From Our Readers: Fun, Low-Cost Summer Activities

Our readers come up with creative ideas for fun, low-cost summer activities.

By GreatSchools Staff

Thanks to the many readers who shared their ideas for how to fill those long summer days without spending a fortune.

Here are some of their suggestions:

Backyard Fun

Welcome to Gnomeville

A mother of three girls writes, "This summer we are building a Gnome Village in our yard! We purchased 4" gnomes from Walgreen's for $1.00 each and built little homes for them. It was great fun gathering sticks, rocks, leaves, berries, etc., to make a magical village. We are all having so much fun coming up with great creative ideas! Our neighbors have contributed by adding little frogs, turtles and colorful pieces of paper. It is a wonderful imaginative activity which we add to on a daily basis as we play outdoors!"

Walk the plank

"I have a few beams in the garage and I give them to the kids to play with when they are on their bikes," writes one inspired dad. "They build small ramps, or just try to ride over the beam—they can spend hours playing. I have a short video about that on YouTube."

Bugs are always cheap

"My daughter loves gardening and collecting insects," says a mother of a 4-year-old. "She helps water plants, spread out mulch and even does a good job weeding. When we are done doing that, she takes a magnifying glass and sets out to find insects, which she puts in a homemade terrarium (a shoebox with dirt and rocks with holes punched in the top). It's a little gross, but she loves it and it definitely is a great way to spend a low-cost afternoon outdoors."

More Elaborate—and Still Low-Cost and Fun—Ideas

Create a "Summer Fun Bag"

"I save clippings from magazines on activities, crafts, things to do, fold them up and put them in a 'Summer Fun Bag'" says one mom, "and let my 6-year-old draw one out each morning. I also write a few simple ones to go in there, like having a picnic, sidewalk chalk, a neighborhood walk, the park. The bag is a big hit here. Every day she draws one out and cannot wait to do what she picks ... it is summer fun."

Create a Mommy Camp

Another inventive parent writes, "I create Mommy Camp over the summer and give the kids Mommy Money. Mommy Camp gets them excited that they always have something that they are part of - even when we have down time. Mommy Camp is our ongoing summer camp where the kids memorize small poems to help with memory, work on math, go outside and do science projects like dig holes in the ground, put things in and wait for six weeks to see what decomposes. Or we work on spelling and reading. Basically they get Mommy Money for the things that they accomplish - like two Mommy Moneys for memorizing a poem, etc.

"On a sheet of paper on the refrigerator I keep a list of activities and things they can 'buy' with Mommy Money, like a trip for ice cream, pizza party for three friends, pool, small toy or something larger like Build-a-Bear, which is what my oldest daughter wanted last summer. She had to collect 50 Mommy Moneys to get the Build-a-Bear, and it took her most of the summer. But she learned about the value of savings, because she could have chosen to spend on gum and other stuff. She learned the value of working and focusing, and it also helped keep a little bit of structure to our summers and keep the boredoms away. They are looking forward to starting Mommy Camp up again this year."

An outdoor biology lab

A San Diego mother writes, "OK, you have to be an outdoor person for this. My husband and I take our daughter to a local park and catch tadpoles, using whatever we have—e.g., an old pool net. Catching tadpoles is not that easy and takes some timing and patience. We take the tad poles home and raise them in a bucket until they are frogs. After which we release them in a neighbor's pond.

"You would think we live out in the country, but it's the suburbs of San Diego. Interestingly enough, other kids and parents in the park end up joining us, so this process takes a few hours to do. Folks just can't help but try to catch tadpoles themselves!

"In the meantime, it's a great science project to watch a tadpole turn into a frog. And it's easy to manage—you just have to put fresh creek water in the bucket every day and keep the bucket in the shade."

If you can't visit all 50 states, explore your own backyard

"When I was a kid my father (an Irish immigrant) used to take us camping and we made a deal to see all 50 states before we graduated high school," writes a California mom. "With gas prices as they are, this will be hard for many. My father used to tell us all the great things that each state had to offer. He said many Americans don't even know what is in their own country.

"It is my feeling that today children need to step away from the computers, electronic games and TVs and see the great outdoors. We go camping, fishing, to local parks with picnics, and see the sights here in Southern California. We have taken other kids with us and I can't believe how many kids today have never camped in a tent or caught a fish. We play board games and draw the United States in the dirt. We each make up a story about another state and make up a vacation that would happen in that state. We look for bugs. We toss rocks and enjoy each other. We take books to look up what bugs we find or should look for and do the same with fish. We have taught our daughter how to skip rocks and entertain herself and others. She is 7 years old, and I feel she could survive longer if lost than most adults.

"I say just get out there and see your own back yard. Enjoy your kids while they still want to be around you. Teach them things your parents taught you."

Create a scavenger hunt in the city park

"Together the kids and I make a list of things to find at the park," writes a mom. "Like: two different colored flowers, something blue, something yellow, a unique rock, etc. Each kid gets a Ziploc baggie with a list of things to find. They search the park for things on the list, and then after a certain amount of time we look through all the items found and show each other all the different things we've discovered."

