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50 Activities You Can Do with Your Kids This Summer —And They’re All Free!

published Jun 20, 2022
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Since having children, summer became a dizzying schedule of camps, travel, and tickets to fairs, amusement parks, and whatever blockbusters were playing at the local, air-conditioned theaters. We packed our days to the brim with adventures outside the home, often at the cost of a pretty penny or two, and relied on others to create lasting memories for our kids.

But last year, summer looked a lot different. Instead of constantly repacking backpacks and luggage, we found ourselves reimagining what summer entertainment looked like. And from creating themed weekends (like “Bubble Day”) to bringing an island getaway to our backyard, we quickly realized we needed little more than what was already at home to successfully fill up those long summer afternoons.

This year, many of us can safely return to the many people and places we used to visit. But even as we get back to exploring the big world around us, I plan to keep up our simplified approach to summer. 

So whether your family decides to go on an adventure in the great outdoors, attend camp, or play all day in a pool, there will still be plenty of hours to fill. Here are my 50 ideas on how to best spend these summer days with your little ones, without spending a dime!

Simple Activities that Require No Prep

1. See a free concert or movie

Most cities host free concerts and movies during the summer. Check out your local events page for these awesome opportunities to take in free entertainment, outside of the home. For an extra-special twist, have them draw concert posters afterwards or make a playlist inspired by the outing.

2. Enjoy a free museum day

Be sure to check the websites of your local museums and zoos for free admission days! Make it extra fun by bringing paper and some crayons to make drawings of your favorite pieces; creating a scavenger hunt of items to find (or as the museum if they have one!); or learning about an exhibit or artist before you go! 

3. Take advantage of programming at the library

If your local library is open, chances are they are also offering free kids programming. From story time to cooking classes to other amazing hands-on experiences, be sure to check out their schedules. And don’t forget to look into any fun reading contests they might be hosting, too.

4. Join a readymade competition 

Lots of organizations and companies hold fun contests in which kids can participate. From NASA to Lego, opportunities pop up often. So keep your eye open for these cool contests and let your young ones flex their creative muscles.

Cool Things to Do Outdoors

5. Stargaze the night away 

Depending on where you live, the night sky offers ample opportunities for free entertainment. From simply making wishes on the first star to appear to mapping out astrological formations to planning a whole evening around unique celestial events. Don’t forget the s’mores! 

6. Track the moon

For a summer-long project, write out your own calendar to follow the moon’s waxing and waning. Then, for added fun, celebrate the full moon by creating a little ceremony of your own.

7. Watch a sunrise

There’s nothing more fun than switching up a routine. Like, going to bed extra late in the summer. Or even waking up extra early to watch the sunrise. Find a fun spot to sit and take in the rising colors of the day. Be sure to pack your bag the night before — maybe even pack watercolors, crayons, and paper to capture the moment with something other than your phone. And make these overnight oats to keep you warm and cozy.

8. Create your own walking tour

Take inspiration from existing local walking tours and make one up of your own. It could be a tour of local murals or all the ice cream shops in your neighborhood or just your friends’ houses down the street (bonus: leave them notes along the way for unexpected joy). Make a map, take along a camera, and enjoy the time outside.

9. Take an unexpected adventure

For a fun and memorable way to use up an afternoon, simply hop on bikes or in the car or on a bus, and then let your kids pick which direction where to go and when to stop. You never know exactly where you will end up or what you will find.

10. Make a map

Start by picking your subject — maybe it’s your neighborhood or some local trails or the stars in your part of the sky. And then, spend time this summer making a map of it. Add as much detail as possible. 

Crafty Projects for Long Afternoons

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11. Make a summer journal

Using materials you already have (stickers, ribbons, paper!), create and decorate your own journal to keep track of all your summer fun. Use glue and tape to put in tickets, pressed flowers, and other trinkets from your adventures.

12. Write a penpal

Put away the ZOOM and enjoy some good old fashioned mail. Whether your penpal is near or far, you can send stickers, drawings, or longer notes. And for something a little more involved, you can even create a journal to be passed along through a larger group of pals, sending to the next recipient every week or two.

13. Make salt art

Amp up craft time with this simple trick from your cupboard: salt art! Simply let them make a design on paper with glue, and then sprinkle it with salt! For a pop of color, just skip the glitter and paint with watercolors. You’ll make memories without a mess!

14. Paint rocks for the neighborhood

On your next walk, find some smooth rocks. Then paint them and add messages of hope and love (maybe a joke, too?). And place around your neighborhood to spread little notes of joy.

