Top 10 Free (or Cheap) Things to Do with Kids Under Five

A penny saved is a penny earned, and teaching your kiddos about saving money is as easy as exploring the city’s bevy of free (or really really cheap) activities. They’ll learn the value of saving a dollar and have fun doing it. From riding the metro to exploring wetlands, check out our ten picks for things to do in Los Angeles that offer up a few hours of entertainment without sending you running to the ATM.

California Science Center

1. Explore the Exposition Park Area
A civic, cultural, and recreation area for the last 100 years, you’ll find an abundance of kid-friendly things to do all in one place. The California Science Center (with the space shuttle Endeavour and the shark tank), The African American Museum, and the expansive seven acre Rose Garden, where kiddos can smell the 16,000+ roses, play by the fountain or take a picnic break are all completely free. Kids under 2 get free admission to the Natural History Museum too (and 3-12 year olds are just $5), or you can simply visit the Butterfly Pavilion in the summer or Spider Pavilion in the fall for a couple of bucks.  Plan on spending the whole day. Exposition Park.

travel town

2. Head Down to Travel Town
This free outdoor transportation museum is a family favorite with steam locomotives to scramble over and a train to ride around the park to boot. Bring your own trains to play at the train table in the big barn, or check out all the trains and train gear for sale at the gift shop (it’s the perfect place to shop for a train themed birthday party – and this is the perfect place to hold the party, too.) Check their events calendar for passenger car tours and Thomas the Train days, as well as other great activities. And if you’re here on a Sunday, don’t forget to go next door to LA Live Steamers, for another train ride! Griffith Park.


3. Get Wet at the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium
Start your Aquarium visit with the sea stars in the simulated “tide pool touch tank” then spend your time winding through the thirty-eight aquaria. Don’t miss out on the favorite aquatic babies exhibit and let the little ones learn a little something at the research station. Be sure to look up and meet the giant whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling. The museum is free for all but they do suggest a donation to help keep this wonderful community resource going. Parking is free and easy on the street or you can pay $1 for right out front.  The aquarium hosts loads of kid friendly activities and events, including the fabulous spring time grunion runs – a So Cal tradition. San Pedro.

zuma beach

4. Dig in the Sand at Zuma Beach
How can we not mention the beach? Dig the toes in or build a sandcastle on one of our favorites – the very clean and scenic stretch of Zuma Beach just off the PCH in Malibu. Consistently rating among the healthiest beaches for clean water conditions, you won’t have to worry about letting the kids swallow some saltwater as they play in the gentle surf.  You might even get lucky enough to spot one of the resident dolphins playing right off shore. Pack a picnic or grab a bite at beautiful the Sunset Restaurant on the beach, or at the more casual snack bar. If you reach beach boredom, grab the kids and take a hike up the beach to the cliff at Point Dume (and you can visit the cove where Planet of the Apes was filmed). Easy and plentiful parking (free on the street, $8 in the lot) makes it worth the drive alone. Malibu Coast.


5. See Some Art at LACMA
So, right in our home town is a world class that wants you to bring your kids so much that they created a fabulous program:  with a free LACMA NextGen membership, kids get in free and they can each bring an adult with them.  Pretty amazing deal, especially when you realize that at LACMA there are art exhibits that appeal to kids (mummies and rad modern art sculptures – we’re talking Michael Jackson and his monkey, art in an elevator and what many kids call the “playing in spaghetti” installation), there is also a painting studio in the Boone Gallery, and story times and tours several times a week.  Did we mention that the tar pits are literally the museum’s back yard?  Bring a change of play clothes and you can let them poke and play in the patches of tar that bubble up.  If you can’t find street parking (it’s tough on weekends) you can always park in the underground lot and take a ride up on the glass elevator – just like in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Miracle Mile.

bat caves

6. Catch a Canyon
Grab the sun hat and take a hike through one of the many kid-friendly and accessible local canyons. Here are a couple of our close-by favorites:

Coldwater Canyon-  This well maintained canyon has it all for family fun. With toddler and stroller friendly trails, great views, alternating shade and sun, as well as lots of trees and grassy areas to take a play break.

