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26 Fun Summer Activities & Ideas to Keep Your Kids Busy on a Budget

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Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many parents wonder what this summer will look like for their kids.

According to USA Today, many summer camps have canceled their 2020 season due to safety concerns. Traditional summertime activities such as sleepovers, visiting the library, setting up a lemonade stand, visiting a children’s museum, swimming at the community pool, and signing up for extracurricular activities are also in question due to the virus.

In light of all this uncertainty, some parents feel anxious about how they’re going to occupy their kids for the next few months. And for those who are working from home, the situation is even more complicated. Parents are scrambling to find ways to keep their kids busy while they do their jobs.

The good news is COVID-19 can’t cancel summer fun and the lasting memories summer provides. As parents, we simply have to reimagine what summer means, what we can do to keep our kids from regressing over summer break, and keep having fun.

The Gift of Boredom

Stop and think about the summers you spent as a kid. Chances are your days weren’t full of scheduled activities and structured play dates. For most of us, summer meant freedom — freedom from school, freedom from schedules, and freedom from routine.

We had the freedom to lie in bed late into the night reading books. We had the freedom to build forts, ride our bikes aimlessly through the neighborhood, and explore the woods at our leisure. We also had the freedom to be bored.

Today, parents often treat boredom like a problem they need to fix immediately. However, boredom has invaluable lessons to teach if it’s given enough time and space to do so. Boredom encourages creativity because kids have to learn to entertain themselves instead of being passively entertained by something or someone else. It builds self-awareness because kids must be alone with their thoughts and feelings.

As a mother of two, I realize summer is a challenging time for parents. We want to give our kids that same feeling of freedom we had growing up. Freedom and boredom are invaluable for kids, and most kids today don’t get enough of either. On the other hand, we also need to have some fun, budget-friendly ideas in our arsenal for when our little darlings ramp up the whining and claim that there’s never anything fun to do.

So here’s what I propose we not do. Let’s not try to have “the best summer ever.” Let’s not try to create three months of perfect, idyllic, Instagram-worthy afternoons our kids will never forget (at least until they’re bored again tomorrow).

Instead, let’s let our kids be kids. And when the fighting becomes incessant and there’s glitter all over the house, we can pull out one of these activities and redirect the troops long enough for some cleanup time (or a glass of wine on the back patio, which is sometimes the smarter choice).

Some of these ideas require your supervision and some don’t. But all can help you limit your kids’ screen time and practice safe social distancing while helping them have some fun. They might even learn a thing or two.

Enjoy Nature

Toddler Boy Camping Tent Looking At Map

Kids thrive outdoors, and there are many ways your kids can learn more about nature and have fun at the same time.

1. Learn About the World

The National Park Trust has developed many at-home learning activities to help kids stuck at home connect with nature and learn more about the world. These activities are free and available to download.

Some activities, such as Buddy Bison’s Frozen Fossil Dig, are suitable for very young children. There are also plenty of learning activities to interest older children, such as Communicating Like a Civil War Soldier, which teaches the nonverbal communication strategies soldiers used during the Civil War.

Many national parks have closed their visitor centers or dramatically reduced rangers’ interaction with the public. However, many parks have expanded their Junior Ranger programs to incorporate ways kids can earn badges from home. There are currently 10 national parks with downloadable e-books kids can use to learn about their park and complete activities. After they mail in their worksheets, they receive a badge in the mail.

2. Watch a Nature Cam

Would your kids like to go on a virtual safari? How about peeking into a falcon’s nest?

There are some fantastic nature cams set up by universities and conservatories all over the world, and they can be a fun and educational way for your children to learn about nature. Some live cams to check out are:

  • Africam.com. This website has several cameras set up all over Africa.
  • Explore. This website has nature cameras capturing everything from the aurora borealis in Manitoba to the Naknek River in Alaska.
  • Monterey Bay Penguin Cam. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a camera trained on their penguin exhibit.
  • Monterey Bay Open Sea Cam. Another camera from Monterey Bay, this one live-streams their open sea exhibit.
  • HD on Tap. This website has a collection of feeds from all over the country. Here, you can watch everything from whales in California to nesting ospreys on a high school roof.
  • The Fiona Show. While not technically a live webcam, The Fiona Show is put out by the Cincinnati Zoo. These videos document the young life of Fiona, a baby hippopotamus born prematurely, the smallest ever to survive in captivity. The videos are funny, heartwarming, and guaranteed to make your kids smile.

Although these nature cams do put your kids in front of a screen, they can also be a powerful learning tool and help spark a lifelong passion for animals and nature.

