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Ask the Readers: Frugal summer activities for older kids?

In response to last week’s question about frugal summer activities for toddlers, today’s question is from Heather:

I seem to see lots of free and discounted activities for younger kids (parks, zoos, kids eat free nights, etc) but I would love to know about any creative and frugal ideas for OLDER kids — ages 8-13.

We try to take advantage of BOGO food coupons and discounted movies, but we’re past the swinging-in-the-park days. I can only afford 1 week of camp for each kid so any suggestions would be awesome!

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  • I love the volunteering ideas that are listed. I also love the library, summer-long-projects and geocaching ideas.

    But what about a job? Something like mowing lawns, walking dogs, weeding flowerbeds, light cleaning or babysitting. I even sat with an elderly neighbor a few hours a week so her husband could have a short break – she didn’t need complex medical care, just someone to help her stand up or sit down and heat up food or get drinks. We had a great time! My first “job” was as a 10-year-old weeding flower beds for a neighbor – making $10/wk. Not much – but it was spending money for the ice cream truck and pool admission!

    Our city sponsors low-cost ($25 or less per week – usually free but advance registration is required) “camps” during the summer for kids through age 12 through our park service. Typically its play at the playground all day and bring a bag lunch but occasionally they have something like movie day or basketball skills or time at the city pool or something like that. I would also keep an eye out for free demonstrations/lessons at hardware/craft/etc. stores. Even things like decorative wall painting or jewelry making might be something fun to try even if you never do it again!

    Hope that’s helpful!

    • Jodi says:

      Great idea! Michael’s and AC Moore do craft activities once or twice a week, and any adult activities, a teen could do.

  • jenn says:

    At that age i loved our local library’s summer reading program. Our Art Museum has a free day weekly and the exhibits change frequently. An Outdoor Activity that we loved was water balloon fights. But we didn’t use the special water balloons we just used whatever balloons were the cheapest. That is a whole afternoon event, filling the balloons, then using them. We did that once a month one summer and it was a blast.
    Projects are cool as well, my grandma taught me more sewing techniques, we made bracelets, and its amazing how much i fell in love with art at that age.
    If the zoo is getting boring, and I don’t know how possible this is for everyone, however, my Spanish Class took a field trip to the zoo. Maybe it would feel like too much of a school outing to have to go to the zoo after having researched the different animal names. And there are plenty of bilingual resources out there. But animals are a pretty basic place to start & its fun. but then again I am a nerd. Though I went to the zoo as a college student, i will definitely be taking my children in this age range. Just a thought.

  • Penny says:

    Print calendars for each summer month. After dinner tonight, bring it out and ask them what their goals are for the summer (maybe run a half marathon?), what they’d like to do more of, and what they’d rather not do but know they should. Start filling in the calendar now.

    Add things that you need them to help out with, and search for free things (like volunteering and nature excursions), too. Maybe even paid things (like babysitting or lawn mowing).

  • Patty says:

    I think unstructured fiddling-around time is crucial for children, and summer is perfect for it. Leave them to their own devices once in a while and see what they come up with. And the siblings get to pick an “activity” (chore, errand, clean the cat box, mop the kitchen floor, etc) for the first one who says, “I’m bored.”

    We are “staycation”-ing big time this summer. We are fortunate to have several lovely state parks within driving distance. I’m planning to load up kiddo, a cooler of snacks and bevs, bikes, swim gear, other toys and games, and spend the day at a state park every couple of weeks.

    Our city’s parks/rec department sponsors weekly kids concerts at the park. People bring a picnic dinner, and the kids play on the climbing rocks until the show starts. They also do movies under the stars.

    Several local churches do vacation bible schools for a week.

    On a hot day, turn on the sprinkler in the front yard, put out a box of squirt guns and a cooler of popsicles and watch the neighbor kids flock to your yard.

    Switch game night to game afternoon.

    • Lynn says:

      I had to laugh – saying “I’m bored” in my house growing up was a huge mistake on our parts. If you said that, my mother promptly gave you a list of things (chores) to fill your time – we always had things to do because we didn’t want to know what we would have to do if we uttered those words!!

      • Patty says:

        My mom, too, Lynn! Those words never crossed my lips … at least not twice!

