32 Simple (and Free) Ways to Entertain Your Kids

Winter break is upon us, so you know what that means: last-minute holiday shopping, travel preparations, and children bouncing off the walls awaiting the arrival of Santa Claus.

If you’ve already made arrangements for your little ones, kudos to you. The rest of us have to figure out ways to get a gang of tasks done in a limited amount of time, and keeping children entertained and out of the way is not always an easy feat. And if you’re crunched for cash or too busy to think outside the box, your options may seem limited.

But don’t fret. Here are some activities I’ve used over the years to keep my two kids busy, whether it be for the holidays, spring break, or over summer vacation:

1. Plant Flowers

This idea was inspired by a Jack and the Beanstalk project my youngest son completed in preschool recently. Each of the children planted their own beanstalk seed in a cup and tracked its progress over a few weeks.

My son really seemed to enjoy caring for his plant, so we decided to do the same at home one day when the kids were bored. It required a small investment in a bag of soil, and I allowed the boys to pick what they wanted to grow, but I only spent a few dollars to keep them occupied for an hour. If you have gardening supplies in the garage and use seeds you have on hand — for instance, seeds scooped out from that pumpkin you used for pie — then it won’t cost a thing.

2. Family Game or Movie Night

Our definition of family fun is not heading to the Family Fun Center and spending $40 or more to entertain the boys (and this doesn’t even include food). They’ve asked to go a few times, and I’ve only fulfilled those requests when a friend was having a birthday party or special event. Otherwise, we either select a game from our stash or a movie from Netflix, pop a bag of popcorn, and enjoy each other’s company without spending a dime.

3. Write Books

My husband is a children’s book author, so it’s not uncommon to find manuscripts with colorful images around our home. Recently, my oldest son decided he wanted to write a book like Dad, so I encouraged him and it turned out great. (We hope to publish it soon.) Now, we all sit down and write cute children’s books at least once per week, and even the youngest, who can’t read yet, joins the fun with colorful pictures.

4. Neighborhood Bike Ride

Burn off a few of those holiday calories and inhale some fresh air while riding around the neighborhood on bicycles with your children. It’s also a great way to help the kids burn off some of their excess energy and get fit.

5. Arrange a Play Date

Each time I bring my oldest son on grocery trips, we always seem to run into a friend with just as much energy and a mother desperate to find ways to burn it off. It’s a match made in heaven, and we usually arrange a time to meet up at the community park and have a play date.

6. Arts and Crafts

I don’t know one child who doesn’t enjoy letting their creative juices flow through an arts and crafts session. We keep a box of our children’s favorite materials — including construction paper, markers, crayons, colored pencils, glue sticks, and scissors — handy when we’re in a crunch and need to occupy their time for a few minutes. On most occasions, they’re hooked for hours, and we usually join the fun.

7. Picnic

Skip the golden arches and any of the other fast-food spots and whip out the picnic basket instead. Load it up with a few sandwiches, drinks, and healthy snacks and head to the park for a family picnic. You’ll have a meal and play area in one, and save money otherwise spent watching your kids scarf down an unhealthy meal.

8. Hide and Go Seek

This may require you to put on your running shoes and head outdoors in the blazing heat or frigid air, but your kids will have a blast. And if your home is large enough and you don’t mind little ones running around, you may be able to play inside.

9. Live Entertainment

When was the last time you checked the local paper’s entertainment section for free events? If it’s been awhile, get in the habit of staying abreast of all the kid-friendly activities in your area.

10. Paint Pictures

In our home, we’ve created a “gallery” in the hallway near the children’s bedroom. It’s decorated with artistic masterpieces made at school and during our frequent arts and crafts sessions.

11. Math Competition

It’s always fun to throw an activity into the mix that reinforces what your children have been learning in school. My oldest son loves multiplication, so we often have “friendly” math competitions that incorporate tough problems. The first person to complete the problem wins a treat; I usually slow things down for the sake of my son’s feelings.

12. Hiking

Are you near a trail or some other cool element of nature? If so, strap up your hiking shoes and pay these venues a visit. Also, there are a host of national parks to choose from, and those with a nominal fee offer free admission days throughout the year.

13. Bake a Cake (or Cookies)

The point of this activity is not to hype your kids up with sugar-based treats, but rather to help them learn patience, how to follow instructions, and develop skills in the kitchen. Let them experiment with cookie cutters, multicolored cake mix, frosting, and sprinkles, among other things.

14. Create a Racetrack

If you have small boys in your home, they probably enjoy Tonka trucks and Matchbox cars. Instead of buying an expensive track for them, stick colored duct tape to the carpet to accomplish the same objective.

