I always breathe a sigh of relief when the school year ends because it means I get a reprieve from shuttling kids to and from school and various after-school activities. But then a new challenge arises: How to keep my three children entertained and avoid hearing the refrain, “I’m bored.”
The even bigger challenge is finding fun activities that don’t blow the household budget. Of course, it can be tempting to rely on the TV to keep them occupied because it’s easy and cheap. But I’ve found several ways for my children to have fun in the summer without spending a fortune.
Take Advantage of Free Community Events
Most communities — even small ones — offer a variety of free family-friendly activities in the summer. For example, I’ve been taking my kids for years to free midday concerts in the park in June and Friday evening concerts in the park in July and August. My city’s population is just 63,616 but has free festivals and a variety of other kid-friendly events.
You can find out what events are happening in your area by checking the websites of your local government, convention and visitors bureau or chamber of commerce. You also can do a search online for “free activities” and your city. Or check your local parent magazine or community events publication.
After researching community events, I create a calendar of the ones I’d like my family to attend so we don’t miss any free activities.
Related: 30 Ways to Stop Spoiling Your Kid
See Free and Low-Cost Movies
Several movie theater chains offer super-cheap admission to daytime showings of kids movies. The movies aren’t new releases, so your kids might have seen them already. But this is still a great low-cost activity on rainy days or days when it’s too hot to be outside.
For example, Regal Cinemas — which has two theaters where I live — charges just $1 on Tuesdays and Wednesdays for 10 a.m. showings of recently-released, family-friendly movies. Other theaters with summer movie programs include Cinemark Theatres, which charges $1, and Marcus Theaters, which charges $3.
My kids also love watching movies outdoors at night on the lawn of a local dairy farm that doesn’t charge for the films but sells its ice cream at the events. To find out if there are similar events in your community, search online for “movies on the lawn” or “free movies” and your city.
Stay Cool Without a Pricey Pool Membership
My family has found fun ways to stay cool in the summer without paying for a pool membership. When my two oldest children were little, we would turn an inflatable kiddie pool into a giant bubble bath — which made it infinitely more fun for them. Now that they’re preteens, they love spraying each other and their younger brother with the hose, having water balloon fights or sliding on the Slip’N Slide in the yard.
We also take them to publicly-accessible creeks and streams, where they can splash and hunt for tadpoles or catch and release tiny fish in nets. Or we head to a nearby lake, where they can swim in the public beach area.
We’re fortunate to have a river that runs through our backyard and gets shallow enough in the summer for the kids to safely swim in. When their friends join them, they often comment that it’s more fun playing in the river than in a pool.
We get our kids into the great outdoors by taking them hiking. We head out early — to avoid the summer heat — to nearby trails that don’t cost a dime to hike.
You might be able to find trails at public parks, state parks or national parks near you. For example, Mammoth Cave National Park is just a short drive from where I live. And there’s no charge to hike the park’s trails — only fees for cave tours. If you have a child in your family who is a fourth grader, you get free access this year to all federal lands as part of the Every Kid in a Park program.
Get Discounts on Classes and Camps
We usually enroll our kids in at least one day camp in the summer so they can learn a new skill or improve ones they already have. But the cost of camp — even day camp — isn’t cheap.
With more than one child, the costs can add up really quick. But you might be able to get a sibling discount if you’re enrolling more than one child in a class or camp. For example, our children’s art teacher offers a 10 percent discount for siblings who enroll in her week-long summer camps. She also offers a scholarship program for children in need.
If you don’t see a discount advertised, don’t be afraid to ask about ways to get a lower price, such as by getting referrals or registering for more than one class. You might be surprised by the deals you’ll get.
Create Your Own Camp
One summer, I created a camp-like experience for my kids at home with a variety of activities, such as scavenger hunts and a camp out in the yard. My oldest daughter’s favorite activity was researching edible plants that grow in the wild then finding them in our yard. We made tea from clover and discovered a plant that can help soothe bug bites — which has come in handy many times.
You can pick a theme — such as art, nature, astronomy or cultures from around the world — and create an itinerary with help from free online resources.
Get the Kids Cooking
All of my kids love cooking. Even my 4 year old helps stir the batter for pancakes. My oldest can spend hours researching recipes and making treats for us to sample. She and my middle child will even have competitions to see what sort of dish they can create with a certain ingredient.
You can turn cooking into an event by taking the kids to a pick-your-own berry patch or orchard or a farmers market to find fresh ingredients for muffins, a cake or an entire meal. The only cost will be the ingredients, and the kids will learn a valuable skill while having fun.
Let Kids Volunteer
My daughters love animals, so I take them to the local animal shelter to help as volunteers. Basically, they get to cuddle with kittens and walk dogs. I just have to make it clear that they can’t take one home with them.
Not only will giving kids an opportunity to volunteer help keep them occupied in the summer, it will also help them become more engaged with their community and learn the value of helping others. Plus, it’s a free activity — though you might also have to give your time if your children are younger and can’t be left on their own.
Give Kids Opportunities to Earn Money
Most kids probably wouldn’t consider doing chores to be entertaining. But giving them an opportunity to earn some cash will teach them a lesson in the value of working for money — and keep them busy. Some might enjoy the chance to make money so much that they’ll ask for more ways to earn.
For example, my two oldest children have made money vacuuming the house, cleaning out my husband’s car and babysitting their younger brother while I’m at home working. They like being able to earn cash, and I like not having to hear, “I’m bored.”