Our family of 5 lives on a bare bones budget. But, we feel like we live richly and make fun memories together every day! We’ll share 25 free things to do with kids to create a meaningful and memorable experience for the whole family.
Budgeting for FUN
Our budget categories have evolved over the years, and FUN (or entertainment) is no exception.
When we got married over a decade ago we deposited $100 each month into our FUN envelope. This is what we had allocated for things like dining out, movies, or other experiences.
You might expect that number to increase over the years – especially after adding one, two, then three kids to the picture. Well, several years ago, our FUN budget got chopped to $50, then $40. This past year, with some very specific financial goals in mind, we cut that budget category down to an all time low; $25 per month.
Did having FUN cease all together in our lives? Not in the least!
Do we intend to keep it that low forever? Hopefully not.
To our delight, this reduction got our creative juices flowing like never before as a family and opened our eyes to some profound truths.
We explain more about our budgeting journey and how to setup your own budget in our post – Setting Up A Homestead Budget For One Small Income.
The shift from consuming to creating
What are children REALLY after? What is it that fills their cup and gives them a sense of security?
In our experience, the answer has been CONNECTION. Good old fashioned, unplugged, focused, fully present connection as a family – especially with Mom and Dad.
The more we’ve realized this reality, the clearer it’s become that the activity really isn’t what matters. It’s the intentional and engaged time that you create as their parent, cheerleader, and friend.
So, instead of constantly chasing the next bigger and better paid form of entertainment, we’ve found it so empowering to instead focus on CREATING our own entertainment as a family.
The point we’re making isn’t to NOT spend money. We enjoy an occasional outing at the ballgame, trip to the museum, or tickets to the show in town. But, this shift from passively consuming to actively creating has caused us to pause and rethink what our time together should look like as a family.
That spending money and making memories don’t need to correlate. That simple and unplanned can be just as good as extravagant and booked in advance. And that being, just being – together – can captivate little hearts and unify a family like nothing else.
Here are several of the benefits we’ve seen as we’ve adopted this approach:
Most passive consumption is an individual activity. When we as a family shift from just simply consuming to creating our own entertainment it almost always leads to a deep and satisfying togetherness. We’re all involved, engaging our thinking and creativity, interacting with each other, and moving toward a common goal and experience.
Any time you create you learn and develop skills. For us, this has been things like playing an instrument or learning to forage. The more you do on your own the more you’ll discover new hobbies, interests, and skills that you can pursue together as a family.
If you spend good money on something you expect a payout, right? But those free or inexpensive outings come with no strings attached! These low key, maybe even unplanned or spontaneous, activities free you up to just enjoy the simplicity of being together without any grand expectations of something needing to be a jaw dropping experience every time.
Children thrive in a stable routine. We’ve found that big and stimulating events can really throw those rhythms and routines that our children depend on out of whack. Simple activities – reading a book, going for a walk, playing a game – are things we can easily fit into our daily routines to keep life predictable for our little ones.
Passively consuming entertainment rarely leads to inspiration. But when you put yourself in the drivers seat, the sky’s the limit to what your brain can create and achieve. This is immeasurably true for children when you allow their imagination to run wild and create fun out of nothing. But we’ve also been surprised how refreshing it is as adults to engage our imaginative muscles that might have gone dormant years earlier.
Let’s face it, paid entertainment has multiple layers of marketing. Once you’re in the door there’s the merchandise, the apparel, the food all trying to lure more of your dollars. The less you place yourself in these environments the less likely you are to spend. Work toward accumulating more memories, not more stuff.
You work hard for your dollars. So make them count! Committing to spending less on entertainment as a family can really free you up to pursue and prioritize other practical and purposeful goals. Consume wisely and consciously and spend money as a family on the goods, services, and causes you and your family really stand behind. That’s freedom!
25 Free Things To Do With Kids
Whatever age your children are, this list of free things to do with kids can help create those connections and memories you’ve all been longing for.
1. Go tent camping
“This is the night of my dreams!” exclaimed our daughter. We had pitched a tent in our backyard, started a bonfire, and were roasting hotdogs we had thawed out only an hour prior. This unplanned backyard camping adventure was one of a few we all had a blast with this past summer. The tent was a Christmas gift from years earlier, we needed to eat a meal anyways, and we had plenty of branches to throw in the fire pit. Whether in your backyard, or at a local campground, tent camping is a free or inexpensive way to make significant memories. And just saying, if you’ve got littles, shadow puppets in the tent will really fire up their imaginations 🙂
2. Tell stories
Story telling has won over all of our hearts. It engages so much creativity and imagination, both for the teller and listener. Stories don’t need to be extravagant or complex. Sometimes we tell stories from our childhood or memories we have with our families. Or we’ve enjoyed making up stories (pirates are commonly requested!) that keep the same characters with different exciting adventures every time. Our kids hang on every word as they envision the adventure unfolding in their own minds.
