One of the most popular articles I’ve ever written for The Simple Dollar is 100 Things to Do During a Money-Free Weekend. In it, I touch upon the idea of a “money-free weekend” – one in which you consciously avoid the active spending of money – and then drop a long list of activities you can take on during such a weekend.
Sarah and I often did “money-free weekends” when we first started our financial recovery and we still do them every once in a while. When we first began, however, we had only a single child at home, a baby, who we could simply take along to many of the more adult-oriented activities that we would do. If you’ll notice, that list is mostly full of stuff that works best for adults.
Today, that baby has grown into an eight year old and we’ve added a six year old and a four year old to the mix. It’s no longer possible to just do adult-oriented things – our free activities have to work well for the whole family.
Each of these activities describes something that our family does on at least a semi-regular basis. Each activity works well for a family with children, though many of them work well just for adults, too. Most of them are free, though a few may have a negligible cost as they rely on things you probably already have around the house.
Let’s get started!
Fifty Free Activities for Kids
1. Go on a nature walk in a state park
State and national parks offer an abundance of nature walks and hiking trails for all different ages and abilities. A walk through nature is a chance to enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells that the natural world has to offer.
Need help finding one? Use this great park locator tool from Discover the Forest to find a park or a forest near you.
2. Start (or expand) a rock collection
Everyone in our family has a small rock collection, chosen from the various rocky locales we’ve visited over the years. Not only is it a lot of fun finding them, beautiful rocks can make for a wonderful addition to a garden.
One fun activity when you’re collecting rocks is figuring out what they are. The Mineralogical Society of America offers a great rock identification key that makes it pretty easy to figure out what exactly you’ve found.
3. Go to a community concert
Many communities hold open-air concerts throughout the summer months. They’re often held in a local park, so you can take a picnic basket and a blanket and spread out with the whole family to enjoy some live music.
Just search Google for “free concert” and the name of your town or metropolitan area to find out what’s available.
4. Visit the library during story time
Most local libraries offer a “story time” in which a librarian or a community volunteer will read a story to any children who happen to be present. It’s a great way to give younger children greater exposure to the beauty of books.
Since you’re already at the library, you can discover the many offerings available there that go beyond books. Many libraries have CDs, DVDs, audio books, movie nights, clubs, and other events that are well worth discovering – and they’re all usually free.
5. Start a microgarden
You don’t need a lot of space to start a garden. In fact, you can grow several plants in a single square foot, which is a great way to get your family interested in gardening.
Once you have permission, turn over a square foot of ground and plant a few plants in that space. Keep an eye on the area, water it when it’s dry, and remove any weeds that compete with your plant for nutrients. Over time, the plants will grow and provide flowers or vegetables to enjoy.
6. Visit a fire station
Most fire stations welcome tours by interested families (though you should check with them before stopping by). Some fire stations will give individual tours to families, while others have tour programs at certain times during the week. Usually, all of these are free.
A fire station tour lets children and adults alike see how a fire station operates and how a fire truck works. When we went on a tour like this, they sprayed the fire hose, then even sprayed it in the air to create a bit of “rain” for everyone, plus they sent all of the children home with a fireman’s hat.
7. Have a movie marathon
Most families with children wind up with a collection of family DVDs and Blurays. On a particularly hot day, have a movie marathon. Allow each person in the family to choose an appropriate movie, then choose from that pool at random. Keep watching them for as long as you’d like!
We usually have a “mini marathon” in the middle of hotter days, saving the outside activities for the early morning or the late evening.
8. Visit a beach
Even in Iowa, there are a number of beaches available around lakes. Beaches can provide many opportunities for fun, from building sand castles to enjoying the cool water or playing beach volleyball.
Our family usually winds up having a sand castle building contest, with everyone trying to build the best sculpture. Quite often, Dad will keep building his long after everyone else has left so that by the time everyone is ready to leave, Dad’s castle is enormous and detailed.
9. Have a “paper boat engineering” contest
You can build great paper boats out of any spare paper you happen to have lying around. Wax-coated paper obviously works well, and you can also use aluminum foil and/or cardboard to make boats.
We’ll give everyone in the family the same materials and then see who can build a boat that can sail the farthest in the natural breeze. If there are no bodies of water available, we’ll see who can build the boat that can hold the most pennies.
