Toddler loves parks but Winter Is Coming - indoor activity ideas?
September 26, 2017 8:05 AM   Subscribe

My 20 month old toddler loves to play in the park, hanging on bars, sliding on slides, and generally running around. But we live in Chicago and it will be cold soon. I have searched for indoor gym ideas - premade (expensive!) and DIY (I have no DIY skills), but most of it seems impractical. I am looking for ideas about what has worked for you, what you've seen, what you do with your active tiny children when it's sleeting and they are at the door saying "Park? Park? Slide?"

We are in an apartment, so we can't nail huge things to the wall. We have a decent sized front room where we can put equipment / toys, and lovely and tolerant downstairs neighbors who do not seem to mind the pitter patter of little feet. All ideas are welcome.
posted by Vatnesine to Health & Fitness (34 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Indoor playgrounds are a thing. You generally have to pay, but there are both national chains and local outfits in our area. They seem to trend more towards "a bunch of bounce houses" rather than jungle gyms, but there are always plenty of kids running around.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:13 AM on September 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Look around for local malls that have indoor playgrounds...sometimes they have small play areas for little kids to blow off some steam. You could also hit McDonald's and enjoy the PlayPlace and free wifi.

If you really want an in-home option, my kids loved jumping onto our crash pad...just a homemade gigantic pillow stuffed with scraps I got for cheap from a cushion factory. I just sewed a bed sheet in half and stuffed them in. While it doesn't completely take the place of a playground, I would definitely include it in your in-home setup.
posted by christinetheslp at 8:20 AM on September 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I will say that I live in Montreal and, the year my youngest was two, we had a crazy cold and snowy winter. But when she was saying "park park park!" we just bundled the hell up, brought a thermos of hot chocolate, and went to the same park she played at in the summer. The slides and jungle gyms still work in the cold.
posted by 256 at 8:22 AM on September 26, 2017 [35 favorites]

Spring motif cloth pet tunnel? Add a large box and you have a "go-in-get-out-hide and seek" adventure set that folds down. Add Velcro squares outside the box and make an activity starting place.
posted by Freedomboy at 8:25 AM on September 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Definitely look for indoor play areas in your neighborhood! And don't forget that, to a little kid, snow is a toy too. Walking around in snow can use up a lot of energy, so if you have a yard you might not have to take her farther than that.

Also, I was surprised that last winter our kid seemed to adjust the amount of outside time he needed. I was worried he'd keep wanting to go to parks, but he was often happy to stay inside and play with indoor toys on a cold morning.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:39 AM on September 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'm a bit farther south than 256, but we did the same. Bundle kids up, go out to play. (Our stuff was never buried in snow, and cold is high 20s-30s but we'd play outside just fine, though not as long. Kinda hard to do the monkey bars with mittens on, but.. )
posted by k5.user at 8:52 AM on September 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

IKEA kids play area? McDonald's indoor play area? Jordan's furniture indoor play park, if there is one near you?
posted by slateyness at 8:52 AM on September 26, 2017

Best answer: Definitely fast food restaurants with indoor play places. Most Chick-Fil-As have them and lots of McDonald's do. You can buy a cup of coffee or water or something it you don't want to feed your family that food. That's what we did with my son last winter when he was climbing the walls.

Also, a walk around a place like Home Depot or Lowe's is good. It's HUGE and interesting to look at, and it made my son's LIFE when I let him open and close all the cabinets. Those are strictly verboten at home, but hey, they're empty in a store, so why not?

Also, we asked for "experience" gifts from his grandparents for Christmas instead of tons of toys and we got a membership to a local children's museum and nature center. That's good for when he needs to run off some badness in bad weather.

(These are all good for blistering summer days too.)
posted by Aquifer at 9:06 AM on September 26, 2017 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Public indoor pools, for open swim or lessons. Definitely agree that digging in snow is good and tiring.

