5 Simple (and Free) Ways to Entertain a Young Child

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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
  • gardening
  • 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. Β 

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).

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About Abby Quillen

Abby Quillen writes fiction and magazine articles. Her articles and essays have appeared in YES! Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, Colorado Central Magazine, and on Common Dreams, Nation of Change, Reader Supported News, The Daily Good, Truthout, and Shareable.net. You can find more of her writing at http://abbyquillen.com.


  1. These are also five ways to entertain me, and I’m an old girl πŸ˜‰

    I think that young girls and boys are interested in the same things–how things are made or work, the adventure of going to and seeing new places and having the benefit of an adult to share with them.

  2. Some of my favourite things to do with kids –

    – Baking or cooking.
    – Wading/swimming at the local beach, pool or lake.
    – Helping a friend or family member out with whatever it is they’re working on. When I was a kid I loved going to my grandmother’s farm to help her harvest food from the garden or feed the animals. Somehow it didn’t feel like work when it wasn’t our house!
    – “Painting” the side of the house with a paintbrush dipped in water.
    – Visiting a nursing home.
    – Attending local art, music or other festivals and events. They’re often free and this time of year there’s something going on every weekend here in Vancouver (I’m not sure how big your city is, though.)
    – Do you have any museums nearby? The ones I’ve visited have often had free or reduced-price ticket days and are often very quiet on weekdays.
    – Renting a movie. The site I use often has specials on kids movies from the 1980s or earlier. I’ve seen some go for as little as a dollar.
    – Volunteering. Some kids love exploring a building while their adults clean or organize. (Ezra is probably just a little young for this, though. πŸ™‚ )

  3. Funny – I totally got here through clicking a tag link. Imagine my surprise when I realized who was writing!

    Those are some great ideas. Do you have a recipe for homemade playdough?

    Some of our favorite things are similar. We have a free bus that runs to our little downtown area where the library is. We can jump on the bus from a stop just a couple blocks from our house.

    We also like to color, paint, get out beans (I have a bag of old coffee beans for this) and sort/pour in cups. Lately we’ve been doing scavenger hunts, where he hides some objects (most recently it was magnets from the fridge) around the house and then we find them together. Also we do A LOT outside. Gardening, weeding, looking for bugs. My guys spend literally hours studying bugs they find. πŸ™‚ Good stuff.

  4. pen2sword says:

    I commend you for raising a kid who has an actual attention span, and is entertained by things other than video games or non-imaginative toys. πŸ™‚
    Just yesterday I experienced how simple it is to entertain a young kid… I was babysitting a 3-yr-old boy, and mostly what we did was: watch ants and potato bugs, play chase, and blow bubbles (which I made from dishsoap and water, and used a weird cheese-slicer untensil as the wand).

  5. My kids like to build habitats in the backyard, for ladybugs, squirrels, worms, birds.
    We garden together and ride bikes, and walk through the alleyways and I try to follow their pace, moving slow, examining everything, talking to neighbors.
    And parks! Parks are a great free resource for kids.

  6. Dick Stacy says:

    The grin on your son’s face is priceless ! There is nothing on this earth more precious than the uninhibited laughter of a child.

  7. I can confirm visiting an airport is lots of fun! I live in Australia but my parents are currently stationed in Italy. They manage to come visit us once a year. So at least once a year the kids and I take a trip to the airport to welcome my Mum, and make a big outing out of it: the planes, the travelators and escalators, the screens and the announcements, the shops and restaurants, all the luggage and interesting people. Oh the people: travellers and welcomers, sad and happy, old and young, wearing all sorts of clothing and many national costumes (we live in Melbourne so its international airport truly is very multicultural), carrying all sorts of interesting things on their backs and on their trolleys.
    It can be a bit costly for us since parking at the airport ain’t cheap, but it’s so worth it for a couple of hours of life watching! And then of course the kids’ joy to see Granma arrive πŸ™‚


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