20 Free or Low-Cost Summer Activity Ideas for Kids

It is May.

I am afraid that this does not adequately express the panic in my voice.

It is MAY, people!

May means the last full month of school.

May means JUNE is coming very very soon, which means school will be OUT.

Phineas and Ferb say:
There’s 104 Days of Summer Vacation,
And school comes along just to end it.
So the annual problem for our generation,
Is finding a good way to spend it.

I find this song ironic. I mean, you’re WATCHING Phineas and Ferb have a blast on Summer Vacation, having all kinds of real-world adventures. The one thing they are NOT doing during break is watching a show about kids having fun on their summer vacation.

So, ACTION, Jackson.

My kids are school-age, which means they theoretically can pour themselves a bowl of cereal and operate the remote without awakening the sleeping family members, so this summer should mean we get to sleep in a little bit.

Day camps around here range from $135 a week for a bare-bones elementary school-ground camp, to $300 or so for educational camps. Because I don’t work outside the house and I am not yet a millionaire superrich novelist, I keep the kids with me.

When I was a kid, we just went out to play. But we no longer live in a society where you can shoo your kids out the door and tell them to come back at sunset. Personally I have no problem doing exactly that; but everybody else is paranoid, so my kids would be on their own.

Thus I got to thinking– the kids need something to keep them occupied sometimes. I can design my own camp activities for less than $100 a week. However, this means I have to act like I’m somewhat organized. Otherwise, the kids WILL end up doing nothing except watching Phineas and Ferb, and bugging me.

I’m doing my summer guide for free activities planning right here, and hopefully your kids will benefit, too.

Use my suggestions to brainstorm your own, or just use them.

  • Chores

Yes, not the most fun thing ever, but hear me out. There’s no schoolwork or activities getting in the way, so let this be the summer when your kids learn some life skills. How to clean the bathroom, work the vacuum, and do laundry are all necessary to being self-sufficient young people.
If they already know how to do those things, how about slightly more advanced chores?

  • Meal planning
  • Grocery store budgeting, list making, and coupon clipping
  • Learning how to change the oil and tires on the car
  • Mowing the lawn or other garden care

Other suggestions:

  • Attach a dollar value to some of the chores if you want. I’d pay my kids to wash the windows because it’s outside the normal chore system, and I don’t like to do it.
  • Draw up a daily chore list and have the kids attend to it first thing before they can do anything else. Unless they get up at 5.
  • Build in some treats. For example, when drawing up the grocery list, the kids will get to select their treats themselves, and will learn to budget. If you buy the ice cream ON SALE, then you will also have money for cookies. That kind of thing.

Cost: FREE, unless you are chore-paying.

2. Geocaching

Geocaching, for those of you who don’t know what it is, involves people hiding various items, then plugging the coordinates into a GPS system.
Basically, it’s a treasure hunt for smart phones. Who doesn’t love finding treasure with a map?
For about $10, you can get a high-quality Geocaching app. The app has a map, describes where the geocaches are and tells you how close you’re getting. It also describes the terrain and the difficulty of getting to the cache.

There are geocaches everywhere. People hide them in public parking areas, in parks, off hiking trails. People use magnetized containers to stick them behind Dumpsters and parking signs; hang items from trees; even use fake rocks.

What do you do when you find it? Sometimes people simply put a small piece of paper into some kind of weather-proof container, and when you find the container, you add your name to the list of who found it, then re-hide it.

For fun, sometimes there will be small objects in there, like outdated European coins or pennies or plastic toys; in that case, ,you are supposed to replace the item so the next person can have fun finding it.

I have only found a couple, with the help of my experienced geocaching friend Alex. The items are usually camouflaged very well. Sometimes, people stumble across them and move them. For example, my family and I went looking for a Boy Scout tin filled with lollipops hanging from a tree off a popular hiking path– I’m pretty sure some random person happened along and took it.