We had a Jumpolene when the kids were little and while it was massively inconvenient to set up, they loved it. It makes a cozy place to curl up with blankets and pillows in addition to its active play possibilities.
posted by lakeroon at 9:08 AM on September 26, 2017

Best answer: Yes, nthing go outside and run around even if it's really cold! Even if they're bundled into a sausage of outerwear! BUt if it really is sleeting, and you don't even want to leave to traipse to an indoor gym space, don't underestimate the fun of dragging a mattress to the floor next to your bed or couch, jumping on couch or bed and then jumping off. This was called "airplane" in my NYC apartment based mommy-group, when mine were tiny, and either alone or with others it worked for hours, including refueling with cut-up grapes and cheerios.
Also: get scarves and hoola hoops, put on music and dance around with and through them. A lot.
Finally: if the necessary thing isn't running around but just being totally engrossed, 2 year olds in my experience still love to play with running bathwater, cups, and paint. Color experiments/vanishing art. Unlike most cool toddler art projects, it doesn't have the feel of being supervised or instructed at each step nor is it over in a few minutes.
posted by flourpot at 9:10 AM on September 26, 2017

Oh, on the topic of jumping, one of those exercise mini-trampolines would be fun.
posted by lakeroon at 9:16 AM on September 26, 2017

Larger libraries (at least in the Minnesota metro) often have play areas for kids, sometimes entire rooms/spaces with various toys and games. I try to keep Toddler Bravo from shrieking, but otherwise normal little-kid noise seems to be tolerated in the children's section.

For at-home, you can also buy a cheap, thick air mattress and it becomes an instant bouncy pad.

My parents also purchased an indoor ball tent for Toddler Bravo on Amazon (balls sold separately) and he looooves it. It is easy to set up and put away.

He also enjoys taking little LED candles inside a blanket fort and turning them off and on again.

Also - and your mileage may vary - but we've also had success just going to Target and walking through the toy aisles with him (usually one parent blazes through the shopping while the other one stays with him). He likes trying all the noise-making toys that are in 'demo mode,' and doesn't understand yet that they're for sale, so we just tell him these toys belong to Target, much like daycare toys stay at daycare, and he can see them again when we come back. It's also working as a nice recon mission before Christmas as we can see which toys he's gravitating towards.

If you have a large Home Depot or Lowes type store nearby, those can be fun. They often put out big lawn furniture displays when it's still winter, and Toddler Bravo enjoys testing all the porch swings.
posted by castlebravo at 9:37 AM on September 26, 2017

Best answer: I'm thoroughly on the get out in appropriate clothes team. It's fun, there's fresh air, it's good for you too!
Then, get a membership at a child-friendly museum near you. In the cities I've lived in, they were the natural history museums. We could have gone there for hours every single day in the year. Even I enjoyed it every time, like I did as a kid.
Finally, I had a ritual with my eldest that I regret not having continued with the younger mumi: every afternoon when we got home from whatever we'd been doing, we had 20-30 minutes dancing to punk music. Then 15-20 minutes listening to Mozart to fall down. The following exhaustion gave me time to cook dinner and it has turned out much later that it was an education in music and movement. (She had be-bop for bedtimes, Young mothers are so ambitious ;-) )
posted by mumimor at 9:38 AM on September 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Winter is the season that really makes memberships worthwhile for some key museums, like a children's museum or a science museum. Museum outings are a huge part of our outings during the winter and if you can find ones that have areas specifically for kids, they'll be able to run around and get energy out. If a family membership is out of your price range, this is a great thing to hint for when holiday gift-giving rolls around. It's probably in the price range of what family might give you/kids and the benefit lasts all year.
posted by LKWorking at 9:44 AM on September 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

Does your city parks department host indoor play time? I live in the PNW and all the park departments around me have gyms open with toddler play stuff (climbers, trikes, balls) open for a couple of hours each morning. It's the sort of thing one learns about from a very close read of the local recreation guide. If your park doesn't have one, maybe you could ask them to start one?
posted by stowaway at 10:05 AM on September 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Also, if you want to go to museums but don't have a membership or funds for the whole family, check your library. Very often, they have passes to local museums that you can "check out" and go for free!
posted by Aquifer at 10:07 AM on September 26, 2017 [4 favorites]