      • shari says:

        As soon as those words are out of my kids mouths I say, “great, the bathroom needs cleaned.” boy my kids can run and find something to do fast!

  • kate says:

    miniature golf

    go canoeing or tubing down a nearby river, or just spend time along the banks – 8-year-old boys are fascinated by every fish, guppy, insect, and other little creepy crawlies that they can find.

    play outside. bonus points for using imagination and/or making a mess.

    bike rides

    make friends with someone who has a pool – if you don’t want to dump the kids with the other family all day, volunteer to supervise and/or provide lunch and snacks for everyone. when i was a kid, my parents had a pool. my sister, our friends and i would spend the morning riding our bikes all over creation, stop at someone’s house for lunch, and then when the day really got hot, we’d all head over to our house to swim until it was dinnertime or the sun went down. my mom had a ready supply of towels (they are hard to bike with!), ice pops, squirt guns, and suntan lotion, and we were set.

    join a community theatre – some groups take the summer off, but many do a summer show, and frequently do kids shows because they are home from school this time of year. check soon – your local theatre is probably casting now for their summer show. if your kids aren’t interested in acting, support the theatre by attending a performance. depending on the theatre, there might be opportunities for the kids to get involved in some of the backstage work for a show.

    does the school district offer any enrichment activities? the grade schools near me do a “summer rec” program which is half days of camp at the school and the kids play kickball and do crafts, one day the fire dept comes and hoses all the kids down. our local high school does a music camp for grades 7-12 – they form a little summer band that rehearses a few afternoons a week and then puts on a small concert at the end. there winds up being a lot of high schoolers there, so it’s a good opportunity for middle school musicians to play alongside some better players, and keeps the instruments from getting dusty all summer.

    check out the community college – ours has a planetarium!

    arts and crafts – painting, macrame, learn to knit or crochet, small woodworking projects.

    explore an unfamiliar small town for cool shops and things to do. go antique-ing or flea market-ing for treasures.

    look for nearby historical sites. or geological ones (caves or caverns?). museums? factories that do tours? i’ve been to a basket factory, a potato chip factory, the crayola factory, the harley davidson factory, an ice cream factory.

    does the library run a book club for kids? if not, start one with their friends. or a movie club – make every thursday afternoon “movie day” at someone’s house.

    have sleepovers
    make your own ice cream
    make rock candy

    go to a pick-your-own farm. these provide several days worth of fun, because you spend the first day picking the food and the rest of the week eating, cooking, baking, canning and freezing. pick a bushel of peaches or apples and stock your freezer with pies – homemade peach pie in the middle of january is quite a treat. (double-crust fruit pies freeze really well unbaked and wrapped tightly in plastic and foil; just bake from frozen and keep an eye on it.)

    have the kids learn to cook, and prepare a meal of their choosing for the family for dinner.

    be a mother’s helper for an afternoon and take the neighbor’s toddler to the park to play with the “big kids.” his mother will thank you!

    get friends together to play games – soccer, basketball, volleyball, badminton, bocce ball, or capture the flag outside on the nice days, board games inside if it’s raining.

  • Heather says:

    Loking for ideas for my 15 year old son. He applied for two helper positions at our local summer camps but they weren’t hiring anyone under 16. He is going to volunteer for one week at Vacation Bible School at our church. He will be attending Marching Band Camp two weeks and Boy Scouts Camp one week. We will be away one week at the shore and 2 weeks in California.

    I am thinking along the volunteering line that many of you have suggested!

    • Andrea says:

      It sounds like his summer is already full! Wouldn’t he enjoy some time to just relax and hang out?

      • Jessie says:

        I think that it is important to keep not only our small children but also our teenagers busy. They are at an age when they are faced with many temptations. Also, while some children love to lounge and read books etc, others really benefit from being active and having structured activities.

        • Andrea says:

          I’m not suggesting that teens run wild or be left unsupervised in perilous situations.

          Summer vacation only lasts about eight weeks. Many high school students, particularly those in honors classes, have assigned reading and projects over the summer. Overscheduling leaves them little time to complete those.