15. Indoor Camping

I’m a bit freaked out by the thought of sleeping outdoors. But that doesn’t stop us from going camping. We just set up the tent indoors and roast the s’mores in the microwave. Mission accomplished.

16. Build a Fort

Don’t have a tent? Even better. Gather up pillows, blankets, sheets, and chairs from around the house and help your kids design and build a fort. The process is half the fun, but they’ll enjoy hanging out in their new hideout afterward, too.

17. Day at the Beach

If you don’t live near the beach, you may not have this luxury — and certainly not until summer for most of us. But if you do, head out in the morning (weather permitting) with lunches in tow, find free parking, and let your children have a fun-filled day in the sun riding the waves.

18. Bubbles

Sounds boring, but toddlers get a kick out of chasing the clear suds. The local dollar store also sells accessories that will allow them to blow bubbles in neat shapes.

19. Write Letters

Are there relatives, near and far, your children would like to connect with? Introduce them to the idea of writing a letter in lieu of a quick text message or phone call. It’s a lot more personable and helps them hone their writing skills, and they may be rewarded with a letter of their own in the mail later on — not all that exciting to your or me, but quite a novelty to them.

20. Sporting Events

Do you live in an area with a college or semi-professional teams? If so, check out their website to search for family fun nights. In most instances, admission is free and treats are offered at a steeply discounted rate. We live near a major university, and a number of the teams offer free admission to children 12 and under.

21. Paper-Chain People

I got this idea from the movie “Daddy Day Care.” If you have piles of paper, teach your children how to cut out figures of people and tape them together to create a chain. If you really want to get creative, allow them to decorate each figure.

22. Paper Airplane Contest

Teach your kids the basics of making a paper airplane, and then allow them to experiment and make their own improvements on the design. Give each child a few sheets of paper and other craft materials, and hold contests in several categories, such as longest flight, craziest tricks, and coolest-looking plane.

23. Volunteer

The significance of giving back to those in need is a lesson all children need to be taught at an early age. That’s why taking them along with you to serve others is a priceless experience.

I recently took our boys to a Santa parade, where we handed out books to less-fortunate children. I think the experience was eye-opening to my oldest son when he realized some parents didn’t have the resources to purchase books for their children.

24. Cleaning Competition

This is another favorite on my list because it definitely lightens the load when we engage in deep cleaning. The objective of the competition is to clean your designated area, whether it be the bedroom, bathroom, or office, as thoroughly as possible in a set amount of time to be eligible for a prize.

25. Chalk It Up

Grab a bucket of chalk and hand it over so they can draw pictures on the sidewalk or the driveway. To start over, simply spray them with a water hose or let the rain wash it all away.

26. Fly a Kite

Don’t have kites lying around? You can pick one up cheap at Target, or make one yourself from items in your home using these detailed instructions.

27. Community Park

For most children, being outside in a massive play area beats staying inside and playing with the same toys for hours.

28. Puzzles

These can be tedious and time-consuming, but if you’re up for the challenge, they’re a great way to stimulate your child’s mind and keep them occupied for hours on end.

You can also have your kids make their own puzzles by taking a thin piece of cardboard, drawing and coloring a picture on it, and cutting it into curvy pieces. Have each child try to solve another’s puzzle.

29. Library

The selection of books is endless, so your kids can’t complain about being bored because there’s not enough to choose from. And they can even rent a few DVDs to take home, too.

Also check your library for kid’s programming, especially over school breaks, ranging from story hours and puppet shows for young children to live music and movie showings for older kids.

30. Scavenger Hunt

Come up with some sort of theme and hide items around the home. Also, incorporate missions into the mix to make things more exciting.

We’re definitely football and basketball fans, so our most recent scavenger hunt was sports-themed. The boys were to locate specific memorabilia throughout the house and even complete a mini-football obstacle course in the garage.

31. Visit the Pet Store or Animal Shelter

Explore a host of household pets by browsing at the local pet shop or animal shelter. If there’s a petting area, your children should be captivated by the company of a furry friend for quite some time.

32. Dance-Off

Our boys love to dance, so when their energy levels are flying through the roof, we head to YouTube, crank up a playlist of their favorite tunes, and get to dancing. The dance-offs are tiring, but a load of fun and a unique way to get the entire family involved.

Before you go into panic mode because the kids are running up and down the halls destroying everything in sight, breathe. Parenting is tough, to say the least, but incorporating just a few of these activities into your daily regimen will channel that excess energy in a positive direction.