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Cheap Family Activities: 30 Great Ideas

Updated on March 18, 2009

School breaks are fast approaching! Considering today’s economy, unemployment rates rising, and gas prices fluctuating from day to day, not many families can afford a big vacation. But you need not spend a lot of money to have a good time with your family. Fun can be found where you least expect it! See the following ideas to get you started.

1. Community calendar
Chances are, your community has much more going on than you even realize. Check your nearest newspaper’s website for community activities, or call your local parks and recreation and ask for a calendar. Most communities have classes, concerts, performances, and meetings that you must seek out to find. Consider your nearest college campus as well. They often offer concerts, lectures, and performances at greatly discounted prices.

2. Museums
What museums are in your community? Go to Google, type your area’s biggest city name and the word “museums”. Most likely, a list of options will appear. I have three museums within ten minutes of me: a small art museum, a children’s museum, and a museum about Harry Houdini. If I drive a little further I can also find a railroad museum and a historical home turned museum.

3. Visit a local farm
Even if you live in the city, if you’re willing to take a short drive, you can find lovely home-run farms that are open to the public. Depending on the season, they may offer berry or apple picking. Many even have hay rides or petting zoos. Put the hand sanitizer away for a little bit and let your children really get in touch with the environment.>

4. Play the tourist
What would someone do if they were visiting your city for the first time? Where do you take friends or relatives who come to visit? Have you ever checked out your area’s tourism website? Try looking at your city through fresh eyes. You’ll see there is a lot to do that you’ve forgotten about.

5. Budget theaters & matinee
There are probably one or more theaters within driving distance from your house that show films that have just left movie theater circulation. These theaters play movies that are between opening in theaters and being released on video for a discounted fee, often just a few dollars. If one of these is not available, check into a weekday matinee or online for coupons. You’ll gain entrance to the fun of a movie theater experience for a fraction of the price.

6. Arts and crafts
There’s nothing many kids love more than creating something with their own hands. Hunt around your house and pull together as many coloring materials, paints, beads, feathers, fabric scraps, buttons, and miscellaneous materials as you can find. Then brainstorm with your children a project to make out of these supplies and spend the day putting it together. If art supplies aren’t readily available, head to your nearest craft store and buy one of the handy craft project kits they offer. You can find anything from hand puppets to sun catchers for just a couple dollars!

7. Check out your library!
Cash strapped America is rediscovering the joy of public libraries. It’s so much more than just books. Your local library probably offers DVDs and CDs to rent- so you can skip the cost of renting movies altogether! There may be clubs or activities for your children, from story time to book discussions to classes. And many libraries are now renting tickets to museums, amusement parks, and more!

8. Have a movie night
Rediscover the joy of family movie night! Pull out a brand new title, or show your kids one of your old favorites. Pop some popcorn, pull out some snacks, put blankets on the floor, and turn out the lights. You can make this one a weekly event!

9. Break out the board games
Here’s another classic family activity to rediscover. If you have good memories of your own family, chances are some of those memories include laughing together around a board game or deck of cards. Again, pull out a brand new game you can all learn together, or teach your kids one of your old favorites.

10. Local pool
Most parents can attest to the fact that if you get your kids near water, they will stay and play as long as you’ll let them. But for the sake of this article- Cheap Family Activities”- don’t just sit on the sidelines and watch, get in the water and play with your kids! Check around your area, different pools offer different features, from snack stands to toddler pools to diving boards and water slides. This particular option is also a great way to wear out kids who have a little too much energy! (See more on dealing with active children at:

11. Stay at a local hotel
Growing up, when my family needed a little break from the daily grind, we would drive to the nearest big city (a half hour’s drive), and stay overnight in a hotel there. We didn’t do anything extravagant; we would order pizza in the room and swim in the pool for hours, but it was the change of scenery that was fun and refreshing for the whole family. Try heading to a nearby hotel for a night or two. If you can pull it off on a weeknight, you can get a better deal.

12. Local zoos or petting zoos
Most kids love animals and can spend hours getting lost at a zoo. If you have a major city zoo near you and can afford the tickets, consider making it a splurge. (Or, as mentioned in idea #7, check if your local library rents out tickets.) If not, there are hundreds of smaller zoos across the nation who offer lovely experiences for a much smaller price, or even a donation. If not a full-fledged zoo, find your nearest petting zoo and let your kids experience getting up close and personal with nature.

13. Minor league teams
Enjoy America’s favorite pastime- or a number of other sports- by checking out a minor league team. Even if you have access to a major league team, by the time you pay for travel, parking, tickets, food, and souvenirs- phew! Enjoy the same atmosphere and fun and dial down the price by getting friendly with the minor leagues.

14. Visit a beach or lake
Take a drive to your nearest beach, be it ocean, lake, or man-made. These destinations have the water advantages of local pools (#10), but with the added bonus of sand. Playing in the sand is another natural fun activity for kids. Bring a few buckets and shovels, throw in children’s imaginations, and you’ve got a recipe for entertainment. As for the negative aspect of sand, many parents swear by sprinkling your kids with baby powder or cornstarch and brushing sand right off. As for the buckets and such, take them in a mesh bag, or even a laundry basket, and just rinse the sand off in the water before you leave.

15. Look up coupons for your area
Do a quick search online for local businesses and attractions in your area and include the word “coupon”. It doesn’t take much luck to come up with quiet a few deals. Everything from a few dollars off admittance to buy one, get one half off.

