Looking for an adventure out on the town with your preschooler, but you don’t want to break the bank? We’ve rounded-up 20 free (or super cheap) activities for kids under 5 that you’re sure to love. From secret gardens and train rides along the coast to playing pilot in airplane cockpits and digging in to free meals––read on for our favorite budget-friendly things to do with wee ones in sunny San Diego.

Visit Myrtle Creek Botanical Gardens & Nursery

Your buds will think they just walked into a secret garden in a storybook at Myrtle Creek Botanical Garden. Stroll through the peaceful Wild Bird Sanctuary, feed the goats (they just welcomed baby goats!) at Goat Mountain (for $3.50). There's a large grassy area for kids to run around in nature and plenty of butterflies flurrying by in the Open Air Butterfly Garden and birds chirping in the Song Bird Aviary. Thurs.-Sun. there are fairy garden workshops from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Parking and admission are free, but there's a $5/person admission fee to enter the Curious Gardens. Once inside, you get the $5 back in "curious cash" to spend building your own fairy garden. Plan on spending around $30 to put together a great garden. But again, there's plenty to explore at the Garden without spending a dime.

Read our guide to Myrtle Creek Botanical Garden here.

 

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Walk This One-Mile Loop in Nature

Be in the loop! It's an easy to get to and open every day nature hike at the San Elijo Lagoon. Get your little birdie walking the short one-mile loop. The best part, you'll feel as if you're far away from everything. When done, check out the little history museum inside the double story building. Also, bring a lunch and chow down upstairs (and outside!) gazing out at the beautiful view. This outing makes a great half-day activity. Even more, check out our other nature hikes for the 5 & under crew.

2710 Manchester Ave.
Cardiff-by-the-Sea, CA 92007
Online: www.sanelijo.org

Go Almost-Camping

Happy campers! Give your little rangers their first experience "camping" without actually staying the night. At South Carlsbad State Beach you can grab a camping spot near an ocean view for as little as $35/night. It's more like glamping with a camp store and restrooms nearby. Each campsite comes with a fire pit for making s'mores. So spend the day playing at the beach, then pop up that mini-tent, bring warm blankets and camping food, hang out until bedtime, then just go home! Check-out our other San Diego camp spots to go to with the kids in tow.

760-438-3143
Online: parks.ca.gov

photo: Seaport Village

Ride the Carousel & Explore Seaport Village

Go round and round on one of our fave carousels is in Seaport Village. At three bucks a whirl, it's affordable. When you're done with the spin you can stroll along the bay, grab a pretzel and lemonade, then head out to watch the kites in the park nearby. If you want to make a day of it, head over to The Headquarters where you can find historical police jail cells.

Read our guide to Seaport Village.

Check out our list of other cool San Diego carousels

Seaport Village
849 W. Harbor Dr.
San Diego, CA 92101
Parking: $5 Validated for 3 hours
Online: seaportvillage.com

Experience The Magic of Småland

Indoor play! Drop your little elf at The Magical Forest of Småland. Kids 37-54 inches can spend one hour in Småland for free (potty-trained is required). Inside there's a movie theater and plenty of toys. You'll get to mosey around and look at all the cool Ikea items. Afterward your mini-me will be tired and hungry, so head upstairs to eat a kids meal for just $2.99.

Ikea
2149 Fenton Pkwy
San Diego, CA 92108
Online: ikea.com

Play at Cottonwood Creek Park

Play the day away! This park is perfect for little runners because there's plenty of grass to roam. Even more, you'll find a super cool water feature––a small creek trickling out onto the sand. Little hands like to make dams, sand castles and play for hours. Likewise, you'll find an expansive jungle gym. When done, Handel's Ice Cream is close by for a sweet treat. 

Additionally, the most fantastic playgrounds abound across San Diego. Elaborate climbing structures, swings, slides and ocean views should keep the kiddies and you entertained for hours! Pack a picnic to make it extra fun. Here are our favorite places to pick up picnic food and put down your picnic blanket! Here's a list of  local playgrounds we think are fantastic!

