13 Free (Or Cheap) Things to Do with Kids in the Bay Area

Remember your penny-pinching pops telling you that the best things in life are free? Well, once again, dear old dad was right. Except we are betting he didn’t realize you could get a petting zoo, a block-long slide and a trip to the museum without spending a dime. We’ve rounded up 13 amazing free (or cheap) adventures to embark upon around the Bay, from unlimited arcade play to riding a train that never stops.

photo courtesy of the Randall Museum’s Facebook

1. Randall Museum
One of the city’s greatest treasures for kids is the always-free, always-fun Randall Museum. From the everyday exhibits (like Wild in the City, showing kids which animals live in their neighborhoods) to Saturdays, when kids can get up-close-and-personal with the Golden Gate Model Railroad Club’s train set, the museum’s always got tons going on to satisfy kiddie curiosity.

199 Museum Way
San Francisco, Ca
415-554-9600
Online: randallmuseum.org

att_park_fan_lot

AT&T Fan Lot photo by randychiu via Flickr

2. Coca-Cola Fan Lot at AT&T Park
Attention little sluggers: when the Giants are away, you can play! When the SF baseball team is on the road, the Fan Lot is open to the public (and it’s always free for ticket holders to visit during games). Along with a great view of the field, there’s a superslide to whiz down, a fun photo booth, a giant baseball glove, and a mini-replica of the ball park so kids can practice their steals and slides.

2 Willie Mays Plaza
San Francisco, Ca
(415) 972-2000
Online: sanfrancisco.giants.mlb.com
Hours: Sept. - May, Saturday & Sunday, 10 a.m - 4 p.m.
June, July, August, daily, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. (When Giants are on the road)

Tilden_Park_Berkeleyphoto courtesy of b_azzarelli on Flickr

3. Tilden Park’s Little Farm
It’s almost a bay area rite of passage for a child’s first introduction to farm animals to take place at the free farm. Bring lettuce and celery for the ducks, cows, sheep, chickens and more, and check back every spring to see if there are any new baby animals crawling aroundt. Afterwards, the kids can take a ride on the merry-go-round or the stream train and swim in Lake Anza.

600 Canon Dr.
Berkeley, Ca
510-544-2233
Online: ebparks.org/parks

adventure_playground

Photo by charlie vinz via Flickr

4. Berkeley Adventure Playground
For kids who are into painting, building, hammering, painting, climbing, jumping, ziplining, getting dirty, and running wild, Adventure Playground is one of the few places left in the world just for them. Disclaimer: it’s not recommended for the youngest ones, and nervous and overprotective parents will have a hard time letting their kids work with real saws and nails. But it can be really empowering for kids who are ready. And for individual families dropping in together it’s completely free! (But make sure to read the fine print on the website about groups and dropping off unattended children, as there are nominal fees for those).

160 University Ave. (in the Berkeley Marina)
Berkeley, Ca
510-981-6720
Online: ci.berkeley.ca.us

bay_model

Bay Model image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

5. Bay Model
Kids with an interest in science and the environment will love the Bay Model. Constructed by the US Army Corps of Engineers to illustrate and understand the water flow of the bay, this large-scale working model, complete with replicated tides, is a perfect way to expand your kid’s knowledge of water, waves, and beaches. Starting at the northern end, and then working the way down to the south bay, then over to the delta, your child can watch the daily tidal changes take place in just a few minutes.

2100 Bridgeway
Sausalito, Ca
415-332-3871
Online: spn.usace.army.mil

6. Retail Play Spaces
Shopping play areas: they’re vital to a day of errands, and on a rainy day, they can be vital to our sanity. The two best we’ve found are the soft play area at San Bruno’s Tanforan Mall (just outside Target), and the big blue box…yes, IKEA’s kids department is full of nooks and crannies for kids to play in, and the childcare center on the first floor is a great place to drop ‘em while you and your S.O. debate roman blinds vs. window panels for an hour.