3. Backyard Camping

You don’t need to hit up the woods to go camping. If you have a tent, set it up in the backyard and sleep outdoors with your kids. You can also let them play in the tent during the day as long as you don’t care about its condition when the day is over. They can turn the tent into anything they can imagine, from a fort to a spaceship.

If you have the space and materials, build a backyard fire ring and sit around a campfire in the evenings. Make dinner over the flames, and let your kids make S’mores. Hang up some holiday lights to make the atmosphere even more special.

If you’re feeling adventurous, consider taking your kids on a real camping trip this summer. Camping is increasingly popular due to the pandemic, as it’s an affordable way to take a vacation while practicing social distancing. Planning a family camping trip doesn’t have to be difficult. Just make sure you have the camping essentials you need so your trip is safe and fun for everyone.

4. Make a Bug Maze

Summertime means bugs — and lots of them. Teach your kids to care for bugs and let them learn a bit about science in the process by building a bug maze.

A bug maze is relatively easy to make. All you need is a medium-size box, large or jumbo-size craft sticks, cardboard toilet paper or paper towel tubes, tape or hot glue, and some paint if you choose to decorate the maze.

Start by painting the craft sticks different colors (again, this step is optional). Create a maze within the box by putting the sticks on their sides and securing them to the bottom of the box with the tape or hot glue gun. Use the cardboard tubes to create tunnels for added interest.

Next, send your kids out to carefully collect some bugs (caterpillars and stink bugs work well for this activity). Use this time to teach your kids about being gentle with the bugs and how to handle them carefully so they don’t get hurt.

If you don’t like the idea of using real bugs, you can use Hexbugs. But there’s nothing like using real bugs to create a learning opportunity for kids — as long as they’re careful with the bugs and release them back into nature when the fun is over.

5. Make a Backyard Beach

For many families, a visit to the beach is out of reach this year. However, you don’t have to cancel beach fun entirely. You can make a beach in your backyard.

Set up two small wading pools. If you don’t have any, you can find inexpensive wading pools at dollar stores, Walmart, or even your local thrift store.

Fill one pool with sand, which you can purchase on Amazon or at any big-box home improvement store, and the other with water. Set up your beach chairs and umbrellas, load a table up with snacks and drinks, drag out the beach chairs, and let your kids make sandcastles and splash in the water.

6. Visit a Park

City, county, and state parks make it pretty easy to practice social distancing. Although some parks have closed their playgrounds and visitor centers due to safety concerns, you can still take advantage of the park’s natural beauty by going on a hike, birdwatching, or going on a scavenger hunt.

You can find a state park near you at StateParks.org.


Arts & Crafts

Kids Arts Craft Coronavirus Pandemic Monster Toilet Paper Roll

With some basic supplies, your kids can entertain themselves for an hour or more happily creating art. Save yourself some stress by stocking up on some basics, such as:

You can purchase many of these supplies inexpensively at Amazon or dollar stores. There are also plenty of art projects to help get their creative juices flowing.

7. Giant Canvas Painting

Do you have a stack of old sheets in your house? If you haven’t used them in a while, drag one of them out and spread it out on the grass. Dig out your paints and let your kids release their inner Van Gogh by painting all over the sheet.

If you don’t want to ruin the sheets you have, check out thrift stores and garage sales to pick up some inexpensive extras.

8. Homemade Bird Feeders

You can make a bird feeder out of dozens of things you probably have around the house, like an old milk carton, an empty water bottle, or crusty bread. Happy Hooligans has a list of 32 bird feeder projects to keep your kids busy.

9. Marble Ramps

Do you know those floating noodles most kids take to the pool? Pick up a few at the dollar store and carefully cut them in half. You now have two “tracks” that make perfect ramps for racing marbles.

10. DIY Sprinkler

Sure, you could buy a kids’ sprinkler for $15 at Walmart, but it’s cheaper (and much more fun) to make your own.

All you need for this activity is an empty 2-liter soda bottle and a male-to-male adapter, which costs $5 or less at any hardware store. To make the sprinkler, poke holes in the soda bottle and attach it to the end of your garden hose using the adapter. Throw the hose over a tree branch and turn on the water.

11. Duct Tape Racetrack

If you have a roll of duct tape, let your kids make a racetrack (inside or outside) for their cars and other vehicles. To make their racetrack more intricate, they can use the tape to create any number of patterns and loops on the floor or a board, and if you have colored duct tape, that makes it even better. If you don’t, kids can draw lane lines on plain duct tape with a marker.

