15 Free Ways to Entertain Kids for an Afternoon


School's out for summer, and you know what that means — tiny people will be terrorizing your house on a daily basis. But that doesn't have to happen. With this list of free activities for kids, you can keep the tykes occupied and satisfied, all without going broke. (See also: Summer Freebies and Bargains for Kids)

1. Snap Photos at a Nearby Park

Most kids have access to cameras these days — whether it's mom or dad's point-and-shoot or the one on their phones. Facilitate an appreciation for photography by planning an afternoon at a park where you'll hike the grounds and snap photos of plants, trees, animals, and people. If you can find a park with a stream, pond, or lake, you'll find even more interesting critters to capture, which is sure to put a smile on the little ones' faces.

2. Search for Plants and Insects to Identify

When I was a kid, I loved to find caterpillars or lightning bugs and put them in jars as pets. The problem with that, of course, is that they die soon after from neglect or stress. Instead of hunting down bugs to enslave, consider embarking on a mini-safari with your smartphone. Armed with the Bug & Weed Identifier by Spectracide, you can snap photos of interesting insects and plants and find out what they are instantly. This is a great way to instill an appreciation for nature while sneaking in an educational activity while school's out.

3. Volunteer to Beautify a Neighbor's Yard

If you have a neighbor who's elderly, disabled, or otherwise can't tend to their yard, offer to bring the kids over to help mow the lawn, pull weeds, plant seeds, rake leaves, sweep the porch, and perform other tasks to make your neighbor's day a little brighter. Not only will this activity enhance your neighborly bond, but you'll have the chance to teach your kids why it's important to give back to their community.

4. Go on a Geocaching Adventure

When planning this article, I put a call out on Facebook for free activity ideas in which my friends with kids participate. Several of the ideas are on this list, but this one is perhaps the most unique. I had never heard of Geocaching before, but I'm totally in love with it now.

For those not familiar with the concept, Geocaching is a free real-world outdoor treasure hunt, in which the participants use GPS, usually on a smartphone, to hide and seek containers called "geocaches" or "caches" anywhere in the world. Wikipedia explains "a typical cache is a small waterproof container containing a logbook where the geocacher enters the date they found it and signs it with their established code name. After signing into the log, the cache must be placed back exactly where the person found it. Larger containers such as plastic storage containers or ammunition boxes can also contain items for trading, usually toys or trinkets of little value." You can expect to find plenty of caches in more populated areas, but there are likely a few near you even if your location is more remote.

5. Bowl at Your Local Lanes

This is another program to which I was alerted by a Facebook friend, and I almost couldn't believe it was real. After checking into it, however, I found out that it's totally legit — and probably one of the coolest and cheapest ways to spend a steamy (or rainy) summer afternoon indoors. All you have to do is visit KidsBowlFree.com, find the participating bowling center near you, and register your children. Once you're registered, your kids are eligible for two free games of bowling every day all summer long. That's right — EVERY day ALL summer long. Can you believe it? Almost too good to be true, but you'll soon be happy it is.

6. Make Refreshing Summer Treats

I recently picked up ice-pop molds that I'm having fun with this summer — currently they're filled with lemon-flavored iced tea — and that's just the tip of the iceberg of what you and your kids can create in the kitchen for free (or nearly so) this summer. If you have a garden full of fruits and veggies — or access to fresh berries (perhaps in a wooded area nearby where you can pick them) — turn them into tasty treats like citrusy -ades, fruity shaved ices, or refreshing flavored waters.

7. Get Wet at a Local Splash Park

Many areas — especially urban ones — are installing splash parks to keep kids cool during the sweltering summer months. I once visited one in Boston's Copley Square, and even as an adult I had a great time. If one of these neat "H2Oasises" is near you, suit up the kiddos and enjoy a day of soggy fun.

8. Plan a Neighborhood Parade

Can't afford a trip to Disney this summer? Gather up the other neighborhood moms and kids and work together to recreate the theme park's famous parades by creating floats and dressing up in costumes that you'll parade up and down the street for the entire block to enjoy.

9. Perform Skits or Short Plays

I spent a lot of time at my grandparents' house during the summertime, and I fondly remember many afternoons spent rehearsing a self-produced a play with my friends. Our play was based on Pippi Longstocking — probably not so popular with today's youth — but there are lots of other kid-friendly themes from which to choose based on current pop culture trends that will keep them busy for days on end as they write the script, design props, memorize lines, and choose costumes. When the show is ready to go on, get the rest of the parents together for a night out at the community theater.

10. Throw a Dance Party

Afraid your kids aren't active enough this summer? Subtly introduce exercise into their routine by throwing a dance party where they can bust out their best moves with their friends while the parents enjoy a brief respite. Maybe with an adult lemonade or two.

11. Plan a Book-to-Film Movie Marathon

Pique your child's interest in summer reading by encouraging him or her to read a book that inspired a movie — there are endless titles from which to choose, so you can cater to every personality — with the promise of a movie-watching party with popcorn and candy once they're finished the book. You also can flip the script, and plan a movie day when you'll watch films inspired by books that you'll have on hand for your child to dive into after the screening.

12. Visit a Local Dog Park

If you have a dog of your own, you can make a family outing of visiting the local dog park so Fido can enjoy playtime too. But even if you don't have a pet, there's no reason why you can't visit the dog run so your little one can run and play with the neighborhood hounds. Before you head off, however, discuss the proper way to handle other people's pets along with other safety rules.

13. Teach Necessary Life Skills

This idea is more geared toward older kids who are capable of a higher level of responsibility — tweens and early teens, specifically. They may not like this activity very much, but they'll thank you eventually for teaching them how to wash their own clothes, change a flat tire, build a fire, cook a meal, and perform whatever other life skills you can impart to them.

14. Take a Trip to a Cultural Institution

Check into your local institutions — botanical gardens, zoos, science centers, and art museums — to see if they offer free days during the summer. If they do, this is a great way to get out of the house while staying cool and learning something new. You also may want to look into Bank of America's Museums on Us program, which provides free admission to participating museums to cardholders on the first full weekend of every month.

15. Set Up a Homemade Water Park

When it's too hot out to move, bring the water park to your own backyard by setting up sprinklers, kiddie pools, and slip-and-slides for the kids to splash around in. Get creative by letting the water run down your backyard-playground slide and make water balloons so you can have an all-family wet-and-wild battle.

Have even more free afternoon activities for kids? Let me know in the comments below.

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Guest's picture

Thanks for this. I will soon be having 5 kids come to spend some time with me during their holidays. I guess I have some more options to explore at my disposal now.

Guest's picture

The homemade water park is a great idea!

Also, how about a family bike ride?? Our kids love those.

Guest's picture
Pat Stanley

Excellent post. I am opening a day care center and this has helped a great deal to give me ideas to keep all those kids busy. I love kids! They make me remember how joyful life can be.

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