Entertainment: Creative Ideas for Little or No Cost

By Guylaine Spencer

People say the best things in life are free but that can be hard to believe when it comes to family entertainment. A day at some of Ontario's top amusement parks – Canada's Wonderland, Marineland, Fallsview Indoor Waterpark – can cost a family of four anywhere from $140 to $180 and that’s just admission. If you're on tight budget, an outing like this may be a once-in-a-year event. So what do you do with the kids the other 364 days of the year?

Here are some low-cost and free options.

Animals: Spend time as a family playing with or training your pets. If you don’t have a pet, visit the local pet store or petting zoo. You can also visit a local conservation area and look for animals and birds; fees vary but will usually be much less than $20 per family. Get a wildlife guidebook from your library, and make it a game to see who can spot the greatest number of breeds. Take photographs. Wildlife rehabilitation centres also offer chances to see animals up close and even enjoy live bird and animal shows.

Art and crafts and hobbies: Is there a special craft from your homeland that you'd like to pass on to your children? Try doing it together! You don't have to be experts. Just have fun. For more entertainment, use Play˗Doh and make sculptures of one another (this will get everyone laughing). Or draw each other. Starting a stamp collection can be a great way to teach kids about other cultures.

Early Years Centres: If you have children under the age of six, take them to these free government-run activity centres where the whole family can enjoy toys, games, puzzles, crafts and music time. They're especially great if you're living in a small apartment, because they provide indoor places where kids can climb and jump in safety.

Farms: Want your kids to experience country life? Many farms offer pick-your own- fruit programs. Bring home strawberries, apples, pumpkins and more. Some farms also offer pony rides and tractor rides for a fee.

Festivals: Check out local cultural events, like ethnic festivals, the Strawberry Festival, Canada Day, Victoria Day, etc. Entrance is usually free, and they're a great way to make friends and get to know Canadians from different cultures. Powwows, which are colourful celebrations hosted by Aboriginal communities, are great fun if you enjoy live music, parades, dancing and art and crafts; entry is usually around $10 per person.

Food: Visit a farmers market, cook a meal together, or make a batch of cookies and invite the neighbours and their kids for a visit.

Games: How about starting a weekly games night? The whole family can enjoy board games like monopoly or play scavenger hunt. It's a great night to make that meal together too.

Grow something: No back yard? You can start a garden on your balcony in pots, or rent a community plot in some cities. Check with city hall. Or maybe a neighbour would let you use part of their garden in exchange for some of your vegetables.

Libraries: Libraries offer more than books. You can rent DVDs and videos and attend movies for kids, puppet plays, reading sessions, and author visits. Magic: Learn some magic tricks and put on your own show at home.

Museums and art galleries: Visit the local living history museum and take a horse and buggy ride. Watch the blacksmith, carpenter or cook at work or sample some food baked in a 19th century brick oven. Sign up for art workshops for families at galleries.

Music: Volunteer to sing or play an instrument in a choir or band at your place of worship or in community group. Or start your own family band. Look for cheap second-hand instruments at Goodwill or on www.kijiji.ca. Pass on your cultural heritage to your kids through music. Attend free concerts at Harbourfront in Toronto or other community centres.

Nature: Visit Ontario’s many conservation areas for hiking, biking, and viewing nature. Take a picnic (let the kids help make it). Discover a new park on every outing and take pictures of your “travels”. Even in winter most parks are open. Or if you want to escape winter, visit one of the indoor gardens like the Royal Botanical Gardens greenhouse in Hamilton/Burlington, Allan Gardens in downtown Toronto, and Chinguacousy Park conservatory in Brampton.

Scouts: The Scouts offer programs for boys and girls who want to get involved in sports, camping and cultural outings. Parents can attend day trips and volunteer for overnights.

Take pictures: Make a scrapbook (paper or on-line) or a video of the family and send it to relatives back home. Let the kids do some of the filming.

Play: Visit your neighbourhood outdoor playground and recreation centre. Indoor playgrounds offer climbing centres, bumper cars, and games and cost about $4-8 for kids (adults free) depending on the company. Try some sports like hockey, skating, sledding, tobogganing, skiing, swimming, biking, rollerblading, baseball, football, soccer, kite-flying, cricket.

Tour your city: Pick up a free walking tour brochure from your local tourist office and explore your city. Visit other neighbourhoods for interesting shops, bakeries, museums and art galleries.

Volunteer: The whole family can join in spring cleanup days at the local conservation area, or sign up for rides for charity.

Discount tips: If you're using a recreation centre or visiting a museum often, save money by buying a season pass. Check for one-time discounts at www.attractionsontario.ca. New Canadian citizens may qualify for a one-year “Cultural Access Pass” offering free entry to some major museums.

Keep it Simple: Sometimes the simplest things are the best. Don't forget good old-fashioned fun like running under the hose, skipping, tossing a Frisbee, playing hopscotch, making snowmen, building a fort, or having a family pillow fight!

CNM