          Leaving a couple of weeks free leaves time for an annual physical, dentist/eye doctor appointments, shopping for new clothing/shoes, helping a grandparent, getting ice cream, having a friend over to watch a movie, etc. Trying to squeeze those in around a jam-packed schedule causes more stress for everyone.

    • Mary Ann says:

      My 15 year old son and 16 year old daughter love to do 750 piece or 1000 piece puzzles. They also love card games and the architectural lego sets, which are made for teenagers up to adults.

      • Heather says:

        My oldest son loves Lego sets but the 15 year old does not. He doesn’t like puzzles either. He does enjoy reading. But will spend his time playing video games on the computer if I don’t keep him busy.

        We found out that our Local Food Bank and use all of our help at any point in the summer so I think I may take him and his 2 brothers over a few times to help stock shelves and sort food.

        Thanks for the suggestions!

    • Laura McCormack says:

      Try Cub Scout day camps. They don’t pay, but are usually thrilled to have the older scouts to help out. My son (16) has run the bb gun range, and loved it! (They let him shoot between groups, so that’s part of it.)

    • Kelly says:

      My youngest 2 children are 14 & 15 yr. old boys. I’ve been trying to come up with a list of ideas for their summer. We’re limited on funds as my husband has been out of work. We are lucky to live in an area where the Zoo and various museums are free so we will be visiting a lot of those. I hope to come up with some kind of “Fun Friday” trip each week. I’m also checking into some volunteer opportunities for both of them. They have been coming up with their own lists of things to do–swim, friends over, board game day, set up a puzzle table, running game of Risk (14 yr. old’s favorite game!), make terrariums.

      Another thing I’m doing here at home is what I’m calling Home Ec 101. They’ll be brushing up on & improving their housekeeping & cooking skills as well as learning some new ones. 🙂

  • Courtney says:

    My three kids are all in that age range and they cannot wait until summer break! We get a family pool pass {$100 for our family of five – a huge bargain, in my opinion!} They are all involved in sports through our local rec league, which is very affordable. My daughter is taking art classes at the community center. Beyond that, we keep busy with reading, taking care of our garden, cooking {we like to try out lots of cooking projects during the summer}, and oh yeah, chores!

  • Christal Beyer says:

    I have a couple of ideas to offer:

    1. Bonfires in the backyard or at a forest preserve if they are permitted.
    I received a fire pit for mother’s day a couple of years ago, and we so enjoy making smores out of them.

    2. Splash pads. Here in Illinois we have a few parks with splash pads (water sprinklers) for the kids to run through. Free and a blast. I’ve seen kids up to age 14 having fun at these.

    3. Vacation Bible school-different churches in the area do some great programs near my home, for not a whole lot of money at all.

    4., provides discounts on bowling for kids. You can also do what I did- call the bowling alley closest to you to see what day of the week they provide any specials on.

    5. camping-make it a whole family affair at a new campground, or right in your back yard for extra fun.

    6. Desert night-once a week we walk down to the local Ice Cream shop for the kids cones.

    7. Water gun fights. Invest in a few cool guns from Walgreens for an all-summer-long sport. Nice way to stay cool on the hot days!

    8. Nature centers. Take field trips to different nature centers in your area to meet other kids and see some new reptiles. Even older kids like things that crawl.

    9. Skittles Bingo. My library does this, and kids up to age 10 come to see who can win. (Do this at home with your kids and maybe some of their friends, and make it an event.) Plan ahead of time to see what “prizes your kids might like”-I use pocket change, candy, or little toys from the dollar store.

    10. Board Game night. Pop some popcorn or another special treat that you only make during this time-it’ll be your hook to play.

    11. Concerts in the Park. Bring some blankets and maybe glow in the dark necklaces from the dollar store. It’s fun!

    12. Catch Lightning Bugs at night.

    13. Local libraries. Many libraries host activities that are free to the whole public-even if you do not live in district.

    14. Zoos and Museums- Many host free days during the summer.

    Hope this helps!

