Lori Mihalich-Levin
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This having kiddos thing is expensive! From diapers to daycares to dinosaurs…don’t get me started. The number of hours children require entertainment is never-ending, too. If you’re looking for cheap or free things to do with kids this summer, this list should get you started!

35 Fun Cheap or Free Things to Do With Kids:

Go to the airport – but not to take a flight! My kids LOVE watching airplanes. And on a rainy or cold day, when they just need to run around, the airport is a great place to spend time. Pack snacks, hang out in that area before security (admission is free!), ride the airport shuttle around, and talk about all the places those planes are going.

Ride escalators. The other day, as I was taking my 4-year old down into the D.C. metro, he said, “Mommy! This feels just like riding a roller coaster – whee!!”  Find an escalator somewhere – anywhere! – and ride it. A few hundred times.

Go watch a car wash. You could, of course, go there to get your own car cleaned.  OR, you could go just to watch the cool suds and brushes wash the other cars.  I can’t tell you how many hours we’ve spent sitting across the street from a car wash near our house, mesmerized by what was happening.

 Involve the kids in household chores. Those chores are annoying to you, but NOT to your kids. To children, any hands-on activity can be magical. Ever asked a 5-year old to shake the pillow out of his own pillow cover?  Or asked a 2-year old to throw wet laundry one piece at a time into the drier?  Or asked a 4-year old to take a dust buster to the area under the kitchen table?  These activities produce pure glee in the little kid crowd.

 Run hills. Okay, so this may not work if you live somewhere flat, but if you do happen to have a hill nearby, take the kids there to run up and down. You can get great views when you’re up high, and you’re all getting some exercise.

 Go on a nature walk. The other day, on a walk across a nearby field, my 4-year old taught me and his older brother all about the “husks” of cicadas.  He found a few, perched on blades of grass, and started telling us all about them.  “Where did you learn all this?” I asked him.  “On our cicada walk at school,” he replied.  Mad props to his daycare teachers. 

 Head to a soccer or baseball field (without a ball) and play a “pretend,” family fun game of that sport. No balls.  No competition.  No skill required.  No stress.  And LOTS of laughs.  You and your kids imagine where the ball is and pretend to hit or kick it to one another.  If you’re on a baseball diamond, hit those home runs, and run the bases! 

 Head to a museum and do a self-guided tour. Living in D.C., I’ve got it easy on the museum front.  Most of them – and even our zoo – have free admission. Many places have an undiscovered low- or no-cost museum nearby, though.  If you’re not paying anything (or very little), there’s not much guilt if you don’t last long there. Not every kid will enjoy a visit to an art museum, but a natural history museum usually keeps ‘em engaged.

 Explore a park or playground you haven’t been to. Drive a little further than you normally would and head to a playground you’ve never been to before.  It’s always fun to mix things up, take in a change of scenery, and find a great place for the kids to climb new jungle gyms.

 Old-fashioned games never get old. My kids can’t get enough of hide and seek.  Or Marco Polo.  Or Simon Says.  Dust off those childhood memories and teach them what you played when you were a kid.

 Make up new games. Two of our favorite family fun games that we’ve been playing for years include “hiding pillow” and “never letting go.”  For “hiding pillow,” one of the kids sits behind me in my chair at the dining room table.  I exclaim that I’ve found the most comfortable pillow in the world and proceed to pretend to go to sleep on him.  He then screams “boo!” to wake me up, and I pretend I can’t figure out where he is who woke me.  For “never letting go,” I hold onto them and sing a song about how I’m never going to let them go.  Then they figure out how to get loose (while I continue to hold onto some part of them).  When they free themselves completely, I pretend to cry, saying “I just want my [name of child] back!!”  Has them in stitches every time.

 Go on an adventure to the supermarket. You’ve gotta go anyway.  Why not turn it into an adventure for them?  There’s nearly always a “shopping cart car” at our local grocery store, and the kids love driving it and getting food samples.

 Take them to your local high school track. When our oldest was about 3 years old, we took him to our local track to run around while we also got some exercise.  He proceeded to run 4 laps on his own.  Talk about a kid with a lot of excess energy.

 Bake something super easy. I’m no Betty Crocker, and the thought of baking a dessert doesn’t really interest me.  But my kids always have fun baking things, even if they’re incredibly easy. If your kids like a good hands-on activity, try the biscuits where you pull apart the dough, and let the kiddos put them on a cookie tray.  Make some easy muffins and let the kids do the stirring.

 Swim! In many places, community pools are low-cost or free for the locals.  Community splash parks are great options too in the summer.

