According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average American child will cost his parents $222,360 by the time he turns 17. I’d like to refute that number, since so far my husband and I have needed to buy very little for our three-year-old son Ezra. We thrived without many of the must-haves on the infant lists: a bassinet, crib, diaper-changing table, infant car seat, etc. Boxes of beautiful hand-me-down clothes seem to show up the moment we need them. Family members and friends have generously gifted Ezra toys and books, a wagon, a tricycle, bikes, and a scooter. And he mostly just eats the same things we do.
Having kids isn’t so expensive, I like to muse to myself. But then I remember the major costs of having a small child: daycare ($10,740 a year on average for an infant in this area) or lost wages – and health care. Oh right. There’s no denying it: having kids can be costly.
But here’s a little secret my son keeps teaching me – entertaining a small child can be simple, free, and fun. We spend most days doing the following free activities, all of which Ezra loves:
- going on walks
- riding bikes
- visiting city parks
- packing picnics
- going to events at our local library
- picking out and reading library books
- telling stories
- visiting friends
- drawing, coloring, or painting
- playing with homemade play dough
- listening to music and dancing
- playing with the neighbors
Honestly he even loves to make beds and sweep. He can spend 20 minutes examining a lady bug and is endlessly interested in the gas caps on cars. It’s not hard to amuse him. Sometimes we go out for lunch or pick up a treat at the health food store, but most days, we don’t buy anything.
On occasion, though, the old routines grow tiresome, and I sense that a more creative approach to entertainment is in order. Of course, a special event, elaborate art project, hike, or out-of-town trip is sure to please. But here are a few far more simple and free (or almost free) ways to entertain a small child that you might not have thought of:
1. Visit a construction site
Ezra is a huge fan of “tractors” – a class of vehicles that includes forklifts, dump trucks, cranes, front loaders, diggers, and all of the other big, loud machines you find at a construction site. He can stand mesmerized by these giant tools and the people using them for more than an hour. And then he talks about it for days afterward.
It only occurred to me recently to seek out construction sites for his entertainment. Fortunately it’s spring and there are construction projects happening on all over the city. What’s surprised me is how entertained I am by watching humans construct giant buildings. It’s pretty amazing when you think about it.
2. Go to the train station
Ezra loves trains. He builds tracks all over the living room and is quite particular about which train cars can go where. We’re planning to take him on a long train ride this summer, but recently it occurred to me that just visiting the train station when the passenger train comes in might be a big hit. It is. I imagine visiting an airport would be similarly entertaining if you live near one.
3. Ride the bus or light rail
We do not ride the bus often. In fact, we ride it so little that I didn’t realize how much Ezra would love it until we needed to get across town on a rainy night and decided to opt for public transit instead of bikes. That was several months ago, and Ezra still talks about it. He loves sitting in the entry garden at our library, because across the street is “where the buses live” and he can watch them come and go. This pretty much sums up how easy it is to entertain a three-year-old.
4. Watch a game
It’s almost softball season, which means endless free entertainment opportunities in our neighborhood. There are a couple of games going on most summer nights at a park a few blocks away from our house. This year we’re looking forward to watching one of our friends play there, but in the past, we’ve watched many strangers play softball. With the night lights on, fans cheering in the stands, and kids running around on the grass – it’s fun and free entertainment. And if softball’s not your thing, there are almost always tennis matches, ultimate Frisbee games, and Frisbee golf tournaments going on in that same park. I’d guess a park near you offers similar free entertainment opportunities.
5. Turn a walk into a scavenger hunt
When motivated to get somewhere, I can’t believe how far Ezra can walk. When he’s tired, on the other hand, a few blocks can feel like an ultra-marathon. That’s when we hunt for things. Looking for cats, snails, things that start with the letter A, certain kinds of flowers, purple things, etc. can make a walk far more entertaining and help the blocks pass more quickly. Plus, I’m almost always amazed by the things Ezra notices that I never would.
I’d love to hear your ideas (especially for entertaining girls, since I’m not as experienced in that area).