95 N. Vulcan Ave.
Encinitas, CA 92024

Have a Free Lunch Date

Eat up! If you don't feel like cooking, then grab the whole crew and go to one of our favorite restaurants where kids eat free. Whether it's Ruby's burgers, pancakes or Greek gyros, you're sure to find something to please everyone. 

Explore Cabrillo National Monument

Explore Point Loma. Drive the scenic route out to Cabrillo National Monument. (There's a $15 vehicle fee to enter the park). However, the pass lasts a whole week. Stroll to the Ranger's building with cool things to look at and armor to pretend play. Grab the stroller (or the baby carrier) and head up to the lighthouse for the beautiful views and to see how lighthouse keepers lived. Walk the paved path to the whale watching point then, if the timing is right, you can head down to the tide pools.

Cabrillo National Monument
1800 Cabrillo Memorial Dr.
San Diego, CA 92106
Online: www.nps.gov/cabr

photo: San Diego Natural History Museum

Visit the Backyard Exhibit

Let them roll around the garden! A play garden that is. The Backyard Exhibit at The Nat is exclusively for kids 5 & under. Little ones roll around and learn to sit-up in the backyard soft-surfaced garden. Toddlers ages 2-5 can crawl on a giant ladybug and explore an olive tree. Further, there's a pretend play pottery shed. If you go on the first Tuesday of the month, museum entrance is free (for everyone!).

Read about more great indoor playspaces here.

San Diego Natural History Museum
Balboa Park
1788 El Prado
San Diego, CA
619-232-3821
Online: sdnhm.org/the-backyard

photo: Rachel Cobb

Meander Through Hamilton Children's Garden

San Diego Botanic Garden planted a pretty garden with young sprouts in mind. Meander down the garden path and stop for sand play and a hidden (plastic) dino dig. Next, explore the giant playhouse and treehouse. Finally, toot-toot the mini train on the mountain railroad tracks. Moreover, admission is free on the first Tuesday of the month. (Just a two dollar parking fee.) After all that toddling, they’ll be ready for a nap.

San Diego Botanical Garden
230 Quail Gardens Dr.
Encinitas, CA 92024
760-436-3036
Online: sdbgarden.org

Splish-Splash at Waterfront Park

Worth the drive and tot-approved! First off, head to the huge fountain area with room for everyone to splash about. While your minnow water plays, you can park it on a bench or bring a blanket for a picnic on the nearby grass. Moreover, toddle over to the playground with cool gear like a teeter-totter, wide slides and even a merry-go-round. This giant park downtown is definitely a must-go! Plus, it’s free!

Read about more of our fave places for water play.

Jet hours: daily, 11 a.m.-7 p.m.
1600 Pacific Hwy.
San Diego, CA
Online: sandiegocounty.gov

Take a Coaster Mini-Trip

Ride the rails with your little conductor. The Coaster and Sprinter trains are free for kids age 5 & under. It costs about five to ten bucks for you––depending on where you go. Try the route from Solana Beach Farmer's Market to lunch at Ruby's on Oceanside Pier. There are plenty of local mini-trips to take in San Diego. Check-out our mini-train trip guide to plan your day.

Coaster Train
Online: gonctd.com

photo: Fleet Science Center

Take Advantage of Free Museum Days

Ahh... Balboa Park, the perfect spot to take the 5 & under set. Also, museums are free to explore on certain days of the month. Our fave for tots is Kid City at The Fleet Science Center where they can play with the ball wall and in the grocery store. The Fleet Science Center is free on the first Tuesday of the month. Another top spot for budding transportation experts is the San Diego Air and Space Museum. Hop in a cockpit and view historic aircraft. (Free the fourth Tuesday of the month).

Get more info. from our story on the top 10 free museum days in San Diego.

