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

Update 6/1/20: Depending on where you live and the social distancing guidelines in effect, some of these suggestions may not be possible at present. 

Unless your kids go to a seven-week sleepaway camp (and if so, enjoy not needing my parenting advice for the time being!), they’ll probably be facing a good amount of unscheduled time this summer. But you don’t have to spend a fortune to keep them busy—and away from whatever Nintendo release, or summer blockbuster they’re obsessed with. Here’s a bunch of low-budget, high-impact activities.

Live and learn

A night (or day) at the museum: Take advantage of your museum memberships! Instead of checking out a specific exhibit, ask if the museum has kids’ activities. (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.”

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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 story time to themed book clubs. Plus: free access to computers—and air conditioning. And, of course, books. 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 kids and their friends can teach you. (Note: The Dab is soooo 2017.)

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 Gaga medley online—the internet never forgets.

Junior game marathon: It’s rare to have time to get through a full game of Monopoly Junior or The Game of Life Junior. Throw 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. You’ll be glad you did when you get snowed in next winter.

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Work it

Lemonade stand: If you read me, 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. 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 a good 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 afterwards. (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 in your shiny auto down to the ice cream stand.

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 comments section below what you end up doing, and chime in with your own ideas.

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