12 Free or Cheap Summer Activities for Kids

A grandfather lays in a grassy field with his grandson while on a hike.
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Looking for cheap summer activities for kids?

If you’re hosting grandkids, nieces or nephews for vacations this summer or if you’re a babysitter, nanny or family member providing childcare while school is out, you don’t have to spend a lot to keep children occupied and off of those screens.

12 Free or Cheap Summer Activities for Kids

From dollar-store finds to elevator rides, here are 12 free or cheap summer activities to entertain kids this season.

1. Tour the Fire Station

Most firefighters across the country will take kids through the station for a tour. They pose for super cool photos with your grandchildren, hand out stickers and give an important safety talk. Your child may even get to wear a firefighter’s hat, sit in the fire truck or see what they’re cooking up for lunch or dinner in the station’s kitchen. Stop by your local station ahead of time and ask if you can schedule a visit. Some stations want at least six kids to come through while others are fine with just one.

2. See a Cheap Movie

Most of the movie theaters offer great ticket prices for kids’ movies in the summer. Some movies you will just have to stomach as an adult with a different humor bar, while others are films people of all ages love.

Be sure to make popcorn at home ahead of time and put in plastic bags that you take in the theater in your biggest pocketbook or diaper bag. Or go to a discount store on the way and let the kids pick out a treat that’s easier to fit in a smaller bag. Take a few empty plastic cups to fill at the water fountain.

AMC Theatres offer $3 movies for the whole family on Wednesday and $5 showings on Saturday. This summer’s schedule includes: “Minions: The Rise of Gru,” “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” and “Sing 2.”

Cinemark theaters charge $1.50 for a 9:30 a.m. movie on Wednesdays. Plus, you can get $1 off snacks. Movies include “Lyle, Lyle Crocodile,” ”Mummies” and “Sonic the Hedgehog.”

Regal theaters have $2 movies on Tuesdays. This summer’s titles include “How to Train Your Dragon,” “The Croods” and “Shrek Forever After.”

3. Collect Some Nature

Walk through your neighborhood or go to a local park with the mission of collecting pieces of nature. Deposit pinecones, acorns, flower buds, rocks, leaves, bark or twigs in that clear plastic box that housed the strawberries.

Need a box? Trader Joe’s sells peaches in a clear, curved plastic container that has a handle and opens down the center.

The kids will love filling the “collect-a-box.” Once they are home, they can make their own nature museum by placing items in an old muffin tin or on a piece of posterboard and labeling each one. An adult can help with the writing, of course.

Or make a nature bracelet. Loosely wrap a piece of Duct tape with the sticky side out around your child’s wrist. Do the same for yourself. Then stick flower petals, leaves and other light items you find around it.

4. Clean up a Park or Beach

A walk on the beach or through your local park takes on new meaning when you are helping protect wildlife by picking up trash. It’s never too early to teach kids that human waste can hurt birds, turtles or other creatures if they mistake it for food.

5. Going Up?

Long elevator rides are humdrum, even an annoyance, when adults are hurrying to work or an appointment at a tall office building. But young kids may never ride elevators or only go up two or three floors for a doctor’s appointment. So they get a thrill out of pushing those buttons and going for a long ride. If there’s a glass wall offering a view that’s even better.

Find the tallest building in your town and take a ride. If a building houses tenants that serve the general public, then the elevator is open to the public — that includes hotels with restaurants on the top floor. However, a corporate headquarters or private business might not welcome riders without appointments.

6. Build a Fort

Lunch, reading books, watching a movie or even taking a nap is more fun inside a fort. Use sofa cushions for walls and top with a sheet or drape the sheet over a low branch or across two bushes. Dollar Tree sells clothes pins, which can help secure sheets in place, for $1.25 a pack.

7. Check Out Your Local Library

Of course, books, glorious books, are available at no charge throughout the year — but don’t stop there when it comes to finding free stuff at your library. In the summer, libraries increase the offerings for children with story hours, puppet shows and movie nights. Go on your local library’s website or pick up the phone and call to find out what’s on the schedule.

