Updated on 04.13.17

Have an Amazing Family Summer Without Breaking the Bank: 20 Low-Cost Family Summer Activities

Trent Hamm

We have three children. My wife is a teacher. I have a fairly flexible job that gives me freedom to work whatever hours I like provided that I get my tasks done.

What does that add up to during the summer? It adds up to a lot of family time. Each spring, Sarah and I spend a lot of time brainstorming things that we’re going to do as a family during the summer.

We come up with day-long activities, afternoon activities, weekend activities, and so on, and we plan ahead for those activities so that we can just pull out a plan and be ready to go with it at a moment’s notice.

Being the highly organized person – at least in terms of information – that I am, I have a notebook in Evernote that contains a note for each one of these ideas, outlining what we need to do for each of them so that when we decide to go for it, we don’t have to think about what to grab or what needs to be done. I just pull up the note.

Given that we’re pretty cost conscious folks, many of these plans are intentionally very low-cost plans. We don’t feel the need to run to a baseball game or to an amusement park just to have a great time together as a family.

Today, I thought it might be fun to share some of the activities from our folder, so here are 20 of the most “share-able” ideas, ones that aren’t too off the beaten path and should work with some variation in most areas.

Activity #1: Geocaching (and managing our own geocaches)

Whenever I mention low-cost family activities, I almost always mention geocaching because it is undoubtedly in the top tier of our family’s favorite things to do together.

For those uninitiated, geocaching is basically a global “treasure hunt” using cell phones or GPS devices. You simply go get coordinates for geocaches from a geocaching app or from geocaching.com and then go to those coordinates and look around according to the clues given to you by the site or app. Eventually, you’ll find a hidden container, which usually contains a log book and often contains little tchotchkes (which follow a take-one-leave-one policy).

We love simply “collecting” the geocaches we’ve found and swapping various trinkets for the trinkets we find in geocaches. Our whole family tends to get really into this for two or three periods each summer, during which we’ll spend full days just going to a new town or recreational area and hunting for tons of geocaches.

Activity #2: Going on a picnic and a trail walk at a local or state park

The local, state, and national park services in America do a tremendous job of making our nation’s natural beauty accessible to all. Parks all over this nation have places to picnic, informational exhibits to see, trails to walk, and views to admire, and most of them are free (and the rest are really low cost).

It’s well worth your time to head out to some of these parks and see what they have to offer. Just pack up a picnic lunch and head out to a nearby state or local park (or a national one, if you’re lucky enough to live near one). Walk on some of the easier trails, take lots of pictures, and admire the views. Find a comfortable picnic table or a soft spot in the grass to spread out a blanket and enjoy a picnic lunch together.

It’s a wonderful way to spend the day outside in the fresh air enjoying the majestic beauty of some of the best that nature has to offer.

Activity #3: Building a fort in the woods

While this isn’t something you should do at a public park, if you happen to live near wooded areas or have friends that do, spending a few hours in the woods building a fort out of fallen limbs and logs is a tremendously fun time for the family.

Just go out there and start piling up tree limbs to make walls with an opening to get in and out of the fort. You can make the thing as simple or as elaborate as you wish, and if it falls over a time or two as you’re figuring out how to do it, that’s no big deal.

We’ve spent full afternoons building these kinds of forts in the woods as a family, sometimes creating quite elaborate structures. We’ve had picnics inside of them and even came back to the same structures several times to improve them. We’ve even managed to put a roof on a few of them, including one memorable one that kept us dry during a moderate rainfall (though a few patches did have to be made).

Activity #4: Making a food item that everyone likes completely from scratch

How is pasta or macaroni actually made? What goes into it? How about ice cream? What about peanut butter? These simple things are staples that most of us just buy without a second thought at the store, but it can be a ton of fun (and very tasty) to make them ourselves from scratch, and it’s often an activity that can draw in kids like moth to a flame.

For example, just pull out a bag of flour and some eggs and announce that we’re going to make pasta for supper. Statements like that will get kids intrigued and you’ll likely find yourself going through the steps of making pasta from scratch or making bread from scratch or making a cake from scratch.

The best part with a family project like this is that everyone walks away learning something new and you usually have a food item on hand that you can turn into a very distinctive and memorable meal or snack.

Activity #5 : Going on a day trip (with a picnic basket) to an interesting nearby town

There are several interesting little towns within a couple hours of our home in Iowa. The Amana Colonies have a rich German heritage. Pella has a wonderful Dutch heritage and wonderful places to just walk around. Orange City is similar. Decorah has one of the most beautiful downtowns that I’ve ever seen. It can be fun to just go to these interesting towns and cities and simply explore them.

Pack up a picnic lunch and head out in the morning. Explore the town for a while, then head to a park for lunch, then spend the afternoon exploring. What kinds of interesting sites are available? What examples of the town’s history can you find?