10. Make a movie
If you have a video camera of any kind lying around, you have a great tool for making a short movie. Have everyone in the family collaborate on an idea, a storyboard, and assembly of sets and props. Turn on the camera, film some scenes, then quickly stitch them together and watch your creation. You can make a music video, a comedy, a dramatic film… the world is your oyster.
This is absolutely one of those projects that can be as simple or as complex as you want to make it depending on the interest level of family members.
11. Have a scavenger hunt
Take a bunch of digital pictures of items that can be found around your house or property, then send everyone out to find those items. Alternately, you can just make a list.
One fun way to do this is to have both adults make a list of creative things to find, combine the lists, then pair off parents and children to figure out and find those things.
12. Have a chalk drawing contest
If you have a cement driveway, give each person in the family a certain space on the driveway and have each person draw something. You can either suggest the same topic to everyone or let everyone draw what they want.
When it’s done, you can have a “showing,” where each person tells about their particular drawing as the rest of the family checks out their handiwork.
13. Visit a museum
Many museums offer free family days or hyper-discounted passes if you pay attention. A day at any type of museum can be a great way to spend that day.
In our family, art museums appeal to my daughter, while my oldest son prefers science museums. My youngest son enjoys any exhibits that allow him to touch and play. On the other hand, I really enjoy historical museums.
14. Play a board game
I’m a well-known board game aficionado, so this is something I particularly enjoy doing. If you have any board games in your closet, just pull one out and play it. (We happen to have about 200 in our “board game” closet.)
One good way to do this is to play a mix of board and card games, where the winner gets to pick the next game. Some games may require a bit of handicapping to give all of the players an equal chance to win, but making it fun for everybody is a big part of the equation.
15. Visit a playground
Almost every community has a public playground or two for children of all ages to enjoy. There are very few kids that can’t be entertained on a playground.
This isn’t just fun for the kids, of course. I almost always go on the swings for a while when we go to a playground and I’ll often go down the slide with my youngest on my lap (well, until he recently got too big for that idea).
16. Play hide-and-seek
It’s such a simple game, but it almost always clicks. One person covers their eyes and counts to twenty aloud while the other players hide. The seeker then looks for all of the hiding people until everyone is found.
In our family, a game of hide-and-seek gives each person one chance to be the seeker. If everyone’s had a chance and we want to keep playing, we loop through everyone again.
17. Make mazes (or other puzzles) for other family members to solve
If you have some scrap paper, this is a great way to spend an hour or so. Each person gets a sheet of paper and a pen or pencil and tries to make a puzzle for someone else to solve. After some time, everyone passes their completed puzzle to the person to the left to see if they can solve it. If everyone wants to do it again, you pass to the right.
It’s rather fun to do this twice with both of the parents sitting next to each other so the parents have a chance to make one hard puzzle for the other adult. I made a particularly malicious word search puzzle for Sarah not too long ago…
18. Go on a “litter clean-up” walk
Take a stroll through your community with a trash bag in hand and pick up any garbage that you find. It’s a good idea to wear gloves when doing this.
Not only does this provide some nice exercise, it also causes your neighborhood to look a little better, which everyone can enjoy.
19. Build musical instruments and play a song
We often make or find instruments in the spirit of a jug band. We’ll turn a shoebox into a simple string instrument or find a tub or empty container to make a simple drum. We’ll fill up some glasses with water and play music on the rims with our fingertips.
Using these things, we’ll have a jam session and, surprisingly, we’ll usually get a nice rhythm going. It’s particularly nice because of the homemade nature of the things we’re using.
20. Write letters to family and friends
There are few things nicer than getting a thoughtful handwritten note from someone in the mail. Knowing that, we’ll sometimes sit down and write letters to people – grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and so on.
Sometimes, they’ll write back, but it’s often just fun to take the time to show these people that we care and are thinking about them in a more concrete way than just sending an email or a Facebook message.
21. Learn a magic trick
There are many simple card and coin tricks that can be mastered with some practice. Often, you just need a few pennies or quarters or a deck of ordinary playing cards, as it’s all about technique.
22. Do some volunteer work
There are many community projects and groups that can happily use your family’s volunteer efforts. You might spend an afternoon running simple errands for people at a retirement center, stocking shelves at a food pantry, or cleaning a soup kitchen.
Volunteer work can teach some valuable lessons to your family while also demonstrating the importance of meaningful hard work. I highly recommend it.
