Fun summer activities and outings for kids that are free (or close to it)

11 free (or almost free) things to do with your kids this summer

The pandemic made most parents well-practiced at figuring out ways to fill unscheduled time at home. But you’re also probably running out of ideas. The good news: the arrival of summer means the kids will be increasingly out of the house. Consider these low-budget, high-impact activities.

Live and learn

A night (or day) at the museum: Take advantage of those museum memberships that have probably languished over the past couple of years. Instead of checking out a specific exhibit, ask if the museum has kids’ activities—especially outdoor ones. (Most do.) If not, plan a scavenger hunt that sends your little explorers hunting for objects around the museum. For younger kids, the tasks can be as simple as, “Find a sculpture of a baby.” For older kids, the challenges can be more complex: “Find three lion paintings that are more than 100 years old.” Many museums are using timed-entry passes, so it pays to plan ahead.

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Hit the stacks: This may be an “aha” revelation for some people: Local libraries offer tons of free or cheap events and hands-on activities, from arts and crafts to live music to storytime to themed book clubs. Plus: free access to computers—and air conditioning. And the stars of the show: books! Make sure your local branch is open with regular hours—and don’t forget your library cards.

Feeling bookish? Local booksellers may also offer kids’ programming, from readings and signings by your kid’s favorite authors to crafts and writing workshops. Plus, these small businesses need your support.

Get out of the house

Scavenger hunt: While the kids are busy using up their allotted screen time, hide little “treasures” like coins and their favorite packaged snacks in your yard. Then draw a treasure map (arrr!) or just let them run around and search while you shout “hot” and “cold” from the comfort of your hammock. If you don’t have your own outdoor space, hit a local park.

Walking tour: Look for self-guided walking tours at your town hall or historical society that will teach you about the people, buildings, and events that shaped your town or one nearby. Be sure to add a quest for the best ice cream shop—an obligatory final stop for any high-temp summer excursion.

Take a hike: Use a free app—I recommend AllTrails—to look for nearby nature walks geared toward your kids’ ages and abilities. AllTrails gives the details on entrance fees and what you can expect to see along the way. Remember to bring water, snacks, (eco-friendly) bug spray, and long socks to protect ankles from all the itchy things nature has to offer. (Oh, and a mobile charger so your phone doesn’t run out of juice on the trail.)

Party on

Living room discotheque: Half the fun is creating a playlist with your kids on a music-streaming platform—or by grabbing a stack of CDs or records if you’re a real audiophile. Then dance like nobody—except maybe your dog—is watching. Freestyle shamelessly to their favorite songs and hit up YouTube to learn dances like the Cha-Cha Slide or Cotton-Eye Joe. Of course, there are probably a few moves that your TikTok-using kids and their friends can teach you.

Karaoke party: If you have a smart TV, it’s as easy as dialing up a free karaoke channel on YouTube. If you want to kick it up a notch with mics and flashing lights, consider investing in a machine for as little as $50. Just don’t let your kid post your Dua Lipa medley online—the internet never forgets.

Junior game marathon: Throw back to 2020 and get through an entire game of Monopoly Junior or The Game of Life Junior. Add in some Pictionary Junior and Scrabble Junior, while you’re at it. If you’re missing some of these classic board games, invest in one or two of them.

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Work it

Lemonade stand: If you’ve been following me for a while, you know I’m a fan of this summertime classic because it can teach kids about squeezing the most out of a budget—as long as you (the parent) don’t micromanage. So, fight the urge to curate an Insta-worthy dream stand for your kids. Instead, depending on their age and ability, let the little ones make the lemonade, design the signs, decide on prices, and figure out what to do with the profits. Plus, it’s an excellent chance to teach them about charity!

Family car wash: How’s this for practical? Rather than pay for a pricey car wash, have everyone pitch in to wash, polish, and vacuum your family ride. The kids might groan about it, but they’ll feel so accomplished afterward. (Bonus: Who can resist a turn at the hose?) You can pay them, chalk it up to pitching in, or reward them with a cruise down to the ice cream stand in your shiny auto.

I hope these ideas get you through the summer without taking a bite out of your savings—and give you some quality time with the fam. Let me know in the comments section below what you end up doing, and chime in with your own ideas.

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