Cost: $10 for the app, plus gas, of course

3. Food Reviewing

My kids love eating, so I was thinking about what sort of food-based activity we could do that would get us out of the house a little bit. Doing food reviews gives us a solid sense of purpose, and it will be fun to mark off where we’ve been on a map.

However, I wanted something that wouldn’t be too expensive, so visiting every sushi place around here was out.

Thus I came up with The Great Donut Review Project.

My son loves doughnuts. Really, who doesn’t? Donuts (I’m spelling it both ways, yes) are cheap, 50 cents to $1 or so. Also, I don’t like doughnuts that much– they are too sweet for me, so I am happy with one bite. If we reviewed, say, chocolate shops, then I’d be in really big trouble.

I’m using Yelp to find doughnut shops in San Diego. Then we are going to visit a couple each week. Each kid gets one doughnut and has to create a review, citing what they like, what they didn’t like, and assigning a star rating.
I will get one bite of donut each time as my fee.

Estimated Cost: .50 cents to $1.50 per donut, average $2.25 per visit

4. Book Reading
The local libraries always have a summer reading project. Around here, they give out prizes when you reach a certain number of books every week.

If you need suggestions, ask your school or library for summer reading lists.
Or check out some of these lists, divided into different categories, like books for boys or books for pre-teens.

Cost: FREE

5. Fishing
My kids are always clamoring to go fishing. I have no idea why they say they like it so much because they sure seem miserable while they do it. They are bitter when the fish don’t bite (which is the case about 90% of the time for us).

Check with your local fish and game department for your state’s regulations and fees. In California, you don’t need a license if you’re under age 16, but you do need a license if you’re an adult and you’re going to be helping your kids fish. Which you definitely will.

Thus, fishing can be a somewhat expensive start-up; not only do you need poles, you need a fishing license in CA. Fishing was easier in Hawaii; you didn’t need a license, and you could fish anywhere.

COST: FREE DAYS only on July 7 or Sept 8 in California; or FREE if you stick to pier-fishing.
Reduced License Fees: Reduced for those 65 years or older (with income limits) or veterans with a service-connected disability of 50% or more. FREE for those with impaired eyesight, the disabled, and the developmentally disabled.
Annual License in CA: $44.85
One Day License: $14.85
Poles: Approximately $16 for a kit with the line and reel and tackle
Bait and hooks: $4 total, depending on what you need

Day-Use Fees: On top of the fishing license, most places charge you to fish in their lakes. Look this up ahead of time and plan on spending up to another $15 for a day-use fee. Some places are free. You can also fish off the piers in San Diego for free.

The annual Grunion Run might be a good bet for older kids; they spawn at night on the beach. You DO need a license if you’re 16 or older, so unless you plan on being 100% hands-off in your supervision, you will need to get a license, too.

COST: FREE for kids under age 16

6. Free or Low-Cost Camps
Want to get your kids out of the house and your supervision entirely?

In this city, there are a few types of free camps. I only mention this because I didn’t know they existed and found out accidentally. The local middle school holds two free ones, an Engineering Camp, which my oldest attended; and a general camp. They were not income-based, so any student in the appropriate grades could go, as space allowed.

Do some sleuthing in your area. Eldest claimed the engineering camp was kind of boring, but she in fact had a great time, because there were rockets involved, and you can never not have a good time when you’re building a rocket.

Local religious organizations also have Bible school or other religious half-day camps. Our church’s Bible school session is free to parishioners.

Many regular programs also have need-based financial assistance available.

7. Childcare Sharing
Find a couple of friends with similarly aged kids and rotate hosting them throughout the week. In this age when most kids don’t roam neighborhoods, they love having built-in play buddies. As long as they get along all right. Hopefully one or two of those friends will have a pool and different video game systems.

I’d also establish a few ground rules, i.e. have the parents tell the kid, “When you’re at Mrs. Dilloway’s house, you will follow Mrs. Dilloway’s rules, or she will break my thumbs.” That kind of thing.