8. Build a House of Cards

This is good for kids ages 8 through 80. Use several packs of cards to build a tower or multiple small houses scattered around to create a village. Use a table as your workspace so you can leave it and come back. Youtube is filled with videos showing different techniques. This one touts the “easiest card tower of your life.”

9. Find Free Events From Your Local Government

Many cities and towns host free events for families throughout the summer. Columbus, Ohio, for example, is offering free carousel rides one day as well as showing free movies outdoors under the stars at three different locations.

Meanwhile, Elkin, N.C., in the foothills of the state, shows what small towns can offer. It hosts free trout fishing experiences for youth with the city providing the bait and equipment.

Check out the events calendars for cities and towns around you and start making your plans.

10. Feel the Berm

Most Minor League Baseball fields have a berm, that grassy bank that makes the smaller stadiums so picturesque. Berm seating tickets are always less than the stadium seats, and can cost as little as $1 per person for some nights.

Check out the calendar for minor league teams in your area to see the summer specials. The Clearwater Threshers in Florida, for example, offer $1 berm seats the same night drinks and hot dogs also cost $1 each.

It costs a little more, but if the child or children in your life love ball games, it’s worth joining the kids’ club most teams offer.

For example, for $25, the Clearwater Threshers offers kids in its Little Anglers Club free tickets to 11 Thursday home games and a voucher for free chips, a drink and hot dogs at each game. Kids also receive a baseball cap, T-shirt and time to play catch with an adult on the field and run the bases before each game.

11. Find Fun Stuff at the Dollar Tree

Buy these 10 Dollar Tree items at $1.25 each and you’ve got hours of activities, or just pick your favorites. (If you order from the website, there’s a required minimum purchase, but if you buy at stores, this isn’t an issue.)

Here they are:

  1. Nickelodeon-themed bottles of bubbles and Disney-themed bubbles. Blowing bubbles in the yard, in the bath or off the deck is just good summer fun. See who can blow the biggest bubble or the most bubbles with one long breath. Have one person blow as many as they can and and others pop them as fast as they can.
  2. Cross stitch kits. Squares featuring a colored pattern of a frog, butterfly, heart and other bright designs will keep kids busy for a while. It can be a calming activity before bed, or a special present to give for a birthday. Cross stitch is good for boys and girls and a great way to teach them basic sewing skills. Everyone should learn how to replace a button or fix a ripped seam.
  3. Squirt guns. Whether in the tub, in the yard, at the beach or in the pool, squirt guns make things more fun and cool.
  4. Modeling clay. Open the lids of this four-pack of different colors and open a child’s imagination to shape anything they want or make handprints and thumb prints.
  5. Finger paints. This pack of four colors offers fun for the smallest of fingers on up to ones with a few wrinkles here and there.
  6. A case of 300 stickers. Pages and pages of stickers including aliens, animals, robots, food, nature and more combined with a kid’s imagination and adult’s ability to take dictation allows children to write their own stories, make secret maps or draw make believe lands.
  7. Beach balls. You don’t need a beach or pool to have fun with a light, bright blow-up ball. Keep a record each day of summer for how many times you can bop it back and forth.
  8. Plastic bat and ball. This bat is a little wider than a standard one so younger players can have more success swinging at the ball or hitting it off a cone. Many stores offer a more narrow bat as well.
  9. Muffin tin. Muffin tins aren’t just for making muffins. Remember, they can display shells or other nature kids collect. Kids can also use them to sort or organize coins, stickers, crayons or small toys.
  10. Cookie mix. Summer is a good time for kids to pull a sturdy chair up to the kitchen counter and learn how to crack an egg, measure a teaspoon of vanilla flavoring and stir cookie dough with a wooden spoon. Many stores offer three different Betty Crocker mixes: sugar, peanut butter and chocolate chip.
In the battle of the dollar stores, which one wins? And how do they compare to Amazon? Here’s our analysis.

12. Make Crafts

You’ll need to buy a roll of white butcher paper, which costs about $10 at a craft store, for many of these, but probably have most other supplies such as paints, glue, magazines and tape to make these easy and engaging art projects. If you don’t, dollar stores are a great place to find art supplies for cheap.

Here are 10 crafts you can do with kids on the cheap.

