Anyone with babies and toddlers knows that the simplest outing often seems tantamount to a 30-man, seven-month expedition to Mount Everest. It’s definitely easier to hunker down on the couch, avoiding the risk of missed naps, public meltdowns and all that schlepping. (Why don’t pack mules come standard issue when you leave the hospital?) And yet, another day of nonstop Between the Lions, Little Einsteins and Sesame Street feels a little like punishment. It’s time to get out with your toddler!
Get With the System
Getting everything packed for a day out is definitely a challenge, but once you have a “go-bag” organized, it’s just a matter of restocking it each morning. When outings become routine, kids learn what to expect and are much more helpful, or at least cooperative.
“It’s only hard the first few times,” says Brianne Cummings, mom of Kaylee, 4, Cole, 2, and Eli, 3 months. “Sometimes it takes as long to get out the door as the activity itself, but it’s worth it. I”ve found that my kids have learned the rules. Plus, people are usually willing to help when they see you wrestling kids, bags and strollers.”
Keep Expectations Low
“When you’re a brand new mom, or you have a toddler and a newborn, even getting into the car seems overwhelming,” says Melinda Coburn, mom of Adaira, 3, and Phoenix, 4. “If you can just do one small thing, like the half hour storytime at the library, everyone feels so much better.”
Become a Member
When you have a membership to a museum or the zoo, you can make it a regular outing, only visiting for a few hours each time. See something different each time, then go home in time for naps. You don’t have to feel pressured to stay all day to get your money’s worth, and you can pick a different membership or two each year. Also, most venues offer additional guest passes so you can occasionally include friends or grandparents.
Go with a friend so there is someone to chase down escapees or take kiddos to the bathroom. You get the bonus of some adult conversation, even if it’s in spurts.
Look for Free Offerings
If you’re like many parents, you’re highly motivated by a great deal, and there’s no better deal than free. There are more than one thousand free days annually at Denver metro area museums, gardens, theaters and other cultural attractions, made possible by the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District. Find their monthly calendar of freebies at scfd.org.
Get the Scoop
With all the options out there, you and your little ones can plan a cultural and social calendar to rival any debutante. Your local recreation center and library alone can keep you busy nearly seven days a week. Here are some fun options for toddler outings.
Everything at your local library is free. Regular story times target different age groups and usually include an activity and a snack. During the summer, libraries sponsor special programs and events several times a week. Many libraries consistently rotate interactive displays of toys and visuals just for their youngest patrons.
Your local recreation center offers reasonably priced classes for kids starting at age 2½, as well as festivals, special programs and mom’s groups. Many also have free indoor play areas for rainy days (favorites: Paul Derda in Broomfield and The Apex Center in Arvada). “Kids classes are where we”ve made most of our friends,” says Cummings. “The parents visit each week while our kids are taking classes. You get to know each other, sign up for more classes together, plan a picnic or outing with the kids—and these are all people from my neighborhood.”
- WOW! Children’s Museum in Lafayette is all about preschoolers. “This is our favorite place!” reports Cummings. “It’s small so you can’t lose track of anyone and we love the different themes. We all like the wind room and the bubbles, and Cole’s favorite is the train.” Yearly membership cost is low by comparison. Dining tables are provided for parents to bring their own snacks.
- Children’s Museum of Denver at Marsico Campus is designed especially for “early learners.” Last June, the museum doubled its size and then added seven new indoor exhibits. “Don’t miss Joy Park, which mimics Colorado landscapes and features sand dunes, fort building, water features and a zip line,” advises Marketing Coordinator Racheal Fischer. “Also, make sure to time your day for Early Learner Storytime with movement, and the 11 a.m. Early Learners Teaching Kitchen where participants get to eat their creations.”
- Denver Art Museum might not seem like an ideal place for toddlers, but the Just For Fun Family Center is exactly that. During the recent Samurai exhibit, visitors explored a colorful mural; built sculpture gardens by arranging rocks, shrubs, and even a pagoda; painted on a Japanese screen; and dressed up in traditional armor. “The exhibit and activities are updated, usually every six months or so,” says Rose Beetem from DAM. “We also offer special activity backpacks for ages 3-5 called On The Trail.” Bonus: General admission is always free for kids under 18.