23. Find unwanted things around your home and donate them to charity
Another charitable option is to simply go through your closets and toy boxes and find some items that you no longer need or want that another family might find useful, then donate it to a charity such as Goodwill.
This can often trigger discussions about the meaning of charity, the value of helping others, and how charities work.
24. Perform a play
You can either take a play that already exists – like, say, Three Little Pigs – or write your own, but the process of putting on a play can have a lot of valuable lessons.
You’ll all spend time setting up the stage and decorations, learning lines, practicing your scenes, and then put on a performance (perhaps in front of your children’s friends or grandparents).
25. Make popsicles
Do you have any leftover fruit juice? Great popsicles. Got some extra fruits and some Sprite? Wacky popsicles.
All you need is a small container in which to freeze your popsicle (like a small plastic glass) and a stick of some kind with which to hold your popsicle after it’s frozen. Don’t be afraid to experiment and try all kinds of things with your popsicles.
26. Learn how to make good shadow puppets
Turn the lights down low. Use a bright flashlight as a spotlight against a wall. Hold up your hands… and make some puppets.
27. Make some simple origami creations, like a crane or a frog
This is something you can do with any squares of scrap paper. Just look up some patterns for origami sculptures (I like the instructions at origami-instructions.com), pull out those paper squares, and start folding.
28. Have a daily “sustained silent reading” period
For half an hour each day, have everyone in the family kick back in a comfortable chair and read something for personal enrichment. It gives the children a chance to work on reading comprehension and provides the adults with a window to enjoy a book, too. Need books? That’s what the library is for!
At my house, this is something we do each day after school. I’ll give the kids a small snack, then we’ll all go read for a while before moving on to other things. It’s a great way to relax and calm down after a day at school.
29. … or read aloud as a family
Another option is to have a period each day where a chapter in a book is read aloud by someone in the family. You can choose a book that’s at an appropriate level for everyone to enjoy. Give everyone who can handle the material a chance to read a chapter aloud and show off their skills.
We often do this on road trips, with an adult reading a chapter of a book to everyone in the car. It’s a great way to pass the time – and if everyone gets into the book, the trip can fly by.
30. Create a comic book
This is a great project for families with some art skills and storytelling skills. Develop the basic plot of a comic book, then let some people draw the pictures, while others fill in the descriptions and art bubbles.
My daughter is the one who loves to draw in our family, so she’ll usually create many of the pictures. I enjoy coming up with the basic frameworks of the story and some ideas for the pictures, while my sons and my wife handle the dialog.
31. Have a paper airplane contest
Scrap paper works well here, too. Give everyone a few sheets of paper and a few paper clips and have everyone engineer some planes. When everyone is finished, have a flying contest.
I enjoy doing this on a slightly windy day when we can fly the planes with the aid of the wind. A gentle breeze is often perfect to help even poorly-built planes fly a surprising distance.
32. Visit historical sites in your area
Most areas have a number of historical sites ranging from American Indian exhibits to sites from the colonial period or of early settlers to Civil War sites and memorials or sites of more recent events.
33. Do a science experiment and tell others about it
It’s fun to do a science experiment, even a simple one like finding out what happens when you mix together various simple kitchen items like baking soda and vinegar.
That’s only the beginning, though. You can spend some time figuring out why these things happen and then have family members explain the results to everyone, giving them a good chance to work on their speaking and presentation skills.
34. Create a bug box and go on a bug hunt
You can easily build a simple bug box out of stuff that’s likely sitting around your house. Once you have that, it’s easy to find and collect insects for the box, even in your back yard.
As with the science experiments, this can open the door to a lot of learning as you figure out what you’ve caught and what it needs to live and thrive.
35. Design a house and tell others about it
Use blocks or Legos or even pieces of scrap paper to design a house for people to live in. What’s needed in a house? What makes a cool house?
You can expand this idea and make a city instead. What’s needed in a city? What makes for a cool city? What happens when disaster strikes?
36. Create a journal or scrapbook about your life
If you have any extra spiral notebooks or journals lying around, turn them into journals or scrapbooks. Have each person grab one and start journaling.
You can create an entry each day just listing five or ten things that happened that you might want to remember. For more creative entries, check out this great list of 250 journaling topics (some may not be kid-appropriate, but most are).
37. Tour the nearest airport
Many airports offer guided tours of their facilities that let visitors see “behind the curtains” a bit. It can be quite fascinating for both kids and adults alike.