Balboa Park
San Diego, CA
Online: balboapark.org/residents-free

Shop & Play at UTC

Shop and play! Get a little shopping in, then let your mall-going sidekick explore this toddler-sized playground located near the Macy's store. There's plenty of seating for you to rest your feet. Even more, there's a family lounge nearby that has nice changing tables, a lactation room, microwave, kid-TV and books for play. There are plenty of places to grab something to eat after playtime.

4353 La Jolla Village Dr.
La Jolla, CA
Online: westfield.com/utc

Create a Masterpiece at Drop-In Toddler Art

Calling all pre-schoolers to find their inner Picasso. Drop-in on Tuesdays from 11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. at iCreate in Poway for a toddler art fest. Cost is ten dollars. From crafts and pottery to painting and jewelry making, your little one is sure to have fun!

iCreate Art Studio
1314 Poway Rd.
Poway, CA
858-668-5474
Online: icreatearts.com

Visit Coronado Library

Off to see the wizard! When you enter the separate children's section at this local library you experience a beautifully painted Wizard of Oz mural. A puppet theatre, cool overhead train and a pint-sized reading gazebo making this outing so much more than your typical visit to hone the ABC’s. Free story hours as well as children’s craft programs are held several times a month in the Ruby Room. Check the library calendar for dates and projects.

640 Orange Ave.
Coronado, CA
619-533-7390
Online: coronado.ca.us

photo: Beth Shea

Say Hello to the Sea Lions in La Jolla

La Jolla in itself is a fantastic kid favorite destination. Drive down Prospect St. then head towards the Cove to find a parking spot along the water. Take the toddler-friendly half-mile Coast Walk between the La Jolla Cove and Children’s Pool. Search for crabs or sea anemones in tide pools along the way and catch a glimpse of the harbor seal colony at Seal Rock. Bring the kites and let the kids fly them on the large grassy areas, or the sand toys and head straight for the beach. Grab a bite to eat at Cody's restaurant which serves a mean crab cake Benedict for the crustacean-crazy crowd.

Good to know: It's a good idea to always keep a safe and respectful distance from the sea lions and admire them in the wild from afar.

photo: Leah R. Singer

Learn a Little Lesson in Old Town

Combine a little history lesson with a whole lotta fun and what you get is a fantastic family adventure. Nine blocks wide, this historic state park has plenty to explore. First, head to the Visitor Center, where if you happen to be there on a Sunday, you can catch a fun glimpse of what life used to be like in a living history demonstration. Hang out and listen to the Mariachi Bands or visit during the weekend and catch kids crafts events.

Read our guide to exploring Old Town with young kids.

Old Town San Diego
San Diego, CA
Online: parks.ca.gov

Sit in a Cockpit Like a Real Pilot

Got an aspiring aviation enthusiast on your hands? They will love this free museum located near the Miramar Marine Corps Base. Explore the outdoor display of vintage aircraft and get some up close and personal oohs and ahhs. The museum is open Tues.-Sun., 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Plan to visit on Open Cockpit Days for even more fun!

MCAS Miramar
4203 Anderson Ave.
San Diego, CA 92145
Online: flyingleathernecks.org

photo: Leah R. Singer

Shop the Oceanside Farmers Market

Taste your way through an abundant selection of organically grown fruits and vegetables. Stop and smell the beautiful selection of cut flowers from the many local flower growers or sample the super selection of yummy baked goods. Don’t miss the free entertainment and children’s area. The Oceanside Farmers Market is open year-round on Thursdays from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Pick up enough for a tasty lunch and head over to the beach for a kid-friendly picnic.

Here are our other fave farmer's markets around San Diego!

Corner of Pier View Way & Coast Hwy.
Oceanside, CA 92054
760-754-4512

Featured photo: Alexander Dummer via Pexels

––Drea Lester & Nikki Walsh & Beth Shea

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