Another person chming in for "go outside anyway". Especially if it snows - you have sledding! Making snowmen! Making snowballs! Making snow angels! Or if you've got a serious slide addict, try making a big cushy pile of snow at the bottom so your kid can slide INTO it!
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:14 AM on September 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Lands end clothing is fantastic for toddlers. Join the email list and wait for a sale.

Here's my top tip, get an adult buff neckie and put it on the outside of the jack for their neck.

One fun indoor toy is a wobbel board.
posted by exois at 10:15 AM on September 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Check out botanical gardens and even nurseries with greenhouses. And the zoo.
posted by mareli at 10:16 AM on September 26, 2017

Nthing bundle up and go outside. But also malls and zoos.
posted by craven_morhead at 10:30 AM on September 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The Zoo! Yes!
Often there are indoor areas (reptile house, aviary, small mammals, aquatic) so you can go inside and thaw out. These sometimes have a bathroom (running warm water and blow dryers!) and vending machines. Bring a thermos for warm drinks and soups.
I would keep a change of clothes in the car -- at least a change of shoes and socks. And something warm to drink before heading back home.

Also, walking in malls and shopping centers is still a thing. Seconding large box stores. Please don't let the kids play unattended in the toy area -- the minimum-wage employees are not babysitters and have enough on their hands without the noise and chaos.

If your community has indoor sports and swimming areas, great. YMCAs are expensive, but you may qualify for a discount. Check with the parks and recreation dept. about winter programming. Ditto the children's programming at the library.

Local community colleges and universities may have pools and basketball courts, plus you may enjoy walking around the grounds. Parking is a notorious problem, however.

Never underestimate the attraction of a large appliance box and a flashlight. Blanket tents and dining chairs are fun, too.
posted by TrishaU at 10:38 AM on September 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I live in NYC and I can tell you, by day 2 or day 3 after a snowstorm, that snow is yellow, gray, grimy, sooty, LITERALLY shitty, and is unfit for touching, let alone blissfully lying around and making snow angels in, sorry. And Parks Depts often close playgrounds after bad weather or in icy conditions. We go to malls (malls are dying! But excellent places to run around!) and indoor pools and gymnasiums.
posted by sestaaak at 10:49 AM on September 26, 2017

if you've got a serious slide addict, try making a big cushy pile of snow at the bottom so your kid can slide INTO it!
I'm 35 years old and I know what I'm doing this winter! But seriously, snow play is like the only good thing about winter. I don't have kids, but I remember being a kid, and how much I missed it when my family moved to a snowless place. If you've got good winter gear - especially good mittens and hat - I'd think going to the park in the snow would be a whole new awesome experience.
posted by dust.wind.dude at 10:52 AM on September 26, 2017

Best answer: Oh sorry sestaaak, good point, bad lack of preview for me. Yeah, it's going to depend a lot on where you live and how fresh the snow is.

I'd also second to check out your local Y - mine has a 2-story tall kids' indoor jungle gym (like a McDonald's playplace but better). I'm still bitter they won't let me in it.
posted by dust.wind.dude at 10:56 AM on September 26, 2017

Best answer: Child yoga
posted by brujita at 11:26 AM on September 26, 2017

Best answer: The best part about playing outdoors in the winter is that they get tired twice as fast from keeping themselves warm and lugging around all that heavy clothing. Put some mittens on the kid and go out unless it's freezing rain.
posted by epanalepsis at 12:52 PM on September 26, 2017

Indoor malls. My kid at that age loved just "running" up and down the hallways and climbing the stairs and chairs and looking at the water fountains.
posted by dpx.mfx at 1:10 PM on September 26, 2017

