Every month, free or low-cost community activities geared toward children take place in Phoenix proper and the surrounding communities in the Valley of the Sun in Arizona. Some serve up pure fun, some take an educational approach, and some lean toward the artsy. A handful of free special events happen just once or twice a year, so check the calendar.
Spend a few hours outdoors with your children and introduce them to fishing. Urban lakes throughout the Phoenix area contain stocked bass, catfish, trout, and other species, managed through a partnership between the state Game and Fish Department and the local parks and recreation departments known as the Arizona Community Fishing Program. Note, however, that most locations require an Arizona state fishing license. Fishing clinics and educational programs take place at many of these locations throughout the year. Try Chapparal Lake in Scottsdale, Kiwanis Park or the town lake in Tempe, Saguaro Lake in Mesa, or the lake at Surprise Community Park.
Visit the Library
Take your kids to the library for an educational afternoon. All of the area libraries schedule story time for the younger kids, and programs and events for older ones, including classes such as computer coding and college prep. You can take your preschoolers to a kindergarten boot camp and watch your young readers practice by reading stories to dogs. Most preteens and teens enjoy computer time. The nearest library also makes a great reading escape on a hot afternoon; have everyone in the family grab a new book and curl up in the air-conditioned comfort for an hour or two.
Sneak Behind the Scenes
Take a free behind-the-scenes tour of Stuffington Bear Factory or Cerreta Candy Company. At the Stuffington Bear Factory in Phoenix, you'll learn about the history of the iconic teddy bear and watch new bears being made by hand. You can even purchase and stuff your own at one of the last remaining stuffed animal factories in the country.
The family-owned Cerreta Candy Company in Glendale takes chocoholics onto the production floor. Even young children enjoy the 30-minute tour and demonstration, and they can even finish the adventure by making their own chocolate-crust pizza with white chocolate cheese and candy toppings to take with them (for a fee).
"Wheel Away" an Afternoon
Got skates or a skateboard? You can find more than 20 skate parks throughout the valley with varying terrain ranging from banks to bowls to hips and half-pipes. Most are free of charge, and you can rent gear at some. Novice skaters can watch more experienced skaters practice or try out some new moves themselves on beginner-friendly features. Some parks allow scooters. Check out the night-lit Superstition Shadows Skate Park in Apache Junction, the Velocity Skate Park adjacent to the Palm Island Family Aquatics Park in Casa Grande, or the Gateway Park Skate Plaza in El Mirage, where misters keep things cool in the desert heat.
Barely a week goes by in the Phoenix metropolitan area without some community hosting a free festival or outdoor concert. During the winter high season, when temperatures hover in the bearable range, event themes range from art shows to classic car auctions to music extravaganzas to animal appreciation. Springtime brings baseball, Earth Day, and Easter, while the heat of summer encourages outdoor activities centered around water, such as swimming pools and splash parks. The mercury starts to drop again as fall arrives, and by the winter holiday season, much of the area's special events take place outdoors. Bring juice boxes, water, and snacks.
Go on Safari
You don't have to hop on a plane to the Serengeti to go on a safari. The Cabela's in Glendale maintains a museum-worthy educational display with more than 400 animals. Signs provide context about the lifelike creatures, from a tiny mouse to a huge elephant. A tank contains live fish native to Arizona, including the state fish and several endangered species. For a charge, kids (and parents) can try their luck at an Arizona-themed laser shooting gallery or on a video shooting range. Cabela's also offers periodic free seminars on hunting and fishing topics.
Take a Hike
Have your kids seen real petroglyphs up close and personal? Take an easy hike at Waterfall Trail in the White Tank Mountains northwest of Phoenix for a living history lesson. About midway to the turning point of the 2-mile round-trip, you reach Petroglyph Plaza, the best spot in the Phoenix valley to see Hohokam petroglyphs. If you want something more challenging for the older children, try climbing Piestewa Peak. It's a rocky 1.2 miles to the top of the more traveled Summit Trail; the Circumference Trail follows a longer but more gradual ascent to the high point at 2,608 feet.