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15. Race homemade boats

Whether you have access to a pond or a backyard inflatable pool (or even your bathtub), head to the water for a boat race! Start by having everyone create their own boat from items found in the house. Then, take it to task and see which ones float and whose goes the fastest! Want to stretch out the activity? Come up with categories and make ribbons or awards for the winners! 

16. Paper mache

Animal figures, pinata, trinket bowls, or even get ahead for the holidays with these paper mache ideas using items you already have at home!

17. Design your own game

Lots of popular card and board games have been designed by kids! Use the summer to make your own. Make use of materials in your home to build a prototype. And in the end, you can even turn it into the real thing (not free, but cool!). Or submit it to game companies to potentially be sold.

18. Take something apart

Ask family and friends to keep that old remote or an old fan or an old keyboard before hauling off to the junkyard. Spend some time taking it apart and figuring out how it works. Then, use the Internet to figure out what you can make from all the leftover pieces.

19. Sew a quilt together

Ask family members for an old shirt they no longer want or wear. And then make a quilt out of them for an instant heirloom. You can sew them together or even use this easy technique so even little hands can be involved.

20. Upcycle your wardrobe

With parental permission, add some new adornments to well-loved pieces. Tie-dye with sharpies; make “jewelry” for your shoe laces; or add some bling for your bike. Convert a favorite pants into a pair of shorts or make one shirt out of two. Dig into that inner designer and help them learn the value of reusing.

21. Make something in miniature

Pick a few items from your house and then figure out how to make it in miniature. Keep for your own play, use it in a fairy garden, or gift your creations to someone else. You can create a tiny town for your toy cars, a mini zoo, or even make it a bigger challenge by trying to recreate a whole mini fair or theme park! Use clay, legos, sticks, and leaves … whatever you have on hand.

22. Send notes to the elderly

If you live near a hospital or an elderly home, there are usually lots of opportunities to write letters or send drawings to residents and patients. You can also do this for local fire stations and small business owners! And make it a project to last all summer long.

Build or Grow Something New

23. Build a life-sized project in the backyard

Get out all that cardboard and make something big. A castle, a rocket, a lemonade stand?! Best of all, invite pals or family members over to help with your creation.

24 Grow some plants

Using items from your house, you can start your own little garden. Whether you regrow green onions and other veggies from scraps; replant a potato; or start a window sill full of herbs.

25. Make a bird feeder

Next time you make yourself a snack, make one for your local birds as well. All you need is some bird friendly nut butter, seeds, and a piece of wood or cardboard. Or these DIY instructions. Then hang it up with string and watch it attract new summer  friends.

26. Build a tiny library

Head to the hardware store or a nearby construction site and ask for some free wood pieces. Then get to work building your own tiny library for your neighborhood. Get it started with some loved but good shape books. And watch your little library take off.

27. Make an at-home cafe

Spend the day creating your own at-home cafe. Craft a menu, set up the table and decor, make the food (with help from an adult), and then host family or friends to a delicious afternoon or evening meal of your own creation.

28. Build and fly a kite

If you happen to have a windy day, there’s no need to buy a kite.  Just make your own. Start by drawing out your plans for a homemade flyer. Next, search the house for items that you need — hangers, chopsticks, old rags, shoelaces. Then start crafting! And maybe even make a few prototypes. For the grande finale, take your new toy out for a spin!

29. Build a Rube Goldberg machine

Remember the game “Mousetrap” where you set off a chain reaction of events that eventually trap the mouse? Well, that’s an example of a Rube Goldberg machine. And you can spend the summer making some epic ones of your own design. Get inspiration from these ideas here! With lots of trial and error, this project is great for a long weekend. Make sure to get the final product on video.

Create and Learn — While Having Fun

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30. Learn a new skill

Summer is a great time to learn something new. And the internet offers a lot of opportunities to do it at no cost. You can study ancient Egypt or origami or even pick up new dance moves. Take your interest to new levels with a little time and a little Google search.

31. Start a book series

Ramp down on screen time by picking up a new book series or podcast show. You can do it by title (like, all of Amelia Bedelia) or by author (like, read all of Roahl Dahl). And then throw yourself a book-themed bash when you’ve reached the end or hit your goal. Or even write a new chapter for some innovative fan fic!

32. Start an epic collection

Whether you’re traveling this summer or staying near home, it’s a great time to start a collection. Rocks, coins, bottle caps, flowers that you dry and put into a book, or something you even acquire by trading with friends! There are plenty of fun and free items to keep a lookout for all summer long. 

33. Embark on a summer-long competition

Start with a goal: miles biked, books read, or even something from the Guinness Book of World Records. And spend all summer trying to reach your goal! Stretch out the activity by crafting your own goal chart!

