Entertaining toddlers without breaking the bank

Cheapskate childcare: ten ways to entertain toddlers for free

By Anna Trevelyan cropped-anna-pic-2-e1436354275658.jpg

It makes my eyes water when friends tell me how much they paid to take their toddler to Peppa Pig World. The whole thing sounds hideous; from crowds and queues to tantrums and poos, and on top of all that you pay a fortune for the privilege. I’d rather wait until my little one is old enough to remember it (and, ideally, when I am old enough to forget it).

So, in a bid to celebrate the three Fs (which is what we call it in our house: ‘free family fun’, which sometimes veer into the four Fs, depending on how successful said fun is) I though I’d share my favourite ways to entertain a toddler for free.

Get crafty

Now, I’m not one of those organised mums who has a craft box full of proper glue sticks and pipe cleaners and proper things. I do it the rough way: bits of old printer paper from when I accidentally printed off 16 copies something really embarrassing (some of these can double up as an anatomy lesson too) and old greetings cards ripped up. I pinched the PVA from the man who fitted the floor (he probably shouldn’t be using child’s PVA glue anyway in his line of work, so really I did him a favour) and – get this – I raided my very old make-up bag for some excellent bits. Turns out glittery eye shadow, gaudy lip liner and even hideous 90s hair mascara are actually perfect for creating cheap and effortlessly camp masterpieces.

Make a Buggery

Erm – I’m not sure if this is the correct term. Perhaps Bug House would be better (apologies if you were Googling that title and this was not the web page you had in mind). It’s all very eco friendly and even McDonalds were doing this on their adverts. Take your little one out and collect moss, sticks, pinecones, earth and leaves, then find a place to build it all up for the little bugs to make it their home. If you’re really brave you can even dig up the unwitting creatures and stick them in it – which my little one loves – but be sure to supervise as worms will get sucked. You have been warned.

Mine doesn't quite look like this - but one day it will!

Mine doesn’t quite look like this – but one day it will!

Build a frog pond

This is better if you have a garden, as nowadays people give you suspicious looks if you take a big spade and a bin bag down to the park. This was my favourite thing to to when I was young, as I was obsessed with frog spawn (I think this is what inspired my fascination with vodka jelly). I used to steal my mum’s washing up bowl, which I cannot condone, so a bin liner works just as well. Dig a hole, line it with the plastic, or any other handy old container, and find pebbles and sticks to go inside and around it. Admittedly, you have to be a bit patient to wait for the frogs to come so you can always cheat and shove some of the bath toys in instead.

Sorry, this actually looks pretty gross. This is what you have to look forward to.

Sorry, this actually looks pretty rank. This is what you have to look forward to, anyway.

Go foraging

Now, the general public give people funny looks when lurking around in shrubberies, but with a toddler in tow it gets you off the hook. My little one will happily spend hours blackberrying, when the season is right, but throughout the year you can trot off and find other things that seem much more exciting when they’re in the wild. Dandelions, daisies, those weird white flowers that pop out of their buds when you squeeze them, and even acorn and conker collecting all makes for free outdoor fun. I’d avoid mushrooms, as it’s a risky old business, and you do have to be careful what you pick up when scrabbling around in the undergrowth. A tip from me: don’t forget the anti-bac.

Make up a dance

Some people think that tinies don’t understand rhythm, so when their mum is both rhythm-less and probably tone-deaf it makes for a perfect combination. Whilst I can get away with it, I can put on the Spice Girls without judgement and bob along to my heart’s content. Silly dances are what little people are all about, so swing your pants, twirl around and imagine you’re in that prom scene in Grease. Your little one will probably copy you, and be thinking what an amazing and entertaining dancer you are. Free fitness and admiration? Perfect.


Us dancing in the kitchen (not really – we are even better)

Grow stuff

Salad, generally, makes me a bit angry but when it’s home-grown it’s actually quite nice. Admittedly this one isn’t exactly free, as you should probably buy the seeds rather than steal them, but they are pretty damn cheap. It’s really exciting when you grow things that you can actually eat: just don’t pin all your hopes on that one lettuce, as sometimes a builder stamps on it and ruins it before you’ve managed to harvest it (revenge for the PVA, probably). Don’t have a garden? Grow cress in eggshells with cotton wool! Grow herbs in pretty pots! Think Charlie Dimmock: whip off your bra and just grow crazy!

Dress things up

My little one isn’t yet old enough to realise the joys of dressing up, but for some reason he finds it hilarious when I put my skirt on his dinosaur. Or my scarf and hat on the bin to look like a really rubbish snowman, or if I try to squeeze my giant head into one of his baby hats. I’m determined to one day have a proper ‘art attack’ and make a massive snail outside the house from a load of old underwear, but I keep getting thwarted by the Postman or a well-meaning neighbour. One to do under the cover of winter darkness, I think.

Set up your own sports day

He isn’t the first one to laugh at my throwing and he certainly won’t be the last. Little people love it when you run around with them from A to B (warning: sometimes, embarrassingly, they even out-run you). Set up a space where you can throw (soft) things, to see who can throw the farthest, try egg and spoon with ladle and a tennis ball, and spin around ten times and try and race to the finish. A word of warning to competitive parents – you can’t be fastidious with the rules as there will be a lot of cheating (you simply can’t have a toddler beating you in a throwing competition, after all).

Spy on the neighbours

It’s a rainy day, you’ve already been soaked through splashing in puddles, and you need something dry to do – I’ve got it. My little one loves standing at the window and watching the world go by. It also gives me the perfect excuse to have a nose into what next door are doing with all that banging going on, or where exactly Roger keeps his bins where nobody can see them (and why??). It may not be hours of entertainment, but they will point out all the new things to you (him: “look!” me: “GASP! I can’t believe she has gone and got herself a hot tub right where we overlook!”). They love the interaction and you will love the gossip. Don’t expect them to share your disbelief, but they will laugh when you laugh at that fat pigeon toppling off the fence again.

Make a right old mess

For those too tight to fork out for a ball pit, make your own with a paddling pool/bathtub and some shredded up paper, flour or oats. My local playgroup even go as far as using baked beans and jelly, but I am not that brave. (If you are using a bath, however, do not wash it away down the plughole – you will have a rather embarrassing blockage to explain to a Plumber.) If you’re too scared to make that sort mess in your own home, why not try ditch diving? It’s pretty messy, it can get ugly but they will love it. Find your nearest muddy puddle and let them go wild. (Don’t forget the anti-bac, a plastic bag, and sunglasses – trust me, your eyes will thank you for it and they double as a disguise for when you schlep home looking and smelling like the Beast from Beyond.)

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Happy as a pig in a pit

I’m sure there are much more inventive (and cleaner) ways to entertain the littluns, but these ones have worked for me so far. So stuff you, Peppa Pig World! I’m saving my £93 entry fee and putting it towards my Plumber’s bill SO THERE.