When you're a parent of a small child, every free day is a gigantic looming blank slate that you've gotta fill. Wake up, drink coffee, have some cereal, dress the kid . . . then what? You've got this little human being that needs to be entertained, but you need not be bored out of your skull.
I can't claim to be an expert at this, but I do hate sitting around the house, and in the last four years I've managed to escape the lure of Hulu or Nickelodeon or whatever to discover plenty of things out in the real world to do with my child that don't make me want to kill myself. Hence, based on my own experience and geography (I live in downtown Santa Rosa), here's a rambling run-on list, that's by no means complete, of how I have managed to fill the long, empty days with a small daughter.
First rule: get around other people. The quickest way is a park. You don't even have to talk to other parents, just exchange knowing glances and shrugs while the kiddos run around. Once you get to know the area parks, you can target them by mood. If I'm feeling up for activities and socializing, I go to Howarth Park, where there's a train, a carousel and pony rides. (Don't forget the boats—small children are allowed, and it's only $8 an hour for a rowboat.) Often it makes more sense to go to a small area park—mine is MLK Park, near the horse track—which is a good way to meet your neighbors, anyway. Peri Park in Fairfax is dangerously close to Three Twins Ice Cream, and the Superpark in Sebastopol has been a destination on more than a few bike rides.
Bike rides? Yep, a child's seat is around $130. Do it. I'm amazed at how docile and quiet my daughter is on a bike ride, and the Santa Rosa Creek Trail is nice and flat. (Take it from me: do not try riding up Gold Ridge Road with the extra weight!) Kids, like dogs, love the whirring wind and open scenery as you pedal the day away.
Hiking with a kid can be arduous, but not impossible. I've scaled the just-opened Taylor Mountain with my daughter, which was not a great idea; the trail gets steep and is mostly in the open sun. Annadel is a better bet, and I don't know if it's legal to swim in Lake Ilsanjo or not so, uh, I didn't tell you to, OK? In Marin, the Tennessee Valley Trail is the best for kids, because it's short and wide.
Nightlife? Why not? I've brought my daughter to more than a few all-ages shows on special "stay up past your bedtime" nights, where she's seen everyone from Stevie Wonder to Ceremony to Skrillex. (Those ubiquitous kiddie headphones are cheap.) Outdoor concerts are especially great for kids, and I go to the ones in Juilliard Park and the Cloverdale Plaza, though they happen everywhere. Movies in the Park are a fine bet, in Windsor, San Anselmo or elsewhere, and movie theaters, of course, have a good deal on matinees. I also love buying VHS tapes for a dollar at thrift stores, like Fatty's Threads, and renting movies from my local video rental spot Video Droid.
Libraries have an incredible selection of DVDs, of course, along with CDs and books, and they're free to rent—hurrah! Childrens' reading programs abound at just about any branch—my local branch has been doing 'Read to a Dog' days, weirdly.
Not to instill early-onset consumerism in your child, but window shopping can be a hell of a good time with your kid. I once spent over an hour putting ill-fitting clothes on my daughter in the dressing rooms at Macy's and taking funny photos. She loved it. Of course, when you have a kid, you will get garbage bags full of hand-me-downs, but if you must buy clothes, Goodwill and other thrift stores have an inventory that's way more entertaining to kids than a department store in the mall.
Getting familiar with your local independent boutique is key, too—mine are Wee Three and Cupcake—because they'll have much more personality than the big-box behemoth with the red circle logo. Likewise, hit up your locally owned toy store—mine is the terrific Toy Works—where staff can field your questions and find the right gift.
I made an annual tradition of going to whichever Mexican Circus came to town, though none seems to be coming this year. But the Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa is an excellent day trip, and totally interesting for adults as well. (Time your trip right and across the street at the Redwood Empire Ice Arena, kids can learn to skate with chairs on Sunday and Wednesday mornings.) The Bay Area Discovery Museum in Sausalito offers educational and fun activities for all ages, and Scientopia in Napa also sparks the imagination.
Ever drag your kid to a baseball game? The Giants have the more kid-friendly stadium, with a kids' baseball diamond, slides and a model cable car, but the A's have a play area and batting cages, too—plus tickets get as low as $12. We always take BART there.
While it's still sunny, familiarize yourself with your local communitypool. I like Ridgeway in Santa Rosa, but Finley, Mill Valley and Terra Linda are fine options, and they're inexpensive. That can eat up a few hours right there, as can going to a childrens play at the likes of the Wells Fargo Center, the Marin Theater Co., the Marin Center or at community centers.
Train Town and Safari West are standbys for a reason—they're excellent places to while away the hours. And if you want to do adult things in Napa while bringing the kids, Sterling Vineyards has a tram ride and juice boxes at the tasting room. If you're feeling fancy, the Napa Valley Wine Train offers a Family Date Night where kids are free (one per adult), and they'll watch your kids in a separate car while you dine.
Finally, show me a kid who doesn't like a jumpy house and I'll eat my hat. Pay-one-price jumpy house places include PlayLand in Sausalito and Pump It Up in Santa Rosa. Bring a book and relax for an hour or two . . . until it's cocktail time.