For families with energetic kids, perhaps the biggest bummer of colder weather is losing the ability to while away entire afternoons at a local playground. Sure, we're blessed with a bevy of spectacular indoor play zones here in Boston, but many charge $10 or more per child for an hour or two of fun. Sometimes, what kids (and exhausted parents) really need is the indoor equivalent of your neighborhood playground—an open, public space where they can pop in, monkey around, and socialize for an hour or two, no reservation or hefty admission required. We've tracked down a few spots in and around town where your kids can play—and you can take a load off—for free. (Note that none of these places allow you to drop kids off, unsupervised; but having some new toys and playmates to entertain them will definitely feel like a break.)
BCYF Family Gym—South End, Dorchester, Roxbury
This free, weekly program is an awesome outlet for city families. Kids are invited to drop in and explore an array of colorful gym equipment (from soft foam climbing structures to parachutes) in gyms in three different neighborhoods on Saturday mornings. Parents are encouraged to join in the fun, but there are also staffers on hand to help supervise kids.
Kids are encouraged to climb aboard the engines and play pretend. Photo courtesy of the Boston Fire Museum
Boston Fire Museum—Boston
This gem of a museum accepts donations, but doesn't charge admission. If your child loves trucks or imaginary play, this is a fabulous spot—kids are welcome to climb aboard the engines on display, ring some bells, and pretend they're real-life firefighters, to their hearts' content.
Boston Public Market Kid's Nook—Boston
The cute little play area tucked away in the Boston Public Market features plush fruit and veggie toys, shopping carts, and other playthings that make little ones feel as if they, too, are doing some important shopping and food prep. Programs—most recently the New England Aquarium mobile touch tank—often stop by.
Located on the second floor next to the soon-to-open Wegman's supermarket in the Natick Mall, Beantown is heaven for parents who want to take a break from shopping (and for their kids who never wanted to shop in the first place). Kids ages 10 and under will have a ball exploring the Boston-themed playspace, which features a "Green Monster" to climb, ducklings to ride on, and a big pirate ship that everyone seems to love. Hint: Weekends, especially around the holidays, can be a zoo, so consider doing your shopping—and playing—on a weekday.
Boston-themed Bean Town is a fave mall play space. Photo courtesy of Moms of Massachusetts
Burlington Mall Children's Play Area–Burlington
There's a playhouse and a variety of climbing structures situated on a carpet made to look like a natural landscape—with rocks and logs and such—at this centrally located area in the mall. Best of all, the entire, carpeted space is surrounded by comfortable benches, so it's easy to keep track of the kids while they play.
South Shore Plaza Play Area—Braintree
Helpfully located by the Food Court, where you can grab a bite to eat before or after playing, the South Shore Mall play area was constructred by the same company who designed the Burlington Mall Play Area (above), so it also features the same sturdy, colorful climbing structures, like planes and cars. Our kids have especially enjoyed climbing through the "log" tunnel (again and again and again).
Northshore Mall Play Area—Peabody
Near Macy's—which is also where Santa parks around holiday time—the play area, which relocated and reopened in the mall a few years ago, features imagination-building climbing structures that are especially great for littler ones. There's also a small "activity nook" with some manipulative wheels and mirrors for less rambunctious players.
A toy store with toys to play with? Yes, please! Photo courtesy of Magic Beans
Lego Store—Natick, Burlington, Braintree
For kids who are less inclined to climb than tinker, the Lego stores at the Natick, North Shore, and South Shore malls are a great outlet between errands. Along with free-build stations that are always set up around the store, there are special activities and challenges every month. Every store has its own calendar describing these events, so be sure to check before you head to the mall.
Magic Beans—Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, Norwell, Wellesley
Know how you take kids to a toy store and they want to, you know, play with the toys? At Magic Beans, they can: Stores have a cordoned-off play area that's filled with favorite items straight from the shelves. The trick: getting them out of there when it's time to go home.
The Children's Room at the BPL Copley Square is an extra-special place to play (and browse books, of course). Photo courtesy of Arrowstreet
Children's Room at the Boston Public Library's Central Branch—Boston
Lots of libraries have a few wooden toys or blocks sprinkled about, but since the second floor of the Johnson Building was renovated in 2015, the Central Library in Copley Square has become a legitimately awesome place for kids to play. The bright, colorful space has loads of soft, squishy toys, several interesting manipulatives, an array of puzzles and games built into the wall at kids' eye level, and lots of room to move.
The Early Literacy Play Space is new to the Framingham Library. Photo by Melissa Zieve courtesy of Framingham Public Library
Framingham Public Library Early Literacy Play Space—Framingham
Another very special library in terms of play opportunities, Framingham features a shiny new recreational space designed for little learners. There's a play kitchen, a farmer's market stand, many wall-mounted activities, and plenty of sensory toys and games.
In this unique cooperative program, families volunteer a few hours of their time per six-month indoor season to have almost an unlimited run of the 10,000 square-foot gym and playspace. An $85 annual family membership fee is required up front, but if you and your brood went for, say, three one-hour sessions per week from November through April, that would equate to a little over $1 per visit for the entire family—a pretty sweet deal if you think you might be looking for a place to hang out regularly.
Top photo: There are sensory play tables and lots of wall-mounted games at the Framingham Public Library Early Literacy Play Space. Photo by Melissa Zieve courtesy of the Framingham Public Library