In truth, it’s summer, not spring, that’s really the best season for free outings, if only because you can just slap some swimsuits and sunscreen on ’em, head to the nearest splashpad/sprayground/swimming pool, and call it a day. But nevertheless (and perhaps because the need is greater!), we still have a bunch of favorite no-cost — or very, very low-cost — ways to spend a few happy kid hours this spring, be it gorgeous out, or rainy and wet, or chilly or whatever else this season holds for us. Here, our updated go-tos for free spring outings.
After a long winter cooped up, there’s nothing like going on little nature “hikes”: We’ve done Fairmount Park (climbing to Belmont Plateau for a little picnic), as well as run around Waterworks and the Azalea Garden, up to Boathouse Row; we’ve done the lovely, green and magical Forbidden Drive in the Wissahickon (pictured above); we’ve done the Cynwyd Heritage Trail in Manayunk, which begins/ends at a great little playground. There’s also the wonderful Bartram’s Garden, where you can walk along the river, through the gardens, soak in some nature on a mini-hike or in a picnic, even go boating or fishing for free. For a more urban setting, you might consider the awesome Schuylkill River Trail, which is wide, long and has almost shockingly lovely views of the river and the city. (We like to pick it up by the Art Museum, where it’s quite scenic, and “hike” to at least Fitler Square, where you can stop at the dog parks to watch the puppies play, and then veer off to end the hike at the playground. Helps that there are bathrooms along the way. This is usually a fairly crowded option, but there’s generally plenty of room for everyone.)
Indoor Play for Rainy (or Chilly) Days
As we like to remind everyone at least a 5 times a year, Ikea has a free and supervised play space for kids who are between 37 and 52 inches tall (and potty-trained!!), and assuming you can manage to browse without buying, then you’re golden. (Although you might want to spring for a couple of those $1 soft-serve cones.) There’s also three floors of active play possibilities inside the playhouse at Smith Memorial Playground (we try to bring $5 because the place runs on donations, but it’s not required). And — as everyone knows — the free Free Library storytimes (at nearly all branches) are awesome, but it’s easy to forget what wonderful, fun, welcoming hangouts the children’s sections of many local libraries are even outside the storytimes. They’ve got puzzles, games, computers, and lots of cozy spots to curl up with a book.
Galavanting Around the City
Our all-time favorite (free) way to spend a couple hours in Center City is to visit the Comcast Center lobby for the “show” — whatever is playing on the big LED screen is always fascinating to a toddler (pretty cool for adults, too), and we usually stay for 20 or 30 minutes. From there, we go to Sister Cities, which is very fun in the off-season (off-season being anytime the boat pond isn’t filled with water): There are the big foam “Imagination Playground” blocks, and the rocks are amazing for climbing. (If you need a snack, they have sweets, fruit and yogurt in the cafe for a couple bucks.) Fireman’s Hall is another city outing — the free Old City museum inside a restored firehouse features historic tools, photos, uniforms, trucks, an interactive kid’s area, and a bunch more (including real-life firefighters who are docents!) Check the hours before you go; the place isn’t open all the time. (And maybe consider bringing a couple of bucks if you can — they do take donations.) Lastly: Wherever we go, when we have “city days”, we almost always take the bus; kids under four ride free. A trip to Rittenhouse to play in the Square for a few minutes and then up to the kid’s section at Barnes and Noble is a fun way to spend a couple hours. We also like to chill sometimes in the garden areas surrounding the Rodin Museum (where we say hi to The Thinker) and also the Barnes: They’re like little quiet oases of nature on the middle of the Parkway, and they both make for lovely picnic spots that are easy to get to. (Whole Foods bathrooms are nearby, too, which is helpful.)
On nice days, rather than just sticking with our normal neighborhood playgrounds, sometimes we bike (or bus) to Seger or Lemon Hill or Taney (which has the added bonus of a nearby dog park for built-in entertainment) or the wonderful Franklin Square (where there’s also mini-golf, and a carousel and milkshakes! Note: None of those things at Franklin Square are free, but they are all under $10.) The novelty of new equipment makes it feel like an outing and not just a playground trip. Need inspiration? (Probably, because I just listed some of the most obvious, popular playgrounds in the city.) Here’s a really great site from a local parent who’s turned playground hopping into an art, mapping out play spots all over the city. It’s a few years old, so maybe not entirely up to date, but still a decent place to start if you’re looking for an overview. Oh, also: Spruce Street Harbor Park (more of a park than a playground, but a very fun park!) opens on Friday May 11.
Culture and History
PAFA, the PMA and the Barnes all offer free (or pay-what-you-wish, in the case of the PMA) hours and/or activities — as well as specific programs geared toward kids and families. (The Barnes just began making their first Free Sundays all about families — the next one is May 6, and it’s quite the line-up — stroller tour, storytime, crafts, bike tours … and more!) There’s also the U.S. Mint, where tours are free — great if your kids are school-aged. You can also walk (or push the stroller) around Old City and give your kids your own little improvised history tour (with or without help from Google, no judgement here), and go check out, say, Ben Franklin’s grave at Christ Church, walk by Betsy Ross’s house, stand in awe in front of Independence Hall, snap a pic with the Liberty Bell, so forth. Old City is quiet lovely in bloom.