably won't remember a trip to, say, the circus, we want the memory. That's okay every now and then, but most of the time you'd be better off thinking a whole lot smaller. Some ideas to get you started:

Everyday attractions

The day they started to dig the hole for the foundation of a church in our neighborhood was the beginning of my family's education about the differences between an excavator and a bulldozer (which is what we used to call every large yellow piece of equipment). It was also the day it started to dawn on me how many free and exciting family outings were literally sitting there waiting for us.

The perfect pull-over

Some of the best places to go are right on the side of the road. You can spend a good hour pulled over at a construction site watching gigantic machines dig, dump and lift. And if you've got train lovers—but no trains to ride—park near a crossing to watch them roll by (ask at a business near the tracks what time the trains pass through). When you've watched at one crossing, scoot over to the next one and watch again. Sitting on your car near an airport to watch the airplanes fly overhead is another exciting outing. In between take-offs and landings, you can watch the contrails and the shapes in the clouds.

Ask for a back-door tour

After grabbing a bag of bagels with Anna in tow, I headed, uncharacteristically, out the back door of the shop, which gave us a view of the bagel-making machine. We were both transfixed—and watched for a good 15 minutes. To turn your Saturday-morning errands into outings to remember, just ask for a closer look (or find a safe viewing point) at any number of destinations. A few good ones: coin-sorting and dollar-counting machines at the bank, automated photo-processing equipment and any sort of mechanized food preparation, from tortillas to doughnuts.

Pretty and public

Drive to a beautiful garden, a mural-or graffiti-covered wall, or a farm or fruit stand. Toddlers and preschoolers love nothing better than the smell, touch and sight of nature's bounty, and the beauty of a fountain or even a somewhat tacky art display can be exciting to them. Ponds and streams—where you can also amuse yourselves tossing leaves and dandelions and watching them float away—all offer possibilities.

Kid-sized quests

From the moment they can figure out who has more cookies on their plate and who got to open the door first, little kids are natural competitors and absolute maniacs about measurement. Since most tots love a good search, race, or competition, you'll be able to invent all kinds of easy outings.

The seasonal search

My dad used to take me and my four siblings to seek out the first signs of spring, an activity that got us all on our hands and knees at the local park looking for green. You can also search for the longest icicle in winter, the most colorful leaf in the fall, or try my family's year-round favorite: finding heart-shaped rocks for natural Valentines.

Who's got the best...?

My favorite babysitter not only worked early on Saturday mornings (so my husband and I could enjoy one sleep-in a week), she also got the kids out of the house quickly with an ongoing search for the best weekend breakfast in town. At just 4 and 8, Anna and Kate practically ran out of the house, homemade survey sheets in hand, to test out the pancakes, hot chocolate and restaurant-provided amusements at every diner within driving distance. You can decide on the best ice cream or pizza. Or go with something nonedible, like the best echo in the area (under bridges or overpasses and in pedestrian tunnels), coolest playground castle or fastest slide in your town.

Go on a scavenger hunt

Look for the longest bridge, highest building, tallest tree or the biggest letter A on a sign. Bring a camera and record images of your kids in front of their finds. Or give the search a concrete reward: A friend of mine's dad used to take her and her siblings on drives with the sole mission of finding double X's on license plates—and they got a dollar reward for each X in a row. You could just as easily offer less or even nonmonetary compensation, since the literal payout doesn't matter. My friend still remembers the drives with her dad 35 years later.

More fun than a theme park

Thrill rides

Can't stand the roller coaster—or even the carousel? Don't sweat it. Amusement parks' amusements are often lost on young kids. For tots who are usually strapped in a car seat behind you, with only a view of the back of your head, sitting next to you in any mode of transportation is their definition of an amusing and exciting ride.

Take a quick trip

 If your preschooler is constantly singing about the wheels on the bus—but has never had the opportunity to ride one—she'll find actually getting on and seeing the wipers go swish, swish, swish and hearing the horn go beep, beep, beep a real treat, even if you have no place to go and just ride round-trip. Ditto for trains and ferries.

Head to the mall...but not to shop

If you get there as soon as it opens, before the crowds arrive, your kids can jump from one colored tile to another, slide and pretend to skate in their socks on slick floors, take a ride in a glass elevator and sing in the echo of an underground parking garage. (This indoor outing is especially great for blustery or rainy days.)

Milk the park for everything it's got

Look for poles to twirl around, logs to balance on and hills to roll down. Even a simple park bench can be a spaceship, boat or covered wagon—and you'll likely have the perfect ending to any outing: a child who's ready for a nice, long nap.

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