Best answer: We did a mix of bundling up and of getting good indoor play stuff of an active sort -- at first a compact crawl/slide deal (like this) and later a small trampoline. Sometimes they just need to blow off energy and it's rain that hampers you the most.
posted by acm at 1:30 PM on September 26, 2017

Definitely check with the park district for indoor play ... often they open up gyms in local rec centers for 5-and-unders for an hour or two in the morning and put out a bunch of balls, scooters, indoor playground type things (mats, indoor slides, whatever). The one I used to go to cost $2, or you could get a punchcard for like 15 visits for $20, and they provided free unlimited coffee and goldfish crackers.

I really like the zoo for wintertime toddlers. They have to feed the lions no matter how much it snows, so there are basically always paths dug clean and it's hardly ever closed no matter how rotten the weather is. Plus it's not crowded when it's cold, which is nice for a toddler who wants to explore and not just be herded through giant herds of people, and lots of animals are more active in the winter ... Siberian tigers, takins, wolves. In the summer they're just lying there disliking the heat but in the winter they're playful and interesting. We would bundle up and go to our local zoo even in appalling weather and we were frequently the ONLY people there (it was much smaller than Chicago zoos) and run around the outdoor exhibits until he got tired or I got too cold, and then we could go inside and look at the monkeys. If you're close to Lincoln Park, I'd definitely try that.

We got a bunch of sample-size tiles from FLOR, all different colors and textures, and let them have at that. They play hot lava with them, they build walking and hopping tracks, they make for good large-motor indoor play without any balls being thrown near my TV, and they take up very little space to store. They have proven a versatile toy with long-lasting interest (my boys are 8 and 6 and still playing with them). One word of warning, they do slide on hard floors, so you might need to stick some anti-skid to the back if you have hard floors and they're going to be part of a hot lava game!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:42 PM on September 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

Garfield Park Conservatory has a great indoor Children's Garden (with slide), plus free admission. For staying home, we do dance parties and obstacle courses. The IKEA tumbling mat comes out a lot. My kindergartener loves playing bootcamp, which involves lots of push-ups, jumping jacks, and running up and down stairs - though you definitely want to establish that you're the drill sergeant & not a fellow recruit, or you'll get a 5-year-old critiquing your sit-up pace.
posted by scyllary at 2:24 PM on September 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Chicago Women’s Park and Gardens, in the South Loop, has a free indoor play area. Bonus — there’s a coffee shop in the same building (although not close enough that you can sit and drink while kiddo plays.)

Lincoln Park Zoo has an indoor area in the Children’s Zoo that has a fun climbing structure for slightly older kids (probably from 3 on), and in the farm area the tractor etc are fun and indoors.

Peggy Notebaert has a nice play area for the littles, including a slide, and is free (with donation) for local residents on Thursday.
posted by wyzewoman at 3:08 PM on September 26, 2017

Best answer: Check your local Craiglist/Kijji/Whatever is active in Chicago. Stuff like Little Tykes slides and play houses are totally something that little kids outgrow, and so you can often find them on second hand sites. I mean, they aren't what interior designers would probably chose for your living room, but if it saves your sanity, do what you gotta do! Also, we have a number of churches nearby in our town who have their own gyms/big rec rooms, and its suprising how cheaply they will rent them out in non prime hours (sometimes with the available kids equipment included free), so if you have a couple of mom/dad friends, sometimes you can find a 'nearly free' space where the kids can run and be a bit wild, and get winter squirelliness out.
posted by Northbysomewhatcrazy at 4:07 PM on September 26, 2017

This is something I've been thinking about too. We're fans of going to the pet store, which, unlike the zoo, is inside and free.
posted by toby_ann at 7:25 AM on September 27, 2017

Depends on the zoo, but zoo memberships can be worth it. Here, 1-day admission is $17, but an individual membership is $55, so it doesn't take long to make it cost-effective.
posted by craven_morhead at 9:42 AM on September 27, 2017

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