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Thrifty Summer with Kids

Updated on May 28, 2013

No Money for Summer Vacation?

Let's face it. We're not all made of money. If you have kids, chances are that you might be the opposite: money just sort of disappears when it approaches you and your family. Fortunately, having a fun-filled summer break with your children does not have to drain your bank account (if you have anything in there to begin with).

You don't have to travel and you don't have to stay home. Get out and explore your local area. Small towns often have amazingly kid-friendly events and programs, especially throughout the summer. Even more amazing: most of these activities are very inexpensive, if not outright free.

If money wasn't an issue....

Where would you take your family for summer vacation?

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Public Facilities that Offer Free Programs for Kids

Local governments kind of have a vested interest in the enhancement of childhood in their areas (at least, they should). Summer provides a perfect opportunity to offer free programs that a) keep kids out of trouble and b) teach kids how to be contributing members of society. Thanks to the magic of the internet, finding the programs in your area is as simple as entering the name of your city or town into a search engine. The town's website sometimes includes a downloadable packet containing information about family-friendly activities.

  • Library - Most public libraries offer a free summer reading program. In some areas these programs have widened their age range to include children ages 1-16. It is also important to note that the library is often the meeting place of choice for the Lego Club (free)
  • Museum - Who says history has to be boring? You might not live within walking distance of the Smithsonian, but chances are good that your area is home to at least one museum. These small museums tell the rich natural and political history of communities. The cost of visiting such museums is usually minimal. Some museums even offer weekly arts and crafts sessions for specifically for kids.
  • School (Free Summer Lunch) - Public schools districts often offer free lunches during the summer. The venues for the lunches can vary from the school cafeteria to parks and playgrounds. Parents can usually get a lunch for around $2.00.
  • Swimming Pool - Free admissions days are offered at many public pools. I don't think I really need to say more, except be safe and accompany your kids to the pool.
  • Youth Center - For older kids (11+) youth centers offer a multitude of free activities to engage in during the summer. Many of these programs encourage community service, as well. Woot! for positive youth development!

The Cheap Side of Parks and Recreation

Okay, so this might be considered part of "public facilities," but these activities have more of an outdoor focus, so I feel they warrant a separate category.

  • Parks - So this is kind of obvious. I don't really think anyone needs instructions on how to "utilize" a park, but there may be more parks in your community than you realize. Find a map of your town online and the parks should be marked green. Keep your kids on their toes and take them to a different park each week.
  • Events - Holiday celebrations, music festivals, family fun days, you name it. Communities usually keep a calendar of events to be held at large parks. This is just one more thing you might find on your town's website.
  • Walking Trails - As with parks, these can be located on a map. If you are lucky you can find a map that indicates the difficulty of the trail, whether they are accessible to strollers and wheelchairs, and if there are resting points. My community has a scaled, solar system route: there are marker plaques for each planet along the path at scaled intervals. with information about each celestial body. The kids really get into this sort of thing.

Stargazing Apps for Android

  • Stargazing - Speaking of celestial bodies, stargazing is an excellent way to pass summer evenings with you kids. If you live in any sort of rural community, you can drive out to the edge of town, lay out a blanket in the bed of a truck, and look for constellations. There are several great apps for iOS and Android for identifying constellations and planets. If you want to spend a little more, get a telescope.
  • Recreation Center - Look to your local recreation center for outdoor programs for kids. Oftentimes, they will have a biking group that meets once or twice a week. Some even have bike building/repair workshop to help your child get a bike for the cost of some elbow grease.

Make your own Teepee

Family Fun in the Backyard

Isn't it nice to discover that the backyard (or front yard) can be one of the most entertaining places for children? In absolute honesty, this is my favorite place to take my kids during the summer.

  • Gardening - This activity can truly be dirt-cheap. Plants can be grown from food. Avocados and pineapple are some of the easiest and most fun to grow. Planters can be made from food containers with holes poked into the bottom. If you really want to entertain the kids, try worm composting.
  • Backyard Campout - Pitch a tent in the yard, grab some blankets and flashlights, and make some stove-top s'mores. If you don't have a tent, you can make a fairly primitive teepee with some poles and a couple of flat sheets.
  • Nature Collection - This presents a truly educational opportunity for the kids. The backyard is like a miniature jungle, with all sorts of creepy crawlies waiting to be discovered and cataloged. Snail shells, spider skeletons, cocoons, and feathers can be collected in jars or pinned to boards and framed as keepsakes for the little explorers.
  • Sidewalk Chalk - This is an oldie, but goodie. The world becomes a canvas to the young artist armed with sidewalk chalk. Cornstarch and food coloring can be used to make homemade, natural "chalk" and it can be dissolved in spray bottles to become "spray paint."
  • Bubbles - Another classic, not to be left out. Bubbles are extremely inexpensive, but you can opt to make your own solution from dish soap and water, while using soda rings or pipe cleaners as bubble wands.

Basics for Gardening with Kids

Indoor Activities for Kids that Don't Involve a Screen

  • Cooking - Evidence shows that kids are more likely to eat vegetables if they assist in meal preparation. There are plenty of very simple, very healthy meals that children can prepare with their parents.
  • Arts and crafts - I love arts and crafts and I love recycling and I love not spending money. Trash to treasure is an activity that involves all of these. Basically, you use paper towel tubes, popsicle sticks, empty cereal boxes and milk jugs (trash) as art supplies to make awesome creations (treasure). There are plenty of tutorials on how to make specific treasures out of specific trash, but I like to just dump egg cartons and twist-ties on the table with some scissors and glue and let my kids go to town. It keeps them busy for hours.
  • Board games - Of course, this would include Candyland and Monopoly, but it also includes games like dominoes, cards, dice, and bingo. Don't have any of these games? Well, luckily for you, it is quite simple to make your own checkerboard out of cardboard (think "trash to treasure"). Your kids can even invent their own game if they're feeling ambitious.
  • Read - I shouldn't have to mention this, but its amazing how people can forget about the power of the written word. Really, go read! Books, comics, magazines, the back of a cereal box, anything. Just read with your kids!
  • Build a fort - Do your kids like to strip all the cushions off your living room furniture? Mine do. Every. Darn. Day. So, I decided to follow the old adage, "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

Kids Can Have Fun While Making Money

Here's a revolutionary idea: instead of spending money to entertain your kids, keep them from getting bored by having them run a business. And think, the little buggers might actually learn something, as well. Its a triple-win situation.

  • Lemonade Stand - The old standby for entrepreneurial kids. I don't think it will ever go out of style
  • Can Collection - Ooh! This adds in a fourth win because its good for the environment!
  • Grocery carrier - If you live in a close-knit neighborhood or and apartment complex, its possible for kids to make a few bucks by offering to help carry groceries for the neighbors.
  • Selling homemade play dough - These recipes are everywhere (google play-do recipes). Help your kids mix up a big batch and package them in individual baggies to sell. Bonus: Set up a table with cookie cutters and rolling pins for kids who want to start playing with their dough.
  • Yard Sale - If your kids are willing, have them sort through their toys and clothes for items they no longer want. You might want to supervise the sorting just to make sure they don't decide to sell broken toys or family heirlooms.

Thank Your Community

Most of these programs are made possible through the contributions of donors, volunteers, and, yes, the tax payer.

Take a moment to give a shout-out to everyone in your community working to make sure that children have a safe, fun, and educational summer.


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      anndango 4 years ago

      What great suggestions! I used to take advantage of a lot of these free or almost free activities with my kids when they were little. Your ideas go to show that you don't need to spend money to have fun!