Create a one week mini-vacation

A single mother in Wisconsin writes, "I recently created a week-long fun filled mini-vacation. I felt so bad when my 5-year-old would come home talking about the big fun-filled vacations to places like Disney World and cross-country trips that his friends were going on. I then created a week-long mini-vacation called 'Mommy and Me Week.' I save my vacation time at work and take it in summer. We have T-shirts made, 'Mommy and Me Week 2006,' and travel to local places throughout one full week. You would be surprised how inexpensive the local fun retreats are. Places like the museum on the free day and amusement parks on an off-peak day and time. Not to mention all the half-price coupons on the Internet. Wisconsin Dells' two-day trip for $75.00, including hotel stay and admission into the water park, if you go on a non-peak weekday. Free passes from the local library to local attractions. Movies in the park (bring your picnic basket and blanket). The movies are usually something old like 'Finding Nemo,' but the kids still enjoy themselves. Last but not least, the park districts are always hosting something free for the kids throughout the summer. The kids will have awesome stories to tell about their BIG summer vacation."

Band together with others

A Northern California mother writes, "What myself and a few of the other moms from our school are doing with our kids over the summer is, there is a local theater hosting $3 10 a.m. movies this summer, so we are going to try to hit them once a week as a group. We are also going to try to get together to do a craft or play group once a week. I am not sure if this is more for the kids or for us moms. We are also thinking about doing tours, like to the police station and fire departments. Hopefully we will have such an action-packed summer that we hardly have time to think about the kids not being in school."

Check out the county fair

"What better way to experience summer fun than visiting a county fair!" write a New York dairy farm mom. "You can usually find county/state fair information on the Web. Fairs give you a taste of real agriculture, youth and adult competitions, and usually a carnival full of rides, games and food. My children and I attend our county and state fairs with our animals. My children spend the week competing in 4-H animal, arts, home economics and speaking competitions. While we are there, we love to tell visitors about our animals and our way of life. The kids network and play with friends and even enter the 'pedal tractor pulling contest.' It is the highlight of our summer. We call it 'camping with kids and cows.'"

Look into the local Boys and Girls Club

A single, Los Angeles mom writes, "I was struggling to find a summer camp for my daughter that would not cost an arm and a leg, and low and behold I found the Boys & Girls Club. They are located all over the country and I am sure there is one in your neighborhood. They charge a $20 membership fee for the year and during the summer the club is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and the kids have all kinds of activities to do during the day."

Super Simple and Easy Ideas

Mix the sprinkler with the trampoline

A mom in Arizona writes, "I put the lawn sprinkler underneath the trampoline and turn it on. It provides lots of fun for the kids while watering the grass."

Walk in the woods

A Minneapolis mother of two boys writes: "We live near a creek and some woods and the boys love running on the dirt walking paths through the woods. They always find something new that catches their interest from birds, bugs, plants, animal burrows and sticks, etc. Any public park with a walking path is just as exciting to them."

Make reading an adventure

One parent recommends checking out www.bookadventure.com: "This site allows parents to track books that children have read by allowing the child to take a book test. It then awards points to the child and allows them to pick prizes with the parents approval."

Put those flashcards to use

"I bring flashcards to the pool and during adult swim while they're eating their snacks, we 'play' flashcards."

Localized Suggestions

Chicago

"Here are some great free summer activities for the entire family:

  1. Spectacular fireworks at Navy Pier on Wednesday's and Saturday's (check for times).
  2. Lincoln Park Zoo.
  3. Film festival at dusk (bring your own chairs). Listing of movies and times
  4. Venetian Night! Downtown Chicago (parade of beautiful boats).
  5. The Air and Water Show (check dates and times).

Those are just some of the free outings that our family is planning for this summer. Of course, you'll end up spending some moolah, but not too much. Happy summer guys!"

Georgia

"My family enjoys hiking in the mountains. There is a trail at Fort Mountain (North Georgia) that is great for most ages. We even took our 3-year-old when he was 2. He enjoyed it. We always pack a picnic lunch and they play on the playground. I am currently planning a sleepover party for my girls. Not for a birthday or anything, just to have some friends over and let them stay in touch over the summer. I am going to have them do a scavenger hunt around the neighborhood. As they find the clues I post in various places it will lead them back home where they will find a treat, home made ice cream! YUM!

Michigan

"Our family has two low-cost favorite summertime activities that we all love to do every summer. The very favorite of these two is taking a picnic dinner to our local drive-in, Getty's 4 Drive-In, located in Muskegon, Michigan. We pack flashlights, a cooler full of drinks, sandwiches, an air mattress, lawn chairs and of course a Frisbee. The most important item to pack is bug spray! We try to do this at least four times during the summer months.

"Our second favorite thing to do is being tourists in our very own hometown, Holland, Michigan. Each year we take a different bus route and make as many stops as possible. With a scavenger's list, bottle water and a disposable camera, we have a fun-filled day with little cost. We end our day with an ice cream at the local ice cream parlor downtown."