 Throw rocks into water. I don’t quite know why this is so mesmerizing, but my boys have, pretty much since toddlerhood, LOVED going to a body of water and throwing hundreds of rocks in.  Find a local river, pond, stream, you name it.  And let the rock-throwing games begin.

 Sidewalk chalk. For the cost of a few sticks of chalk, you can grow some passionate sidewalk (or driveway) artists. 

 Dig in the dirt. Before my husband and I had kids, we saw Dirt! The Movie, a documentary all about the benefits dirt has for our immune system.  We committed, that day, to letting our kids have dirt in their lives.  They now love digging holes in the dirt and moving it around with their toy trucks.

 Build a fort. Make it out of pillows, blankets, and your own couch.  Pretend you can’t find your kiddos in there, or hide in the fort with them.

 Pour things. One day, for I have no idea what reason, we had a bunch of marbles in a bowl sitting on the kitchen table.  My youngest found another bowl and started moving the marbles from one bowl to the other.  And then the oldest starting pouring water from one container into the next.  I admit, there’s something calming and strangely satisfying about scooping, dumping, and pouring random objects.

 Invite friends over for a play date, or head to the playground with friends. I always find my kids are much more easily entertained when other kids are around.  And it’s nice to be able to catch up with other parent friends, too.

 Head to your local library. Sit at the public library for a while and read, or go at a time when they have children’s programming or story time.  Great, free options always abound.

 Walk out of your house with no destination in mind. Yes, just wander.  Take a stroller if you need one, and perhaps some water and snacks, and just go.  It can be incredibly liberating to not have a plan for an hour or so and to just go see what you can see.

 Go to a pet store just to hang out. My kids love animals, but we don’t have any pets.  Pet stores are heaven for them.

 Tell them a story. Story time doesn’t have to be before bedtime. “Once upon a time…” can be about your own life, or a crazy story you make up just for them.  If this thought gives you hives, remember that you can’t tell them a wrong story, because it’s yours.

 Sing! Teach them new songs.  Perhaps wacky tunes you learned at Girl Scout camp.  Or sing their favorites while making up hand motions.  As with the stories, you can’t do it wrong.

 Pick a bouquet of wildflowers. If you define “wildflowers” loosely, you’re bound to find some.  Yes, dandelions count for the pint-sized crowd.

 Figure out all the things you can do with a pack of index cards and a roll of tape. Sometimes I think index cards are magic weapon in our house.  You can color on them, cut them up, tape them into shapes, build things with them…low cost, lots of entertainment value.

 Head to the local fire station. They’re used to having little visitors stop by, and the fire fighters almost always let the kids climb up onto the truck or try out a fire hat. 

 Visit a local construction site and watch the excavators. I didn’t know the names of any of that bright yellow construction equipment before I had kids.  Now, I’ve been schooled that “no, mommy, that is not called a ‘digger’.”  Kids can spend hours just watching construction crews dig up a road.

 Eat popsicles or ice cream on the front porch. Last summer, to kick off our family “staycation” we got a box of fruit-flavored popsicles and sat on the fort porch, savoring the taste of summer.  Bonus: the Popsicle sticks had kid-friendly jokes written on them, the re-telling of which kept our kids laughing all afternoon.

 Hone the family’s acting skillsplay charades. We’ve recently found some outdoor amphitheaters around town where our kids love to climb and explore.  And of course, an amphitheater has a stage.  Take turns acting out simple and silly people, places, and things that the whole family can guess.

 Enlist their help shredding paper. You know all those bank statements and other documents you’ve been meaning to get rid of but haven’t gotten around to shredding?  Turn shredding into a family event.  If you have a shredder, the kids can feed the paper into it.  If not, give them free reign to tear, tear away!  There is something gloriously liberating about having the freedom to just tear things up.

 Build! Your house is full of objects that can be used to make pretend skyscrapers and entire city plans.  Use cereal boxes and other recyclables and talk them through the basics of urban planning, while designing a city in your living room.  You can ask questions like: where should the library go?  Should you put the garbage dump right next to the houses?  Why not?

 Snuggle up and read. Kid snuggles cost nothing and are some of the best experiences on earth.  Grab your kids’ favorite stack of books, cuddle up on the couch, and read until you hear snoring.

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Lori K. Mihalich-Levin, JD, is the founder of Mindful Return, author of Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave, and creator of the Mindful Return E-Course. A partner in the health care practice of a global law firm, she also is mama to two beautiful red-headed boys. Lori holds a law degree from the Georgetown University Law Center and completed her undergraduate studies at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

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