This is something that varies greatly from airport to airport, so you’ll want to visit the websites of airports near your home and see what they offer.
38. Have a water balloon fight
Have any spare balloons sitting around in a drawer? Fill them up with water and give them a toss!
This is a great way to cool off on a hot summer day and give everyone in the family a great excuse to run around in the yard. I like to take a bunch of them, fill them all up and put them in a pair of laundry baskets, then have a water balloon war.
39. Camp in the backyard (or in a state park)
Pitch a tent in the backyard and sleep out under the stars on a nice summer evening. The summer sounds will fill your ears and the fresh air will make you sleep wonderfully.
Even better, camp in a state park near your home. It’s usually really cheap to camp there and it gives you tons of opportunity to go fishing, wander the trails, or enjoy the many other activities that state parks have to offer.
40. Try a free project at local stores
Many stores offer free projects for families that they can take home upon completion. It’s a great way to spend a few hours.
41. Check out a free community movie night
Many communities offer free movie nights during the summer (and sometimes throughout the year). See if your community or school district is hosting free outdoor movie nights and attend one.
Grab a blanket, kick back, and enjoy a film that’s projected on a giant wall out under the stars.
42. Plan out your “someday” vacation and tell others about it
Where would you like to go someday? Why? What would you do on that trip? What would you want to see?
All of us have places we’d like to visit in the world. You can let that imagination roam for free by planning your ideal vacation. Use the internet to figure out what you might see or do when you get there, then tell the rest of the family all about it!
43. Build a blanket fort
Take out all of your blankets and pillows, grab a few stools and chairs, and design a giant blanket fort that takes over part of a room.
Building a blanket fort can be really fun, but so can crawling around inside of a well-constructed fort – or even a poorly constructed one. Recently, we built a big one, after which we all climbed inside and watched a movie together.
44. Check out your community calendar
There are many community events going on in your area that aren’t even listed here. How do you find them? Start by checking out your community calendar.
You can find it on your city’s website. Just go there and click around until you find “community calendar” or “calendar of events.” It’s also worth checking out the sites of neighboring towns and cities as well.
45. Turn your family room into a spa
Dig out a few of those old bottles of nail polish from the back of the cupboard and get some large tubs for soaking your feet. It’s not hard at all to turn a living room into a spa for a few hours.
You can spend time together helping each other relax or getting your nails done or simply soaking some tired feet for a while.
46. Set up a lemonade stand
Want to help your kids dip their toes in entrepreneurship? Help them set up a lemonade stand.
They can learn about the costs of starting a business, the usefulness of a good location and good promotion, and plus they’ll probably make a dollar or two.
47. Bake some cookies
Want something else to sell at that lemonade stand? Or perhaps you just have the munchies? Make a batch of cookies with whatever ingredients you have on hand.
Here’s a great chocolate chip cookie recipe that we could make out of our pantry without skipping a beat. Let everyone get involved; if it makes a mess, so what?
48. Build a backyard obstacle course
Every once in a while, we’ll find a bunch of odds and ends from the garage and set them up in a backyard obstacle course. Then, we’ll run timed races around the course and usually we’ll follow that up with a completely different obstacle course.
Not only does it give you a great way to use your yard space, it’s good exercise and it gives you a good excuse to dig through the recesses of your garage.
49. Plan and execute a picnic as a family
Many of these activities involve going out and about, and when you’re doing that, there’s food involved. You don’t have to eat out, of course – just take a picnic.
Since you’re going to be eating a meal anyway, a picnic is an inexpensive way to do it. Plus, you can work together as a family to plan and prepare a delicious meal that everyone will enjoy. You don’t even need another reason for this – just pack a basket and have a picnic in the back yard.
50. Build an ice castle
Find a bunch of ice cube trays and other small containers. Fill them with water and pop all of them in the freezer. When they’re solid, pop them all out and use them as building blocks for an ice castle.
We often do this on the sidewalk on fairly hot days, which means our castles are often starting to melt as we’re building them – which turns out to be half the fun. Just filling up the trays gets everyone excited.
It’s likely that half (or more) of the items on this list won’t appeal to you – and that’s completely expected, as every family is a little different. The key is to find five or ten activities that you can do with your family that everyone will enjoy – and if it’s a free activity, it means you’ll be leaving your wallet alone, which is good for everyone!