12. Paratroopers

I had endless fun when I was a child playing with those little plastic parachute troopers. They’re hard to find these days, but it’s super easy to make your own.

All you need is a square of fabric (or a cloth or paper napkin), scissors, a hole punch, yarn, and a small toy person, such as a Lego Minifigure, L.O.L. Surprise Tiny Toy, or Army trooper to be the paratrooper. Creating the parachute is relatively self-explanatory, but you can find full instructions at No Time for Flashcards.

If you don’t have any good launch sites at your house, take your kids to the playground and let them drop their paratrooper from the top of the slide or play structure.

13. Play With Aluminum Foil

What could your kids do with an entire roll of aluminum foil? Pick up a few inexpensive rolls at the dollar store and let them go to town.

One way to play with foil is to make a “river” outside. Have your kids roll out a long section of foil and turn up the edges. Take out the water hose or watering can and pour the water down the length of the river. If your kids are industrious, they can make foil boats to race while the water is flowing. They can also use foil to make a road for their cars and other vehicles.

After that, you can use the foil in painting projects. Kids can paint directly on it, which gives the paint a beautiful metallic look, or use the foil as a “brush” to create different textures. You can also roll used foil into balls or use it to make interesting textures in play dough.

When your kids have exhausted their imaginations with the foil, simply recycle it.

14. Balloon Rockets

As NPR’s Science Friday explains, a simple balloon can teach your kids about scientific concepts like action and reaction, thrust, pressure, and force. One fun example is balloon rockets.

Balloon rockets are easy to make. All you need is yarn, duct tape, a straw, and a balloon. You can find instructions at DiscoverExploreLearn. You can also make a simple rocket your kids can launch themselves using a straw and a rocket template. Instructions for that are at Buggy and Buddy.

15. Rock Painting

Gather several small to midsize rocks, and let your kids draw on them with paint or fine-tipped markers. Higher-quality markers (like colored Sharpies) work best for this particular project. There are dozens of different ways to paint rocks. You can see a comprehensive list of ideas at Mama in the Now.

One fun approach is to paint facial features on each rock. Paint several different eyes, noses, and mouths on several rocks, with each rock containing one feature. Then, encourage your children to mix and match the rocks to create various funny faces. Your kids can also paint the rocks to look like snowmen. Paint them white and then decorate each rock to look like a different “level” of the snowman: the bottom, the middle, and the head.

Another idea that can help build children’s imaginations is to create “story rocks,” or rocks painted around a central theme, like the jungle, the sea, or camping. For instance, if you choose the sea, you can draw a different sea-related item on each rock, such as a ship, pirate, dolphin, and treasure chest. Your kids can then use the rocks to create and tell a visual story.

16. Recycled Robots

Making recycled robots is a creative activity to do when your recycling bin is full. Have your kids raid the bin and gather materials they can use to build their own robots. An empty oatmeal cylinder makes a suitable body, for instance. You can use toilet paper tubes for arms, and an empty egg carton can become a “switchboard” on the body. Supplement the recycled materials with hardware fasteners and craft supplies like screws and nuts, paint and glitter, and pipe cleaners and feathers, and your kids can have a blast creating their robot works of art.

17. Bubble Wrap Painting

Save the Bubble Wrap from a recent move or online purchase and let your kids use it for painting. Simply put the paint directly on squares of Bubble Wrap and encourage them to experiment with making different patterns. You can also tape the bubble wrap to their hands or feet for more experimentation.

Painting with a fly swatter can also be a ton of fun for kids. Just bear in mind that this is definitely an outdoor activity because it will get messy.


Make Your Own Games

Baby Girl With Red Balloon Outside Field

If you’re one of the many people in the U.S. who still can’t safely take your kids to the local arcade or Chuck E. Cheese this summer, you can still have plenty of fun with homemade backyard games.

18. Balloon Pingpong

Balloon pingpong is a wonderful activity indoors or outdoors because your kids can move around. And thanks to the balloon, it’s unlikely they’ll break anything.

To play balloon pingpong, you need two paper plates, two craft sticks, some duct tape, and a balloon. Make two paddles by taping the craft sticks to the back of the paper plates. Blow up the balloon, and then let your kits bat it back and forth. To make the game more fun, you can create your own rules, like seeing how many different ways your kids can hit the balloon (e.g., underhand, backward, with one eye closed).

19. Marble Bowling

This fantastic idea comes from Frugal Fun for Boys and Girls, and it’s perfect for a rainy day when your kids are bouncing off the walls. You need 10 removable pencil erasers, duct tape, a board or other hard surface, and a large marble.

