For many parents, summer poses the inevitable question: Now that the kids are home all day, what am I going to do with them?
Summer camps get expensive, as do visits to water parks, theme parks and other attractions. Grandparents love to see the kids arrive, but after long they wonder just what to do with them.
The good news is the answer doesn't have to be too complicated.
"Kids just want to run and to have fun and be with their families," says Heidi McIndoo, a registered dietitian, author and mother of two who publishes the resource website Boston Living on the Cheap. "A big thing for kids these days is one-on-one time with their parents when they're not plugged into their iPad or cellphone or computer."
A picnic in the park with sandwiches and a game of Frisbee might not sound exciting to you, but for most kids, it's a big deal. McIndoo's family (she has a 6-year-old son and a 9-year-old daughter) also enjoys camping, which can be a real bargain at state and national parks. If you're not the camping type, consider letting the kids invite friends for a sleepover in the backyard or even in the living room. "You don't need to spend a lot of money," she says.
[Read: 5 Cheap Summer Activities for Kids.]
Traditional outdoor kids' games, such as kickball, softball and tag, are still considered fun, even if they've evolved a little. McIndoo noted that what was once "freeze tag" now has a variation called "toilet tag," where the tagged kid squats and then makes a flushing sound when being released by a player who pulls an arm down.
If kids don't want to be pried away from their electronic gadgets, make some rules, McIndoo says. She suggests insisting the child put down the device and join an outdoor activity. "Most kids, once they get out there and you're doing things, they do have fun," she says.
Here are 12 free or cheap things to do with the kids this summer.
Play traditional card games or board games. This is not old-fashioned, but retro. Board game nights and trivia nights are popular in bars around the country. Your kids may love Yahtzee, gin rummy or poker played for pennies.
See free or cheap kids' movies. Many movie theater chains, including Regal, Cinemark, Cobb and Harkins, show free or cheap kids' films on weekday mornings during the summer. Get there early if you want a seat. Many cities and towns have free outdoor film festivals, and your local library may also show kids' movies.
Go to a free concert in the park. Cities and towns nationwide put on free concerts in parks in the summer. That's a great way to introduce kids to music and live performance without having to worry about whether they'll squirm in their seats.
Let the kids help you cook. Not only does this sharpen math skills with school out, but also kids are more likely to eat healthy meals they help prepare. Plus, they'll thank you later. How many young adults do you know who can't cook and complain that their parents never taught them?
Share a hobby or craft. Do you sew, scrapbook, collect coins or do genealogy? Share that skill with your child or grandchild. If the child has expressed interest in a topic you haven't mastered, do the research and create projects together.
Take up a sport or pastime as a family. Yoga, karate, bicycling and hiking are good sports for families to engage in together. The best part is you can stay fit and spend quality time with your family all at once.
Go bowling. Bowling lanes nationwide offer free bowling for kids in summer, though required shoe rental is usually extra. Most participating lanes permit two free games daily for registered families, but bowling times and other rules can vary. Hundreds of lanes across the country participate in the Kids Bowl Free program, and AMF also has a free summer kids bowling program. Check with your local lanes to see if they're part of either program.
Visit your town's free attractions. Smaller, less popular museums or attractions may seem cheesy to you, but they're magic to kids who have never seen them. An added plus is they often have much smaller admission fees than the most popular museums and zoos.
Take a field trip to a nearby town. Check with convention and visitors bureaus for information about special summer events and deals, as well as free attractions. "They know of only festivals the locals will know about," says Jody Halsted, an Iowa mother of two daughters who writes the FamilyRambling.com blog.
Chicago, for example, has more than 400 neighborhood festivals each summer, which are listed on the city's website. If your kids or grandkids are older, give them the task of doing the research and planning a day trip.
[Read: 9 Ways to Stretch Your Paycheck.]
Give the kids a photography project. Everybody takes pictures these days. Let the youngsters choose a theme or subject and take photos all summer. They can then use those photos in a scrapbook, storybook, collage online slideshow or gift for relatives or friends.
Do outdoor movie night. Find a neighbor with a projector, put up a sheet and invite friends and neighbors over for a potluck movie night. Kids can watch the film under the stars while parents and grandparents visit, or vice versa.
Explore your local library. Not only can you borrow books for free, you can also check out movies and download music. Plus, many libraries have story times, movies and other activities for kids and teens during the summer. Most libraries have a summer reading program in which kids can earn free books or other prizes. Barnes & Noble also has a summer reading program that awards a free book to youngsters who read eight books and fill out a journal.
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