Cost: FREE, plus the cost of a bit of extra food

8. Crafts
Get your weekly craft store coupon and go get some craft supplies. Get some general supplies or specific ones for specific projects; ideas here. The craft store Michael’s also had free weekly kids’ crafting classes all last summer.

A kid with a big box of Popsicle sticks, craft glue, paint, felt, and googly eyes will be kept entertained for some time.
Cost: $20 or so for the basics
FREE if you have a store that does them.

9. Cooking School
Focus on summery treats, like Popsicles or no-ice-cream-machine ice cream.
Personally, I got a big cookie recipe book for my birthday, so I’m going to let the kids make a few different cookie recipes every week (this summer sounds kind of fattening!).

It’s also a good time, with less rush in the days, to make the kids, er, I mean HELP the kids learn how to cook. How to slice and dice without chopping off their fingers.

I’m always worried I’ll send my kids off to college and they won’t know how to slice an onion because I’ve been too WORRIED to show them how. Nope.

Remember to make them clean up after themselves; it’s an important life skill to learn and will prevent them from growing up into the kind of jerks the other roommates hate.

COST: Varies; build it into the grocery budget

10. Art
I used a 40% off coupon and a sale, and bought a set of six canvases, brushes, and a set of acrylic paints at my local craft store. Now, I could let my kids paint whatever, but I could also be like the school art teacher (example here, our school also did Blue Dog) and give them a specific palette and make them all paint the same subject.

They are all going to paint the cat (cat as subject, not paint on his fur) in a specific set of hues that I’m going to let Eldest select. That way, the paintings will all look really nice on a wall hung together.

Cost: Approximately $45 to get started, depending on what you need.

11. Beach Going

I actually HATE going to the beach in San Diego in the summer, because EVERYBODY is there. We have the best beaches. Beaches weren’t this crowded in freaking Waikiki (but sometimes in Kailua, which really, sigh, was the Best Beach Ever. I digress).

There are a couple of ways to beat the crowd:

  • Go early. The lots are not too crowded before 10 am.
  • Wait and get to the beach at 4:30 or so. It will still be warm, the rays won’t be harsh. My husband goes to work early and comes home early during the summer, so he can take the kids to the beach. I usually go too, because it’s so darn hot.
  • Go to tidepools instead. Beforehand, look up the animals that you might find and plan some activities. Then check the newspaper or online for the low tide time, then hit Point Loma (by Cabrillo, which has a car fee, is my favorite).


12. Hiking
Hiking is also done best in the early part of the day or later in the day. Check out Local Hikes for some kid-friendly suggestions in your area.

While you hike, do some other activities. I like to bring (actually, the kids like to bring) WHO POOPED IN THE PARK? along. (Words I never thought would come out of my mouth, ‘Maybe today we’ll get lucky and there will be NEW POOP!’)

The author has created a guide for nearly every region of the US.

We look for poop and ID it. We also ID footprints and watch out for rattle snakes.
Other ideas:

  • Collect leaves and wildflowers to make a scrapbook.
  • Collect interesting rocks.
  • Capture bugs in a jar to observe, then re-release. My son just found a chrysalis and is keeping it in a jar to watch it hatch. He did this last year (it was a moth).


13. Planting
Summer’s the perfect time to do some plant-growing. My kids and I are currently growing tomatoes in a pot, a cactus, some succulents, Swiss chard, oregano, and roses.
Have them water the plants and look for evidence of bugs. My kids adore going out to search for the predators leaving holes in the plants. Then they can try to identify what kind of pest it is, or mold, or what have you.

COST: $5 for soil
$2.50 per plant
I used recycled containers for the veggies, and a lightweight foam planter that cost about $10 for the roses.

14. Science Experiments
My dear late sister-in-law got my son a group of the worst books ever, Grossology. They’re not really the worst, except that they involve really stinky, slimy, gross experiments. Like attracting cockroaches, or growing slime mold on a log. That kind of thing. The kids LOVE these books, so this summer, I’m going to let them go ahead and do all these experiments. There’s also a short PDF version here.

