Summer can get really expensive when you have kids. The cost of vacations, summer camps and extra day care can add up to a big bill that can darken even the brightest of sunny days.
Here are some ideas on how you — sometimes with the help of your friends and neighbors — can organize inexpensive, fun and often educational activities for your kids. Not every idea will work at every age or with every child, but chances are that you can a few things here that will work for you and your kids.
These ideas also try to tackle the tough balance between the amount of time you have and the amount of money you can spend over the time.
1. Go treasure hunting
Many classic children’s stories are filled with tales of lost or buried treasure. To give your kids an inexpensive way of experiencing this kind of adventure, consider investing in a metal detector. You can get the Ground EFX MC1 Youth Metal Detector (about $55 on Amazon), and it’s the kind of investment that could keep them occupied for hours. And who knows? One good find and it could pay for itself!
2. Organize a movie afternoon
No matter where you live, there are likely to be rainy summer afternoons when many of the fun summer activities that you’d like to do with your kids and their friends just aren’t possible. For those days, consider organizing a movie afternoon around a theme — perhaps a marathon of some of their favorite movies. You could even coordinate with neighbors and have each movie happening at a different house — spreading the fun around and giving yourself a break. Many movies are available on Amazon Prime and HBO either at a discount or for free.
3. Visit the local science center
Science centers are another great option for a rainy or cloudy day — and the kind of place you could take your own kids and some of their friends too. (In exchange, maybe those kids’ parents could take yours on another day!) Not only are science centers a lot of fun for kids, they also offer interactive activities and opportunities for learning always welcome on a summer schedule. Some centers offer discounted annual memberships or family passes, which may be worthwhile if you think you’ll visit several times a year. To find out more, take a peek at this list of top science centers around the country from Parents Magazine.
4. Play games at the beach or pool
Swimming and playing in the sand are always a good options. You can step it up a notch with water games at the beach or the pool — and some don’t require any equipment. To play Marco Polo, you only need three people. (Wikihow describes how to play a couple of different versions here if you need a refresher.) If you want to toss a Frisbee on the beach, have a sand castle competition or play a little water volleyball, you’ll need to bring along a few beach toys. But most are cheap and readily available at dollar stores, drug stores and big box retailers throughout the summer.
5. Go biking
There’s nothing like a great ride with kids on a beautiful summer day. Depending on your kids’ ages, the ride may also include some instruction in the more basic elements of cycling. Bike riding with kids can be an inexpensive activity once you have the equipment for them — bikes and helmets, basically — and that you pack things you’ll need when you’re out, including water, snacks and some Band-Aids just in case.
6. Go geocaching
If you liked treasure hunting with a metal detector, you and your kids may have even more fun with geocaching. Think of it as a technology-driven scavenger hunt played with strangers. Geocaching involves downloading an app that provides GPS information to help you find “geocaches” — little treasures hidden in your area by other players. When you locate a geocache — which are normally left in small waterproof containers — you update the logbook within. In some, you will find small objects left behind by others — the tradition is you take one knickknack and leave one of your own for the next person who finds that cache. Visit Geocaching.com to learn how to track down geocaches or create them for other players to find. This activity, which can involve trudging through the woods or exploring urban streets, is a fun challenge for kids of all ages.
7. Play softball
Your kids don’t have to wait until they are old enough to join a league to enjoy some of the basics of baseball. Playing a little recreational softball with friends, siblings and parents can be a fun and enjoyable way to spend a summer afternoon or early evening. This doesn’t require much of an investment, as simple bats, balls and helmets are inexpensive. You just have to find an empty local field. Start by checking out school playgrounds.
8. Go fruit picking
It’s never too early to help your kids understand that really tasty fruit doesn’t come from a store and wrapped in plastic. There’s no better way to get that message across than to take them on a berry-picking expedition along a local trail or at a pick-it-yourself fruit farm. So if berries are in season — and available on public trails — in your area, head out with a bucket, plenty of energy, and have some fun!
9. Have fun at the park
Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best. Just take the kids to the neighborhood park — better still, try a new public park that has a whole different set of swings, places to climb and slides. It’s an outing that doesn’t take a whole lot of organization — and one that you can likely share with neighbors. And, best of all, it’s free.
10. Backyard camping
Going camping can be an exhausting and sometimes expensive endeavor with little kids. But if you have a tent and some sleeping bags, you can give your kids a taste of the camping experience just by setting it up in the back yard. You may even want to make it into a full overnight camping experience — and there will be no campground fees, struggling with a campfire or dealing with the obnoxious people in the tent next to yours.