New York City

"We have three small children and everything becomes so expensive. Here are a few cheaper things that we enjoy doing over the summer months: taking a day trip by subway - for instance going to Coney Island and spending the day swimming - eating at cheaper restaurants and catching a show at the aquarium. Also, concerts for kids in the park. A day in the playground with the sprinklers is always a crowd pleaser. And we all enjoy the Museum of Natural History (emptier during the summer)."

Phoenix

"We are a single-income family, so I'm always looking for multi-age activities for my children during the summer months and throughout the rest of the year. Here are a few of the fun things we do: AMC theaters offer a free movie on Wednesdays in the mornings. The movies are usually from the prior summer but are still big hits and they even discount the kids packs so the kids get a special treat for just $3. (AMC has theaters across the nation.) Another favorite free activity is going to the libraries. The libraries here in Phoenix offer activities, such as learning/improving chess skills, story times, movie nights, arts and crafts, and even magic shows. This is a particular favorite of moms because it also encourages the kids to take advantage of the books around them and inspires them to read! Finally, there is always the mall. Most of the malls in our area have installed indoor play/parent rest areas, again these are free, and along with this, they have also begun doing a story time/arts and crafts bit, at least one day a week at each mall. We usually will attend the story time and then head to the play area for some play time and possibly a play area, picnic from home, or maybe since we save so much money on our activities we splurge on a lunch at the food court. If you want to pay for activities, Parks and Recreation offer a wide array of activities and sports programs for children, teens and adults for minimal cost. And a recent discovery is the Arizona Mine and Mineral Museum with only a $2 entry charge for anyone over 18. This is definitely a fun and cool way to spend some time. Whatever we do the goal is to be active, have fun and hopefully learn something new!"

Seattle

"When my daughter was young (she's now 28), there was plenty of free things to do that were well advertised, but not any more. It's work to find the fun/free stuff now for my grandson (9). I check the neighborhood and TV Web sites for what events are coming up. I also make use of the local Boys and Girls Clubs and community centers. They normally have activities that are free, low cost or have scholarships available. Lastly, I make note of public-sponsored "free days," such as EMP [Experience Music Project], Seattle Art Museums, Asian Art Museums, etc., which usually have one free day a month."

One Grandmother Goes All Out for Her 7-Year-Old Grandson

"We have many fun summertime adventures together," she writes, "all easy and inexpensive or completely free. My grandson lives in another state and visits me for part of the summer. At those times, I let everything else slide while I devote the time he's with me to just having fun and enjoying being together.

"One of our inside activities, for the hottest parts of the day, is also one we enjoy the most. We make treasure hunts for each other, writing about 20 clues and hiding them, most a little tricky, requiring some thought to figure them out, and some that must be solved by breaking a 'code.' I just buy little 'treasures' from a dollar store, or find little 'treasures' around my house - any treasure he finds is fun for him. He makes most of the treasures he lets me find - drawings, word puzzles, little creations he sculpts or designs from bits of art-project supplies. This game can be as short or as long as you like, depending upon the number and complexity of the clues.

"Another thing we love doing is 'Exploring.' We wear high rubber boots, pack a picnic lunch and take plenty of water and a compass in a backpack. My grandson makes fanciful, if not precise, 'maps' for us to use, and we go into state parks or other heavily wooded areas, exploring. He names certain places on the trip, for map-making and so that we can remember our favorite spots. Sometimes we are 'king and queen,' sometimes 'knights' who protect the beautiful places, sometimes Peter Pan and Captain Hook or other story characters, and sometimes we're just ourselves. I find myself energized by his excitement, by being in wild nature, and by the creative magical acts of making up our adventures and quests as we go along. Sometimes, my grandson writes the stories of our adventures and we make them into a book form.

"A more quiet activity, great for before bedtime, is a game we call 'Child-in-the-Woods.' We each make a one-page game for the other. It begins with a child playing in the woods and ends at his/her safe arrival home. On the path from the 'Deep Woods' to home, where a parent waits, the child must work out ingenious ways to overcome a series of obstacles. The child is sometimes given certain 'powers' to use but often is allowed to use only his/her wits to find solutions. This involves a lot of drawing (lately we've started using colored pencils) and writing, to explain the nature of the obstacles and the solution. When we've finished creating our games, we exchange them, for the other to solve.

"Our most exciting activities are absolutely free, such as using a splash pool and 'water-squirters' (we don't call them 'water-guns'), chasing each other around the back yard and finally falling into the cool water for a rest. We cook together, make creative picnics, play hide-and-seek, do many kinds of artwork, make up word games and write stories (sometimes mysteries) together. We devise or just spontaneously act out plays, using 'dress-up clothes' from a big basket I keep of lengths of fabric, old costume jewelry, 'magic wands,' and other props from around the house, as well as stuffed animals, which can be other characters in the plays.

"Imagination is our greatest 'toy,' and allows us to create adventures and fun games from virtually nothing."