Our Family’s Free Summer Activity Checklist

Sarah and I have three children, and as a result, summer vacation means many weeks in which the children are at home. Given our district’s calendar, that means about eleven weeks in a row without school, which gives us a lot of empty days full of countless possibilities.

The drawback, of course, is that many of those possibilities can be very expensive. Things like summer camps, trips to museums and zoos, vacations, and the like add up to a pretty stiff cost.

We want our children to have an enriching summer, but at the same time, we want to keep a strong leash on our finances.

So, each summer, Sarah and I start off the season by making a checklist of free things for our children to do each summer. That way, when we have a lazy day where the children are looking for something to do, we don’t have to brainstorm for ideas.

While some of the ideas are very local in nature, many of them can work well in various parts of the country and even around the world. Here are the ideas we have on our list that might work quite well wherever you might be.

Visit nearby state parks and explore the trails. We live in a state with a pretty strong department of natural resources, and as a result, we have a lot of very nice state parks and other state resources. We have two great state parks less than 20 miles from our home, multiple amazing bike trails near our home, and we’re not even counting the many great town and county parks nearby. If we’re willing to go a little further, the options explode in number.

When we do this, we’ll often make a day of it by packing a picnic lunch and heading out in the early morning. We’ll wander the trails in the morning until the day becomes pretty hot, then we’ll find a cool spot in the shade somewhere and have a picnic lunch. After that, we’ll often use a public swimming or wading area to cool off and then head home in the afternoon.

Go geocaching. Geocaching goes hand in hand with exploring city and county and state parks and trails and recreation areas. It’s a great way to turn exploring those environments into a very fun game.

For those unfamiliar, geocaching is a game that you can play with a GPS device. There are also smartphone apps that make it really easy to get started.

You simply download coordinates for specific locations in the real world from a site like geocaching.com, put those directions into your GPS device, and then use that device to navigate to that specific location. When you get there, you spend some time looking around for a hidden box or tube – that’s the “geocache.” Within it is a log book to sign or initial, and sometimes there are additional items that people can take as long as they leave something in exchange.

We have a lot of fun finding these caches as well as keeping a big list of all of the caches we’ve found. It’s a great way to add extra fun to exploring parks. We’ve found that city parks often have a lot of caches in them, so if you’re looking to get started, a local city park is a great place to begin.

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Participate in the reading programs at local libraries. Every local library near us offers some sort of a summer reading program for children in the area – with “area” usually defined as the county. Thus, our children are usually in several of the programs at once.

The different libraries have different activities, all of which encourage children to read, so we not only go to these activities, we also set aside time each day for the children to complete their reading goals.

Of course, those libraries usually offer reading programs for adults as well, so Sarah and I usually also participate in those daily reading times.

Visit a national park. If you have a fourth grader in your home – and we do – you can get a free national park pass for your family for one year thanks to the Every Kid in a Park program.

It’s easy. Your fourth grader (the site defines “fourth grader” as anyone who was in the fourth grade during the current school year or the one preceding the summer) just participates in a few online activities that involve learning about our national park system and, at the end, they can print off a temporary park pass. This pass allows you into a national park for free along with the child’s siblings, child friends, and up to three adults. You just show the printed paper upon park entrance and leave it on your dashboard while exploring.

We’re going to use this pass to visit Cuyahoga Valley National Park this summer, among others, and next summer we’ll be using it (with a different child) to visit Yosemite National Park.

Attend the free kids workshops at Home Depot. Home Depot offers a nifty free Kids Workshop program where kids can go and make a simple project for free. The project usually takes a couple of hours. You have to reserve a slot in advance, but there’s no cost… the only real catch seems to be that you’re now spending a couple of hours in Home Depot, which means that you will likely end up buying a thing or two that you need for home improvement.

The workshops are usually pretty well done, in our experience. Our children have enjoyed them many times. Our only drawback is that we’ve sometimes been unable to actually get our children into the workshops as they’ve filled up before we’ve registered.

I do usually buy a few items while in the store, but I try to plan it in advance. I usually check out the ads for the local store and take advantage of any sales on items I know we’ll need while we’re there.

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Set a summer goal related to their interests. At the start of the summer, we usually try to set some personal goals to be achieved by the end of the summer, goals that are somehow related to an interest that the child may have.

One summer, for instance, we had a family “mileage club” where we counted the number of miles that we walked or jogged (using a really clearly marked quarter mile and mile long loop near our home). Our children would often go on a walk or a jog on those loops in order to improve their mileage count.

Other goals that have been used are a book club (how many books can you read this summer with a minimum page count?), a 5K club (how many 5K practice runs can you achieve by the end of the summer?), and a learning club (the goal is to tell everyone in the family about something you learned today on your own at the dinner table each night).

Launch a YouTube channel. If you have a digital camera and a decent internet connection, anyone can easily launch a YouTube channel. Doing so can not only provide a wonderful creative summer project, but can actually end up earning a little bit of money along the way.

A great example: One child I know (a pre-teen) has a YouTube channel full of Minecraft videos in which he plays as various characters and makes up voices for them. He basically makes these odd little mini-movies using Minecraft. His videos get thousands of views and he can make two or three of them a week.

All your kids need is a computer, a camera, an internet connection, some time, and some imagination (and maybe a little bit of advice and help along the way) and they can have their own YouTube channel celebrating whatever topic they’d like.

Give them unstructured time. This is the last item on the list and it doesn’t really even have a formal place on our list of things to do for the summer. It’s just an unwritten but vital part of our children’s summer free time.

The purpose of having a lot of unstructured free time is to give the children an opportunity to learn how to manage themselves and create their own structures for how to use their time and energy without having to rely on structures created by their parents. We give them a lot of leeway in terms of deciding how to use their time and energy and we have conversations about better uses of time and energy.

Not only does this teach our children a lot, it also reduces our need to manage their time for them and also cuts out many expenses that might come about from having to fill every moment of their time.

Final Thoughts

A summer vacation filled with enrichment does not have to be an expensive proposition for parents. It simply has to involve some sensible choices about activities that children will enjoy and which will also bring them growth without involving a great deal of expense. The activities on this list manage to achieve all of those things. I hope that some of them will inspire great choices for your family this summer.

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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.