Whether you have toddlers or teenagers, keeping kids entertained over the summer is no joke. In fact, it's the bane of every parent's existence -- especially if you're on a tight budget. You can't hit the amusement park every weekend without going flat broke.
So if you're looking for ways to keep your kids entertained this summer, here are a few options to check out:
1. Sign up for memberships to local attractions. If you live in or near a city with great local attractions -- a zoo, children's museum, water park, etc. -- look into memberships with those attractions.
One-time tickets for the Indianapolis Zoo, for instance, costs about $18 for adults or $14 for kids ages 2 to 12. You can buy a one-year family pass for $136 or a family plus two pass (take grandma and grandpa with you) for $184. The San Diego Zoo offers an annual family pass for just $119, while one-day tickets cost $46 for adults and $36 for kids age 3 to 11.
Sure, an annual pass is still somewhat expensive. But if you're thinking about taking an outing to a special attraction even once, buying an annual pass may actually be cheaper. Plus, if you live near the attraction, an annual pass lets you spend just a few hours there without feeling like you wasted money if you didn't see everything. And you don't have to spend eight hours dragging your whiny toddler through every single exhibit to be sure you're getting your money's worth.
2. Check out public-run camps, events and parks. City parks systems often offer day camps and family programs. And since they're funded by the public, they tend to be super cheap. Some of them even offer sliding-scale admission fees based on income.
To find out what your city has to offer, just Google it. A search for "Tallahassee City Parks" brings up the City of Tallahassee website, where you'll find tons of craft camps, outdoor camps and more marketed for about $100 a week. That's pretty cheap compared to the cost of many private camps. And you can also look for evening and weekend family programs to keep your family busy.
3. Find a local things to do with kids website. Entrepreneurial moms (who also have kids to entertain) have created websites specifically for local parents. These websites often have event calendars where you can find free or inexpensive family-friendly events in your area.
Again, just use Google to search for a website in your area. Another option is to check the websites of local radio stations. The stations often stay on top of local events and will keep a calendar where you can see what's coming up.
4. Check local grocery stores. Here's one great reason to shop with local grocery chains over a national megalith: They often partner with other locals to offer coupons and discounts for attractions.
So next time you hit up the store for milk and eggs, look for or ask the cashier about coupons for local attractions. You'll likely find discounted ticket passes, or again, monthly calendars with free events. Sometimes you'll find information about fun entertainment like free concerts or movie viewings in the local parks.
5. Find a drive-in or discounted movie. Drive-ins are more rare than they used to be, but they're not extinct yet. And a drive-in can be an excellent way to save money on taking kids to the movies. Since they usually charge per car rather than per head, drive-ins are a lot cheaper than your average movie theater. Plus, you can bring your own food, which also saves a fortune.
Another option: Check your local movie theaters for free or cheap daytime showings just for kids. These are excellent if you have young kids who may not sit still through a whole movie -- because if the whole theater is full of other little ones who also can't sit still, who cares? Many chain theaters offer $1 or $2 showings of older movies during the day.
6. Pop in the local library. The library is a great place to stock up on books and movies to keep kids busy during the summer. And many libraries still run those summer reading programs you probably participated in as a kid. Reading programs with incentives are an excellent way to get your kid's nose in a few books (and out of trouble!) for hours this summer.
But don't stop with the summer reading program. Ask the librarian or check the library's website for special events. Most local libraries offer story readings, and bigger libraries may even offer day camps or workshops for older kids.
7. Set them loose. Perhaps the best way to keep your kids from getting bored this summer without spending a fortune is to teach them to entertain themselves. In a world of constant stimulation -- much of which is caused by electronics -- many kids have trouble entertaining themselves. This leads us parents to pull our hair out and/or spend loads of money on entertainment we probably didn't have when we were kids.
So this summer, instead of constantly scrambling to keep the kids entertained, set them loose. Let them (or force them to) entertain themselves. Here are some strategies:
-- Set up busy boxes or bags. Pinterest has a plethora of busy bags and busy boxes ideas. They may seem too cutesy for you, but they're actually worth a try. These boxes and bags are full of age-appropriate activities such as finger paints, sand boxes, musical instruments and coordination-challenging games. When the kids start to get bored, pull out a busy box, and leave them to it.
-- Make a list. Before your child starts to get bored, help him make a list of things he likes to do. Put it on the fridge, so he can reference it when he does get bored. When there's "nothing to do," a list can jump-start some ideas.
-- Rotate the toys. Instead of leaving all the toys in the house accessible 24/7, pull them out on a rotating basis. Every week, put away some toys, and pull out others. This adds a surprising amount of novelty to all those old toys and will keep kids engaged.
-- Turn the TV off. Have a no electronics during certain hours of the day rule. Kids are more likely to head outside and find old-fashioned ways to entertain themselves.
-- Create an art box. Most children are artists at heart. But if the crayons are scattered in the toy box and the paintbrushes are who knows where, they'll be less likely to engage in artistic play. If all the arts and crafts supplies are together in one accessible place, kids can entertain themselves for hours drawing, painting and creating projects.
Abby Hayes is a freelance blogger and journalist who writes for personal finance blog The Dough Roller and contributes to Dough Roller's weekly newsletter.
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