11. Visit a nearby farm or petting zoo
Petting zoos and small farms that cater to young visitors provide a safe and usually inexpensive way to give kids real-world experience with farm animals, which can produce memorable outings and photos.
12. Head to the art gallery
Quite a few public art galleries have programs and activities available for younger kids. See what your local art institutions have on offer.
13. Enjoy the museum
If your kids are fans of the “Night at the Museum” movie series, they may already have the idea that museums can be a lot of fun. Many museums now have displays that are more enjoyable and interactive for kids alongside the traditional exhibits. Admission prices vary a lot, although if you do your research, you can often find free museums. For instance, here’s a list of free museums in New York City.
14. Go dog walking
So there’s an obvious qualification here: You will need to own — or have access to — one or more dogs. Whether this is a fun activity to do with kids will depend a lot on their age and temperament, and on how the dog reacts. For some kids, walking the dog will be a lot of fun and will give them a feeling a responsibility. If you don’t have a canine of your own, then you may have a neighbor who may appreciate an offer to walk their dog. If the kids are older, then they may be able to earn a little money doing the dog walking for neighbors.
Before the natural recalcitrance of the teenage years sets in, your kids may well enjoy helping out in the garden. Obviously, you don’t want to give them tasks that are beyond their capability, but even youngsters can enjoy doing a little digging, collecting vegetables and watering flowers. Not only is this activity free, it will (hopefully) leave you with a greener garden and tired-out kids.
16. Go on a picnic
Picnics can get everyone involved, from picking the food you want to take and where you want to go, to loading up any toys you may want to bring along for post-picnic games and fun. With very young kids, it may be a bit arduous. But for kids from about 6 to 11, it could be an ideal way to enjoy a summer afternoon or early evening.
17. Do some face painting
You and your kids will have the most fun with face painting if you do a little planning. Unless you already have what you need, order a face painting kit (such as the Beetastic Face Paint Kit for Kids, on Amazon.com for about $11) and it comes with a range of templates and claims to offer enough paint for at least 60 faces. Plan for the day you want to do the face painting — or keep this activity ready to pull out on a rainy day. You’re all set for a few hours of inexpensive fun.
18. Go fly a kite
Learning to fly a kite is one of those wonderful childhood rites of passage. It’s also one of those experiences that can teach a lot about physics, weather and aerodynamics (even if the average 5-year old doesn’t realize that’s the case). If you’re really energetic, you can build your own kite. But prebuilt kites are so inexpensive now that making your own probably won’t save you much money. Walmart.com, for example, offers a traditional 25-inch diamond-shaped kite for $15.99.
19. Sign up the kids for 4-H
If you’ve heard about 4-H, chances are the you’re familiar with it as an organization principally focused on farming and agriculture-related activities for kids in rural communities. But 4-H has grown and broadened its focus significantly in the last 20 years and is now active in promoting programs for science, engineering and math skills alongside its traditional camps, after-school activities and clubs. See if there’s a 4-H chapter in your area, and you may be able to get your kids in on one of their programs.
20. Go canoeing or kayaking
If there’s a lake or river nearby, renting a canoe or kayak could provide you with just the fun diversion needed for you and your older kids. They’ll get out on the water, get some exercise and learn a great lesson about how you have to work together to get the boat to go where you want. To give you an idea of price, Seattle’s popular Agua Verde Paddle Club charges $18 per hour to rent a double kayak on Lake Union. But remember to get a boat early — in the summer, lines can get long.
21. Do some baking
This doesn’t have to be a rainy summer day activity, but it probably will be — simply because who feels like baking on a hot day? Helping make a cake or cookies is something that lots of kids enjoy. And what kid doesn’t like helping deal with extra frosting or cookie dough? It’s also a cheap undertaking since you probably already have most or all of the ingredients you need.
22. Write a story together
Here’s a fun way to engage your kids when it’s too hot or rainy to go outside, or if they are tired from all their other activities. You just kick off the story — maybe create a goofy character with a mission or who’s at the start of an adventure — and then the kids take turns adding a few paragraphs at a time. With younger kids, you may end up being the scribe who takes down each person’s piece of the story. And then you can get each of them to draw pictures to illustrate what they’ve written. If you’re really inspired, you can scan the pictures, type up the story and create a “book” as a souvenir of the day.
Do you have a fun and inexpensive way to have fun with your kids in the summer? Tell us in comments below or on our Facebook page.