The Shops at Tanforan
1150 El Camino Real
San Bruno, Ca
Online: theshopsattanforan.com

IKEA
4400 Shellmound St.
Emeryville, Ca
Online: http: ikea.com

7. AirTran Shuttle at SFO
Who doesn’t love a train? The AirTrain shuttle at SFO is smooth, rarely crowded, and offers views of the planes taking off from the airport, not to mention the trucks loading and unloading luggage onto them. You can take BART down to SFO, then ride around on the track to your heart’s content without paying a dime (pack a lunch—your kid may never want to leave).

SFO: Train picks up at any Terminal, Parking Garage or Bart Station

the-exploratorium

Image courtesy of the Exploratorium

8. Museums
The admission price at many of the local museums may seem a bit steep when your little one gets fried out after only a couple of hours of exploring. But if you take advantage of a free museum admission day, you’ll always get your money’s worth. The California Academy of Science is free four Sundays per year, as well as various weekends for SF families based on their zip codes (see zip code calendar and next free Sunday listing on their site), and you can get into the Exploratorium at no cost six days a year, including Pi Day, Engineering Day and Mother’s Day (for full free schedule visit their site). For artsy types, the de Young museum opens its doors to all on the first Tuesday of the month, and is always free for kids 12 and under.

BONUS: If you just can’t make your desired museum’s free day, check in with your local public library. The Mill Valley library and SFPL, for example, have memberships to many museums (including MoAD, de Young, Asian Art, and Exploratorium) available for their members to check out.

9. The Library
Just a reminder: your local public library isn’t just a great place to expand your child’s literary horizons, but most also offer a free story time for children in a variety of age ranges. Parents can get some tips on how to be an awesome storyteller, too.

seward_st_slides

Seward Slides photo by Jordan Robinson via Flickr

10. Seward Street Slides
In the middle of the city, on a hidden side street, a pair of concrete snakes slither downhill. Kids can brave the Seward Street slides with a piece of cardboard (though if you can find an old plastic tray, it makes for a zippier ride).

Seward & Douglass St.
San Francisco, Ca

11. Ardenwood Historic Farm
Take in a ‘lil nature and history without breaking the bank at Ardenwood Historic Farm, which dates back to the 1850 and still features old timey prices (Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday admission is $3/adult, $2/child; Thursday, Friday, and Sunday admission is $6/adult, $4/child; kids under 4/free). Located in Fremont, the park features orchards and gardens, and of course, plenty of farm animals—sheep, cows, roosters, even peacocks! Your kiddo will especially enjoy the horse-drawn train ride, led by docents dressed in period costume. Before you leave, grab some of the fresh-picked organic vegetables sold inside the main gate.

34600 Ardenwood Blvd.
Fremont, Ca
888-327-2757
Online: ebparks.org

shoreline park

Ryder Park by Jesseri B. via Yelp

12. Shoreline Park
San Mateo’s newest parks, comprised of Ryder Park and Seal Point Park, offers great open space for you and your little one to run, bike, and heck, even fly a kite. Ryder Park & Aquatic Playground features a large-scale climbing structure, monkey bars, a slide for older kiddies and the famous splash pad, as well as sandbox play area for younger tikes. Pack a picnic and enjoy at one of Ryder Park’s many picnic and barbeque areas.  And for your four-legged friend, Seal Point Park is ideal offering an off-leash dog park, as well as many walking and biking paths.

1625 J Hart Clinton Dr.
San Mateo, Ca
Online: shorelinelake.com

 

13. High Scores Arcade
Give the iPad a much-needed rest and head to High Scores Arcade in Alameda, offering a selection of well-maintained early 1980’s and even1990’s arcade games.  Think Donkey Kong, Tron, all the classics – this is a place where everyone can truly be a kid.  And at only $5 per hour minimum donation, High Scores is a fun and inexpensive way for the entire family to game on.

1414 Park St.
Alameda, Ca
609-468-3083
Online: highscoresarcade.com

Do you have a secret free escape in the Bay Area? Share it with us in the comments!

—Yannina Pacis