We’ve wound up exploring the birthplace of John Wayne, the childhood home of Herbert Hoover, how to make sauerkraut, how to make fizzy sodas, and how to do rosemaling, all for free on these kinds of trips. They often end up providing us with a few incredibly fun and quite memorable moments and they make for a very fun day for virtually no cost.

Activity #6: Playing a full course of disc golf at the park

Many parks offer open “disc golf” courses that simply require a Frisbee to play a round, which takes an hour or two (or more if you have a family). Disc golf is much like regular golf, except that the holes are baskets above the ground and you throw a Frisbee until you can toss it in the basket, with the best player taking the fewest number of throws.

It’s such a simple and fun way to spend a few hours outside. It offers some gentle competition, but unless you’re quite skilled, there are going to be enough mistakes and foibles that everyone will eventually have a bit of egg on their face and there will be plenty of laughs and fun. At least, that’s how it goes when our family heads out to play disc golf.

Activity #7: Having a ‘summer reading challenge’

Some summer activities do need to be oriented toward the indoors because there are always rainy days and thunderstorms and sometimes you just feel like relaxing in the air conditioning.

One of our favorite summer activities is a family reading challenge. We make pages full of checkboxes and then each time someone reads a book for half an hour, they can check off one of those boxes.

We often set up some kind of family reward if everyone makes it to a reasonable goal and there’s usually some other kind of special reward for the winner. For example, the family reward is usually some kind of special activity day that we’d probably do anyway but it provides a great reward for the activity, like a day at a local amusement park, and the individual reward is something like allowing the winner to choose a place to go out for dinner.

Activity #8: Making a family movie

Almost all of us has a video camera in the form of our cell phone and many models either have simple video editing software right on the phone or makes it available for download (there are also tons of desktop video editing software options).

What this means is that most people have all they need to make a family movie of some kind. You can write a script and make a dramatic or comedic film. You can make a documentary of sorts about your current life. Just choose something together that you’re all engaged with, write a script or a detailed plan for what you want to do, then start shooting the pieces.

Afterwards, you can work together to edit everything into a movie that you can enjoy immediately, then put up to rewatch later on when everyone’s older. There are few things more fun than watching a family movie that everyone made a few years ago, which stands perfectly on top of the fun of actually making one this summer!

Activity #9: Making and flying kites

It’s actually not too hard to make a kite, and it’s pretty fun to fly a kite on any moderately breezy day. Making your own kite just requires two dowels, a plastic bag, some electrical tape, and some string, but you can go as elaborate as you want with the project.

The process of actually making the kite is a fun project on its own, but then heading out and actually flying the kite adds even more to the mix. It provides an opportunity to make something, an opportunity to learn about revising and repairing things, and also provides the simple fun of just flying a kite that you actually made yourself.

Activity #10: Making a giant blanket fort and watching movies in there

This is a great way to spend a rainy day at home. Just take all of the blankets and sheets and pillows in the house, bring them into the living room, and then assemble a giant blanket and sheet and pillow fort using the furniture and whatever you can find to prop things up.

Once you get the thing built, bring a tablet or a small video player in there and hang out in a tight space as a family and watch a movie together. It’s fun to just be piled up together in a family-built blanket fort on top of a ton of pillows, watching a fun movie together, and the only cost is the time involved.

Activity #11: Creating a huge sidewalk chalk mural

If you have a box of sidewalk chalk sitting around, go find a section of pavement with a ton of open space and start drawing a gigantic mural. Draw a picture of your family allying with a ton of dragons to destroy a huge medieval castle. Draw a picture of the family dog piloting a giant mech costume. Write out the entire text of some meaningful passage and letter and decorate it beautifully.

Get everyone involved. Plan out what you’re going to do at the start so that the whole thing has some coherent sense. Make sure to use as many different colors as possible and account for the fact that you only have so much blue chalk.

A great sidewalk chalk mural can absorb several hours and result in a really colorful and fun art piece that will last only as long as the weather allows it. It’s simply a great way to spend a warm summer afternoon.

Activity #12: Having a backyard campfire and cooking dinner over it

This is a slice of camping (see below) that you can easily bring to your own backyard if you have a fire pit – and if you don’t, you can easily find inexpensive raised fire pits.

Just gather some lawn chairs, pick up some wood (or use any extra untreated wood you happen to have around), and get a fire started. Use some thin sticks to roast marshmallows or cook hot dogs, or simply wrap some items in aluminum foil and drop them right into the campfire to cook them. Simple campfire meals – meat and vegetables and flavorings wrapped in aluminum foil with a bit of butter and an ice cube for moisture – are delicious and incredibly easy and fun for everyone to make for themselves.

Activity #13: Having an art contest within a certain timeframe

Got a spare afternoon? Bring out all of the art supplies in the house, place them on a table, and then tell everyone that they have the afternoon to create an art showing of whatever they make.

Everyone can do this – I often do this by simply drawing and coloring in some elaborate stained glass style patterns.

