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Free & Cheap for Kids in the Bay Area
Jody Ryan

Asian Art Museum
photo: Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum
When my children were little, I was always looking for something to do that would fit into our limited budget. Through word of mouth, researching the internet, and scouring the newspaper, I found a ton of great things to do that were either free or very cheap. When the weather is dark and dreary, check out the great museums that offer free admission days or discount days. If the sun is shining brightly, visit the outdoor playgrounds of the Bay area for great adventures that cost next to nothing.

Discount/Free Admission Days
If you are in an intellectual frame of mind, a lot of museums in San Francisco offer free admission the first Tuesday of the month. You can go back in time to ancient Asia at the Asian Art Museum. One of the largest museums in the western world devoted exclusively to Asian Art, the museum is home to nearly 15,000 Asian art treasures spanning 6,000 years of history. Or become a botanist at the Conservatory of Flowers and learn everything you ever wanted to know about more than 10,000 species of plants from around the world. The Conservatory houses philodendron, Highland Tropics, aquatic plants, seasonal flowering plants, and even has educational exhibits. You can also wander through touring and permanent collections of art and photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, or you can “pay-what-you-wish” and have a few chuckles at the Sunday funnies at the Cartoon Art Museum.

On the first Wednesday of the month you can see get an overview of the natural history of the Bay Area at any of the four interconnected areas at the Coyote Point Museum, located in San Mateo, for no admission fee. In addition, they house wildlife habitats, an aviary, an environmental hall and themed gardens. While planning your day there, pack a picnic lunch as they have several great playgrounds and grassy areas perfect for kite flying. Also free on first Wednesdays is the Exploratorium, a popular museum of science, art, and human perception housed in San Francisco’s beautiful Palace of Fine Arts. It features hands-on, interactive activities and traveling exhibits. You can also get a little Mexican culture at the Mexican Museum located in Fort Mason Center in the Presidio of San Francisco for nothing.

San Francisco Zoo
photo: Courtesy of the San Francisco Zoo
On the second Saturday of the month, you can learn all about the history of Jack London Square and the city of Oakland at the Oakland Museum of California without paying a dime. And, after 1 pm, families can play for free on the hands-on permanent and temporary exhibits at the Bay Area Discovery Museum in Sausalito. Admission to the Habitat Children’s Museum in Berkeley is free November 2, (9:30 am–1 pm) and November 10 (5–7 pm). The museum is a fun place where children can actively explore their imagination through art, water play, music, science, and dress-up play. On any day of the month, you can check out the artwork from budding artists from around the world at the International Children’s Art Center in the World Trade Center in the Embarcadero for just $1 for adults and 50 cents for children.

For some outdoor fun, you can go on children’s rides, visit the zoo, or see a puppet show at the puppet theater at Happy Hallow Park and Zoo in San Jose, for the discount admission of just $1 the second Tuesday of
every month. On the first Wednesday of the month, admission is free at the San Francisco Zoo, home to more than 1,000 animals on its 65 acres, where visitors can tour the African Savannah, see shows at the Wildlife
Theatre, feed and pet the barnyard animals, and check out some creepy bugs at the insect zoo.

Always Free Indoors
Some great museums that charge no admission fees include The Cable Car Museum in San Francisco. This part museum/part system powerhouse will give you an insight into how cable cars really run. Downstairs you can watch the large wheels or “sheaves” that spin continuously to move cables in and out. You will also notice a rumbling noise from under the earth; it’s coming from the cables that are constantly moving whenever the system is running, just waiting for a car to hitch on and go for a ride. Upstairs you will find four pairs of sheaves spinning cables around in a figure-eight pattern; that’s what is actually moving the cars around town.

Stop by the Museum of Children’s Art in Oakland and see all kinds of special art by young people. Kids and their families can learn about and see all kinds of animals, such as raccoons, bats, bobcats, and hedgehogs at the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo in Palo Alto. Their PlaySpot includes an area where visitors can make their own movies, see non-stop filmmaking, and create art in their art room and clay room.

Coyote Point Museum Front
photo: Jody Ryan
Always Free Outdoors
For the outdoorsy nature lovers, you can take in the marine life at the Shorebird Nature Center and Adventure Playground in Berkeley, check out residents of local creeks at the Sulphur Creek Nature Center in Hayward, and bike, hike, or walk the many trails at the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Newark. Don’t forget about all of the fabulous parks we have in the Bay Area—especially in San Francisco.
Golden Gate Park is home to many museums, bike and skate trails, lakes, roaming buffalo, grassy playgrounds, and the beautifully restored, turn-of-the-century carousel. At Mountain Lake Park, the main attraction is feeding the ducks in the duck pond; however, a stroller path which winds around the lake makes jogging just a little bit more fun.

Cow Hollow Playground comes complete with its own mini cable car to play on and this bi-level park is perfect for infants to elementary school students. Crissy Field Marsh and Beach in the Presidio is a really fun place to visit if the weather is nice. In addition to the Crissy Field Center, which offers structured nature activities, the area has a bunch of pathways, marshes, and meadows, not to mention an awesome view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Further south on the Peninsula, Central Park in San Mateo is home to the famous Japanese Tea Garden and botanical garden, as well as a playground, kiddie train, and snack bar. Gull Park, in Foster City, is a recreational park and swimming hole. Parkside Aquatic Park in San Mateo is better yet, offering play structures to climb on, water to wade in, and paddle boat and sail boat rentals.

Living right next door to the Pacific Ocean, one of the most popular free day excursions is a trip to the beach. Ocean Beach, between the Cliff House and the SF Zoo, is a great place for sand and play, but not so great for swimming. Stinson State Beach, on Highway 1 in Marin County, is three-and-a-half miles of coastline for swimmers, sunbathers, and surfers. As you travel south, the weather is a little more cooperative, with the fog making less of an appearance than the northern beaches. San Gregorio State Beach, ten miles south of Half Moon Bay on Highway 1, offers fishing, wildlife viewing, and picnicking at its protected estuary at the back of a wide sandy beach that is home to many birds and small animals. And then there’s the Santa Cruz Beach
boardwalk, where admission is always free but amusement rides and activities cost money.

As you can see, both indoors and out, the Bay area has tons of options to help you amuse and stimulate your children without having to spend much of anything. Which is a good thing, especially if you’ve decided on a private school…

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