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Two people swing a child by the arms in front of the Golden Gate Bridge as the sun goes down.
The Bay Area offers no shortage of things to do with kids. (Adam Hester/Getty)

New Parent? Ideas for Exploring the Bay Area With a Little Kid

New Parent? Ideas for Exploring the Bay Area With a Little Kid

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With all the tectonic shifts that a new parent experiences, there’s one they might not fully grasp until they’re going through it: The challenge of just leaving your home with a young child.

When my son was born almost a year ago, my wife and I soon found that everything we once did as active Bay Area millennials suddenly turned into “Sorry, we’re running late,” “We can’t,” or “Can we reschedule?” And while that’s OK — countless other kinds of privileges and joys have emerged — we’ve learned valuable lessons along the way about how to get outside with our newest addition.

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Below are some tips that have been lifesavers for me and my family in this first year of parenthood. If you’re new to parenting, are preparing to become a parent soon — or want to support a parent-to-be — keep reading. You’ll learn how to set yourself up for a successful day out, which specific places to visit around the Bay, and where to find free entertainment for your growing family.

Note: Every baby and family circumstance is different, and this advice is based on my own personal experiences. Feel free to adapt these tips, do what works for you, and leave behind what doesn’t.

Preparation is key

Make sure you’re prepared for a day out … like, really prepared

First things first, you’ll need to get more organized. Put together a backpack that could include:

  • Extra diapers
  • A changing mat
  • An extra set of clothes (or two or three)
  • A bib
  • Extra pacifiers
  • A picture book
  • A handheld toy or object
  • A container of baby-approved snacks (organic fruit and veggie puffs are a particular hit with our kid)
  • Pre-packed bottles of milk in a small, insulated bag with an ice pack.

This kind of checklist may seem painfully obvious to seasoned parents, but it took us a few outings to finalize. Leave one thing behind and your otherwise enjoyable outing can become a stressful hassle.

To make things easier, check the backpack regularly even when you don’t plan on going out, perhaps during your child’s naptime, to ensure it’s all there — that way, you can just grab and go when you’re on the move. (You might even consider having a written checklist on your phone, documented somewhere like your Notes App, to quickly consult before heading out the door.)

A young baby sits in a stroller
When it comes to taking a young child on an outing in the Bay Area, preparation is key. (William Fortunato/Pexels)

Timing your outings

Each kid is different. And finding the rhythm and timing of your baby’s sleeping patterns will take time and patience.

What a lot of new parents might not anticipate — the first three months are actually a glorious time to get outside because the baby mostly sleeps. Bundle them up and enjoy a restaurant outing. This will likely offer the biggest windows of flexibility in retrospect.

After that newborn stage, I strongly recommend using a baby sleeping app (we use Huckleberry, which offers a free and a premium option) that tracks your child’s sleep. The app can tell you when your baby should be nearing their next nap window based on your child’s weekly sleep cycles and daily real-time shifts and help you better predict your family’s ebb and flow.

Once you settle into a semblance of a schedule, maximize the baby’s sleep times to get things done. We tended to take longer drives when we knew the baby would be nearing sleep or immediately after waking up. Leaving for an extended outing when a baby is at their peak of wakefulness can be disastrous, so be as strategic as possible about the timing of your car rides, and you’ll find them more enjoyable for everyone.

Hope for the best, expect the worst

Yes, this is a general life tip, but don’t expect things to be catered to your situation — especially as a new parent. In fact, expect the opposite.

Of note: Most Bay Area venues don’t care that your child has pooped themselves. Have a positive mindset, and try to think creatively about how and where to change your child. The majority of places you’ll go don’t have a family room or changing table. For us, the trunk of our car has become a roving outdoor changing table, so if you’re driving, be sure to keep a blanket, an extra changing mat, some plastic bags, and extra diapers and wipes on hand. And in an emergency, you can always turn any bench, table or flat surface into an open-air changing station — that’s why you’re carrying that backpack around, remember?

Nothing as a new parent will be easy or perfect. Embrace the messiness of it all (sometimes literally), and don’t let it deter you from visiting your favorite bookstore, cafe or Redwood forest.

Redwood trees seen from the ground up.
Redwood trees in Muir Woods, Marin County, on Monday, March 5, 2018. (Lauren Hanussak/KQED)

You’re prepped — now get outside

Remember: You don’t have to go far (at first)

Few things will melt your heart like seeing your child light up at the wonders of the world. Nature will become your best friend if it already isn’t. Let them hold that pinecone. Let them ruffle that tree branch. Let them make a scrunchy face at the scent of something new and unknown. No matter what spacious suburb or congested downtown you’re based in, nature is not very far away in the Bay Area — and remember, it’s all new to your kid. When we lived at the bottom of the Richmond Hilltop in an otherwise industrial area, we would take our son to Point Pinole to see the coast, birds and dog walkers. You’d be surprised what gorgeous views are just a three-to-10-minute car ride away.

