A Great Day with the Kids… on the Cheap

Over the past few years, my wife has been working hard to earn her masters degree in education in order to become a better educator. She’s a passionate educator and comes home almost every day bubbling with ideas for reaching students, even after years of teaching the same subjects to a revolving door of America’s youth, and I admire that passion and focus that she brings to the table.

However, in the process of chasing that masters degree, there have been many weekend days in which I’ve been alone with the kids (she often has classes on Saturdays that fill up much of the day, as her program is designed around people who are continuing their professional lives while working toward a masters). It’s been up to me to plan many, many days with the children on my own over the past few years. Typically, she and I would balance those responsibilities, but with her coursework, the planning has fallen to me.

Some days, of course, I give the kids a great deal of open-ended free time. A child’s time doesn’t have to be – and shouldn’t be – entirely structured, and if I ever feel like their lives are becoming too structured, I make sure to give them an open-ended day to do as they please. The only thing I encourage them to do is to try to make or do something cool that they can talk about at the dinner table that evening. I leave it up to them to devise it and execute it, and it usually has good results. I mean, who doesn’t appreciate an art show or a dramatic poetry reading or a book review at the dinner table?

Sometimes, though, I’ve chosen to spend the day with them, and that often means coming up with something to do together. Typically, I want it to cost very little, so my activities of choice are almost always free ones or extremely low cost ones.

What follows is a list of some of the best low-cost things I’ve done with my kids on those Saturdays when their mother has been away at class. I used that restriction for a few reasons, the biggest one being that these are things that a single parent could actually pull off with three kids. I didn’t want to include things that would become logistically difficult for a single parent, so I’m just restricting it to things that work with one parent but can easily include both parents for a full family day if one so chooses.

I’ve been keeping a list of these ideas since my wife started her masters program, and now that it’s winding down, it feels right to share this list. I’ve grouped some of the specific activities together as we’ve done variations on the same thing many times, but there’s still a robust list of things to do and try.

Choose from among these options and mix and match them to meet your needs and the needs of your family. These options are widely varied in terms of content and time and what’s needed for everyone involved, so I’m pretty sure you can find at least one or two ideas that will click with you and your kids. All of these work easily with one parent and three elementary-aged kids and will definitely work with smaller numbers.

Make a food item that they like completely from scratch.

In the last couple of years, we’ve made bread (basically flour, yeast, sugar, and water) from scratch, pasta (eggs and flour) from scratch, pickles (cucumbers, water, and salt) from scratch, sauerkraut (cabbage, water, and salt) from scratch, and many other such food items from scratch. We start with the most basic things we can and then work together to transform them into a tasty final product. We’ve produced delicious garlic breadsticks, homemade pasta that we used in a lasagna, tons of pickles and sauerkraut, pickled eggs, jellies, zucchini bread… all kinds of things. The goal here was to get the kids as involved as humanly possible in the process (with my only labor contribution being in the form of touching up certain steps), learning about what goes into a lot of common foods, and producing something for supper that’s really inexpensive.

Go geocaching.

If you have a smartphone, just download a geocaching app, look for a location near your home that has several geocaches in a concentrated area, then head there as a family and find several geocaches. Geocaching is basically real-world treasure hunting, where the treasures are often small tubes or little boxes with a log in them and occasionally a neat tchotchke or two (which you can swap out with our own little item for someone else to find). It’s a great way to spend a few hours exploring and noticing the details of the world around you.

Play a game against their collective brainpower.

One activity that’s proven to be popular time and time again is a collective board game. We’ll get out something like a chess set. On one side of the board is me, while the three kids collectively manage the other side. You get two full minutes to make a move (though I usually make them faster than that). They collectively try to beat Dad. I encourage them to talk out their moves and I’ve found that listening to what they’re planning usually gives me some tips as to what to think about. We’ve reached a point where the games are competitive and their collective brainpower makes some good choices, and they absolutely revel in the idea that they’ve pushed me into a corner.

Make a creative work of some kind.

For example, we might spend a few hours writing a surprisingly long story. I’ll just keep feeding them questions that are meant to encourage them to add depth to characters and to events and then we keep layering them into the story. We’ve made short films using a smartphone camera and whatever props and costumes we could find around the house. We’ve made photo collages out of magazines. The goal is to make something that’s meaningful to everyone involved.

Go sightseeing near your home.

Sure, you might be intimately familiar with the highlights of your city… but your kids aren’t. Take them to everything that people flock to see about your local area. Let them see the beautiful architecture, the public art, the amazing gardens, the wonderful views. My kids have been to the Des Moines Art Center. They’ve taken the Capitol Tour. They’ve enjoyed the Pappajohn Sculpture Park. They’ve seen the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates. They’ve explored almost every inch of the State Fairgrounds. They’ve seen the bridges of Madison County. They’ve visited virtually every park and nature area in Polk County and the counties surrounding it. Those are things that people go out of their way to see when visiting central Iowa and my children have seen most of them. What free things do people see in your area? Have you taken your kids there?

Design and implement a volunteer project together.

Look for something in your community that stands out as something that needs to be fixed and then spend a day together fixing it. We’ve done this several times. We spent an afternoon picking up trash in local parks and depositing it in trash cans. We’ve pulled weeds out of the flower beds in a few parks. After a stormy Friday night, we went on several trails near our home for the purpose of a nice nature walk but also to clear all of the limbs and debris from the trails. We even spent a day going door to door asking for clothes donations for the clothing pantry – we put out notes the week before at a bunch of houses, then went door to door to collect unwanted clothes the following weekend and took them to the pantry. The fun here is letting your children identify something in the community that sticks out at them as something bad that’s fixable and then working with them to cultivate a way to fix it or at least improve it.

Do a ‘wandering walk.’

This is probably our single favorite thing to do on a nice day. We simply go to somewhere new for all of us (or at least for the kids), park the car, mark it on my phone’s map app so we can find it again, and then just simply wander. We constantly discover new things, like Little Free Libraries or hidden little parks or trails that go down to this amazing beach next to a creek or this crazy walkway that goes over the interstate. Once, we found ourselves in the midst of a protest. Another time, we came upon what appeared to be a meeting of the local homeless community in a park. Almost every time, we come home with several crazy stories from our wandering. We just wander around in whatever spontaneous direction we choose until someone suggests that they might be getting tired, stopping whenever we see something interesting.

All of us have enjoyed all of these activities, even as our children have gone from barely beyond toddler aged to our oldest being a middle school student. The exact variations of each activity have certainly changed over the years, but the core of it has been the same – they’re all fairly open ended activities that center around spending time together without spending money together.

You don’t need to open up your wallet to spend a great day with your kids. You just need to open your heart and give your time and attention.

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Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.