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Free Things to do With Kids This Summer

Updated on July 12, 2012

Between limited budgets and the struggling economy, American families have less money than ever to spend on summer activities. But that doesn't stop the kids from being home from school all summer, or the fact that they need to be kept busy. And for some school districts, summer vacation has been extended by days or even weeks. As they look forward to hours in front of video game system, extra time to torture their siblings, or finally starting that bug collection in the guest bathroom, parents are frantically searching for ways to keep them busy and out of trouble.

Kids are only young once. There are a million things to do, places to see and bills to be paid. It seems like everywhere that 'everyone' goes costs a fortune. If you ever have to choose between paying the electrical bill and going to the waterpark, choose the electric bill. You'll miss the memories...but it's not worth being left in the dark. Besides, there are a thousand and one things you can do for free...or at least for negligible costs like picnic food and transportation (And gas isn't cheap these days).

With the recent Staycation campaign, local venues are beginning to advertise and offer specials to non-tourists. There are lots of articles on holding a staycation. But you don't have to call it a staycation just to have fun from home. These are just a few of our favorite 'we're not on vacation' summer vacation activities.



If you have big kids who balk at the idea of park play, hand them a camera and ask them to help document the day. Or make up a scrapbook of your local parks. You might not appreciate all the pictures taken, such as broken sprinklers or mysterious mud piles, but your goal is to get the kids out in the sunshine and moving. Digital pictures are easy to delete. And among the pictures of oddly shaped sticks and siblings sticking their tongues out you just might find a priceless gem or two.

Local Parks

The obvious choice is the one often overlooked by parents of kids beyond the sandbox years. Head out for your local playground. Even older kids, ages 8, 9, and even 12 and 13, can enjoy a trip to the playground. Rather than challenging themselves on monkey bars or gathering the courage to tackle a tall slide, older kids may engage in more imaginative play (Lava Monster is a popular playground game, but superhero roleplay and deserted islands or lost animal fantasies are common even among older kids. The older ones are less likely to admit that they're pretending to be a horse in search of a new stable, but that doesn't mean they aren't having fun.) Older kids are also more likely to get engaged in games of tag or pick up games of soccer or basketball.

You might frequent the closest playground; but think outside the box. Spending every day at the same park can get boring. You'll be seeing the same faces, the same equipment, and the same old games might start to get old. So pull out a map, or look up your home on Google maps, and see if there's a park nearby that you haven't explored yet. Then go exploring. Maybe you'll find a new favorite playground. Or maybe you'll find a flop. Either way, you can have fun and document your adventures with pictures.

Find Treasure!

Need some motivation getting those kids out the door and into the woods? Consider starting up a low cost hobby like geocaching, waymarking, or letterboxing. Learn the rules, practice stealth (so others can enjoy the game after you leave), and save some clues or directions to your smartphone. (You can print them up if you don't have a smartphone) When there's a distinct purpose to the trip, even if the purpose is to trade cheap plastic party toys for new cheap plastic party toys or find a distinct image, the kids are more cooperative and you have a ready made answer for "When can we go ho-o-ome?"

Is there treasure in there?
Is there treasure in there? | Source

Take a Hike

Although many state parks are defraying costs by charging an arm and a leg for parking; there are plenty of nature preserves and open space areas that don't charge entry fees. Find one, and stop by.

What do you mean your kids aren't into hiking? You don't have to stuff a backpack full of accessories or invest in rock climbing gear. Simple hikes can be as easy to manage as a short walk in the woods. Many nature preserves are located in the middle of civilisation. They have working bathrooms (not just a pit or portable toilet). They have easy to navigate trails, and places to just sit and commune. Although the highway may be just hidden from sight by a row of trees, and some preserves run into some carefully maintained back yards, the benefits of getting out there are worth the visit. Not only does going 'hiking' require turning off the video games and getting some fresh air, it turns on kids brains. They use skills of observation, begin to notice the differences between trees and look for bugs. They might spot wildlife and gain an appreciation for the bigger world. They also can climb trees and boulders instead of carefully designed jungle gyms. Exposing children to natural outdoors settings may also decrease symptoms of ADHD.

