9 Low-cost Ideas for Having Fun with the Grandkids

Make a splash this summer with these easy, affordable adventures close to home.

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by NEA Member Benefits

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Summer vacation is finally here, which means it’s the perfect time to embark on new adventures with the grandkids or other important children in your life.

However, as with the other good intentions of summer (I’ll host barbecues! I’ll re-landscape the yard!), the general business of life can get in the way. According to data published by the American Grandparents Association, 81% of grandparents have their grandkids for all or part of their summer vacation, despite the fact that 60% of grandparents still have a full- or part-time job. So before you know it, you and the kiddos may find yourselves in the living room watching Frozen on DVD again if you haven’t planned ahead.

Luckily, there are loads of fun, low-cost and educational ways to get the kids out and exploring the world. Here are a few ideas to keep ready in your arsenal.

1. Get back to nature. Small nature preserves are scattered throughout the country, and for free or a small fee they offer hiking trails, opportunities to volunteer and educational programs for kids. To help find a preserve close to you, check out listings at the National Audubon Society or The Nature Conservancy.

2. Plan outings around your passions. If you like to do it, chances are your little ones would love to have you teach them. Tennis, fishing, bird watching, kayaking, biking or making art inspired by nature are some great options. Often, local ponds, rail trails or gyms may rent equipment inexpensively if you need it for the kids.

3. Think small. Minor attractions are often overlooked, but can be the perfect size for younger children. “My favorite off-the-beaten-track destinations are small museums and factory tours,” says Susan Adcox, a former teacher and Grandparenting Expert for About.com. These are usually inexpensive, can be toured in an hour or two and may have an owner or other pro on hand to answer questions. Some places also offer discounts for educators, so always be sure to ask.

4. Tap into local resources. Stay abreast of programs available through your local library and Park and Rec Department, or even through state Departments of Conservation and Recreation. For example, the one in Massachusetts, in partnership with a local river conservancy, offers free Sunday summer games on the Charles River in Boston. These include activities like boccie, badminton, yoga classes or fencing demonstrations.

5. Search for treasure. An increasingly popular game called geocaching lets you search for small, hidden objects in your local area using the GPS on your phone.  Historical sites or similar attractions may also offer scavenger hunts where kids can learn fun facts or find hidden architectural features by following clues. (If your target destination doesn’t offer this, you can set one up for your own child if you do a little research in advance.) Kids also love visiting local put-and-takes or garage sales to choose a small treasure to take home.

6. Learn how to build something. An increasing number of retailers offer free classes or demonstrations for families. For example, both Home Depot and Lowe’s offer clinics for kids to learn how to build a wood-working project they can keep. At Home Depot, one recent project was an Angry Birds-themed bird house.

7. Scout local festivals. You’re probably tuned into celebrations happening in your own community, but it’s worth keeping an ear to the ground for events in other nearby towns and cities. In any part of the country, you’ll find a range of events highlighting various cultures, food, or the arts. Finds may be as mainstream as especially good 4th of July fireworks or as unique as the annual garlic festival in Gilroy, California or the mosquito festival in Clute, Texas.

8. Consider overnight trips. “Grandparents who are yearning to travel with grandchildren but who balk at the high cost of lodging should consider cabin camping,” suggests Adcox, who notes this is now available at many state and national parks. “It's not as rigorous as tent camping, but it still has the feel of the great outdoors.” Another option for affordable stays is the Educators Travel Network, which is a home-renting service similar to Airbnb, but run specifically by and for current and former teachers.

9. Rediscover the obvious. Lastly, don’t let the pressure to be too creative overwhelm you. Something like a picnic in the park that you plan and prepare together may sound old hat, but if your little one hasn't done it in a while and you embrace it with gusto, that enthusiasm will be contagious.