20 Ways to Frugally Entertain Your Kids Outdoors

By Michelle Venus

If your kids are anything like mine, they’ve already started singing the summer-vacation “I’m Bored” blues. Sticking them in front of the television isn't an option, nor is an eight-hour Nintendo Wii marathon. So how do you keep them busy, engaged and (mostly) outdoors this summer? Check out the following 20 kids activities.

plant in Folger's tin

1. Plant a Garden
You don’t need the back 40 acres to make this happen. In fact, you don’t even need a dedicated garden plot. A couple of containers make great starter gardens for little ones. You can purchase terracotta pots or repurpose cans into fun and colorful containers. Choose flowers or vegetables that are easy and fun to grow. Geraniums -- with their bright, vibrant colors -- grow quickly and are forgiving if you forget to water them for a few days. Cherry tomatoes are neat, snack-sized treats children can pop into their mouths.

2. Play Restaurant
What better way to teach your child about nutrition and cooking than to have them create a restaurant at home? Give them a budget and let them plan the menu, go shopping –- either in the grocery store or your garden -- and prepare the meal. It doesn’t have to be elaborate or difficult. A pasta salad with watermelon for dessert is sometimes the best summer meal around, especially when served with love.

3. Build a Fort
Head straight for the linen closet and grab some sheets. Throw them over a clothesline, if you still have one, or duct-tape them to a table. Toss in a flashlight, some pillows, a snack, board games and books and voila! Instant fun spot. Let younger kids throw a slumber party in an indoors fort. Older kids can take on the great outdoors for an overnight adventure.

kids parade

4. March in Your Own Parade
Come up with a theme and go for it. Decorate bicycles with crepe paper streamers and flags for the Fourth of July. Or maybe your troupe wants a Princess Parade? Is there a cache of musical instruments in the toy box? Get them out. If not, you can make them inexpensively; find ideas at MakingFriends. Start your own marching band and take it to the streets. Hey, if Robert Preston could do it in "The Music Man," you can do it with your little crew.

5. Singing in the Rain
Just because it’s raining doesn’t mean you have to be stuck in the house. No "Cat in the Hat" for your kids! Get out the umbrellas (or not) and the boots (or not) and let them create their own entertainment. Splash in puddles; turn some soggy cartwheels; rescue water-logged worms before the birds get them. And when it’s all over, look for the rainbow. Keep in mind this activity isn't suitable for thunderstorms.

6. Check Out the Library
Sign-up your children for a library summer reading program. Not only is this a way to build a love for books and reading, it’s an opportunity to take advantage of a wonderful community resource. Often, you'll find other activities the library has planned that will keep your youngsters busy. Schedule outings with friends so library time is also social time. Today’s public libraries encourage activity and (some) noise. It’s not the quiet place it used to be. Ask the librarians to point you towards helpful resources for even more fun activities and projects.

Girl smeared with lipstick

7. Play With Makeup
Warning: this is for the extremely courageous. Get out makeup you no longer use and let your child do an Extreme Make-Over on you  or themselves - and it will be extreme! You'll want to hide the mascara from little ones, or insist on putting it on yourself to avoid gouging out eyes. Be prepared to look a little like you’ve been cast for "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" and try not to answer the door if the UPS man comes a-knocking. Just don't use your most expensive health and beauty products!

8. Go to the Park
Mix up your choice of parks a bit by trying out new ones within a set radius, say 15 miles from your home. Make your own Bingo cards and check off items like picnic tables, fountains and jungle gyms found while exploring a new park. The first person to get a Bingo gets to choose the activity. (Print out your own bingo cards here.)

9. Chalk Drawings
Big, fat, sidewalk chalk is magic in chubby little hands. Remember, Mary Poppins et al jumped into Bert’s chalk drawing for a lovely afternoon in the country. While I can’t guarantee a foxhunt on carousel horses, you can expect boat-loads of fun. Old standards like hopscotch and foursquare turn your sidewalk or driveway into a playground. There are no mistakes with chalk pictures. A quick squirt with the hose gets you a blank canvas for the next masterpiece.

Child blowing bubbles

10. Blow Bubbles
‘Nuff said.

11. Produce a Play
Choose a favorite story and turn it into a theatrical production. Let your children write the script, design a set with household items, and create costumes from cast-offs or dress-up clothes. In the mood for a musical? Slip favorite songs into the storyline. That clothesline you used to build the fort (see activity #3) becomes a proscenium stage with a sheet tossed over the top. Pin or tape trim from the sewing box onto the sheet so that it feels like a real theater curtain. Make programs to hand out to the audience. And don’t forget to take a big bow at the end!