Cost: FREE, or $6 to $15 per book. Generally, experiments use stuff you have around the house.

15. Drama
Choose a short play, or a scene from a play, and make copies of the dialogue for everyone. Who DOESN’T want to see a 6 year old girl play Hamlet? That’s right. You can even do “selections” from a scene to make it more manageable for the kid. Who’s going to get you, the Shakespeare police?

Paint backdrops onto old cardboard, make costumes out of found items, do up makeup. Make it a whole production, invite your family to come out and see the final product.

16. Film
Give the kids a camcorder or digital camera to use. Check out these free movie scripts and let the kids make a scene from their favorite movie.

Or, suggest they do something different, like pretend to be an interviewer grilling a rock star.

Actually, my experience has been if you give a kid a video camera, they will come up with plenty of things to do. We have Barbie movies, a Twilight spoof, and some plays on film.

If you’re worried about the equipment, you’ll have to be the one to film it. Or maybe try out a tripod so the work won’t be shaky.

Cost: FREE

17. Kids Bowl Free
Sign up your kids for this free bowling program, and they get to bowl for free at participating areas. You still have to pay for your portion at the regular rate.

The program also lets you pay a one-time $24.95 for a family pass, letting you get 2 games of bowling per day, per up to 4 adult family members.

COST: $24.95 for the whole summer for your adult fee; or whatever the fee is at your bowling alley.

18. Gaze at Stars

The local astronomy club hosts nights where members bring along their huge telescopes to campgrounds, and you can see Mars and the moon and Venus and all kinds of cool things. Check with your local astronomy club.


19. Go Backyard Camping

I always did this when I was growing up, and I thought it was the funnest thing ever. You feel so independent. Let your kids invite a couple of friends over and do a backyard sleepover. I think my 10-and-ups are fine alone; the youngest one would need an adult nearby. Bonus: All the noise is outside.


20. Free Movies

Regal Cinemas, in our area, usually offers free summertime movies on somewhat older-run movies, on certain mornings. They haven’t posted this summer’s offerings yet, if they exist. Check your area to see if this is going on. The drawback is EVERYONE IN THE WORLD shows up.

The park near us also has several Summer Night festivals, which invariably I find out about AFTER they happen. They always get a local high school band to come do a concert or show a free movie, and the local Kiwanis sells food, and everyone brings their lawn chairs and blankets. It was a lot of fun, on those two occasions when I knew about it ahead of time.


Published by Margaret Dilloway

Middle grade and women's fiction novelist. FIVE THINGS ABOUT AVA ANDREWS, (Balzer + Bray 2020); SUMMER OF A THOUSAND PIES. MOMOTARO: Xander and the Lost Island of Monsters (Disney Hyperion); TALE OF THE WARRIOR GEISHA and SISTERS OF HEART AND SNOW, out now from Putnam Books. HOW TO BE AN AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE was a finalist for the John Gardner fiction award. THE CARE AND HANDLING OF ROSES WITH THORNS is the 2013 Literary Tastes Best Women's Fiction Pick for the American Library Association. Mother of three children, wife to one, slave to a cat, and caretaker of the best overgrown teddy bear on Earth, Gatsby the Goldendoodle.

5 thoughts on “20 Free or Low-Cost Summer Activity Ideas for Kids

  1. Do you have to be the coolest mom “ev-ah”???

    But thank you so much for the reminder that summer is on the way. Here, in Seattle, school gets out June 25th with the fourth rolling right upon us, but, still, I will need some ideas on what to do with “them” for the seven weeks they are home. Thank you!

    San Diego is one of our favorite places to vacation~big fan of Coronado. The last time we were there, hubby convinced us all we didn’t need a rental car. We took the ferry to Coronado and walked “the mile or so” to the beach to glimpse the Navy Seals training (my son’s request). Still, it was worth it, even though I was wearing the wrong shoes for the trek. (What else is new?)

    Thanks for the list!



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