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.

Malls/Open-Air Shopping

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. Hilldale Mall offers many free events throughout the year that are fun for the whole family. When the weather is nice, play a game of cornhole in the grassy area in front of the Apple Store.

Kids in the Rotunda

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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!


UW-Madison Geology Museum – Explore the Geology Museum and take a peek into Wisconsin’s deep history! On your visit you can touch rocks from a time when there were volcanoes in Wisconsin; see corals, jellyfish and other sea creatures that used to live and swim where we now walk; and stand under the tusks of a mastodon while imagining yourself in the Ice Age. All for FREE!

Wisconsin Veterans Museum – Learn about the men and women who have served our country. The museum showcases the stories of Wisconsin veterans from all branches that served from the Civil War to the present.

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. 

Henry Vilas Zoo

Did you know that the Henry Vilas Zoo is one of ten remaining free zoos in North America? Open year-round, the Henry Vilas Zoo is always a great place to visit. From aardvarks to rhinoceros, there are so many wonderful animals to see. If you need a break from the outdoors during your visit, go to the Discovery Center and Herpetarium or the Tropical Forest Aviary! 

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 Seligman
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.


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