3. Take advantage of free admission days
Many zoos, museums, or other attractions offer free admission days. We took advantage of an early spring free admission day to a nearby zoo this past year. One of our budgeting tips when going on these excursions to bring your own food! It happened to start raining while we were in the giraffe house. So, we parked on bench, pulled out our lunch, and had lunch right there with the giraffes. How cool is that! Yes, it takes some planning ahead and they may fall on obscure days. But when you’re able to, free admission days can be a beautiful thing.
4. Read aloud
Reading aloud together as a family is one of the most basic things you can do with some of the greatest benefits. Studies has proven how incredible of a tool reading aloud can be in your child’s development. Check out Read About Revival for tons of great resources and book lists. Find high quality books and carve out time each day to read together as a family. Let everyone participate and take turns. Mommy, daddy, and children when they’re able. These routine times will be some of the most impactful and fond memories your children will have.
5. Make ice cream
Ok, so you may not have an ice cream maker. But chances are you can borrow one from someone who does. Or, investing in one will likely pay for itself after just a couple uses versus going out for ice cream. There is no more fun and delicious way to spend time together as a family than making ice cream and then making sundaes together at home. This vanilla ice cream recipe is super simple and you can throw in whatever mix-ins the whole family wants!
6. Have a picnic
The classic picnic is one of the best ways to enjoy a slow and enjoyable meal together in the great outdoors. Find a spot with some scenery. Bring a soccer ball, frisbee or other yard game. You’ve got to eat meals anyways, so why not make them a fun excursion to burn off some energy and enjoy time together outside!
7. Draw or do art
Anyone else have kids that love to draw? Perhaps the only thing more fun than drawing or making art is doing it with mommy and daddy. Slow down, be present, and just have fun creating something together. While you can totally use your imagination and do this for free, lately we’ve enjoyed this Learn To Draw book that we gave as a gift to our children.
8. Cook up a meal together
Getting your kids involved in the kitchen is a powerful thing. They are so much more capable than we give them credit for. Adding ingredients, stirring a pot, chopping produce. Our 6 and 4 year olds are chomping at the bit any time we invite them into the food prep process. And OH the joy and pride they take in the finished product and getting to share about the specific steps they helped out with!
9. Go on a bike ride
Bike rides through the neighborhood or on a local bike path are one of the most exciting things you can do together as a family. While living in the suburbs our neighborhood attached to a bike path that took us all over – into town, through scenic forest preserves, further out into more rural areas. We were on that path every chance we got. At first with a tow behind trailer while our kids were young and then we eventually all had our own set of two wheels. We were even able to travel to destinations like church or the local ice cream shop!
10. Free library movie night
You can spend an arm and a leg going to see the latest movie in a theater. Or, you can wait a few months and get it for free from your library! Opting for the later option has saved us tons of money and we all look forward to those fun occasions! Better yet, find a source of old fashioned popcorn that you can pop on your stovetop and brace yourself for squeals of exuberance every time a kernel pops!
11. Plant, tend to, and harvest a garden
Time together in the garden is golden. Our kids have shared how some of their favorite memories every summer are when we all go out to harvest together. Everyone has the chance to learn, be outside, connect with their food, and work hard together. And, at the end of it all you get to enjoy the delicious fruits of your labor and appreciate the food on your plate all the more. Our local library does a free seed bank every year. Pick up some seeds, throw them in the ground, and see together what mother nature produces!
12. Amish night
We don’t mean for this to be demeaning in any way. We have a lot of respect for the time-honored way of life our Amish friends choose to uphold. But there is something powerful about unplugging and being less dependent on our modern conveniences. A while back we had a weekly time we called Amish night. The goals was to use little or no electricity and enjoy time together. So, we’d turn off the lights, read a book by candlelight, have intentional conversation, or maybe play a game. Simple, no frills, fun.
13. Go foraging
Nature is bursting with free all around you! We were intimidated by foraging wild plants early on, but once we learned a few simple ones that grow just about anywhere, we’ve had so much fun gathering them up. Dandelions, mint, nettle. All things that are edible and you can likely find growing in the wild. Our kids now harvest tons of dandelions on their own each spring just so we can make this dandelion ice cream and dandelion cake!
There’s no shortage of ways to volunteer. Seek out a local farm that you can attend a work day at. Help out behind the scenes at church or with another group you’re a part of. Rake leaves for the widow down the street. Volunteer at a soup kitchen together around the holidays. Making volunteer opportunities a regular part of your family life will help everyone develop a sense of gratitude for what they have and compassion for those in need.
