School’s Out for Summer: 16 Free or Low-Cost Activities for Kids
"Moooooooooom, I'm booooooorrrrrrrred. There's nothing to do!"
No matter how many toys or high-tech gadgets they have at their disposal, siblings and neighbors to play with or books to read, every child utters these words at least a few times a year. Usually in the summer.
You could try lecturing them on contentment or regaling them with stories of how kids in some places have daily homework all summer long. But, for less eye-rolling and grumbling, why not spice up their summer with activities that will keep their minds engaged and learning and their bodies active? You don't even have to spend much -- or any -- money besides the cost of getting to the activity.
Here are 16 free (or inexpensive) activities for your kids to enjoy this summer. These programs are available nationwide, though not in every city, so it's best to call your local store or outlet to ensure they’re being offered in your community.
Enrolling kids in summer reading programs is a great way to prevent the “summer slide” or “brain drain.” For just the cost of getting to the library -- which is free if you walk or bike! -- your kids can improve their reading skills, learn new information and get some neat rewards.
Your local library will probably have a reading program, with weekly storytimes and activities related to a theme. Community businesses often sponsor the programs, and kids get prizes like books, free kids’ meals and tickets to sports or cultural events as prizes for meeting their reading goals.
In addition, several national book retailers, as well as a few businesses, offer summer reading programs. While their programs are noble, they do hope that you'll buy a few books when you come in to sign up. You can avoid buying new books by using your library card or obtaining inexpensive books from thrift stores, garage sales and PaperBack Swap.
Here are details for eight summer reading programs:
- Barnes & Noble: Read eight books, record the titles in the printable journal and redeem it for a free book from the store's Reading Journal list.
- Books A Million: Read four books from the store's Summer Quest list, fill out the journal (print it at home or pick up one in the store) and receive a free tote bag while supplies last.
- Book It: Read five books to be eligible to win prizes in the Summer Reading Challenge, which runs from June 22 to August 15.
- Chuck E. Cheese's: Print out the Reading Rewards Calendar, check off each day as your child reads daily for two weeks, and he’ll get 10 free tokens on his next visit. This program runs year-round and also has other rewards calendars that encourage good habits such as good behavior, daily music practice and sportsmanship.
- Family Christian: Read six Christian books, complete a short book report on each one (printed from the website) and earn a $10 savings pass for your next purchase of $10 or more. This can even be completed online if you don't live near a store; just email the book reports to the address on the website.
- Half Price Books: Read daily for 15 minutes in June and July, record minutes in the Feed Your Brain Summer Reading Program calendar, and receive $5 in Bookworm Bucks once you've read for 300 minutes.
- TD Bank: Read 10 books, fill out the Summer Reading Form and take it to your nearest TD bank branch to get $10 deposited in a new or existing Young Saver account.
- Showcase Cinemas: Bring a completed book report to Bookworm Wednesdays from July 8 to July 29, and receive free admission to the children's film. Accompanying parents and siblings under six get in free as well.
- Kids Bowl Free is a great option for kids who love to bowl, or who live near a participating bowling alley. Children get two free games every day, all summer long. Shoe rental is not included, so you'll probably want to purchase a pair to save on rental fees. And to keep kids from spending all their money at the snack bar, use your free gift cards from Swagbucks to buy snacks to eat while they bowl.
- Kids Skate Free offers kids free admission to roller rinks across the nation. Each center that participates sets its own terms and conditions, so you need to contact your nearest location for details. If your local rink isn't participating, the site has a letter you can print and send to the rink owners to encourage them to join.
- Regal Entertainment Group’s Summer Movie Express program offers movies for just $1 at participating theaters for nine weeks. Each theater screens two movies every weekday morning, but be sure to check their website to find a theater in your area.
- Cinemark's Summer Movie Clubhouse offers movies for $1 each or sells a pass to 10 movies for $5. Check out the website to find which cinemas in your area are participating.
Microsoft Summer Camps
The tech giant offers two types of free camps to teach, entertain and challenge kids and teens.
- YouthSpark Summer Camp: Select Microsoft stores in 31 states teach kids ages eight and up about game coding or game design. Kids get to use the latest technology as they use their creativity and imagination to plan and code games. Both the Smart Game Coding and Smart Game Design camps offer beginner and intermediate options. Sessions are two hours long and run for four consecutive days.
- DigiGirlz High Tech Camps give young women a chance to learn more about technology and get them interested in careers in the tech industry. At these free camps, high school girls enjoy hands-on experience, listen to speakers, network and participate in demonstrations. As of this writing, three camps are still open for registration: July 30-31 (Reno, NV), August 4-5 (St. Louis, MO) and August 11-12 (Las Colinas, TX). Registration is done on a first-come, first served basis so sign up quickly if your daughter is interested in technology.
- Home Depot offers free Kids Workshops on the first Saturday morning of the month for kids between five and 12 years old. Previous projects have been planters, picture frames and model airplanes, and the workshop includes all supplies. At the end, kids get a certificate of completion and pin in addition to their apron and project. The online registration process is easy: fill out the form (selecting your preferred location), print out your ticket and show up at the event. Adults may stay to help younger kids complete the building project.
Vacation Religious School
- Religious Programs: Most houses of worship offer some sort of kids’ program in the summer, be it a day-long event or a week-long morning program to teach kids about faith in fun and engaging ways with story time, arts and crafts, sports, singing and snacks. These programs are typically free of charge and are open to any child. Looking in local newspapers, speak with religious leaders or check church or temple websites to find out what programs are available.
Check Your Local Newspaper
You might find more summer programs available from local businesses and organizations. Minor league sports teams often have summer training camps for youth, universities need kids to participate in lessons taught by education students and school districts offer fun summer classes.
Your Turn: What cheap or free activities are your children participating in this summer?
Charlotte Edwards is a freelance personal finance and parenting writer whose work has appeared in Incomes Abroad, International Living, Hawaii Parent and My Kids’ Adventures. She’s the wife of a great penny-pinching guy, and mom of two kiddos who are learning about saving and wise spending by earning commission for housework.