Updated on 09.22.14

Entertaining Your Children For $1 Or Less

Trent Hamm

(Without The TV!)

A brilliant article appeared on Lifehacker today entitled 10 Ways To Entertain Young Children For $1 Or Less (Without The TV). Here are the author’s ten suggestions in a nutshell, but the article itself is well worth reading:

Large cardboard boxes
Rubber band and pencil crazy bot
Make a paper popper
Home Depot Kids Workshop
Plant something
Water sprinkler
Bubbles bubbles everywhere
Catch fireflies
Paper airplanes
Tin can and string telephone

I will say that I do several of these with my toddler son on a regular basis. He is a huge fan of cardboard boxes and bubbles are a regular yard activity.

However, there are many more nearly free activities that you can enjoy with your child. Here are ten more, all of which have been used by me and my nearly twenty one month old son.

Ten More Frugal Activities for Young Children

1. Drumming with pots and pans and a wooden spoon

Empty out the cupboards, turn pots and pans upside down in the kitchen, and practice drumming. It’s as noisy as can be, but it’s incredibly fun. Make lots of noise for a half hour or so.

2. Reading a book / going to the library

I read books to my son all the time (he’s partial to Go, Dog. Go! and My Many Colored Days) and we also go to the library regularly – it’s within walking distance of our house.

3. Get out The Crayon Box and some white paper

This has some startup expense, but goes down to pennies per use. Get a small container, fill it with crayons and paper, and get them out on occasion. I just steal about a hundred sheets of printer paper, keep them in a manila envelope in the Crayon Box, and get out a few sheets at a time. He spreads out on the floor and scribbles all over the sheets. Occasionally, I’ll print patterns for him, but usually he likes blank sheets the best.

4. Turn on music visualization and dance in the kitchen

I’ll turn on some upbeat music in iTunes, turn up the volume, turn on the visualizer, and then work on kitchen tasks while dancing. My son loves dancing around and he also likes watching the patterns on the screen (he’s enjoyed the patterns since he was tiny).

5. Make some homemade Play-Doh and experiment with it

1 cup flour
1 cup boiling water
2 tablespoons cream of tartar
1/2 cup salt
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
food coloring

It’s all safe to eat in case he takes a big bite. We make a bunch of this and let him play with it on the table (but only on the table). He mashes it and molds it and beats it. I often make sculptures and he tries to imitate. Even better, it can all go in the trash when he’s done (this stuff works great for the first couple hours, but doesn’t keep well).

6. Go on a bug hunt

The original article suggested catching fireflies, but it’s actually fun to catch all kinds of bugs. My son particularly likes watching grasshoppers jump. I walk around with him until we spy a bug, then we try to catch it (and usually fail, but it’s fun). If you do catch one, put it in a jar with holes poked in the lid and watch it for a while, then set it free (most insects are harmless and usually beneficial to your local environment). Obviously, as an adult, you should know of any dangerous bugs in the area, but these are few and far between and are far outnumbered by crickets, lightning bugs, grasshoppers, ladybugs, and so on. You can even try catching butterflies (a net works well for this).

7. Make a leaf pile – and jump in it!

I’ve done this with my nieces and nephews countless times in the fall – and this year my son will be old enough to try it. Basically, just enlist their help in gathering up leaves and just when it looks like they’re bored, have them jump in the pile! I usually take a jump myself! Even if you don’t have a tree nearby, you can do this in the park. If you fill up bags full of leaves, you can also jump on the bags and not make as much of a mess (but the mess is half the fun).

8. Go for a walk in the rain

When there’s a steady rainfall, don’t just hide inside – go out and explore it together. Splash in some mud puddles, catch a drop or two in your mouth (it won’t kill you!), and enjoy the splattering rain. It works well in a gentle, steady rainfall – kids tend to not like torrential downpours (neither do adults).

9. Make a homemade sweet treat

Look up a recipe for homemade cake, brownies, cookies, or ice cream and make one of them from scratch. Let the child help as much as possible, even if it makes a mess. You can make a small batch of most recipes for well under a dollar, plus your child will get the fun of licking the batter off of the spoon.

10. Make a sheet fortress

Take a bunch of bed sheets and erect a fort, using furniture as the base. My son loved hiding under it for a while, coming out and yelling, then hiding again – for hours.

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  1. Laura says:

    Some of my favorite times when I was growing up was reading at the library. I still love to read and I am very grateful that my parents encouraged this activity. The Play-Dough project is also a fantastically fun thing to do. Thanks for reminding me of some of my best times.

  2. Shoot, I still have fun with those things and I’m a grown man, hehe.

  3. laura k says:

    To get some paper more or less for free, use discarded paper from the printer. I have no qualms going dumpster diving (okay, recycle bin diving) to salvage perfectly good paper. And kids don’t usually care if it’s a little wrinkled.

  4. DivaJean says:

    Don’t forget, not only paper can be salvaged for crafting from the recycle bin!

    My kidlets and I come up with all kinds of crafting based on what’s in the bin. My daughter just recently made a servicable drum for her doll from a pringles can.

  5. Tim says:

    Wouldn’t it be better to composte your playdoh?

    The same as the plastic water bottles – maybe your area doesn’t have recycling, which is a shame if so…

  6. Mitch says:

    The itsy-bitsy spider has saved me many, many times around toddlers. It has enough motion to be interesting, but is mild enough to calm down some frenzy, soothe to sleep a child who fights it.

  7. Amanda says:

    As a former teacher, another tip with the Play Dough is to put it into ziploc bags for storage and get a few more uses out of it!

