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All Contents © 2020The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By Andrea Browne Taylor, Online Editor
| July 3, 2019Updated March 2020
With spring break right around the corner and the longer summer break not far behind, parents might be scrambling to find cost-friendly ways to keep their kids entertained while school is out for several days or more. Camps are a popular and time-honored option, but the high costs are prohibitive for many families on tight budgets.
We've looked far and wide to craft a list of kid-friendly things to do on weekends and during school breaks that won't put a serious dent in Mom's and Dad's wallets. From taking a cooking class to touring your local fire station, there's something free or cheap to do near you in our round-up for kids of all ages. Take a look.
Skip the expensive admission fees and long lines at water parks. Cool off by taking your kids to an area splash park, instead. Check your local department of parks and recreation website to find out where your nearest splash park is located.
Splash parks can come in all sizes, with water slides, splash fountains and even dipping pools. There's usually an admissions fee for older kids ages 3 and up (under $10), while infants and toddlers under 3 should be able to get in for free.
Keep in mind that in some cities, such as New York and Los Angeles, there are smaller splash pads or fountains within a larger traditional park that are free for everyone to use. These structures will usually only operate on days where outdoor temps exceed a certain level.
This is a natural choice for Independence Day. Pack up the kiddos, a blanket, foldable chairs and some snacks and go watch the Fourth of July fireworks light up the sky in your neck of the woods. To find the best spot to watch, do a Google search using the keywords "free july 4th fireworks near me" to see a list of places hosting viewing events at no cost.
Keep an eye out for fireworks shows at other times of the year, too. Some cities and towns celebrate the anniversary of their founding with fireworks. Minor league baseball teams often have fireworks nights during their playing seasons.
Finding something fun and new to do with your kids that isn't too pricey can get monotonous, but one thing is for sure: Kids love animated movies. During the summer months, popular movie theater chains Regal Cinema and AMC Theaters host a film series featuring kid-friendly flicks, from Kung Fu Panda to How to Train Your Dragon.
Regal's Summer Movie Express for kids runs on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and tickets cost a dollar. At AMC, their Summer Movie Camp runs on Wednesdays. Movie tickets cost $4 and come with a kids' pack snack box: includes a kid-sized popcorn, a kid-sized fountain drink and a pack of Frooti Tootis candy.
If your son or daughter loves constructing things with random objects around the house, they're going to love this. Home Depot hosts a series of on-site building workshops for kids of all ages. They're free and open to the public.
At an Atlanta store location, an upcoming kids workshop focuses on tow trucks. Kids get to construct and decorate their own model with materials provided. Once done, the little builders get to keep the truck in addition to the workshop apron they're given at the start of the session. They'll also receive a certificate of achievement and a commemorative pin.
If your elementary school-aged child has a knack for all things tech, then Microsoft's free summer camps for students may be a fun way to keep them engaged. Every summer, the tech giant hosts a series of coding- and gaming-related workshops at local Microsoft store locations. Session themes include Harry Potter Creative Coding and Make Your Own 3D Movie. Some last for a couple hours on a single day, while others are run over the course of several days.
Roller skating is a great way to get in some exercise and fun at the same time for the entire family. Visit KidsSkateFree.com and use the zipcode search tool to find out which roller-skating rinks in your area offer free admission for children ages 12 and under. Keep in mind this doesn't include the cost of a skate rental, if your child doesn't have their own pair. Also, there will likely be designated days and times when kids can skate for free. Be sure to check with your local participating rink first. In winter, try ice skating.
A trip to the museum is a simple way to get your kids out of the house without having to plan out a full-blown excursion. No matter if you're in your hometown or traveling with your family, a visit to a local museum, large or small, can help inspire and expose your kids to something new.
Keep in mind that some museums have an admissions fee, while others are completely free. For example, the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum (a favorite with little ones) in Washington, D.C., is free, while the Kidspace Children's Museum in Pasadena, Calif., charges $14 for admission (children under one get in free). So, you'll want to be sure to look up that information before you head out.
Children ages eight through 12 are eligible to register for Apple Camp at your local Apple store. The tech giant offers free three-day-long sessions (90 minutes per day) at its retail locations. Kids can learn everything from how to create their own song using GarageBand to creating their own movie using iMovie. Check online at your local Apple store to see which camps are available near you and to register.
You don't have to look far to find free things to do with your kiddos. In fact, your local library likely hosts a variety of kid-friendly events including story time for younger children, from infants to kindergartners. In addition to reading books, there is usually time allotted for open play. This is where kids are free to roam around and play with toys provided by the library in a designated space.