Also, these outings are often as much for you as for the baby. Fresh air, sunlight — don’t forget they exist in the haze of newborn and infant parenting, even if the views are familiar. Always go back to whatever spot makes you, and your baby, feel most alive together.

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Don’t be afraid of road trips…

This will depend on where you live in the Bay Area, but trust me, you can get anywhere if you plan it out. A day trip to Napa? Go for it. A weekend outing to Monterey to see the aquarium? Book it. Depending on the season, you might even find yourself in Brentwood riding a “corn coaster” and firing a “melon cannon” in a far-off pumpkin patch two hours away.

If you’re particularly adventurous and can plan around the weather, Yosemite and Lake Tahoe aren’t impossible either.

… or getting on a plane

If your budget and time allow, consider taking advantage of greater California, too. LA and San Diego are just a few hours by air and are ideal trips to test out your baby’s tolerance for airports and planes before making any cross-country excursions.

If you’re able to include friends, other parents, or even family members, your stress can be greatly reduced, and you’ll be glad you made the effort when you’re sitting on a beach a few hours away from home with your sunglasses-wearing baby.

An image of a person driving a car in an orange sweater, taken from behind.
A road trip with a young child may be easier (or at least more enjoyable) than you think. (Kei Scampa/Pexels)

Remember: Free and low-cost activities are all around

Most things that babies enjoy are completely free. For example, find a park with lots of dogs. Become friends with that neighbor who likes to feed birds. Check out the libraries in your area for free reading hours and playtimes with other young children. (I cannot stress this enough: libraries offer more useful services and opportunities to socialize than almost anywhere else. They’ve become our second home.)

Find your community — and lean on others

There are tons of parent groups you can learn from online. In our new neighborhood, my wife is part of a mother’s group on Facebook, where she found out about “Music Mondays” — a regular event for tots and their caretakers to play instruments together like a giant, unsyncopated orchestra. Use your community as a resource.

Give yourself permission to involve others in your plans, too — or invite yourself into theirs if they’re game. On one particularly rough Saturday of solo parenting, I called up a fellow parent with significantly more experience and spent the day with him and his family. We watched his youngest daughter play a soccer match, then ate pizza and drank beer at a nearby brewery afterward (breweries, it turns out, are sanctuaries for parents). His daughter played with my son, and I got to hang out with another dad. On a day that could have felt disastrous, a last-minute call to a friend and a short drive reminded me that there is a community of support around when most needed.

To get you started: A very short list of Bay Area outings with young kids

Check out Children’s Fairyland (Oakland)

Probably the most iconic children’s attraction in the Bay Area, Children’s Fairyland is a magical getaway filled with, well: fairy tales. In this 2023 Bay Curious episode, it’s described as “a unique landscape of dozens of interactive play installations” — ideal for kids 8 years old and under — to climb on or into or run through. The play sets are all based on popular kids’ stories, from ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb,’ Peter Rabbit and folktales such as Anansi the Spider.”

If you weren’t already convinced: The park is also conveniently located next to Lake Merritt, where a breezy stroll down Grand Avenue leads to local shops, food and more.

A play clock tower with stairs, colored mostly blue.
Children’s Fairyland has dozens of interactive play installations based on popular stories for kids. (Pauline Bartolone/KQED)

Take a ferry ride (San Francisco, Oakland, Alameda, Richmond, Vallejo)

Take advantage of the fact our region hugs a giant bay with a chill ferry ride from one side to the other. Unlike a car, where your little one might chafe at being buckled in while stuck in rush hour traffic — or BART, where the jerky movements and screeching noises make getting comfortable tricky — a ferry ride is a surprisingly ideal mode of transportation with kids. If they’re small enough, you can hold them in your arms while watching the water and skylines pass by on a slow, steady ride. And trust me, changing a diaper on the ferry is a cakewalk compared to a fast-moving vehicle.

If you weren’t already convinced: Children under the age of five ride the ferry for free.

Head to the Carquinez Toy Train Operating Museum (Crockett)

Trains, trains and more trains — basically, kid heaven. This quirky outpost, which overlooks the Carquinez Strait across from Benicia, spans two floors, starting with a diorama-sized Oakland train station and winding its way through the Golden State’s changing scenery. Strap your infant to your chest on a baby pack, or if they walk, let them follow the glass-encased train tracks and let their eyes and ears indulge in this hidden, nerdy wonder.

If you weren’t already convinced: This museum contains one of the Bay Area’s largest toy train model replicas, and is free for children.

The Oakland Estuary, as seen from the San Francisco Bay Ferry near Alameda. (Dan Brekke/KQED)

Stroll a First Friday Block Party (Berkeley)

Not to be confused with Oakland’s much more expansive and sprawling First Friday, Berkeley’s version — a block party on the first Friday of every month — is calmer and geared toward adults with children (thank you!). Offerings include wine, dessert, pizza, tacos and other varieties of cuisine, from Japanese karaage to Palestinian Cuban fusion, in a spacious outdoor setting.

If you weren’t already convinced: Street parking in this stretch of West Berkeley is easy and walkable — essential for strollers.

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