34. Write your own book

Take off from where your favorite author left off. And spend the summer months writing your own book. You can even look into an unsolved mystery and write your own ending! Or take a different angle, and start a kids-only magazine for your neighborhood!

35. Make a movie

If your child is missing screen time, flip the script and have them create their own film! Use clay sculptures, drawings, or enlist friends to be the stars. From writing the script, to creating costumes, to editing your creation, this project is sure to keep your little ones busy.

36. Earn badges

Take a page from the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and create your own set of badges to be earned over the summer. Spend time making them (from fabric or paper) and then create a list of activities to complete in order to earn! Some ideas to get you started: makers badge, nature badge, campout badge, ice cream party badge.

Spend Some Time in The Kitchen

37. Have a tea party (with homemade tea)

Create your own tea room at home. Gather different cups and plates or ask guests to bring their own for an eclectic aesthetic. Make tiny sandwiches, maybe some foolproof chocolate truffles, or any of these tea-time favorites. You can even make your own tea bags with cheesecloth or coffee filters. Then, get in your afternoon finest, and enjoy some fancy bites and sips.

38. Do a kitchen science project

With a few ingredients you already have in your cupboard, you can easily get your hands into some cool science experiments. From exploding volcanoes (don’t forget to add glitter) to oobleck to DIY geodes and even homemade potato batteries (from those regrown spuds!).

Credit: Shutterstock

39. Cook through a book

Check out the cookbooks you already own on your shelf and pick one to cook your way through! Leave post-its and notes for posterity.

40. Find a free cooking class

Whether through your local library or farmers market, there are often awesome opportunities to attend cooking classes at no cost. If you cannot find one, you can even ask a family member or friend to teach you one of their favorite dishes. Or, whether in person or virtually, you can always host one yourself.

Host a Group Activity for All the Kids

41. Host an art show

Your kids most likely created a bunch of artwork and building projects this past year. Have them create their own indoor or outdoor gallery of their favorite work and invite loved ones over for a special viewing. Make it into a bigger event by making tickets and snacks and maybe even “selling” the pieces, donating funds earned to a local or national organization of your child’s choosing.

42. Host a sidewalk sale

Using found items from home (like bottle caps and other spare parts), create some cool crafts. Then, host a sidewalk sale. And keep the good vibes by making it a “free store” or by donating anything earned to a charity of your child’s choosing.

43. Host a talent show

Have a fun evening with family and friends by calling on everyone’s creative sides. Make it a bigger activity by making posters, snacks, and decor — and take it to the next level with awards for everyone who participates.

44. Host a toy wash

On a hot day (or let’s be honest, any day), break out a tub and some bubbles. Invite neighborhood pals to join you in the backyard or a safe sidewalk. And give those toys a good scrub! You can donate any old toys that have been given new life or …

Credit: Shutterstock

45. Host a toy exchange

Over the past year, your kids most likely played endlessly with their favorite gadgets, gizmos, dolls, and dinos. An easy and free way to switch things up and inspire solo play is to swap toys with neighbors and friends. You can also easily turn it into an event by hosting the exchange somewhere like a park, where all participants lay out the goods and you enjoy a free shopping spree. Anything leftover can then be donated to a local organization.

Go All out For the Best Summer Ever

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46. Have a family yes day

By now we all know the power of a “yes day.” So take a break from the “no’s” and make even the most ordinary day extraordinary by all saying a big “yes” to any ideas that come your way. It will surely be a day of giggles and memories. Use creative license to keep it free and safe and realistic. And of course, be sure to set the rules and boundaries ahead of time!

47. Make a scavenger hunt

Time to find some treasure! Maybe you pretend to be pirates, explorers in the jungle, or Nancy Drew solving clues. No matter what character you take on, spend the afternoon decoding directions in your own home, yard, or even with the help of local business owners.

48. Adopt a charity

Pick a charity to become involved with or local politics to lean into. Maybe you make sandwiches for a local shelter, take part in monthly beach cleanups, or write regularly to a politician of your choice. Whatever you choose, you get both an ongoing activity for the summer as well as a budding activist.

49. Start a business

This one is especially great for older kids. Spend time creating and launching a business. Maybe you start selling homemade hair clips through Instagram or Etsy or a YouTube comedy channel or a kid climate change action group. Whatever the inspiration, enjoy the entrepreneurial ride from idea to business plan to beta testing, and take off.

50. Make a summer parade

Write letters to neighbors to see if they’ll join you for an outdoor summer parade. Make flags, decorate your bikes, bring some music. Pick a date to all meet up for a few turns around the block. And then bring some summer joy to your whole neighborhood.

This post was originally published June 30, 2021.