Moms Columns & Blogs

Cheap thrills

Keeping the kids entertained this summer doesn't have to be expensive. Here are 47 ideas from Tara McAlister, the Deal Diva, for free or nearly free fun.

Make sailboats and race them. Put water in a plastic kid’s pool and race your handmade sailboats. Use natural wind power to make them go and see who makes it to the finish line first! Then try blowing them.

Jump rope. This is fun for one child or a group of children. Learn a few songs and games to play for group jump roping, and try to see how many jumps each person can make before making a mistake.

Puddle jumping. Nothing is more fun than getting to play outside when it’s raining. Summer rainstorms don’t always mean you have to head inside -- put on bathing suits and rain boots and stomp in the puddles! (Don't go out in thunder and lightening, though.)

Have your own drive-in movie. On a clear, dry night, bring the television or portable DVD player set outdoors and let the kids watch a movie on blankets under the stars

Plant a container garden. Many vegetables and herbs can be grown indoors or out inside containers. Let your children pick some varieties to grow and tend to them throughout the summer. It may even convince them to eat a vegetable if they know they grew it!

Target squirting. Set plastic cups on the top of a fence, deck railing or balanced on kids heads and let other children squirt them off with water guns or plastic water bottles. You can create points by writing on the plastic cups and keep score or just see who’s the fastest to knock over the cups.

Car wash. Arm your kids with the hose, a bucket, soap and some sponges and set them to work washing the family car (and each other). You could let them hang a sign around town advertising their car wash service, as well.

Water balloons. An always fun, but often forgotten activity, water balloons are easy to make and cheap! Fill some balloons with water and play water balloon toss. Start kids standing close together and each time the balloon is caught without breaking everyone takes a step back!

Just about every kid enjoys bubbles! Create your own bubble solution with dishwashing liquid, water and a teaspoon of sugar. Pour into a shallow container with a wide open mouth and then use odd objects to create your bubbles. String, rubber bands, the spaghetti strainer, straws, slotted spoons and anything else you can think of make some fun bubbles!

Sand art. Use food coloring to color sand in ziplock bags. Pour the sand on paper plates to dry before using. Once dry, glue to paper to make cards and art; or fill plastic containers with your sand art creations.

Organize sports days. If you live in an area where there are many children, you may be able to organize a day every week to play sports. Set up a baseball team, soccer team or other sports team and get the kids active. Just be sure to have enough water near by.

Sidewalk chalk. Drawing on the ground is always fun. You can let the kids make pictures and drawings, or use it to make hopscotch and other games to play on the sidewalk.

Create a race car track. If you have miniature cars (hot wheels and others), it can be tons of fun to create elaborate race tracks in the dirt, complete with jumps, water pits and crash areas.

Organize a bike parade. What a great way to celebrate Memorial Day or even Fourth of July. Create fun awards and allow the kids to decorate their bikes or add a costume!

Scavenger hunt. Create a list of 20 or more things that can be found naturally outside in your area, things like pinecones, specific flowers, nuts, etc. Send the kids on a scavenger hunt to try and collect one of each item on the list. This can be done as a group effort, or each child can compete with the other to see who can find the most objects, the fastest.

Set up an obstacle course. Turn your backyard into an amazing obstacle course! Let the kids create a course from toys, bikes, and other things found in your backyard. Just keep an eye on them so they aren’t doing anything that would be unsafe!

Go to yard sales. Give each child a few dollars and allow them to make purchases at a few yard sales. The new-to-them items are always more fun than the items they already own (at least for a couple hours!) You could do the same thing at the dollar store.

Go fishing. Borrow fishing poles if you don’t have any and spend the day fishing in a river, lake or pond.

Visit every playground. Determine how many playgrounds are within a 25 mile radius of your home, and pick one day a week as playground day. Try to get a few other families to join you; and visit one park each week.

Visit a local farm. You can probably pick fresh berries at the start of summer, and apples towards the end of summer. Check out the Observer’s Guide to U Pick locations around the Charlotte metro area.

Make a slip n’slide. Use an old tarp as a slip n’ slide, or buy one. The kids will enjoy this activity for a few hours on a hot summer day.

Stargaze. Take a blanket out after it gets dark, a flashlight and an astronomy guide. See if you can find all the constellations. July 28, 29 - Southern Delta Aquarids Meteor Shower. The Delta Aquarids can produce about 20 meteors per hour at their peak. The shower usually peaks on July 28 and 29, but some meteors can also be seen from July 18 - August 18. Best viewing is usually to the east after midnight.

Aug. 12, 13 - Perseids Meteor Shower. The Perseids is one of the best meteor showers to observe, producing up to 60 meteors per hour at their peak. This year's shower should peak on the night of August 12 and the morning of the 13th, but you may be able to see some meteors any time from July 23 - August 22. For best viewing, look to the northeast after midnight

August 13 - Triple Conjunction with the Moon. The planets Venus, Mars, and Saturn will all be close to the thin, crescent moon on this evening. Look to the west just after sunset.