Create a bowling “lane” on the board or floor with the duct tape. Set up the bowling pins (the erasers) in a pyramid shape. If you have younger children, you can set down stickers to show them where to place the erasers. Then “bowl” using the marble, either by rolling it with your hand or flicking it with your fingers.

20. Sticky Spiderweb

You can play this lively indoor or outdoor game if you have some extra painter’s tape.

You need a door frame or a space between two close trees outside. Wrap the tape between the door frame or trees, then tear off smaller pieces and connect them to the longer ones to create the “web.” Next, take some old newspaper and make several balls. Let your kids throw the newspaper balls at the spiderweb and see who can get the most balls to stick.


Quality Time Together

Family Home Improvement Project Ladder Painting Superhero

Every parent knows that kids grow up too fast. This summer, you can make time to slow down — at least a bit — by spending quality time with your kids.

21. Do a Home Improvement Project

If your kids are older, you might be surprised by how much they’re willing to help complete a home improvement project on your to-do list, especially if it directly concerns them.

For example, if you want to give their rooms a makeover for the summer, enlist their help painting and decluttering. Head to the thrift store or visit some garage sales to find some new bedroom furniture, curtains, or artwork.

22. Do Some Good

You might not have time to volunteer with your kids as often as you’d like, especially if you have very young children. However, that doesn’t mean your kids can’t learn the value and reward of helping others. There are plenty of ways to do good, both at home and outside the house:

  • Make placemats to donate to Meals on Wheels.
  • Make a no-sew fleece blanket for Project Linus, a nonprofit that donates homemade blankets to children in need.
  • Grow extra fruits and vegetables in your garden to donate to your local food bank.
  • Encourage your children to go through their stuffed animals and choose some to donate to Stuffed Animals for Emergencies. This nonprofit collects stuffed toys that police officers and firefighters can give to children during an emergency or traumatic situation.
  • Take your kids to walk dogs at your local animal shelter.
  • Bring some plastic gloves and garbage bags to your local park or playground and pick up trash.
  • Collect the board games, blankets, and toys your children no longer use and bring them to your local homeless shelter.
  • Go through your sports equipment (or organize a drive in your community) to collect used equipment and donate it to Leveling the Playing Field, a nonprofit that provides used equipment to underserved communities and at-risk youth.

23. Go Thrifting

Thrift stores are a goldmine for fun and affordable DIY projects.

For example, you can pick up an old radio or clock and let your kids take it apart to see how it works. An old typewriter can be an educational tool to help younger kids learn the alphabet, and older kids learn how to spell or compose a letter. You can spray-paint or paint an old metal filing cabinet and use it to store toys.

If you need more thrift store craft ideas, there’s no better place to look than Pinterest.

24. Visit a Children’s Museum (Virtually)

Many children’s museums are either closed or operating with limited capacity. However, hundreds of these museums have developed virtual learning programs to help kids learn and participate at home.

The Association of Children’s Museums has compiled a list of museums offering virtual learning opportunities. Many of these activities focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and STEAM (similar to STEM but with the addition of the arts) learning, while others can help your children develop crucial skills like emotional intelligence or critical thinking.

For example, the Bay Area Discovery Museum outlines an easy and fun activity to help younger children learn to decipher emotions, which is an essential skill during this stressful time.

25. Listen to Audiobooks & Read-Alouds

When the pandemic hit, streaming audiobook giant Audible decided to make their entire collection of children’s audiobooks free and accessible for everyone.

You can take advantage of this incredible opportunity by letting your kids choose some audiobooks to listen to this summer. Older children can listen to “Harry Potter,” while younger kids can listen to books that help them learn their ABCs and 123s.

Many celebrities, authors, and artists have also stepped up to the plate by participating in virtual storytime and read-alouds. For example, the former first lady partnered with PBS Kids to host Mondays with Michelle Obama, a weekly read-aloud. You can find more celebrity read-alouds at StorylineOnline. My two boys love Oprah Winfrey’s reading of “The Hula Hoopin’ Queen,” so don’t miss that one.

For nap time and bedtime stories, check out the read-alouds from Dolly Parton, called “Goodnight with Dolly,” which is a charming way to send younger children off to sleep.

26. Learn to Dance

Does your child yearn to take a ballet class? If ballet class is still on hold or financially out of reach, check out the digital classes offered by American Midwest Ballet School. Classes range from creative movement for preschoolers, basic dance for kindergartners, and more advanced ballet moves for older kids.