There are plenty of restaurants that offer deals where kids eat free or get a deeply discounted meal with the purchase of an adult entrée (see RetailMeNot.com's extensive list of restaurants). Some of these include Ruby Tuesday, Fuddruckers, Bob Evans and Famous Dave's.
It's important to note that many of these deal promotions are only good on certain days or at certain times. Be sure to check the restaurant's website beforehand to ensure you show up with your family at the right time.
Take the kids to the pool at your local recreation center to splash around. Expect to pay an admissions fee for both child and parent. There may be a discounted rate for local residents who are able to provide a proof of residency, such as a driver's license or state-issued identification card. You may also have to be a member of the recreation center in order to use their facilities. Be sure to call or check online first.
If you live near a park with hiking trails or have trails in your neighborhood, load up a backpack with the essentials (water bottles, snacks, sunscreen, bug spray), grab your kids and start walking. This is another great way to sneak in some exercise while spending some quality time with your little ones. And if you time your hike just right, you can tire them out just before naptime.
Your local farmer's market is free to attend and is the perfect spot to kill some time exploring with children. You can even cross off a few items from your grocery list while you're there. Best of all, many vendors offer free samples. There might also be live street performers -- from musicians to singers to dancers -- to help keep your kids entertained along the way while you walk and shop.
Cruise around your neighborhood with the little ones in tow. On PoCampo.com's blog, the bike accessories e-commerce site highlights fun activities you can do while on a family bike ride, including going on a playground crawl or doing a scavenger hunt on wheels using local landmarks.
Before you head out, make sure everyone is outfitted with protective safety gear including helmets and safety pads for the knees and elbows. Also, map out your route in advance. You don't want to venture too far, because your son or daughter may become too tired to peddle all the way back home.
This is a fun activity to do with your kids, especially since there's a delicious reward for them once the vegetables are ready to harvest. Try everything from sweet potatoes and green beans to tomatoes and zucchini squash. You can purchase vegetable seeds for planting for as little as $2.59 on Amazon.
Check out the site KidsGardening.org for tips and tricks on how to maintain a vegetable garden with your little one's help.
You'll be the best Mom or Dad ever when you surprise your children with a trip to the fire station. The captain on-duty will usually host the guided tour. Your kids can explore the firehouse and see a fire truck up-close. In addition to the tour, they'll likely get a brief educational session on fire safety and prevention.
To schedule a tour, you'll need to go to your city government's website to obtain the contact information for your local fire station. Most fire stations require you to schedule an appointment over the phone, while others allow walk-up tour requests.
Several days a year, the National Park Service waives the entrance fee at all national parks. This includes Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (in January), the First Day of National Park Week/National Junior Ranger Day (in April), National Park Service Anniversary (in August), National Public Lands Day (in September) and Veteran's Day (in November). Find a national park near you by using their Find a Park search tool.
Every Tuesday at 11 a.m. (Saturdays at 10 a.m. if you're based in New York City), the children's home furnishings store hosts a free story time meet-up. You'll need to check with your local store manager to make sure it participates.
Spend a day at your local zoo exploring the animal exhibits. Use the visit as an opportunity to sneak in some educational fun while you're at it. If you have a toddler-age child, try asking him or her to name each animal they see and replicate the sound it makes. For elementary-age kids, see if they can correctly name which animal group each animal they see belongs to (i.e., mammals, amphibians, birds, etc).
Some zoos offer free admission, while others charge an admission fee for kids ages three and up, as well as adults. For example, the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C., is free, while the Central Park Zoo in New York City charges $9 for kids ages three to 12 and $14 for anyone age 13 or over.
No matter if you live in a big city or a small town, it can be all too easy to take for granted the hidden gems your area has to offer. Do a bit of online research and draft up a list of kid-friendly destinations that you've never visited before -- say, an art gallery with an interactive exhibit for kids, a botanical garden that's off the beaten path or a waterfront park with a playground and picnic tables where you can have lunch.
When it's a rainy day and venturing outside with kids is the last thing you want to do, get crafty -- literally. Doing an arts and crafts project is a smart way to help keep kids engaged. This is also where Pinterest comes in handy. You can browse hundreds of boards for project inspiration. Some will even have step-by-step instructions on how to complete the project (see the Kids Crafts board for more).
