Our 8 favorite $5 (and under) activities for under-5s

As a family, we are fans of hand-me-down clothes, dollar stores, and frugal, fantastic fun. We don’t mind the occasional splurge, but we also realize how fortunate we are to live in an area where there’s so much affordable fun—especially for preschoolers.

Here are some of the tried-and-true spots we’ve found for local adventures ranging from free to $5.

1. The Maryland Light Rail

This is especially fun to do on a sunny day, just in case you have to wait for a bit to catch a train. When we ride on Saturday mornings, the train cars are mostly empty. We climb aboard in Hunt Valley—where it’s easy and free to park—and ride as far south as we’d like. Then we get off, do a little exploring, and wait for another train back.

Price: Children 6 and under ride for free. It costs $1.60 per adult each way.

2. Air and Space Museum Annex

The National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center is in Dulles, Va., so it’s a bit of a drive, but it has a huge airplane hangar full of fascinating airplanes—and even a space shuttle. We haven’t taken Daniel yet, but this is high on our list of places we’ll go when we have an unplanned day. There’s also an observation gallery where you can watch the planes take off and land at Dulles.

Cost: Free—including parking

3. A Trip to Fort McHenry 

Going into the fort itself offers a history lesson—and it’s free for children 15 and younger. If you don’t feel like paying admission—which we rarely do—you can enjoy the sense of history and the view of the water for free. There are numerous shady spots where you can picnic, play catch, watch tugboats and barges slip under the Key Bridge, say “cheese” next to a cannon, or sing the Star-Spangled Banner at the top of your lungs.

Cost: Free to visit the grounds; admission to the fort itself for ages 16 and up is $7

4. The Trolley Trail

John and I have been doing this since we moved to the area—but the boys enjoy it too. Catonsville’s Trolley Trail, which starts at a few spots in Catonsville, is free and nicely paved, so you can bring a stroller and hike the former streetcar path into downtown Ellicott City. There you’ll find the owner of the Forget Me Not Factory—our boys call him “The Bubble Man”—pacing the sidewalk in front of his store blowing enormous bubbles. He’s often in costume and he invites children to help with the bubble-blowing.

Cost: Free unless your children talk you into ice cream cones

5. Clark’s Elioak Farm

Remember the Enchanted Forest? This is as close as we can get to the old amusement park in 2012. Don’t remember the Enchanted Forest? You’ll still enjoy wandering Clark’s Elioak Farm with your children. A lot of the rescued fairy tale structures are there, as well as a petting zoo, a pumpkin patch, and a pine tree maze. Our boys love sliding, climbing, running, and shivering in fear as they gaze up at the statue of the giant on top of Jack’s beanstalk.

Cost: $5 per person, infants 12 months and younger are free

6. A few favorite parks

Lots of area parks are free and some even have nature centers and trails to explore. Annie’s Playground in Fallston, Md., is phenomenal and free. Two of the low-cost-but-not-free parks we have enjoyed recently are the Watkins Regional Park, which offers a train and a carousel ($1.75 a ride, and parents ride free), and Patapsco State Park’s tire park, which costs $3 per-person-not-in-a-car-seat on weekends and holidays. The website says that the tire park is for ages 5 and up. Apparently I’m not the overprotective mother I thought I was since neither of our boys is 5 and we had a wonderful time.

7. Library visits

We’re partial to the Enoch Pratt because our boys have two Pratt librarian aunts, but your local library is bound to have something fun happening. The Pratt libraries offer special story times with music and rhymes for the 3-and-unders and 3-and-overs, sessions in Spanish, and Toddler Jumps programs designed for 2-year-olds. If you haven’t visited the children’s area at the Pratt’s Central Branch, it’s worth the trip. There are live fish, book cushions to collapse on, and artificial tree trunks that make one room feel like a forest. We’ve even attended a Fairy Tale Ball and made paper bag dragons. And everything is the right price—free.

8. The Penny Pony

On days when I can only find dimes or nickels in my purse, a Shoppers employee slips a penny into Leo’s hand so he can have a one-cent pony ride. Daniel lives in fear of the pony, but it’s a great incentive for Leo to sit nicely as we fill our grocery cart. We go to the Shoppers on Route 40 in Ellicott City, but other stores may have a Penny Pony.

These would have made the list, but…

One of our other favorite spots is the BWI Airport Observation Gallery, which is free except for parking ($4 an hour, and we rarely stay any longer than that), but it’s closed for renovations. And I wish I could include the Walters Art Museum or Baltimore Museum of Art—both of which are free—but we haven’t taken the boys to either one yet.

You can also find some ideas and discounts on the Economoms Baltimore site.

Of course, on the mornings when the garbage truck comes through our neighborhood, Daniel is the happiest boy in the world—and that doesn’t cost a thing.

So where should we take our boys next? What local, inexpensive fun are we missing?

Catholic Review

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.