  • MH says:

    My own boys are 6.5, so a little younger than this set, but I’ve been doing some thinking about what I did at that age. My sister and I spent a lot of time in the summer with our grandparents or visiting our aunts and uncles. Our grandmother taught us to make pickles and jam and bake muffins with the berries we picked in her yard. We played a lot of Scrabble with her as well (bonus, word games build vocabulary). We’d have a running Scrabble tournament all summer, with the eventual loser having to buy the winner a new book of their choosing. I also did 4-H projects with her (and my mom) – weaving and learning to make a 9-patch quilt and sewing and basketmaking.

    We always make a list at the beginning of the summer of all the things we want to do over the summer, and I really love the idea of kids learning a new skill from an older relative, neighbor or friend.

    I’m clearly nostalgic remembering summertime fun! We would go and meet my dad for lunch (he worked in a town about 20 miles away) over the summer. We would go to the drive-in movie. We would sleep under the stars, or at least stay up late and lay on a blanket and stargaze. We would pop popcorn and make lemonade and call it a party. A neighbor girl and I created our own magazine. The possibilities seem endless to me!

  • AmazonsRock says:

    My kids range in age from 2 months to almost 10. I plan on using this as my guide to fill their summer.

  • Mindy says:

    My local bowling alley gives each kid 2 free games of bowling every day during the summer. It’s great for all ages

  • hope64 says:

    Our local museum sponsors a Summer Science Hunt. Most activities are free. You visit a number of “science” sites throughout a 10 or 25 mile radius. For instance: a local dairy, the Regional Ag. Lab, the nature center, etc. You get a booklet to fill out. Once you have completed a certain number of activities you turn it in at the museum and you are automatically entered to win prizes. Some of the prizes are pretty neat! Museum admissions, science books, money to spend at the museum shop, etc.

  • Sarah says:

    A local minor league baseball team nearby is a fun and inexpensive outing!

  • Danielle Hull says:

    Our local library offers freebies for the older kids with video game and movie times. Our local pool has a free swim day. I figure the closer to home, the cheaper it is!

  • Kathye Shuman says:

    AMF bowling lanes has free bowling for kids under 15 all summer long. Register at their website and you get a voucher every week for two free games per child. They also have summer passes for adults for really really cheap (just look on the website). We did this a couple of years ago and loved it.

  • Johanna says:

    Depending on where you live, several theatres in our town do free movies 2 days a week @10:00 during the summer. They are G & PG movies. What s a great FREEBIE!!! If your not sure just called your theatres and ask them if they do any free or discounted movies during the summer?

  • Courtney says:

    Our state has free Fridays at different museums throughout the summer.

    Kids may be too old for playing on swings, but our park has the splash pad that older kids use as well as a football/soccer field. There are kids playing pickup games all summer there.

    As a kid I didn’t have a super structured summer (I only went to 1 week of church camp) and I loved it. I had time to read, my brothers and I built a fort, we played eternal games of monopoly, and we did puzzles. We were only allowed to go to friends homes once a week, so we couldn’t get into too much trouble.

  • Heather,
    You’ve probably heard these ideas in previous posts but here’s my rundown. Are you in or near a large city? Many cities have free admission days for their museums. Here’s my list:

    *Check out FREE Days for local museums by you or look for Museums w/ free admission

    *Flea Markets/Antiquing…these are fun since you’ll never know what you’ll find. Plus it’s fun to bargain.

    *Nature Hikes/Nature Centers: The outdoors is free and beautiful in the summer. Why not explore the nature in your neck of the woods? Plus it’s relaxing.

    *Explore-a-Neighborhood…are there any interesting ethnic neighborhoods or quirky small towns by you? Sometimes it’s really fun to explore a new town or a new culture…Example–Chinatown, and eating dim-sum, which is cheap. Small towns are cool too since they have neato diners or donut shops, for ex.

    * The Library: Are you lucky enough to be by a good library? Libraries are full of activities for older kids/teens, e.g. summer reading programs.

    *U-Pick Farms/Helping on a family farm/the Farmer’s Market
    I love anything that teaches kids about good food. You can pick your own fresh food or volunteer to help on a family farm. Or hit up the local farmers’ market where you can talk to the farmers and discover local, handmade goods.

    *Volunteering. I read this elsewhere in the comments but volunteering is a great way to fill up the time and there are plenty of places that could use help.

  • Heather, I don’t know if you’re in a city or rural area, but here’s my suggestions:

    *Museums: Many have free days or even free admission

    *The Library: Summer reading groups and activities for older kids and teens a-plenty.

