Summer Freebies and Bargains for Kids

Photo: Carrie Kirby

Summer vacation can be expensive for families with children. If the kids are not enrolled in camp programs which are in their own right pricey, the empty hours can weigh heavily and lead to an excess of wallet-emptying entertainment. Here are some things that kids can do this summer for free or for cheap:

  • Free bowling. The AMF chain of bowling alleys offers a kids club granting children two free games EVERY DAY all summer long. You sign up through your local alley (the Web site lists locations in 33 states), and individual locations may have rules and caveats like specific hours when free games can be played. The freebies can't be used by large groups like day care outings.
  • Free movies and free or discounted books: On Frugalista, my new blog about Chicago-area bargains, I outlined the a number of free and cheap summer movie series for kids as well as the summer reading programs at major bookstores and libraries (the store programs usually give kids a free book or at least a discount; the library programs offer varying goodies). Most of these programs are available nationally or you can find the same at your local theaters, stores and libraries.
  • Cheap museums and zoos. If you have multiple kids and the whole summer to kill, it can be worth it to invest in a pass to a local kids' museum. But if you live in an area with lots of museums like I do, you'll want to buy a pass that gets you into multiple places. In this post I share the secret ticket that gets you into the most places for the lowest price. An even cheaper strategy than the above is to stick to museum and zoo free days -- check the Web site of your local -- or to latch onto other families that have memberships and can bring guests (reciprocity is nice!).
  • You all know about using your local library, which usually has the added advantage of free air conditioning, but newer parents may not realize that most urban and suburban park districts offer low-cost or free activities too. In our neighborhood, teen-aged park employees bring a "fun truck" to the local playground once a week with a slip and slide and other delights.
  • Fairs. You won't get off scott-free at the state or county fair; in fact you'll shell out for entrance, overpriced ice cream and corn, and ride tickets, and maybe even parking. But there are lots of things to keep little ones busy most of the day for free, like looking at animals and watching animal shows, and the costs pale in comparison to an amusement park. Speaking of which ...
  • Amusement park discounts. Six Flags and its ilk are never cheap, but there are ways to pay less. If you live nearby and your kids are old enough to be dropped off, a season pass for them can really pay for itself pretty easily. Even if you're going for one day, check the park's Web site and do a little Googling for promotions; right now Six Flags tickets are buy-one-get-one online; you also often see discounts on soda cans, at fast-food restaurants, and the like.
  • Mix in a bit of the always free.We're taking advantage of many of the above programs intermittently during the summer, but I unabashedly admit that my kids' regular summer days include a lot of less-structured free activities. Playing in the backyard, visiting local playgrounds, sitting on the porch watching for the ice cream man (OK that will cost me a few bucks if he actually shows up but he hardly EVER drives down our street), hitting rummage sales with mom (now that my oldest is 5, giving her $2-4 at a rummage sale will keep her happily absorbed in bargain-hunting while I do my own shopping), playing with neighbors and friends, and reading (she's been devouring The Boxcar Children mysteries) have been the prime activities so far. Oh, and even a little work beyond the normal "pick up your toys": Now that the 5-year-old understands that money can get her toys at rummage sales, she's become a willing weed bounty hunter in the backyard.
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Guest's picture

Great post. I need all the ideas I can get!

I wrote a similar post not to long ago on the same topic but you've got some ideas I missed.

We love the boxcar mysteries too!

Guest's picture

Carrie--It looks as if not only are you providing low- and no-cost activities for the kids but you're also providing a wide variety as well, most of them free form and low key. IMHO, this helps kids develop imagination, independence and a strong sense of self.

The current trend is enrolling kids in one (costly) program activity after another, as though the road to a good college starts before kindergarden. Not only is that expensive, but I feel strongly that it does a disservice to structure a childs life that way. They need lots and lots of free time to grow, develop and to think independently.

Our culture has trended toward conformity within my own lifetime, but is seems what we really need are free thinkers and innovators. That starts in childhood, yes even and especially with recreational activities. At that age, there's enough structure when the attend school.

Bravo to you on all fronts.

Guest's picture

Great ideas! My 5-year-old is starting to understand toys = money, so I'm thinking being a weed bounty hunter is just the ticket! We are also big fans of the library and bowling. We also like nature hikes and picnics when it's not too hot.

Guest's picture

Washington county, Oregon has a cooperative library system that has a Cultural Pass program. They buy memberships to the zoo, different gardens, museums and historical sites and as a library member you may reserve and check them out. We can take our entire family plus guests for a simple quick stop at the library on the way there to get the card.
I hope other cities do this also, or maybe people that read this can suggest it to their library!

Guest's picture
Melinda Jean Douglas

Hi Carrie,
As a veteran teacher of 17 years, I know how much parents are in need of affordable activities and resources for their kids during the summer. I share Educents with all of the parents I know.. their latest summer brain drain page is great and their freebies are fun for summer too!