  1. Underwater mural. Make a mural of mixed media using photos of sea creatures found in magazines or junk mail. Or cut them out from fabric scraps or construction paper.Paint or color a piece of 6-foot-long butcher paper in different shades of blue and green the glue for water then add the creatures you’ve cut out or created and draw more or add stickers.
  2. Box lid zoo. Tape or glue popsicle sticks vertically to the edges of a box lid or pizza box to make the fence for the animal habitats. Fill each one with terrain found in the yard or local park such as rocks, mulch, grass or sticks. Make food troughs from takeout salad dressing containers, condiment containers and small boxes. Add plastic animals found at the Dollar Tree or your local craft store.
  3. Your Town, U.S.A. Make a city from boxes and cartons covered in paper then decorate with markers, magazine photos and stickers to create doors and windows. Combine two boxes to become one building. They can be placed on a long sheet of easel paper that can be decorated to have roads, parking spaces and parks. Add model cars to the town. For taller boxes, put something heavy like a stapler, rock or paperweight inside it so they don’t tip over.
  4. Outer space mural. Make a mural of mixed media using aluminum foil, magazines, junk mail, fabric scraps, stickers, crayons, paint, bottle lids, and nature to create life on another planet. Kids can draw or cut out what they imagine houses, cars, inhabitants and nature look like on their planet. Nobody needs to feel their ideas don’t look “real” because nobody knows what “real” really is on your made up planet.
  5. Boat parade. Remove lids or cut out one side of boxes so they are open and can hold passengers such as dolls, plastic animals, people etc. Cover the boxes with construction paper and add decorations such as stripes and boat names. Make flags for the back of boats by taping fabric or colored paper to a straw or pipe cleaners.
  6. Cruise ship mural. Depending on your child’s age, an adult might want to draw a cruise ship on a six-foot-long piece of easel paper. Draw a long oval, with horizontal lines dividing it into three or four decks and add a couple tall, round smokestacks on the top. Kids can add port holes, bigger windows, flags, swimming pools, life preservers, people and more by drawing them or cutting out shapes or photos from magazines, construction paper, fabric or aluminum foil. They can make rows of railings by taping popsicle sticks across the top deck.Paint or color water around the ship and add some marine life
  7. Dollhouse. Use a glue gun to attach four big cardboard boxes with two side by side on the bottom and two side by side on the top. Make all open sides face out and you have a four-room dollhouse. Create blankets and drapes from fabric scraps, fabric softener sheets or napkins. Draw windows, doors, artwork, bookshelves, kitchen appliances and TVson the interior sides of the boxes. Or cut out photos of these from magazines.
    Pro Tip

    Need large boxes? Grocery and liquor stores routinely dispose of them and will give them to you for free.

  8. Tree house mural. Turn a 6-foot-long piece of easel paper vertically and kids can create a tall tree with their dream tree house at the top. The tall trunk can be painted or colored and include textures from nature, magazine photos or cloth. At the top draw a simple tree house with a flat floor and railing or a detailed one with windows, stairs, a rooftop lookout deck and all the bells and whistles. Again, accent it with drawing, magazine pics, fabric, pieces of real nature and anything else that be glued or taped down.
  9. Farm. For this farm, If you have bigger plastic horses, use grocery store or liquor store boxes, if you want to make a rescue farm for those smaller zoo animals, use shoe boxes. Make the boxes into stables by taping smaller boxes to the “floor” of the bigger boxes to create smaller stalls. Add troughs made from condiment containers or other boxes covered in aluminum foil inside the stables and the ring. Fill troughs with leaves and weeds for food.
  10. Tropical island mural. Draw a curve across the bottom of a sheet of 6-foot-long easel paper and then color or paint it to look like sand. Glue real sticks and leaves or photos found in magazines to create palm trees and other lush vegetation. Cut fabric or paper and glue hammocks between the trees. Draw or cut out photos of rocks and water to add waterfalls. Draw or cut out images of huts, animals and tropical flowers.

Katherine Snow Smith is a freelance writer and editor and author of “Rules for the Southern Rulebreaker: Missteps & Lessons Learned.