In general, it's a smart idea to keep a storage bin full of arts and crafts materials handy when there are little ones around. This includes construction paper, glitter glue, stickers, crayons and markers, colored pipe cleaners, felt paper, ribbon and the like. You never know when plans might fall through and you're suddenly left with a kid who needs to be entertained for an hour or two.
You don't need to spend a small fortune on these items, either. Check out your local dollar store before visiting a big-box retailer where you can expect prices to be much higher.
During the summer months, in particular, parks are ripe with free events including live music performances that the whole family can enjoy. You can hear everything from jazz to folk music for free. Be sure to check your local community e-mail listserv for event recommendations or peruse the events calendar on your local parks and planning commission's website to see what's headed to your area. For example, in Riverdale Park, Md., the city hosts a free “Jazz on the Lawn" summer concert series every year.
If you're looking for an inexpensive way to spend a Friday night, try this: Pop some popcorn, make a batch of cookies and get ready for a family movie night. Even better, make it the ultimate binge session by watching a movie series such as Toy Story or Despicable Me. Chances are your kiddos won't make it past the first film before they start dozing off, so you'll get the chance to kick back and relax once they are tucked in.
If you have a home with a backyard that's big enough to accommodate several children running around having the time of their lives, add this activity to your to-do list. A backyard scavenger hunt is easy to do and doesn't require spending any money. You can simply use items you already have around the house, such as a small bucket, toy shovel or a beach ball. Consider inviting some of your son's or daughter's friends over partake in the fun.
Again, Pinterest is a gold mind for inspiration here. You can print out sample scavenger hunt lists for the kids to use and tweak to your liking.
Make sure your child's reading skills stay sharp by starting a weekend book club. Keep in mind that it's recommended your son or daughter be able to read independently before starting such an activity. That way they can discuss on their own what happened in the book. If your little one is shy, you can help build up their socials skills by inviting other kids from your neighborhood or your child's school or daycare to join in.
Scholastic.com outlines several things parents should be mindful of when starting a book club with their kids:
Go to KidsBowlFree.com and register your kids so they can score two free games of bowling every day throughout the summer months at participating bowling centers. Once they're registered, parents will receive a weekly e-mail containing the deal coupons that can be redeemed at your local bowling center. Find out which bowling centers near you participate in the program.
Michaels craft stores offer a variety of kid-friendly classes (for ages three and up) -- from making a handheld lemonade stand with popsicle sticks to cookie decorating -- for just $3. They offer morning or afternoon sessions that last for two hours, and your kid gets to walk away with their own creation to hang up at home or eat. Go here to find out which classes are offered at your local Michaels store.
Looking for creative ways to keep your big kids occupied can be difficult. Pro tip: You can't go wrong with food. A cooking class is a fun way for them to learn a new skill while engaging with other children in their age group.
Italian restaurant chain Maggiano's offers a lasagna making class for kids ages 5 to 12. The cost ranges from $25 to $50 depending on the location. Your son or daughter gets to make a dish with help from a seasoned chef and also enjoy a lunch buffet during the process. Parents must remain on site and will be given complimentary beverages. Moms and Dads can also partake in the lunch buffet for an additional cost. To learn more, go to www.maggianos.com/kids-cooking-class.
Don't underestimate the fun factor of your neighborhood Jungle Jim. You can even try venturing to a new playground (within a reasonable walking or driving distance) near you every week. Just bring along packed lunches for you and your kids to enjoy after they're done exploring. It's an easy way to get your kids active, and it's much cheaper than going to an indoor playground center.
If you have kids, chances are they own multiple sets of LEGO building blocks. Lucky for you, the toymaker has made it a little bit easier for you and your kids to enjoy hours of fun right at home. Every month, you can go to the LEGO website and download a step-by-step guide on how to construct one of their mini-build structures using the blocks your children already have for free. Some recent mini-builds include a frog sitting on a lily pad, a construction truck and a caterpillar.
Just because school's out doesn't mean your kids should take a break from learning. It's never too early to start teaching them age-appropriate money lessons. It's important to keep an open dialogue with your kids and allow them to ask questions.
In our story Smart Ways to Talk to About Money With Your Kids, we recommend how to kickstart such conversations with your little ones. For example, explaining to them that you have to pay a different amount for each item in your shopping cart at the grocery store. The story also mentions how playing money-themed board games such as “Monopoly" or “The Game of Life" can be a way to help introduce your kids to the concept of spending and saving.
You can even print out money worksheets from Education.com that have lessons you can teach at home such as identifying the different types of coins or how to count dollars and coins.