11 Free or Cheap Adventures for Your Kids

Save money while keeping kids active with these cheap (or free!) engaging summertime staycations.

Mother and daughter smelling strawberries at farmers market

by NEA Member Benefits

Having a fun summer vacation doesn’t require spending lots of money or traveling to far-flung lands. In fact, you don’t even have to leave your neighborhood. And that's particularly advantageous since many U.S. states will still be under stay-at-home orders or practicing social distancing over the next few months.

We’ve come up with 11 great pint-sized staycation ideas, with the help of a few experts, that will keep your kids active, engaged and happy all summer long.

“Just because you can’t make it to the beach this summer doesn’t mean you can’t create beach-inspired activities right at home,” says Kidville, a franchise that provides classes, parties and programs for children. You can create that relaxing retreat vibe with music, décor, clothing and food.

Regular, creative activities also keep children busy. “At our day camp, weekly themes are so popular because it keeps the kids excited about what’s coming up next, just like a vacation would,” the Kidville representative says.

Here are a few ideas to get you started. Share your own creative mini-staycations on our Facebook page.

1. Backyard beach party: With families spending more time together at home, it’s the perfect opportunity for an intimate “beach day” in the yard.

Set up beach chairs and towels, turn on some sunny tunes and serve up summer snacks such as popsicles and fruit kebabs. Give kids beach-inspired activities to do throughout the day, or even set up a water-play obstacle course with pool noodles, sprinklers and water balloons. Ask your kids to complete different challenges, such as a water balloon toss.

2. Backyard camping trip: Set up tents in your backyard and add games, neighborhood nature walks, storytelling and campfire snacks. As it gets dark, break out the flashlights for a game of tag.

3. Indoor sports day: On a hot summer day, plan to enjoy a few different indoor sports. You could set up a mock bowling alley or bean bag toss, put up a Nerf basketball hoop or try foam-tipped darts. Look on Amazon for inexpensive game packages that can be delivered right to your door. Bonus points for creating games with inexpensive prizes for the winners.

4. Culinary adventure: Create a menu of local and international dishes with your family. Shop online for ingredients and come up with meal ideas based on food items that look delicious. Grocery delivery companies, such as Amazon Fresh, Instacart and Shipt, can bring what you need right to your doorstep so you can whip up a culinary adventure at home. Involve the kids in prepping and cooking the meal together.

5. Write about your neighborhood: Since it’s not advisable to take your kids to busy playgrounds or parks at this time, try sitting down with them and asking about their favorite places in your neighborhood. “Write about what you see, feel and think,” suggests Jessica Cuthbertson, a Wyzant private tutor in Aurora, Colorado. “Ask them: 'What stories would the park bench tell if it could talk? What about the mailbox? The tree stump? The busy street? The dog that’s walking its owner?' Try this at different times of day and see what stories develop.” You could even create a book that captures the stories as a summer project. 

6. Fruit picking: Picking fruit is a good way to stretch your legs and breathe some fresh air while being mindful of social distance. Depending on the season and location, plan a day to go pick your locally grown specialty, whether it’s strawberries, blueberries or cherries. Although farms all over the country are taking more online orders for pick up and delivery, some are still making pick-your-own (PYO) available to consumers, with frequent clean-up and social distancing (10 people or less) measures in place. For instance, Easy Pickin’s Orchard in Enfield, Connecticut, which grows eight different blueberry varieties, expects to maintain its usual pick-your-own schedule. And, in Hillsborough, North Carolina, Eno River Farm is still offering PYO, along with pickup and delivery. After a morning of fruit picking, spend the afternoon in the kitchen, canning, preserving, cooking and baking. 

7. Give back to charity, first responders and front line medical staff: There are many ways kids can help in this time of pandemic. Donating to charities is always an option, but if you or your kids would like to do more, here are some ideas. Put together a snack basket filled with fruit, nuts, granola bars, protein shakes and other goodies to drop off at a local hospital or firehouse. If your kids are artistic, have them make colorful cards for nursing home residents that are barred from getting visitors right now. Receiving a cheery card letting them know someone is thinking of them will go a long way to keeping their spirits up.

8. Be a virtual tourist: Although we’re staying inside our homes right now, there’s still a way for us to explore the world—and even beyond—by becoming a virtual tourist. A virtual tour is a simulation of a destination in the form of videos or still images, along with music, sound effects, narration and text. We profiled many resources here, but below are some additional ideas. 

From beach towns to the cold Arctic and even to outer space, there’s no scarcity in destinations you can pick from. Here are some of your options:

  • Art and museums: Google Arts & Culture features more than 2,500 museums with limited access to art.
  • Nature trip: Take in soothing views with Nature Conservancy of Oklahoma’s virtual field trip or enjoy a tour of Yellowstone National Park with the National Parks Service’s nine webcams, one of which is a livestream feed.
  • Virtual dive: The National Marine Sanctuaries offers a virtual diving experience for those keen to survey the depths of the Florida Keys, Monterey Bay, the American Samoas and many more. For a tamer look at aquatic wonders, the New England Aquarium has a live feed of its marine life.
  • Disney Parks: If your child is missing Disneyland or Disney World this summer, the Disney Parks YouTube channel has put together a playlist of virtual Disney rides so you can get to relive your memories at the theme park. Or, watch Disneyland Paris’ video series to take a virtual tour of an international Disney park thousands of miles away.
  • Popular destinations: Watch a live feed of the Eiffel Tower, Times Square and the Panama Canal from the comfort of your home. These livestreams are available 24/7 so you can binge-watch anytime.
  • NASA virtual tours: Whether you want to investigate space or just want to see a behind-the-scenes look at how NASA operates, you have options. Google Expeditions provides an augmented reality trip to the Armstrong Flight Center; a tour of the Hubble Space Telescope’s mission operation center is also available. There’s even a visualization of the TRAPPIST-1 system, which is home to seven Earth-sized exoplanets, available as a 360 YouTube experience or at the Exoplanet Travel Bureau.

9. Eat your way around the world: Spend a few evenings expanding your culinary boundaries by ordering takeout at restaurants that serve cuisine from different countries. Before you eat, research the specialties with your child to learn about how people across the ocean eat. Talk about the similarities and differences after each meal.

10. Plant a garden: Let your kids pick out a few seed packets or plants and order online. Spend the day in the sun planting and potting, talking about what each crop will require. Assign your kids tasks for maintaining the plants through the summer. Even better if they can eat the fruits (or vegetables) of their labor!

11. Learn about your past: Work together as a family to learn about your past and create a shared project. Trace your ancestry back a few generations and collect old photos. It's the perfect opportunity to call or Facetime grandma to ask about the family. Type up the stories to make a genealogy scrapbook.

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