Raising twins in LA, and being a hands-on kinda parent, I've tracked down a lot of really fun things to do with kiddos. Most of these are toddler friendly and free or cheap. This has a Santa Monica focus, but there's a little for everyone in Los Angeles. Like always, send your suggestions!
Storytime at the Library — These programs are available everywhere. But they really make a great morning. Take a trike or bus ride (kids love buses!) to the library, follow with by some fun pre-pre-school songs and stories, then wrap up by carting home all the books little arms can carry. In our neighborhood all the kids know local celebs Mr. Jesse, appearing at the Ocean Park Library, and Señora Silvia, who sings her way through story time en español at the Fairview branch. Be sure to check all the great summer reading (and math) programs and visit the new Main library downtown.
Bergamot Station — Bergamot Station is an arts compound housing the Santa Monica Museum of Modern Art and a mess of galleries. During the week things are pretty slow and the gallery staff appear to welcome distraction. Toddlers can roam around, take in bright bold contemporary art work and pet the gallery owner's dogs. Reload at the nice little cafe too. Oh, it is across the street from the disposal center so bring your old batteries and junk. 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, CA 90404
Bright Child — I'm ambivalent about Bright Child. If you can get past the image of a germ filled habitrail for kids, it is a fun enriching afternoon out for the kids. They can literally climb the walls and play music and draw and play for hours with the same darned train set they have at home. Best of all it is next to Michael's craft and art supply, REI and not far from Border Grill. 1415 4th Street
Santa Monica, CA 90401
UPDATE: Bright Child is currently closed! They closed in January 2007. We hear that they lost their lease. If you hear any news please let us know!
The Grove — On the down side, the Grove is a totally Disnified mecca for pretentious LA people. On the plus side it is a totally Disnified.... The kids love the streetcar, and everyone loves the fountain that dances to Frank Sinatra. You can always escape to the darker corners of the original Farmers Market and seek out a little seediness.
FUNdamentals of Music and Movement — NOTE: Fundamentals has moved their classes. Check their website for the latest! I love this place. Founder Aaron Nigel Smith seems like a guy on the way to the top — a definite rock star. Classes introduce kids to music in wild, age-appropriate exercises. A FUNdamentals class consists of rocking out to original songs played by the talented staff, learning (and shouting) some musical concepts, doing a little kid yoga, maybe some drumming, then free time to run and play to the music. More advanced music, yoga, art and dance classes are also available. My kids are loving the slightly chaotic piano lessons and are begging for guitar next. Fundamentals also offers classes out in various schools and child care programs, plus they have their own great CD and groovy CD's and instruments for purchase. They do birthdays too! NOTE: Fundamentals had to move out of their shop on National. They have been operating out of a couple of different locations, plus their usual classes at schools, pre-schools and daycare. Check their website for the latest info..
Socceropolis with Coach Milton — Classes with coach Milton are not dirt cheap, but they are really worth it. They are run through the City of Santa Monica. Kids get introduced to team sports and coordination and all that athletic stuff, but without any pressure. Milton just has a great time joking with the kids as they sit on the ball, run back and forth and have a blast. Clover Park in Santa Monica, Rancho Park-Cheviot Hills and sometimes other locations.
Dan The Man — Dan the Man really rules. I was skeptical at first (yea, I'm always skeptical). Something about a guy who has so much energy and fun chasing the kids around, helping them surf (on land), swing on a trapeze and play "name that tune"... I figured he'd have to snap eventually. But no...Now in addition to his mobile Dan the Man Gym in a van and birday show, he's set up a playgym, Super Kids Gym, that is really fun and bright and full of padded walls and gymanstic activities. He's also running a summer camp this summer at SMASH/John Muir. Super Kids Gym is located in Los Angeles 2143 S. Sepulveda Blvd, Suite 403 near Olympic 90025
Parks and Playgrounds in and around Santa Monica: I have to say I love Clover Park on Ocean Park and 25th Street in Santa Monica . It is near my house and when my twins were toddlers it was a life-saver. It is big enough that nobody can run too far away too fast. And there are always nice neighbors to meet and share sand toys with. There is a big playground in the middle which is great for little kids, but sometimes a little scary. And there is a more toddler friendly play structure way in the back corner near the airport. Did I say airport? Yes. Big loud private planes flying in and out all day. And a fire station near by too. If you come on Wednesdays (lawn mower day) it is almost too much fun for the little guys. Douglas Park at Wilshire and 25th Street is beautiful. It has ponds, water play during the summer and a fantastic playground (though you may never get to the playground if you get absorbed in walking the rest of the grounds). Aidan's Place at 1350 South Sepulveda in West Los Angeles / Westwood is the mother of all playgrounds. Created to be friendly to kids with disabilities, it is huge and great fun. It is really 3 or four playgrounds. At Ocean Park and the Beach is a beautiful play area. A few swings, slides and a walk to the water and you're ready for nap time. Two smaller parks are worth mentioning...Memorial Park, 1401 Olympic Blvd at 14th in Santa Monica only because it has a hardcore skate park which the little ones will enjoy watching. And Reed Park at 7th and Wilshire has a very small play area but it is a good one. It is close to the 3rd Street Promenade and downtown Santa Monica so it is a great stop to let off some energy before or after some boring adult business.
