50 Free (or Cheap) Things For Your Summer Bucket List

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
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Last month, when I started to look into day camps and other programs to keep my kids occupied over the summer, I pretty much had an instant heart attack. My choices were either put my kids in camp and starve to death all summer, or figure out some cheap and easy way to keep them occupied for 10 weeks. I’m going with the latter.

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Still, I swear, if it were up to my kids, they’d be glued to their iPads basically all day, so I realized that if we wanted to have a summer where no one dies of boredom (them) or frustration (me), I had better do some serious planning.

And being the generous soul I am, I decided to share my ideas for cheap, easy, and fun things to do with kids this summer. So enjoy (and good luck!).

1. Cheap movie theater deals. Lots of theaters will have half-price days or early-morning $1 shows.

2. Get a bucket with soapy water and a few sponges. Have the kids wash your car. Have them wash their toys cars. Whatever. Water + kids + hot summer day = magic. And you might end up with a (slightly) cleaner car in the end.

3. Sign up for Kids Bowl Free for free bowling passes. There are locations all over the U.S., and all you have to do is complete the online registration to get two free bowling games a day, all summer long.

4. Kids Skate Free offers free roller-skating passes for kids under 12 during the summer. Yippee!

5. Throw some shaving cream down on a table, the deck, a kiddie pool, or in the bath, and have your kids go wild, making art (or smearing it all over their faces, whatever works).

6. Bubbles. Need I say more? I’ve been liking the kind in those long tubes with the wide-mouth wands — they’re easier for the little ones to blow. Bubble machines work too. Bubbles just never get old.

Watch Momsplained to learn how to make some huge-ass bubbles:


7. Check out your local library’s calendar. Almost all of them have events for kids of all ages, always free.

8. Zoos and museums often have free or reduced priced days, often at odd times. But who needs predictable schedule in the summer?

9. The beach (seashell hunting, castle building, ocean splashing, lying down in the sand while your kids throw sand in your face).

10. Drop them off at grandma’s house for a night. Pretend they won’t be given candy by the barrel or go to sleep way past their bedtimes. And anyway, who cares — it’s summer.

11. Visit an animal shelter (though I can’t guarantee you won’t return home without a new pet or two).

12. All National Parks are now free for fourth-graders. Check it out!

13. Sidewalk chalk! Sidewalk paint! Both favorites of mine, and my kids too.

14. Buy some simple appliances at the Salvation Army or Goodwill, give your kid a screwdriver, and let your kid go to town.

15. Go old school: Bring a radio outside and have a dance party.

16. Have a luau in the backyard. Don’t forget Limbo!

17. Go for an inch hike. Create a gauge or mark your finger at 1 inch. Then go for a walk or hike, looking for things that are less an inch or less long.

18. Water balloons. My kids have had hours of fun with these. Just make sure you tell them to only toss the damn balloons inside (what a colossal mess!).

19. Day trips to random places within driving distance (pick a random place on the map and see what’s there).

20. Visit seniors at a nursing home or senior center. Their faces will light up as soon as you walk in!

21. Have a summer jewelry party. Teach your kids how to make lanyards and friendship bracelets. They’ll love them, and you’ll enjoy going down memory lane.

22. Assemble backpacks for homeless shelters or care packages for hospitalized kids.

23. Find a pen pal, and start writing letters.

24. Create obstacle courses at local parks or at home.

25. Scavenger hunts in the backyard or the living room!

26. Collect rocks, and then come inside and paint them. We like to make them into bugs. So fun!

27. Make boats out of juice cartons.

28. Get out the water table. Add some spray bottles and water guns, and you’ve got hours of fun ahead of you.

29. Lemonade stands. The kids love preparing for them, selling their stuff, and counting their money. People go nuts for this stuff, too, and will give your kids dollar bills just for being cute.

30. Have a family barbecue. Nothing fancy, everything yummy.

31. Schoolyard fun day: jump rope, double-dutch, hopscotch, dodgeball. Yes.

32. Family board game day. Trivia night. Take all of this outside!

33. Go on a hike. Doesn’t have to be too far away or for too long. Remember bug spray. Seriously.

34. Camp out in the backyard!

35. Have a picnic at a local park or even just in your backyard.

36. Hook up the sprinklers, or just say screw it and have the kids spray each other directly with the hose.

37. Mini golfing can be relatively inexpensive and totally fun. Even the littlest ones can partake.

38. Get a Slip ‘N Slide. They’re cheap, easy, and the kids love them. But they are seriously slippery, so parental supervision is pretty much required.

39. Photography project (i.e., give your kids your phone, kick them outside, and have them do a nature study through photos).

40. The Pool. I know, I know. It’s expensive to join and totally crowded. But if you look around, you might be able to find a pool at a local park or a community pool with a low admission fee. And sometimes you just gotta take your kids to the damn pool. Memories will be made, I promise.

41. Have a garage sale. We did this last summer, and it was a blast. Word to the wise: Make sure your little ones understand that some of their stuff will be completely given away, as in, forever. Or sneak out the stuff you know they don’t play with anymore, but will be too upset to part with.

42. Tie-dye! Get a cheap kit from a craft store and go nuts. Definitely take this project outside.

43. Homemade snow cones, popsicles, or ice cream. No one wants to bake in the summer, but frozen treats are totally fun to whip up together — and eat.

44. Stay up late and have a night of stargazing.

45. Have a hula hoop contest (though my son will beat you all—his hidden talent).

46. Chain store event activities. Home Depot and Lowe’s do fun, free events for kids. And there’s always the drop-off playroom/ball pit at IKEA.

47. Sign up for a reading program at your local library (there are often prizes for reading a certain number of books). Barnes & Noble also has a program where you can win a free book. I love free things, don’t you?

48. Science experiments. Make slime. Make gooey marbles. Make an exploding volcano in an empty soda bottle. Endless fun (and mess, too, but you can take the messier experiments outside).

49. Go to a free concert in the park. Most communities have at least one or two of these, and they are so delightful and fun.

50. Scary story night. Turn out the lights, get out a flashlight, and start spooking each other out.

And of course, maybe the most important thing to do is to leave lots of time with nothing planned — to let your kids be, yes, a little bored. It is during those unplanned moments where the creativity, spontaneity, and absolute magic of summer tends to happen, and where the best and most long-lasting memories are made.

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