7 completely free activities to do with small children when you're skint but desperate to get out of the house

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When you've absolutely got to leave the house because everyone's going nuts, it's time to get creative - or just steal Becky Dickinson's ideas...

Soft play centres, theme parks, zoos; they cost more than your average spa day (and I know which I'd rather have) and you'll spend most of the time queuing and/or taking them to the toilet.  After the financial burnout of Christmas, January is traditionally the time of year when you wonder if you'll ever be able to afford to leave the house again.  Yet fear not, there are still plenty of places to take the kids that won't cost a penny - and are unexpectedly fun. 

1. IKEA

Forget storage solutions and picture frames, IKEA was really invented as a Scandi play park. Think free pencils and paper tape measures, a toy section to get lost in (not literally, hopefully) and huge, squidgy beds to try out. Even the baby food is free. Sadly, the meatballs aren't, but hey we can't have it all.

2. Pet shops

Why spend a fortune gawping at animals in captivity from a distance of 60 metres? Pet shops, like Pets At Home, have everything from parrots and chipmunks to fluffy bunnies. Lots of garden centres also stock animals. Ask nicely and you might even be allowed to stroke some of them. Just don't be tempted into buying one. Remember, a dog's for life and so is a guinea pig.  

3. Fish shops (as in tropical not chips)

Forget aquarium prices and play Finding Dory in your local aquatic centre. You might not see whales but there are plenty more fish in the tanks to amaze the kids (and you).  

4. Car showrooms  

Hours of fun for tiny Top Gear fans. Simply choose your model - Ford if you want to play it safe, Aston Martin if you don't care - and let the kids sit in the driving seats, fiddle with the controls and marvel over all those shiny wheels and exteriors.  If you're accosted by a pushy salesperson, just smile and rattle off a false email address. No purchase necessary.

5. The post box

Small children love posting things through holes (as my DVD player can testify). So take them to a letter box and let them indulge their passion for pushing small objects (ideally, envelopes; not your house keys or iPhone) through narrow spaces. For extra excitement, go at collection time and watch the real Postman Pat in action. You could even sing the theme tune if you don't mind looking like a complete numpty.

6. A building site

In a previous life you might have avoided walking past one of these for fear of being wolf-whistled, but once you've got a buggy for protection, building sites take on a whole new appeal. Now it's your chance to leer at men with hard hats (yes, hats) working up a sweat, while your little one goes crazy for the construction vehicles and practices saying things like 'digger' and 'dumper.' NB: Obviously, don't bother turning up at lunchtime, unless you want to watch a bunch of guys eating sausage rolls and reading the paper. 

7. The library

Babies love books. Fact.  OK, so they also love pulling them off the shelves 45 at a time, chewing front covers, and trying to rip all the flaps out of 'Where's Spot?'. And when they've finished doing that, they also love being read to. Libraries are one of those places you re-discover once you become a parent, and realise they're actually way better than when you were a kid. No longer dusty old enclaves of studious silence, these days libraries positively welcome young children.  You'll find soft furnishings, cosy kids' corners, rhyme time sessions, and about seventy three thousand books to choose from.  Who said print was dead? 

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