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10 Free (Or Cheap) Things to Do with Kids

Who says you have to overdraw your bank account just to keep the entertained for a few hours? During these long summer days, no doubt you’re looking for things to do when the kids get anxious for an adventure. Instead of shelling out a small fortune to see a movie or an amusement park, try some of these family activities that are both fun and cheap (or free!)

photo courtesy of the Randall Museum’s Facebook

1. 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

2. Attention little sluggers: when the Giants are away, you can play! When the SF baseball team is on the road, the Coca-Cola Fan Lot at AT&T Park 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. Corner of Second and King St., San Francisco

photo courtesy of b_azzarelli on Flickr

3. It’s almost a bay area rite of passage for a child’s first introduction to farm animals to take place at Tilden Park’s Little 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 to check out. Afterward, the kids can take a ride on the merry-go-round or the stream train and swim in Lake Anza. 600 Canon Dr., Berkeley

4. For kids who are into painting, building, hammering, painting, climbing, jumping, ziplining, getting dirty, and running wild, Berkeley’s 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. 160 University Ave. (in the Berkeley Marina), Berkeley

5. 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

photo courtesy of redjar on Flickr

6. 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; IKEA, 4400 Shellmound St., Emeryville

7. The 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).

photo courtesy of California Academy of Science’s Facebook

8. 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. California Academy of Science’s free day is the third Wednesday of every month, and the Exploratorium’s is the first Wednesday (as is the San Francisco Zoo). 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. If your kids love the sculpture garden, be sure to check out SFMOMA’s rooftop garden, as well.

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

9. 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.

10. 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). At Seward and Douglass St, San Francisco

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