15. Go apple picking
I know, you’re thinking – but what orchard is free? As an alternative to a paid orchard, many homeowners either inherit fruit trees, or plant them and then have more than they know what to do with! Check places like Facebook Marketplace or “eat local” or farming groups in your area for people posting for free picking at their place. We replied to a post from someone in our area, had a fun family harvesting session, came home with 6 buckets of apples, and very full and satisfied bellies 🙂
16. Free local story times
We’ve been frequenters of free story times in our area over the years and our kids absolutely love them. When we were in the suburbs our local library and Whole Foods hosted really neat story times – sometimes even involving song and music! Our nearby farmers market runs a great children’s story time run by a small family owned bookstore. They’re even better when you meet up with other family and friends there!
17. Dates with grandparents
Is there a grandparent out there that doesn’t love to spoil their grandkids? Even though it may not be in the budget right now to go out to meals or a favorite restaurant often, this is an opportunity where grandparents can step in and plan out a special meal out for a holiday or special occasion. We’ve let our parents know that these special dates with Grandma and Grandpa would be much preferred over more toys and the kids always have a blast!
18. Ask for experience gifts
Sometimes things are just not in the budget. That’s when we put them on our kids Christmas or birthday wishlist! They’ve received year long passes to local childrens museums, gift cards for the zoo, pool passes, and even swim lessons! These are fantastic opportunities to expand kids minds and skills while having a good time. There’s joy all around to be able to give and receive these experience gifts.
19. Rake leaves
Mary Poppins said it best, “In every job that must be done there is an element of fun. You find the fun and – SNAP – the job’s a game!” Well, when raking leaves with little ones, you don’t have to search hard for the fun! This fall activity is a go-to family fun session for us every year. Yes, they may not actually help the efficiency factor until they’re a bit older. But set aside a couple hours, bring a camera, let your kids jump in the giant leaf piles, rain down those leaves, and you’re sure to light up your kids faces the rest of the day and have some hard sleepers that night.
20. Go sledding
Can sledding ever go out of style? This seasonal activity is what winters were made for! Track down that local sled hill and pack in as many trips as your kiddos can handle. Even just a small hill in your yard or neighborhood works great for younger ones. And asking for sleds for your kids for Christmas or searching for them second hand are other great ways to cut back on spending.
21. Go to the beach
Not all beaches are free but many are! Chances are you can locate one in your area and frequent it in those warm summer months. Put on those swim suits, find the beach towels, pack a lunch, bring a shovel and some buckets for building sand castles and you’re all set for a sunny and sensational time.
22. Bake something delicious
We’ve found baking to be one of the best entry points to helping in the kitchen. Measuring out ingredients, cracking eggs, mixing the bowl – all tasks our 4 and 6 year olds eagerly jump on when asked. You end up with something really delicious in the end and don’t forget – let them lick the bowl 🙂 Some of our favorite recipes that are easy for kids to help with is this Gluten Free Apple Bread and Fresh Mint Brownies.
23. Go fishing
What about fishing poles and equipment? Borrow some from a family member or friend! Don’t you need a license? Yes, most states require a license. But most kids can fish without one. And as we found out this past year in our state, certain calendar days (like Fathers Day weekend) are free with no license required! But you need worms? Ah, this just adds to the fun! Give your kids a shovel and container and they’ll happily dig up a hole in your garden or yard and provide the bait!
24. Play a game
Family game nights are a blast! This can be anything from Go Fish to other board games sitting on the shelf. A couple favorites for our kiddos are Count Your Chickens and Wildcraft (great to ask for as gifts!). And there are endless free games to partake in outside. If you have older kids, give disc golf a try! All you need are one or two discs to get started and any course I’ve ever come across is completely free. This is a fantastic alternative to a sport like golf that has some significant expenses attached to it. You’ll have fun together, be outside, and get great exercise!
25. Make music
Playing an instrument, or singing together, is an excellent way to create versus consume. Our daughter started playing the violin. She is one determined child, so I wouldn’t put anything past her. But deep down I knew the odds of her sticking with it long term were slim if no one else in our household played an instrument and it wasn’t modeled to her. So, I dusted off my guitar that sat mostly unused since college and relearned the semi-lost art. We now enjoy weekly times of playing music and singing songs together that our kids happily request.
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FUN Can Be FREE!
As you can see, there’s no shortage of ways to enjoy quality time together for free.
One of the challenging things we’ve learned along the way is that, unfortunately, sometimes this means saying “no” to opportunities.
The local wild schooling group we are a part of plans all sorts of outings and events throughout the year – some paid, some unpaid. We just opt for the unpaid ones and stick to those right now.
Never feel forced to say “yes” to something if it’s not in the budget. Explain your situation and people will understand. And then you have the awesome chance to share with them some of the ways your family is able to have a good time at little or no cost!
Speaking of that, what would be on your list of free things to do with kids? I know we didn’t cover it all, so we’d love to hear from you!
Remember that the most valuable thing you can give your kids is focused, undistracted, fully engaged time of togetherness. They’ll cherish that above all.
You’re doing a great job parent. Keep it up!