16. Throw a potluck
It takes a lot of dough to throw a party, but you can lighten the load by having all your invitees lift a little of the burden. You provide drinks and paper goods, and ask everyone to bring a meal or dessert to be shared. You can even have a theme; have everyone bring different kinds of sandwiches or taco toppings or just have a night of appetizers and sweets.

17. Rent a Wii
If you don’t have a Wii already, you’ve probably heard all the excitement over the newest trend in gaming systems. It’s not just sitting and staring blindly at a screen anymore, it’s physical and interactive as you use the motion-sensitive controllers to act out what you want to see done on screen. Everyone can get involved in this- from grandma to your preschooler. It may not be the right time to invest in this extravagance, but you could rent one for a few days from your local video store. Grab a few games that will appeal to your family, from bowling to music!

18. Miniature golf
Some may call it putt-putt, but whatever your name for the game, it can be a lot of family fun. All ages and skill levels can play. If your children are a wide range of ages or you’re worried about teasing, don’t keep score. Toss the pencil and paper and just have fun.

19. Pack up a picnic
A simple meal becomes so much more interesting when eaten somewhere new. Pack up sandwiches, hot dogs, or your family’s favorite and head to a fun spot. This could be a park, a scenic spot, or even an empty field near an airport where you can watch planes take off and land. Eat outside on a blanket or in the car with the radio on. Get your kids involved in picking the meal, the location, and the preparation of the food and this will be a hit.

20. Enjoy the great outdoors
Camping has been a longtime favorite of families who need a budget friendly vacation. There are state and national parks dotting the country where you could spend one night camping with your family and test the waters. Not a big fan of getting out in nature? Set up a tent in the backyard and enjoy the fun of sleeping under the stars while still having access to all your modern conveniences. If it’s cold or rainy, you could even set up a tent in your basement or living room. This is a guaranteed winner!

21. Bake with your kids
Brave the mess and get your kids in the kitchen. Make an easy recipe like peanut butter cookies or let them get physical and bake some bread- whatever strikes your fancy. Just get everyone involved: measuring, mixing, pouring, scooping, baking, and cooling. And of course, everyone gets to help taste. Afterward- who needs all those baked goods sitting around? Keep only a few to eat, and give the rest away to someone who needs a little pick-me-up!

22. Check out your local YMCA
Go to your local YMCA and get physical together. You can pay for a one day pass and check out the facilities, from the swimming pool to the basketball courts to classes. If you’re interested in more, check on joining. It’s surprisingly affordable, and the YMCA is willing to work with you based on your family’s income.

23. Local fairs and festivals
If you live in or near an active community, check with your city hall and see what events are coming up. Your city or one near you may be offering sidewalk sales, farmer’s markets, and celebrations of local culture. Our area holds Dutch festivals, jazz festivals, an Oktoberfest, and more. Don’t miss out on potential fun just because you haven’t heard about it or have never checked it out!

24. Check with your local parks and recreation
Your parks and recreation department probably has more to offer than you realize. Contact your local department for a calendar of events and offerings. You could participate in community family outings, ballroom dancing classes, or even cooking lessons.

25. Volunteer together
There is not much that can bond people more strongly than serving others together. Search out opportunities to volunteer in your community. It can be official and scheduled, such as a homeless shelter or nursing home, or it could be spontaneous and driven by you- mowing lawns, cleaning parks, or babysitting for a single mother. Your children may balk at this one at first, but if you get them involved and brainstorming about how and who they want to help, you’ll see a huge difference after the experience. To find volunteering opportunities in your area, visit or

26. Throw a yard sale
That’s right! If your kids are old enough, and everyone participates, this could be a lot of fun. Each person can go through their room, clothes, and possessions and clean out stuff they don’t need or want anymore. Then place it all attractively in your driveway on a Saturday, make some huge, bright signage, and sell it all off. Have a charity come pick up what’s left over. Afterwards, use your profits towards some of these family activities!

27. Bowling
You don’t have to be a good bowler to have a lot of fun bowling. And children as young as three years old can enjoy this one as long as your bowling alley offers bumpers. Go on a weekday or night and you may save money versus a weekend. If your kids are old enough and you’re up for it, take them for galactic- or glow-in-the-dark, bowling. Don’t take yourselves too seriously, and you’ll end up having some serious fun.

28. Make a scavenger hunt
Send your kids on a scavenger hunt. You could add in friends or cousins and create teams to work against each other, or just have your kids work as one group. This can be as big or small as you’d like it. You can plan anywhere from three to twenty clues and hold your hunt in your house, your yard, a park, even around the neighborhood. To make it simple, order one of these prefabricated scavenger hunts.

29. Find a new park
If your kids groan at the thought of going to the park, it might just be that they’re bored with the same old routine. Look up the biggest and best park in your area and head over for the day. It may still just be swings and slides, but a new set-up will keep your kids happy for hours. You could even incorporate #19 with this one and take a picnic lunch along!

30. Make your own drive-in movie
Most of us don’t have our own projection systems, but you can rent one. Hang a sheet on the side of your house (or on an indoor wall if the weather is bad), wait till it gets dark, and play a family movie on the big screen! Lie on blankets or use lawn chairs. Make sure everyone has bug spray- or at least burn a citronella candle. And don’t forget the popcorn!


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