Santa Monica Pier — Sometimes the Pier is just the right amount of over-stimulation for the kids. Disneyland, Legoland and Knotts are just so big, expensive and exhausting. At the Pier there are little chunks of fun that you can bite off in easy to digest morsels. The carousel is always pleasant. And below it is the cute little SM Pier Aquarium where you can look at a few tanks of fish, watch them feed sharks and pet some sea stars. And the Pacific Park amusement park lets you buy just a ride at at time. There are a lot of rides just right for smaller children. My kids LOVED driving bumper cars all by themselves at just 30" height requirement. The pier is also great to just walk around and munch fried clams, watch people fish and try the tasty mexican food restaurant at the end of the pier.
Griffith Park — There is just so much to do at Griffith Park. The Zoo is nice, but until they finish their construction, it is a little challenge with little ones. You have to walk so far to get to the good stuff. One of our favorite outings to Griffith Park is the the train/pony/carousel area in the south east portion of the park. This is a major pony ride. Bigger kids can ride around a really long loop, not just a silly circle. It feels a little gritty compared to some pony rides -- the young staff act a little tough and don't seem to be PETA approved, but it is cool because there are all kinds of people out for a great time and it feels like an LA experience. And next door, the cute train ride is just right for tikes. Plus the merry-go-round and playgroun right up the way. There's tons more to do in GP. Hiking, Travel Town (real trains!), the LA Live Steamers (mini trains run by hobbyists on a special track, offering rides). Yes that is a lot of train action in one park. I'd suggest you skip the Observatory until the excitement dies down. We visited right after it reopened in October 2006 and it was a little too crowded to be fun.
The Santa Monica Farmers Market — I keep forgetting to list the Santa Monica Farmers Market here. So here it is. The Sunday market on mainstreat is heaven for toddlers and their families. Get there early, take the bus or bring plenty of patience because the parking kinda bites. But once you are there you'll find a range of prepared food including coffee, crepes, baked goods and more. Visit the flower vender who gives kids a free gerber daisy. Check out the pony rides where, only in Santa Monica, you can be protested for enslaving the ponies. And listen to live music. You can spread out on the lawn and enjoy it all. Or just make a quick stop and pick up your organic produce and go. (The Wednesday market downtown is much more produce focused. Not a kid mecca but a great market for foodies.)
Color Me Mine — Ok, another iffy one. I wish this wasn't a biggish chain, so expensive and on Montana Avenue. But what a great trip out with the kids. They can slap some glaze on a mug or bowl. And in a few days they go back to bring home a little gift to make mommy cry (for joy). With toddlers, keep it quick. Twenty minutes is plenty and get em out of there before they run amok. If anyone knows of a more earthy place to do this, let me know!
Museums! — Hey, that's why we live in a metropolis, am I right?
The Natural History Museum! — dinosaur bones, dioramas and Family Fun Days. I particularly like the the Critter Club on the first Saturday of the Month. This was perfect when my daughter wanted entomologist classes. They have lots of hands on activities, crafts and critters, of course.
LA County Museum of Art! Kids can get free passes with which they can use to take in one parent. They have a hands-on kid area that is a little too far from the museum. You may never get over to see the good stuff.
The Tar Pits! — a fun day just because the museum is not too big, kids can run around the paths outside and roll down the grassy hills. And even get a twofer and walk over to LACMA. Or the nearby Peterson Auto Museum.
The Getty! — Great for kids even if you don't see any art. The tram up the hill, gardens, good food, real paintings of real princesses. The quarterly Getty Family Festivals have lots of free music and crafts. The Kid's room there is neat, but unnecessary— I hate getting stranded there when there are so many other amazing things to do there that kids will enjoy.
California Science Center! — This is the old Museum of Science and Industry, my favorite museum as a kid because of all the buttons and buzzers and whistles and bells... You get the idea. It still delivers as a very interactive museum and there is stuff for kids of every age. Perhaps better for slightly older kids, young ones can also have fun. Temporary exhibits have included Star Wars, Super Heroes, Animation and the Body Worlds anatomy exhibit.
Peterson Automotive Museum — Ok, I'm not a car guy and this doesn't really seem like museum material to me. But the kids dig it. There's a lot to look at (but not touch), so it may be tough for some spirited kids. There's the batmobile and other hot rods and some experimental vehicles. But there is also a toddler friendly area with activities, costumes and crafts.
Museum of Jurassic Technology — Ok, this one isn't for the kids. I'm told kids don't understand sarcasm (though my kids will certainly be ahead of the curve) so this may be confusing to them. Or, heck, it probably fits right into their reality. So check it out. It is brilliant and absurd.
Like everything, this is a work in progress. If you have any recommendations, let us know. Thanks!