  8. dznomore says:

    Tip for the Playdoh

    I’ve been a preschool special ed teacher for 20 years. This is the best recipe but the trick is to mix the dry ingredients in a pot. Then add the oil to the hot water, cook on med med low until bubbly, mixing the entire time. Take off heat, let cool, spill out and knead. It holds for weeks if you do it this way.
    Also, add cool-aid for color and scent, it’s worth the thirthy cents!!!

  9. Jen says:

    Last Thursday, I was making dinner in our kitchen, and I looked out the back window to see my husband and 2yr old running around the backyard with their noses skyward and their mouths open. It’s one of those moments that just makes me happy.

    Also, combine a box of cornstarch and enough water to make “goop”, it’s solid, but if you hold it, it’ll run through your fingers. Lots of fun.

  10. Isis Uptown says:

    Today, at Zion National Park, I saw a boy and a girl spend quite some time trying to catch a lizard. If you have harmless lizards in your yard, maybe let your child try to catch one.

    The little girl did catch the lizard; she didn’t hurt it.

  11. Erica says:

    We made “goop” recently, it was a lot of fun.

  12. Jason says:

    tickle fights are fun until someone pees their pants (it’s not always the kid!)

  13. ChiaLynn says:

    My husband tells me that adding glycerin to the play-dough will also help keep it supple.

  14. m360 says:

    Some think the only way to form lasting moments with their children is to spend money. Although taking a vacation to another country, going to a concert, etc. can be priceless, it need’t be. Just spending time with your family will build memories. Especially the unique things that nobody else can relate to. Anyone can take their family on a trip, but teaching a youngster how to cook/bake teaches valuable skills and builds life-long memories. I remember assisting in a lot of cooking as a young child, making all kinds of things, including home made pasta dough, raviolli, perogi’s.

    Like in Trent’s post on gardining with his grandfather. Besides the memories, there are valuable lessons to be learned from these things and skills that can be applied later in life. There is something to be learned from building/making something with one’s bare hands. Even if it’s building a fort with bedding, making a snow fort, or building a tree house.

    I was lucky to learn how to crochet and sew. These are valuable skills my mom taught me. It was also a time to bond. I am honored to know these skills, because they are dying arts. They are also conversation pieces later in life.

    During a lesson on baking bread, my mom found some old yeast in the cupboard. She doubted that it would work but I wanted to try anyway. The dough took longer to rise but the bread came out perfect. By trouble shooting, we also learned that letting the bread rise in the oven with the oven light on gave just enough heat to make it rise.

    Also, when we teach our kids something new, we are bound to learn something as well. When kids grow up and show that they learned something from their parents, it makes them proud, the fruits of their labor.

    You don’t have to smother a child with $ in order to be the very best parent. Playing board/card games, depending on age, can be a fairly cheap way to have fun, learn how to count, read, learn good sportsmanship skills and learn about taking turns too. A lot of times games can be obtained cheap from thrift stores/yard sales. Taking a walk and pointing out different birds, trees, plants, etc. can be a fun way to learn too.

    Also, especially for young kids, a whole box of 64 crayons can be purchased for $1 at the dollar store. The colors may not be as vibrant but if someone is on a budget, it works. Junk mail is great for drawing on. Envelopes can work too. It can be a lot of fun to use items that would have been thrown out for craft projects.

  15. Jenners says:

    I raised my kids in West Africa and when they were babies I carried them on my back in a 2 yard length of fabric like the locals. Subsequently each child has kept their personal ‘bambaran’ (as they are called here) and used them for all kinds of play activities: tent, picnic cloth, wrap around skirt or dress, baby doll blanket; the list is endless. I would personally recommend every child be given 2 yards of cloth just to play with. To this day, my 22y.o. has hers and now uses it as a shawl, still a picnic blanket, to wrap bundles, etc.

  16. tehnyit says:

    We made our own rattle but putting a hand full of rice into plastic bottles, sometimes we use dried peas or corn.

  17. Emma says:

    I can’t wait to try some of these with my grandchildren. Thanks.

  18. Tisha says:

    Some of my best memories were inside a cardboard box. My Great Grandma would give us a box and a box of chalk and we would spend hours playing. You never know what a child will draw!!

  19. Rhonda says:

    If you will call your local newspaper, they will often give you, for free or a very small price, rolls of unused newsprint that are the ends of the rolls. We can get ours at our local newspaper on Thursdays at 1:00 for 50 cents to $1.00 per roll, depending on size. These are enough to last a loooong time.

    You cut off enough to roll out on the table for free art. You can cut off one the length of your child, trace him, and let him decorate himself for a self-portriat. The uses are endless!

  20. MICHELLE says:

    My son and I have tried so many of those things, things I did as a bored only child. It should not take a ton of money for entertaining children. They have huge imaginations.
    My son tells me I’m cheap all the time, but once you factor out things that cost money, I ask him what he wants to do. There are so many things sonce we tear ourselves away from the TV or PCs. We go for bike rides, walks, feed the ducks nearby, visit friends and family. We did the fort with blankets and couch cushions. The library is always nice. We dance and love playing Guitar Hero together. Another big favorite is any kind of game that involves a ball of some sort. There are not too many kids around us, so we play alone a lot. We make up our own games.
    Sometimes there is a big mess later with a home experiment, but it is worth it. He loves to color, make paper airplanes (or anything). He loves “playing school” and even prints activities himself from the internet. As a single mom, I don’t have a ton of money or time, but we make the most of it because he won’t be young forever.

  21. I linked to this on my weekly roundup post last week. Thanks!

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