If your kids are more experienced dancers, check out the list of online dance classes from Dance Magazine. World-renowned dancers teach many of these classes, which require a monthly subscription. However, some are free or ask only for a small donation.


Need More Ideas?

Family Flying Kite Sunset Field Running

The possibilities are endless when it comes to easy, inexpensive ways to create summer fun for your kids. If you need even more ideas, try these:

  • Fly a kite.
  • Collect summer wildflowers and press them in a book.
  • Rent a kayak or canoe.
  • Make tiny fairy houses outside.
  • Drag out an old blanket and read books outside.
  • Write a letter to a relative.
  • Start a journal.
  • Build a fire and make s’mores.
  • Go on an early morning nature walk.
  • Learn which wild foods you can eat in your area, and go foraging.
  • Let your kids cook dinner.
  • Bake cookies and use them to make ice cream sandwiches.
  • Learn how to find fossils. The American Museum of Natural History has a useful guide for beginners.
  • Get some ice cream from the ice cream truck.
  • Let them pick out vegetables at the farmers market and then cook them for dinner.
  • Go stargazing.
  • Grow your own healthy and nutrient-dense sprouts with a sprouting kit.
  • Go swimming at a local lake or swimming hole. You can find a list of the nation’s 10 best swimming holes at Roadtrippers.
  • Buy a joke book (or look up jokes and riddles online) and see who can memorize the most.
  • See a movie at a drive-in theater. There are hundreds of drive-ins operating in the U.S.
  • Go fishing.
  • Build a treehouse.
  • Put up a tree swing.

Create Opportunities to Earn Money

Baby Putting Coin In Piggy Bank Savings Allowance

Do your kids get an allowance, or are they expected to pitch in allowance-free to keep the household running? Every family is different, but whether you give out an allowance or not, summer is the perfect time to teach your kids about money management.

One way to do this is to talk to your kids about ways they would like to earn extra money this summer. These tasks or chores should be in addition to what you already expect them to do around the house. Create a list of money-earning chores and decide beforehand what each chore is worth.

It’s also essential you teach your kids how to save money responsibly. Encourage your kids to save a percentage of what they earn for a fun family trip at the end of the summer. Come up with a list of options within your budget, and let them choose a destination from the list. That way, you don’t end up going somewhere you can’t afford, and kids feel empowered because they’re selecting a trip they really want to go on.

You can also encourage your kids to start their own business. Some options include dog-walking, starting an Etsy or eBay store, and becoming a tutor for younger kids.


Make Them Earn Screen Time

Toddler Parent Screen Time Tablet

Every parent has to battle with the do’s and don’ts of screen time, which gets even harder during summer vacation. One option is to treat screen time as a currency. Instead of earning money by doing extra chores around the house, your kids earn a half-hour of screen time instead.

Christine Burke, a writer for Scary Mommy, is a work-at-home mom who came up with a brilliant schedule for her kids’ summer vacation. Her children have to do one hour of reading, one hour of creative building or crafting, one hour of exercise (any type is fine as long as they’re moving their bodies), and one hour of chores before they can watch one hour of television.

This scheduling worked well for Burke’s family because the kids always knew how the day was going to unfold, and they were in charge of what they did for each hour’s “theme.” Burke benefited because the schedule gave her day some normalcy, and she was able to get her work done in a reasonable amount of time. For work-at-home parents, a schedule like that could be a lifesaver.


Final Word

Summer can be an incredible time for children, and it has the potential to shape their lives in very extraordinary ways. There’s no other time in life when they’ll have as much freedom and energy as they do now. Harnessing both those things by allowing boredom and structured activities to take place can build character, deepen family bonds, and help create special memories.

The COVID-19 pandemic has already reshaped our routines and expectations in very significant ways. And as terrible as the pandemic has been, it has provided us with some silver linings. For example, right now, many parents are getting to spend more quality time with their children. This family time is precious and irreplaceable, and when we look back one day, we’ll see what a blessing it was.

Another silver lining is that many educators, organizations, and businesses have stepped up to help kids feel loved and supported during this time. There have never been so many free learning opportunities available. For example, National School Choice Week has an amazing list of free learning resources parents can use during the pandemic.

What are your go-to activities for summer fun for your children? How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting these plans?

Heather Levin
Heather Levin is a writer with over 15 years experience covering personal finance, natural health, parenting, and green living. She lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina with her husband and two young sons, where they're often wandering on frequent picnics to find feathers and wildflowers.

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