Free (or almost free) Places to Take Your Kids this Winter | In & Around Madison, Wisconsin

We’ve officially hit that time of year when we ask ourselves “is winter CLOSE to being over?” or “hey remember how we used to see the sun on days when it wasn’t below zero?” Many of us are looking for ideas of simple ways to get out of the house without generating complaints or requiring expensive tickets or bribes for our kids. Check out a few, mostly free and flexible ideas to liven up a weeknight or weekend and take advantage of resources in the Madison area.

Public Libraries 

Most of the libraries, and especially Central (also easily accessible by bus, see below), along with Monona, McFarland, Verona, and Fitchburg have good reading areas and a mix of toys, games, and art projects for kids. They also often have special events for projects, stories, or other themes. Plus there’s that whole positive “encouraging reading” thing – and kids can get their own library card and check out books. The librarians are also really helpful at suggesting books (unlike Amazon, they’re not sponsored) based on what your kid has liked and can help you put others on hold.

The Mall

While in-person retail might be a relic to an era pre-2020 and 2-day delivery, the East and West Towne malls (outside of peak holiday times) can be a good refuge for exploration and entertainment. With plenty of open space to walk and run around, play areas for little kids, and shops and food for everyone – including some with fun escalators to ride – they can make a small errand into a big adventure.

Kids in the Rotunda

Photo credit:

Get ready for toe-tapping rhythms, mind-blowing magic, incredible dancing, engaging cultural arts performances, silly sing-alongs and more! From award-winning folk singers and zany jugglers, to friendly animal puppets and traditional Indian dancing, the Kids in the Rotunda series for families is sure to engage, educate and entertain your whole family. Enjoy a diverse lineup of local, regional and national performers selected exclusively for children ages nine and younger and their families. Plus, pick up coffee or a snack in the Rotunda Café, a free book from the little library and stay after select performances for art and yoga!

MSCR Events

While our personal favorite is the warm pool at Lapham Elementary on Fridays, MSCR and the City parks have a number of fun and cheap events including family night at Warner Park (with arts, open gym, bingo, and movies) and other programs.

Parks (with warm-up options)

Elsa & Anna, school, and one of the few silver linings of the shutdown get credit for making my kids appreciate, or at least tolerant of being outside in colder weather. But there’s always the possibility the cold may bother us anyway, so we like having an option of somewhere to go afterwards nearby to warm up and maybe get hot chocolate. Parks with ice skating like Elver, Vilas, and Tenny all have warming shelters – in addition to playgrounds and short walk/hiking paths to explore. 

Grocery shopping

I know most of us imagine hearing “Can we get this? How about this?” and all the treats and snacks placed strategically at kid eye level and say “hard pass.” But the less crowded stores like Hy-Vee, Metro Market, and Metcalfe’s, have carts kids can ride in (or push themselves) and delis that allow for kid-size meals and have in-store dining areas. While the trip will certainly take longer than on your own, the kids will get some walking and will be more invested in meals for the week that they’ve helped to pick.

Take the Bus!

Fun fact: the wheels really do go round and round. No matter where you go, taking the bus instantly makes it a new adventure for my kids. Google maps or the city app easily track routes, and Madison metro (aren’t too expensive) has four transfer points. Switching buses adds to the adventure (and provides good lessons in telling time and remembering landmarks). It also works to park nearby and catch any number of the buses leaving from a transfer point. My kids love watching all the buses at the transfer point, and getting to ride with parents, not in a car seat, and look out extra big windows are all fun perks.

Aaron is a dad, husband, outdoors enthusiast, biker, cook, native Madisonian, and UW System senior advisor for academic and student affairs. He is active with Nuestro Mundo Community School's Family/School Alliance, Jewish Federation of Madison, MSCR, and the Madison Ultimate Frisbee Association.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here