If you do decide to go hiking, plan ahead. Get an idea of the trails, look for a trail map so you don't get lost, and don't forget to pack plenty of water and a light snack. Don't forget the bug spray and sunscreen, too! Wear long pants and sturdy shoes (no flip flops on the trails) and know what to watch out for, and how to identify poison oak. While hiking is healthy, tick bites and poison oak aren't.

Visit a Museum

Although a lot of bigger museums, and children's museums, charge hefty ticket fees, there are lots of quirky little local venues that have free entry. And then there are places that offer free first Wednesdays, Thursdays, Sundays and any day in between. Look up your local offerings and plan out a trip when you can get in for a discount. Check out your local library, too. Some offer ticket deals or parking vouchers that make visiting local attractions a lot more affordable for library patrons.

Don't get caught thinking your kids are too young to appreciate a museum trip. While some kids might be bored, you can spice the trip up by providing a scavenger hunt sheet. You might also be surprised at how excited kids get to see dilapidated baskets made hundreds of years ago. If you act excited, the kids will often match or exceed your enthusiasm. And if not, as long as you went for the cheaper offerings, you are free to leave and have learned that your kids aren't interested in...whatever it was that specific museum had to offer. But if they are interested, you might have a new place to escape the heat; and a new passion to indulge with internet searches and library trips.


Check out a Book

Literally. Pack up your kids and head down to the local library. There are books on just about anything imaginable. Plus, many libraries offer a variety of FREE summer programs for kids. There are some that even offer incentives for reading books during summer vacation. Some libraries offer a variety of free presentations for adults, too. An afternoon at the library can provide you with a week's worth (or more) of books and DVDs or blu-ray discs. It also teaches your kids to value reading, and will help keep them from falling too far behind in school during the long summer break. The most important thing, is that it's fun.

Staying in?

If it's too hot to go out, or the gas prices have you in hiding, don't despair. Fill up the plastic pool and add some ice. Or give the kids small squirt bottles with vinegar and some old (not breakable) seasoning canisters filled with baking soda and let them experiment with the fizz. Or do both.

Spray water at each other for a game of low tech laser tag where everyone wins (and loses).

Make no bake cookies and watch a movie marathon. Try some old sitcoms or cartoons from your childhood, like Alf or He-Man. Your kids will find them corny, you'll enjoy the trip down memory lane, and you'll all appreciate the bonding time. There are a lot of classic 'gems' available on free-to-watch sites like Hulu if you don't have a service like Netflix.

Print up some pictures and make scrapbooks together, the old fashioned way. Encourage the children, especially younger ones, to write out their own memories and information they want to share. It costs ink, but builds priceless memories and uses up a lot of art supplies you might already have lying around. While you're at it, you could also go through those thousands of photos you have in boxes and have the kids help you digitize them...they'll love hearing stories you have to share, and you'll finally get the important ones scanned and saved.

Whatever you do this summer, remember to enjoy it. It's the only one your kids will get at this stage in their life; so make the most of it.


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    • jpcmc profile image

      JP Carlos 

      6 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

      These are good suggestions. It is always best to take kids to different places and experience different things. this way they get to learn more and appreciate everything around them.

    • typeface profile image


      6 years ago

      Great hub! I am babysitting 11 and 12 year old girls over the summer and being only 16 myself (therefore not being able to drive) I was struggling for fun ideas to do around the house without being in front of a screen all day. I have some ideas but these are some great backups! Thank you :)

    • RTalloni profile image


      6 years ago from the short journey

      It's so important to keep these type of activities in mind for kids get burned out with all the organized/commercial activities that are available. Grownups have to help them change their ideas on recreation or they will not even know how to enjoy reading or hiking or… Good stuff. :)

    • Esmeowl12 profile image

      Cindy A Johnson 

      6 years ago from Sevierville, TN

      I love all these ideas. Having fun doesn't have to cost money. Voted up and useful!

    • AnnRandolph profile image


      6 years ago

      Great ideas. We used to like to "camp out" on the back porch and catch lightning bugs when it got dark.


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