Unfortunately, many activities these days can cost a bundle. A trip to the movies - even if you forego the popcorn, which I refuse to accept as possible - can set you back $7.00 or more a person. Zoos and aquariums, depending on size and location, can be as much or even more. Indoor playgrounds often come at a steep price, as well, not to mention a nerve-wracking place for a parent trying to teach kindness. I have taken my oldest niece to two different indoor playgrounds. Both times, I had to remove her from situations where other children were downright nasty to her, and the parents were nowhere to be found.
In an effort to save money and my own peace of mind, I came up with a handful of free places to take the girls when they visit (and eventually my own little one when he or she arrives in July). One of my favorite standbys is Chick-fil-A, where you can usually count on finding a decent-sized play area, complete with twisty slide, ball pit, and more. You can sit and enjoy some chicken strips while the little ones have a blast Most of the time, managers will not complain if you want to hang out for a little while, even if you don't order anything. Personally, I can't go to Chick-fil-A and NOT order something.
Along these same lines, check out your local malls. Often the bigger ones will have a nice play area with all kinds of toys and equipment. Any time you can find a place that is free and allows you to sit and still have your child in sight at all times, take advantage of it.
Another great place to take the kiddos is the local pet store. The best pet stores are the ones that sell all types of animals - birds, mice, ferrets, lizards, fish, etc. The kids will constantly have some new and exciting kind of animal to check out, and this can mean a good hour or two of entertainment, depending on the ages of the children and their interest in animals. My youngest niece loves animals and could probably spend a whole day in a pet store just watching the animals. Instead of paying $15 - $20.00 at the zoo, we just hang out at the pet store for free.
I also will sometimes take the girls to the local dollar store and let them mill around the toy department. Dollar General is my favorite of all the dollar or discount stores because it usually has a large toy selection, and the toys are actually of decent quality. For slightly older children, maybe around age 3 or 4, it can be fun to take them to the dollar store and tell them to pick one toy. There is enough of a selection to keep them looking for a while, and it gives you an opportunity to teach them a nice little life lesson about not having EVERYTHING that they want.
I would love to hear from other people with their ideas and tips for keeping the kiddos entertained through the long winter months.