12. Scavenger Hunt
What’s more fun than a scavenger hunt? Split kids up into teams and send them out looking for simple household items. If you know your neighbors well enough, set them loose close to home. If not, only put things on the list they can find in your own house or yard.

13. Build Something
Both Home Depot and Lowe’s offer free kids workshops. Check with your local store to find out when they offer these clinics. Register early as they tend to fill up quickly. These workshops teach your children how to use tools safely while developing do-it-yourself skills. Not only do your kids walk home with the completed project – a butterfly house, picture frame or toolbox, for example – they leave with a tremendous sense of accomplishment.

Child and mother feeding pigeons

14. Feed the Birds
Put a bird feeder in the back yard and get to know your feathered friends as they stop by for lunch. Keep in mind that, if you choose this activity, you need to make a commitment to keeping the feeder filled at all times as the birds start to depend on it. This extends beyond the warm months into fall and winter, when birds especially need you to help them through the lean months. If this is more than you want to do or just isn’t part of a long-term budget, think about getting a hummingbird feeder. In most parts of the country, these little guys skeedaddle when it starts to get cold, so there's no cold weather feeding. You can make nectar out of sugar, water and a drop or two of red food coloring.

15. Photography
Purchase an inexpensive digital camera designed especially for kids. You can get them for as little as $15. They may not have a whole lot of bells and whistles, but the point is to give your child the opportunity to record their summer vacation. Try to find a camera with enough memory for an entire afternoon’s outing. That way, your child won’t be disappointed after taking 20 snapshots in the first 10 minutes and discovering they haven't  room left for new images. No fun! Don’t expect these cameras to last much beyond the summer, though. You get what you pay for.

16. Berry Picking
Local berry farms often have pick-your-own schedules. Make sure you wear sturdy shoes, apply sunscreen and pack water bottles. If you’re going to pick raspberries or blackberries, wear long sleeves and pants to avoid scrapes from thorns. Often, these small farms have added such attractions as farm animals your children can pet and feed. As an added bonus, you get to taste the berries as you pick them. Nothing is as wonderful as a sun-warmed strawberry bursting in your mouth. Just make sure you have a dedicated water bottle to wash the fruit before you eat.

17. Minor League Baseball
If you’re lucky enough to live near a minor league stadium, find the time to go to at least one game during the season. For as little as $5 a ticket (often kids under two are free), you’ll have the opportunity to watch up and coming talent as they hone their skills. Minor league stadiums are small, but with the amenities of a large major league venue. Since they're smaller, it’s hard to find a bad seat. The owners of these teams tend to be local, so they want to make sure you have a great experience. Join the fun with contests and get your picture taken with the team mascot. If you’re silly enough, you just might see yourself on the Jumbotron!

wet dog

18. Dog Wash
When the dog days of summer are in full swing, it’s the perfect time to forget about the groomer and take matters into your own hands. Outfit your kids in swimsuits, tie the dog to a tree, and get out the hose and doggy shampoo. Give Rover a good brushing first to remove as much loose hair as possible, then wet him down with a gentle squirt from the hose. A good dose of shampoo will get rid of summer-dog smells and give your puppy a sweet smelling and shiny coat. Rinse everyone off with the hose when you’re done to get rid of the suds and all the extra hair the brushing missed. Make sure your dog is amenable to this experience beforehand as nobody wants to be nipped.

19. Volunteering
More than ever, nonprofit organizations are relying on volunteers, especially during the recession. Talk to your children about what matters to them and see how you can help. Maybe it’s walking dogs from a local shelter, picking up trash on a hiking trail, or visiting residents at a nursing home. Perhaps your community garden needs some help with weeding. Not only are you providing an invaluable service to local organizations, you're teaching your children important lessons about giving back to their community. In this case, everybody wins.

20. Go To a Landfill
Yes, this sounds a little crazy, but many landfills will take you on a tour of the facility. Go online or call to find out what they offer. Sometimes they'll have an education center that will teach your kids exactly what happens to the trash after curbside pickup. Your children will learn about hazardous waste and proper disposal methods. They’ll see recycling in action and come away with a new and, hopefully ,lasting appreciation of an underappreciated place.

Blogger Michelle Venus is a 20-year veteran of the sales and marketing profession. She's now a convert to the art of writing and owns her own business.

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2 Comments

Here's another one: a big bucket of water, large paintbrushes and a driveway. Kids 'paint' for hours, they can't hurt anything and think it's cool when the image dries and disappears. Great for three-to-five years olds. Entertains for a long time!
Posted by Kathy
Go to a landfill and hear about hazardous waste, oh, what a moving experience. I guess it didn't make the list at #21: Drive around and take pictures of the homeless, but not help them. Just kidding...thanks for the list.
Posted by Kevin W. Shockey