- At the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, head to The Discovery Zone with your toddlers for hands-on, highly experiential activities specifically designed for the earliest learners. Visitors can climb on a dinosaur, excavate fossils, manipulate water in action at the interactive fountains (be prepared to get wet), experiment with building methods and materials and explore dramatic play in the Science Kitchen, the Big Backyard and the Explorer’s Playhouse. My own (former) toddlers always loved the Wildlife Exhibits, Space Odyssey and the Prehistoric Journey as well. “Even if an activity is a little over your toddler’s head,” reminds Coburn, “it’s really about providing socialization. Kids can’t learn social norms and manners and relationships in a book. They need to be with groups of people.”
- Butterfly Pavilion in Westminster is an invertebrate zoo with four indoor interactive exhibits including a tropical rain forest with 1,600 free flying butterflies, outdoor gardens and a nature trail. Young kids can make friends with live bugs, pet a starfish, frolic with butterflies and maybe even hold Rosie the Tarantula.
Give your little urbanites and suburbanites a chance to get cozy with animals and agriculture at one of our local working farms. While many of the programs are designed for school-aged children, several have activities for tots and all have animals and picnic areas.
- Littleton Museum is a ‘living” farm with sheep, cows, mules, chickens and geese. Visitors can also explore the blacksmith shop and schoolhouse. Holiday events are held throughout the year and admission is free for all ages everyday.
- Ollin Farms in Longmont offers a community supported agriculture program, in addition to mini-lessons and activities about growing things. Ollin Farms also offers Spanish Emersion gardening and art classes for kids as young as 3.
- Berry Patch Farms in Brighton invites its youngest visitors to participate in The Half Pint Club. Each Thursday in September, preschoolers can go on a hayride, pick a ½ pint of berries, learn a fact about agriculture and do a craft. No reservations are necessary; just arrive between 10 a.m. and 11:30 a.m.
- At Four Mile Historic Park, the oldest homestead in Denver, meet horses, goats and chickens, and take a carriage ride. The Small Settler Program offers a group experience for toddlers and their parents from 9-10 a.m., every Tuesday. Class sizes are limited so sign up online and dress for the outdoors.
Parks and Gardens
- Denver Botanic Gardens offers a place for kids and families to explore and discover at the 3-acre Moredecai Children’s Garden. Hunt for bugs in the Glorious Grasslands and play in the water of Pipsqueak Pond. Picnic in the grass field of the main gardens or in the adjacent Cheeseman Park.
- A visit to Tiny Town, west of Morrison on 285, is a chance to enjoy a beautiful Colorado day in the mountains. Youngsters love to explore the miniature houses and buildings, including a little Home Depot, movie theater and even a Harley Davidson store. Admission is free but you”ll want to ride the train for $2 a ticket. There’s a playground with picnic tables, so pack a lunch.
- Belleview Children’s Farm and Train Ride in Englewood hosts pigs, goats, chickens and sheep just to name a few. Bring water shoes for playing in the creek that runs through the park. The farm and train are each $1.75 per ticket, and both are closed on Mondays.
Water Parks can be intimidating when you’re two feet tall. For younger guests, we recommend Bay Aquatic Park in Broomfield, Splash Aquatic Park in Golden, Pirates Cove in Englewood and Deer Creek Pool in Littleton. These water parks are smaller, less expensive and have contained areas for non- and beginning swimmers. “My kids are happy as long as I keep lots of snacks on hand and they can get wet,” says April Summers, mom of Sawyer, 4, and Chandler, 1. “We spend all summer at splash parks and fountains.”
Colorado Symphony’s Petite Musique program introduces children ages 2-6 to the joy of live music. A 16-piece orchestra and narrator perform an interactive program incorporating storytelling, singing and movement with music. Each year the CSO introduces a new program (this year was Peter Rabbit). I took my kids to this every year when they were little and their jaws always dropped when the instruments started playing.
The Denver Brass offers Brassical Adventures for tiny tots, 45-minute concerts that enrich early brain development and musical awareness. Participants can play a tuba, trombone, trumpet and horn at the Brass Petting Zoo immediately following performances.
City Park hosts free jazz concerts every Sunday evening in the summer. While not specifically for toddlers, these are fun family events where kids can get their groove on to great music. Local food trucks provide your picnic, so just bring a blanket and bug spray. Many suburban cities offer their own free concerts in the park, so check your city’s website.