Topanga Canyon- Topanga State Park features 36 miles of trails through open grassland, live oaks and spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean big enough to inspire even the littlest of outdoor enthusiasts. Explore on your own or arrange a free and easy kid-friendly guided nature walk with one of the volunteer Topanga Canyon Docents.

Bronson Canyon – In the middle of Hollywood (right by the Scientology Celebrity Center), you can turn up Bronson Canyon (which inspired Charles Bronson to change his name) till it dead ends.  Then park in the lot at the end, and take the hiking path to the right.  It leads up to the Bat Caves, where they filmed the old 60’s TV show.  Kids love playing superhero in the shallow caves.

metro kids

7. Ride on the Metro
Berlin had it right – there’s something about riding on the metro-o-o…  our shiny new Metro is pretty impressive to grown ups and is an adventure in and of itself to kids.  Honestly, just taking a ride to anywhere is a fun outing for little ones, and at $1.50 a ride (and kids under 5 are free) it’s a pretty cheap outing.  Notice how each station reflects its neighborhood – the Hollywood stop at Hollywood & Vine has a movie theme, while the Chinatown stop has pagoda aspirations.  But here’s the really cool part – oh, the places you’ll go.  Take a trip to Hollywood and walk the walk of fame.  Next stop, Exposition Park (see above).  Or get out in Chinatown and shop and eat your fill of dim sum.  Across the way is Olvera Street where you can wander the historic heart of the city (and maybe stop for a churro for the kiddos and a margarita for you – you’re not driving!).  Speaking of historic – don’t forget to make a stop at the jaw dropping Union Station, where kids can watch trains come and go all day long. All over town.


8. Wander the Wetlands at the Bolsa Chica Ecological Center
Get up close and personal with tall egrets and herons, horn snails and crabs, and you might even be lucky enough to be there for the occasional sightings of white pelicans, peregrine falcon, and northern harrier at this amazing kid-friendly wetland preserve. Try the Overlooks Trail Tour, which is a relatively flat and easy kid and stroller friendly dirt path. Bring the binoculars for wildlife viewing and stop for a visit with the octopus that resides at the interpretative center. In the summer, the best time to visit is first this in the morning or late in the afternoon since mid-day temps can be quite uninspiring.


9. Fly like an Angel in the City of Angels
This is great, cheap fun where you can let the little ones ride the rails to their hearts content. With the price at 25 cents a ride, it won’t break the bank. Known as the “Shortest Railway in the World”, the original cars, named Olivet and Sinai, still ferry people up the steep incline. Once at the top, you can entertain with the giant golden nugget at the Wells Fargo Museum that’s free between 9-5. At the bottom cross the street and head over to the marketplace for lunch or grab some to go and enjoy it in the park. This is definitely a great way to both navigate downtown Los Angeles and experience a bit of the city as it once was.


10. Sqwaaak – Talk with the Animals
Want a fun, and free, place to visit and even talk with some animals?  Visit the raucous population of the Serenity Park Parrot Sanctuary at the Vets’ Garden at the Veterans Administration campus in Westwood. These rescued birds welcome visitors with tremendous aplomb, and in no time you may find yourself engaged in conversation with a new feathered friend.  If you’re looking for quick and easy outing with the kids, look no further than this well-kept secret in the shadow of Westwood’s skyscrapers. It’s a great little animal attraction for kids who may be full of curiosity but short on attention span.

Did we miss a family favorite? Tell us below in the comments!

Photo credits: Kim Orchen Cooper, Marc Levin via Creative Commons, Cabrillo Marine Aquarium’s facebook page, InSapphoWeTrust via flickr, RicardoDiaz11 via Creative Commons, HorrorTaxi via flickr, Renata Kanclerz,, Wikimedia and Chris McBrien via Creative Commons.