Indoor camping. Throw a sheet over your kitchen table and camp out underneath. You can sing campfire songs, make s’mores in the microwave and pretend to go fishing. If you have a small pop-tent, these can be set up indoors temporarily, too and provide hours of entertainment.

Papermache stuff. Mix water and flour in a bowl to create a paste. Cut up strips of newspapers and make papermache objects. You can make piñatas, decorative items or animal creations. Just remember it takes several days for it to dry before you can paint and decorate it (or before you can break it open if you’ve made a piñata!)

Make puppets. Use socks and craft supplies from around the house to create puppets and put on a puppet show.

5-Minute Make-Your-Own- Ice Cream. In a quart ziplock bag, add a cup of milk, a teaspoon of vanilla and a tablespoon of sugar. In a gallon ziplock bag, put in a 1/3 of a cup of salt and fill the bag 3/4 of the way full with ice cubes. Place the smaller bag inside the larger bag, and shake for 5 minutes. Open and serve!

Make a dream book. Using magazines, let the children cut out photographs and draw pictures of things they’d like to have someday, places they’d like to go, careers they’d like to have one day and glue them into a dream book.

Start making holiday gifts for family. Use all the free time you have in the summer to start on your holiday gift list. The kids can make photo frames, mini scrapbooks, and craft items to give as gifts throughout the year.

Tye Dye. You can buy a kit or just get the colors from the craft store (or department store). You’ll need socks or tee shirts or whatever else you want to tye dye, and rubber bands, as well as rubber gloves to protect your skin from the dye. One of the best tricks I have used – Put the dye in squeeze bottles – this allows creators more control of what they want to design.

Marble games. Buy a big bag of marbles (really inexpensive!) and make up games to play with them. You can also search online for marble games and learn a few new ones.

Make fruit popsicles. Make your own fruit juice Popsicles with juice in paper cups and Popsicle sticks in them. Pop in the freezer until frozen and serve.

Host a sleepover. Let your children invite a few friends over for a sleepover. It’s a fun way to break up the routine. The kids can play boardgames, watch a movie, make and eat fun snacks and enjoy some social time.

Act out your favorite book or movie. Get the family together and/or invite some friends over to help re-enact a fairy tale or favorite scene from a book.

Learn a new language. Use the internet or rent videos and/or audio instructions to learn a new language.

Write and illustrate a book. With construction paper and some crayons, your children can become authors and illustrators. If old enough, let them write their own stories and illustrate them (either by drawing pictures or cutting photos out of old magazines) or for younger children, you can write down their story as they dictate it to you.

Volunteering. The local retirement home and hospital often like when kids come in to help serve lunch, or read to the patients. Alternatively, your children could volunteer at the animal shelter- they always need help making sure the dogs get out for some exercise!

Make your own board games. Or have a Board Game exchange with friends. Playing board games is fun for all ages, but can get a little boring when you play the same games, over and over. Spend some time creating your own board game with cardboard, crayons and other objects- then play it! The real fun is the creation of the game itself, but you can play and save the game for future playtime as well.

Lemonade stand. Turn your children into mini-entreprenuers! Teach them how to figure out their profits by subtracting the cost of their materials and supplies and how many cups of lemonade they sell.

Yard sale. Help the kids organize a yard sale. They can price their unused toys and clothing and other items that it’s time to get rid of, set up the tables outside with the items to sell, and handle the “customers”. Anything that doesn’t sell can be placed on ebay or another online auction site; and the kids could use the money to buy themselves a new summertime activity.

Make a movie/play. If you have a video camera, let the kids write, direct, act, and record their own movies. If you don’t have one and can’t borrow one, you can do the same thing but have a live performance- like a play.

Treasure hunt. Hide a small treasure (a bag of candy, new game, etc) some where in the house. Then use post-its to write clues. Each clue will lead to another clue, until finally the last one will lead the children to the “treasure”.

Create a chore chart. On a dry erase board or piece of cardboard, design a chore chart with the kids and give stickers or stars whenever their chores are accomplished. Set small goals and rewards for each week, and it will give the kids something to look forward to, and responsibilities during the summer weeks.

Teach children to cook. Use easy recipes, but take advantage of all the learning opportunities involved with cooking: creating the shopping list, sticking to a budget, using measuring cups and spoons, nutrition, and actually making the meal.

Cartoon flipbooks. Show your children how to staple paper together or use a notebook and draw images that are slightly different from one page to the next so that when they flip through the pages, they appear to be moving.

Start a book club. Ideally, you could get a few kids around the same age to all read the same book and get together to chat about it; but if there isn’t enough participation, even a parent and child could read the same book and have a discussion about it.

Geocaching: This is a free activity for older kids and teenagers- or the entire family can participate. Visit this website: and enjoy a high-tech treasure hunt!

Be a tourist. Pretend to be a tourist in your own town and near by locations. Use maps to discover landmarks, attractions and parks that you’ve never gone to, and plan family trips to visit each.