    *Antiquing/Flea Markets: Cool because you never know what coolness you’ll find and you can bargain!

    *Explore-a-town/neighborhood: Are there any quirky small towns or ethnic neighborhoods near you? It is a great way to learn about new cultures or discover the gems by you like good diners or dim sum.

    *Nature Hikes/Nature Centers: Nature is God’s Creation, free, relaxing and beautiful in summer.

    *Volunteering: Plenty of places need help…lend a hand

    *Thrifting–again, same thrills as antiquing but more accessible, open daily near you.

    *Historical Sites: Many towns have a historical society. Or explore your area’s history. Example: visiting the Amish towns.

    • Heather says:

      We do go out a few times and pick strawberries and blueberries through the summer. All of my boys enjoy doing that – riding the tractor out to the fields, getting blueberry or strawberry ice-cream when we are finished – and filling out freezer with good fruit to last through part of the winter. Plus homemade pies, cobblers, muffins and plenty of fruit to put on top of our cereal, waffles…… Yum!

      Thanks for the other suggestions.

  • Jenny Culler says:

    A couple of years ago I found out that at some of the old historic forts people will live there for the summer & they would work it like it was in the time the forts were in use. They will even try to use the same language for that era and even have animals at times. Some of them are free to go to and it is an easy all day thing because they will let the kids try different things like when wewent they let the kids try to work a loom and we got to watch and interact with the people and animals there it was a blast and the kids didn’t want to leave even when it started pouring down rain they just ran in & out of the rain.

  • karen r says:

    Free ideas:
    Visiting relatives for a week, especially if they have cousins of a similar age.
    Library (checking out books and movies or taking free classes)
    Free days at the local community pools
    Backyard camping with a friend over
    DVD party with friends on rainy days (everyone brings one from home or the library)

    Cheap ideas:
    Craft projects
    Cooking projects
    Gardening projects
    Paying them to work on home repairs with a parent

    Or: Give them a budget for a summer project (what yopu would spend on a week of camp in previous years. Let THEM figure out how to spend it. They’ll easily spend hours and hours with a notebook and a calculator trying to figure out how to get the most fun from every penny.

  • karen r says:

    Oops! Forgot to mention my daughter’s favorite activity! She goes to the local comic book store once a week to play in trading card game tournaments. She plays Magic the Gathering, but plenty of her friends play Pokemon or Yu-gi-oh. Since our local shop has a lot of college age kids playing, I usually stay and just crochet and visit with the adults while she plays. They sometimes give new players a promotional deck to learn with, or you can buy your own. Start up costs to make a good deck can be a little high, but once you have one, tournaments are free once a week and last four to six hours. Between games she talks to all the players about music, books, sports, even art. As strange as it sounds, it’s been a really wonderful experience for her.

  • Ashley C says:

    I haven’t read any of the other ideas posted, but I just added a geocaching app to my phone. I have three boys, ages 9, 5, and 3. I know they’ll love it. Geocaching is a cheap adventure. We’re planning some picnicking trips for the summer and will include geocaching.

  • karen r says:

    Another idea is visiting family. We do week-long visits to grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. It can provide a break for you, a way for family to re-connect, and your kids get a chance to feel like their the center of attention for a bit. Then reciprocate and give one of your neices or nephews the spotlight. Since your hometown will be new to them, it’ll be easier to keep them entertained and your own kids will enjoys the company.

  • Lori says:

    I have two boys ages 9 and 11 and I will be needing something fun for them to do this summer also. I work, but I am self-employed and usually take off one day a week. I wanted to do something fun with them on that one day. I was thinking of horseback riding, swimming, going to the library, going to the movies (free movie Wednesdays where I live), bowling, having their friends over, going to the mall, going out to eat, museums, looking for free things to do in the paper everyweek, etc.

  • Michelle says:

    Check your local 4-H events. Most are free and low cost. Mine are attending cake decorating, how to prepare healthy meals and simple sewing classes, but there are tons to choose from and you will quickly fill your calendar. They teach important skills and have fun and it gets you kids around other kids. Strongly advise anyone to check them out.

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