Look on any "Top 10" list of toys and games and at No1 are often the simplest things: a stick, a ball. Nature knows a thing or two about entertaining young children, who are often a lot more energised from a day in the outdoors than by screen time, new toys from the shop or fancy, expensive outings.
So make the most of these milder winter weekends, take Mother Nature's lead and get ready for spring days with outdoor adventures that don't cost a cent.
1. Make-believe at Manukau Heads lighthouse
Located at the top of the Awhitu Peninsula, the Manukau Heads lighthouse is right out of a storybook. Young children will love climbing to the top and pretending to be a keeper - if part of the job involves running around in the wind on the lighthouse deck. Each year, the lighthouse holds a re-lighting ceremony where children from the local preschool make glittery lanterns and carry them up creaky wooden stairs to place around the top. It makes for a beautiful view on your way back down to the car, too.
There's also nautical history: it was here that New Zealand's worst shipping disaster took place and you can still see the spot the HMS Orpheus sank - the water there's always choppy. Read up about the intriguing lighthouse keepers' lives beforehand so you can talk to your children about what was involved in this often romanticised yet brutal way of life.
Gates open at 9am and close at 5pm. There are picnic spots here or at the pretty beaches at Orua Bay, Grahams Beach or Te Toro. Waiuku or Pollock are the last places to buy food or pack something, as you'll be hungry after the long and winding road through the peninsula.
2. Rock pools at Thorne Bay
Check the tides, then take the walk from Milford to Takapuna and point out some of our volcanic history. There are large round grills covering the spot where huge kauri trees were felled by lava and in front of the Takapuna Holiday Park is a fossil forest. We've also seen a few baby seals here on our walks.
At the mid-way point of the walk is Thorne Bay. It's a great spot for a quick dip in a sheltered bay or take your fishing nets and see what can be found in the rock pools.
Many rock pools have fresh spring water bubbling up from deep underground. It's always a surprise to show young children they can drink the water. There are beautiful homes for adults to dream about and lots of sandy spots for children to build their own dream homes, at a fraction of the cost. Thorne Bay can be accessed from Minnehaha Ave, Takapuna.
3. Animal love at Ambury Regional Park
If you can't afford a trip to one of the farm attractions or zoos, don't forget Auckland Council's own farm near Mangere Bridge. Cows, sheep, turkeys, chickens, rabbits and pigs roam the paddocks.
There's also a Lost Gardens walk, which is a 25-minute ramble starting at the woolshed and heading over the farm. You might spot a cow being milked or a new lamb finding its way.
Lamb feeding starts this weekend and runs until Ambury Farm Day on October 6 (Saturday and Sunday 8am, 12pm, 4pm; weekdays 8am, 4pm). It does get very busy so it's first in, first served for the kids to feed the lambs (parents only get a go if there's a spare bottle). There'll be about 15 lambs this weekend and that should double over the next few weeks. Calves are fed daily at 7.30am and 3.30pm. There are signs around the park to remind you to take care around the animals; be considerate to the mums anxious around their babies. The farm is close to the city but feels like you've had a break in the country for the day.
4. Kid around at Karaka Bay
For a summer-holiday beach feel on a gorgeous winter afternoon, head to the hidden gem of Karaka Bay in Glendowie. There's local personality and flair at every turn, from the selection of mailboxes at the top of the winding walkway, to the large flags parading in one resident's front yard. There are also shady spots, water lapping on shells and trees to swing from.
It's here that New Zealand's first governor, William Hobson, met with local Maori chiefs in 1840 as they added their signatures to The Treaty of Waitangi so there are options to give your children a little history lesson while you're digging in the sand. Access off Peacock St - don't let kids run too fast down the steep pathway.
5. Ships ahoy at Orakei Marina
When children are young, they don't need the real thing to be impressed. Mine love to see all the boats around the Orakei Marina and walk out along the rocks to find the mini-lighthouse..
Spot the big version across the water with the Bean Rock lighthouse or just stop and chat to the friendly sea-folk who always have a tall tale to tell the kids as you pass.
Park on Tamaki Drive in Okahu Bay and take the scooters for a ride - we always aim for the play park in Mission Bay, but there are plenty of distractions along the way, including kayakers, sandy beaches and a restful sit-down to watch the view, usually with an icecream.
6. Winning ways at Western Springs
An oldie but a goodie, Western Springs is perfect for an interesting day out - historical, pastoral and peaceful.
The playground at the Auckland Zoo end is well appointed for all ages and the tracks around the lake are perfect for learning to ride a bike. There are flocks of birds to feed for those who fancy an avian encounter, although some visitors do find them a little menacing. If you're lucky, the lions who share a border with the playground might do a chorus of deep roars, and sometimes you can even catch a free peek through the fence. The eels and squads of monstrous carp, seemingly suspended in the murky lake waters, are quite a sight, too. The tram is still fabulous value for money; from one Motat base to the other, it's just $1 one way or $2 return for adults, 50c each way for children and free for under 5s.
7. What to expect at Whatipu
If you're ready for dramatic shorelines, head to wild West Coast beaches. Our favourite is Whatipu with its sand-dunes to run down, caves to find, train tracks from the old Piha tramway and white spirula to collect and make patterns in the black sand. The missionary history is interesting and the views are always breathtaking, even on the most peaceful morning.
Try your luck heading to the lighthouse when the tide is low or spot the Manukau Heads Lighthouse from a different perspective. Stop on the way home at the Huia Settler's Museum or at Cornwallis for a walk along the wharf. Stock up on food and coffee at the Huia Beach Store and Cafe on the way to Whatipu. It's been the general store here for over 120 years.
8. Stock up on resources from the library
Ask a librarian to help you find nature books suitable for your child's age. Make a checklist of birds, bugs and plants they might be able to find on a nature walk and head out with either a bucket or a pen-and-paper checklist. Finding fresh ideas at the library can turn any walk around the block into a magical adventure for a young child. There are also story times at local libraries for free entertainment on a rainy day. Some also do story times in the local parks, such as the Albany Village Library under the trees in Kell Park.
9. Ducks and history at the Domain
Ancient tree roots to run along, hungry ducks to feed and exotic plants in the Wintergardens make the Domain one of the best spots to take young children. We love playing hide and seek in the fernery. If you time your visit right you can help feed the fish in the hot-house ponds. They'll let you stroke their noses if you're gentle enough. Head to Lovers Walk across the road from the duck ponds to see springwater bubbling up out of a waterfall.
Stand at the top of a hill overlooking the grandstand and you might be able to spot a volcanic "bomb" nestled between the trees - it looks like a cow pat, but is hard. You can get a sense of the extinct volcano cone around you; it stretches from the Auckland hospital to the museum and will give the kids a bit of perspective on the region as they race down its slopes.
10. Spring blooms at the Auckland Botanic Gardens
Pick up a map and some duck food at the entrance and let the kids explore the magnificent Auckland Botanic Gardens. There are sculptures to wow both kids and adults. My favourite is the Peter Lange brick rowboat and tent, but my children love the sculpture made out of spades, which gives me the creeps. There's a kids' playground with interactive elements and giant eggshells to climb in and out of, plus plenty of spots for a picnic. Magnolias are still in bloom, spring flowers are bursting out as we speak so there are always new sights and smells to discover on every visit.
We'd love to know what some of your favourite free kids' adventures around Auckland are. Email us at email@example.com