The winner of the “contest” can be decided by family voting and that person can win a prize that involves getting out of chores or some other small favor, but the real fun of all of this is in the creation and in the sharing of those creations.

Activity #14: Going stargazing

There are few things more fun on a late summer evening than going out in the country where the lights aren’t as bright, stretching out on a blanket, and gazing up at the stars. You can spend time simply enjoying the majestic beauty of the night sky, or you can actively look for particular stars and planets and constellations.

The real fun of it, though, is simply being close to family, stretched out on the ground, with the incredible beauty of the night sky before you and a bit of summer’s evening chill in the air.

Activity #15: Completing a many-piece jigsaw puzzle

This is another great long-term activity for hot summer afternoons and rainy days. Just find a quiet corner of your home, set up a card table, place a chair in front of it, and start a 1000 (or more) piece jigsaw puzzle on it. Leave it set up so that anyone can take a turn putting pieces into the puzzle over the following days or weeks.

What often happens is that people will sit down for a few minutes, find a piece or two, then move on to something else. Then, someone else will do the same, then someone else will, and before long, the puzzle starts coming together to create a beautiful picture and, in the end, completing the puzzle feels like a family accomplishment.

Activity #16: Exploring how something is made

If you have curious children, eventually one of them will ask how something is made. How do people make glass bottles? How do people make airplanes? How do people make roads? I know my children ask those kinds of questions all the time.

If you have an empty day before you, you can answer one of those questions in depth. Find out where such things are actually being made near you and then simply call and ask if you can visit and learn more about the process. In the past, we’ve done this to learn more abut how paper is made and how hard candies are made, and we’ve even done simple forms of those things at home.

Activity #17: Going on a weekend camping trip

If you have a spare weekend, head to a state park together and pitch a tent at a campsite. You can build campfires, cook your own meals, sleep in the outdoors, explore trails, see wildlife, get tons of fresh air, and learn about the world around you.

If you have a tent and a few sleeping bags, a weekend of camping really isn’t very expensive at all. You typically make your own meals and the park provides all of your activities. It’s a great way to spend a summer weekend or two doing something outside of the norm without blowing up your budget.

Activity #18: Going to a community festival (and packing along a lunch to take)

Many towns and cities host community festivals during the summer months in which the town shows off many of the traits that make it interesting. You can often learn about different cultures, try samples of the things made in the town, and engage in a lot of fun activities.

While town festivals can be expensive, they’re not too bad if you focus on the free activities and bring along your own picnic lunch. Just get out there in the morning, eat a lunch you brought with you around noontime, and if you decide to stay through dinner, you can either eat a second picnic meal or indulge of one meal of festival fare. Most good community festivals have enough free activities that you can fill up a day with tons of enjoyable things to see and do without breaking out your wallet.

Activity #19: Meeting the families of friends for an afternoon at the park

Several times per summer, we’ll call up the family of one of our children’s friends and ask them to meet us at a park. This gives the parents a good chance to get to know each other and allows the children to play with their friends.

Often, we’ll combine this with grilling or a picnic meal that we eat together at the park shelter, which makes for an inexpensive meal. It gives us a chance to get to know other families in the area better, particularly the parents of our children’s friends, and occasionally build new friendships.

Activity #20: Building a freeform castle out of a ton of LEGOs from old kits

This is yet another “cooling off in the afternoon” activity that can end up being a ton of fun for children who still love LEGOs or other building toys but have somewhat outgrown the kits. Simply pull out a bunch of incomplete kits and parts, combine everything together, and build one giant castle/vehicle, using everything you can find.

You might find a mashup of a train and a Star Wars spaceship combined with parts of a castle to make some sort of flying battleship. You might combine a normal city building with part of Hogwarts to make a Ministry of Magic building. You might merge a model of the Death Star with a LEGO Architecture kit to make a futuristic tech headquarters. You might combine a fairy’s home with a ton of ordinary LEGO bricks to make an enormous rainbow-colored add-on.

Just mix and match and build and create and see what you come up with when you’re not simply following instructions or looking at a pattern. This type of project turns out to be incredibly engaging and sometimes pulls in everyone in our family for an hour or two of LEGO building.

Final Thoughts

If you turn a creative eye to the things you already have on hand and the natural creativity and curiosity and energy of your family, you can find nearly infinite things to do during the summer. A summer vacation doesn’t have to be expensive nor does it have to be boring. You likely already have everything you need to fill up a summer with tons of things to do that everyone will enjoy.

Get started now and plan out a few things so that you’re ready for the summer when it comes. Where might you camp? What’s geocaching all about? What places might you be able to tour? What kinds of recreational facilities are available?

Get that information together, combine the ideas above with your own imagination, and jot down a big list of ideas for things to do this summer. It’s a far better alternative than having bored children who beg to go to an expensive amusement park, that’s for sure!

Good luck!

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