The City of Tempe organizes free monthly arts activities for preschoolers and their parents called Free Art Friday. Anyone can attend, whether you live in Tempe or not. Home Depot holds monthly classes for kids that allow them to build something. They get to wear an apron, learn how to use tools, get free materials, and leave with a masterpiece. On the First Saturday of every month (except July), kids and their families can get artsy/craftsy at First Saturday for Families at the ASU Art Museum in Tempe. Lakeshore Learning Store also offers free project/craft classes for kids.
Take advantage of the hot and dry desert climate and take the kids swimming. Most hotels throughout the Valley of the Sun maintain year-round pools for their guests. But you can find a little more atmosphere and variety at community swimming pools around the area. Many welcome visitors and most charge only a nominal fee. Younger children enjoy the splash pads and splash playgrounds found at many public parks, and older kids with strong swimming skills love the experience of floating down the Salt River on an inner tube. A few of the urban lakes, such as Saguaro Lake and Canyon Lake, include roped off swimming areas too.
When you need an escape from the midday sun, or you want to add some education to the vacation, check out one of the Phoenix area's countless museums, many with free admission. Children thrill at the opportunity to go inside a real train at the Arizona Railway Museum at Tumbleweed Park in Chandler, or get their "hands on" the interactive exhibits at the Children's Museum of Phoenix, or the art activities at the i.d.e.a. Museum in Mesa. Depending on their interests, older children may enjoy exploring the landscape of the desert southwest through a variety of art, natural history, and science museums.
Load the mountain bikes onto a rack and drive to a beautiful nearby park, such as South Mountain, to go for a family bike ride. The largest municipal park in the U.S., with more than 16,000 acres of desert preserve, South Mountain includes more than 50 miles of hiking and biking trails ranging from moderate to challenging. The rocky, steep terrain peaks atop Dobbins Lookout at 2,330 feet. Or stick closer to town and check out the paved 10-mile section of the Arizona Canal path stretching between Granada Park and 67th Avenue.
Explore the Apache Trail
Are the kids old enough to sit in the car for a while? A drive on the historic Apache Trail can be scary but also a lot of fun with jaw-dropping views of canyons, geologic formations, and desert flora and fauna. Stop for lunch at Tortilla Flat, a town with just six inhabitants but an Old West salon serving sarsaparilla and a country store with prickly pear gelato. Located about 18 miles northeast of the Apache Junction exit to State Route 88, it makes an easy turnaround point for a short excursion. Or keep going to milepost 222 and the parking area at the start of Fish Creek Hill.
The City of Phoenix and other cities and towns throughout the entire Greater Phoenix metropolitan area often hold free summer sports clinics to introduce kids of all ages to various sports, ranging from common games such as golf, lacrosse, and tennis, to less common activities such as curling, fencing, and BMX bike riding. The clinics may be multi-week courses or single-day experiences. Many allow kids to test out a new sport without any financial commitment; others do charge for participation. Check out the recreation department guide for the various communities to find a program that suits you and your family.
Play With New Friends
Arrowhead Mall in Glendale, Chandler Fashion Center in Chandler, and other shopping malls throughout the Phoenix metro area maintain free indoor play areas for the youngest children. At Superstition Springs Mall in Mesa, kids (and adults) can ride a carousel for a nominal charge. The Westcor Malls all operate kids' clubs that meet regularly for both fun and entertainment. You can also find pay-to-play indoor amusement parks, arcades, bounce houses, and playgrounds with features ranging from a giant tree at Makutu's Island in Chandler to go-karts, laser tag, and bowling. These fun centers provide a convenient way to pair your children with other kids their age for some peer playtime during a family vacation.
Cheer on the Teams
On steamy summer evenings, take the kids to see Minor League Baseball games. The Arizona League plays in Phoenix, Scottsdale, Tempe, Mesa, Glendale, Goodyear, Peoria, and Surprise, with multiple nightly matchups in the 56-game season scheduled at 7 p.m. from mid-June until late August or early September. Recent draft picks from high school and college teams make their professional debuts here, and players from Major League teams rehabbing from injuries often launch their comebacks on these fields. Spectators can cheer the minor league version of their favorite home teams on for free at ball fields with the added convenience of free parking.