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27 Nearly Free Ideas For How To Entertain Your Kids (& Get You Through Summer)

Summer Activities for Kids
Photo by Sara Tramp for EHD

It’s summer, the kids are out of school…what now? While parenting is, of course, full of sparkly, heart-wrenchingly beautiful moments, there are also those times where you feel so exhausted/unexcited/brain-dead and have NO IDEA what to do with your kiddos to keep them entertained—and you sane—for even two minutes. Last year, I did an Ask the Audience post where I talked about how playtime is at times not that fun for me and I begged asked you guys for ideas for how to entertain toddlers that both little ones AND adults would enjoy without really spending money or leaving your house. I wanted to feel more engaged, a.k.a. more present and a better mom…and you guys KILLED IT. There were over FIVE HUNDRED (!!!) comments with suggestions, genius ideas, other moms who just got it…thank you, thank you, thank you.

But, because of those five hundred comments, we thought…”no one is going to read all of this except for us” so we dug in, went through basically every.single.word, cleaned things up/took out duplicate ideas and plucked out some serious gems we felt were most appropriate for summer (we saved a ton more for other parts of the year, so don’t worry…we have so many more than these 27 to come in the next few months).

You guys are amazing and I KNOW that I’ll be referencing this a lot this summer. I hope it helps you, too.

FOR OLDER KIDS (3 YEARS & UP)

1. Play “Winter” in Summer

“Play ‘winter,’ i.e. create a smooth ramp down the stairs with blankets and pillows to ‘sled’ down, ‘ice skate’ with socks on wood floors, build an ‘igloo’ which is just a blanket fort, have a ‘snowball’ fight with rolled up socks, and have hot chocolate (or cold chocolate milk).” — Lindsay

2. Shaving Cream Drawing

“Try an activity that is sensory-satisfying, like shaving cream in a large jelly pan. The kids can draw in the foam with their fingers and then ‘wipe’ clean to start over. It’s messy (definitely an outdoor activity), but it can be very fun.” — Hilary

3. Chalk Alphabets

“I used to use sidewalk chalk to draw the alphabet on the driveway and then give the kids a spray bottle of water (or squirt gun). I would call out a letter and they would have to find it and go squirt it. We also did numbers and then they had to spell out words or do easy math problems. Educational, water play, and you can just sit there and call out things for them to do!” — Terri

4. Chalk Portraits

“When I used to babysit more, I would lay on the sidewalk/patio and let the kids outline me in sidewalk chalk. I got a little rest and they loved it. Then, when the outline was complete, I would sit back while they tried to fill in my face and clothes. It was always really funny to see their perception of me in chalk!” — Maura

5. Plexiglass Easel

“Buy a piece of plexiglass [hardware stores like Home Depot sell these for just a few bucks, depending on the size] and hang it in the backyard to be an outdoor easel. Kids can paint on it and leave it to be an art installation for the yard. When they’re ready to paint again, have them hose and scrub it off, which is also a good activity for a hot day.” — Melinda Chew

FOR YOUNGER KIDS (UNDER 3)

Summer Activities for Kids
Photo by Tessa Neustadt for Lonny

6. Bubble Machine

“We have a battery powered machine, and it keeps the kids entertained for a long time! My 4-year-old uses her butterfly net to pretend that the bubbles are butterflies, and my little guy just runs around laughing.” — Kim

7. Outdoor Color Scavenger Hunt

“No Time for Flash Cards has given me some really great activities. For example, she posted about a color scavenger hunt to do in the front and/or backyard [the idea is to take an ice tray or something with compartments, cut pieces of construction or colored paper and placing a different color into each spot of the tray, then the kids have to go around and find small things—flowers, rocks, leaves—that match the colors and place into each section.] It’s a great newsletter for year round!” — Jessica

8. Safari Hunt

“When my boys were younger (they are 24 months apart), we would go on a safari hunt. First, the adults would hide plastic animals (larger ones from a toy store) inside or outside at night time, while the kids went up to their rooms with a mini flashlight and little backpacks until we called out for them. Once they came out, they would hunt their hearts out until they found all the animals! My younger son loved the idea and didn’t always find a ton of animals but loved running around with a flashlight searching. We did this many, many nights and they loved it every time! We would sit back with a glass of wine and enjoy watching them on their hunt!” — Michelle

9. Use a Timer for Activities

“A timer helps to put a limit on everything, and small children don’t equate you and the timer as being the same entity. You can tell them you’re willing to do an activity for 15 minutes and set the timer for 8. They don’t know the difference, all they hear is the beep.” — Melissa

Summer Activities for Kids

10. Create “Play Stations”

“Something that made my life easier was setting up play stations for the next morning or for after the kids got up from a nap. For example, I would set up some stuffed animals with stuff from the play kitchen so it suggested that maybe they were having a picnic. It worked every time! The kids would wake up and want to be entertained, and I would say, ‘I think the teddy bears are getting ready for a party’ (or something to engage their imagination) and they would head over and check it out and next thing you know, they are playing with the bears for the next 30 minutes.” — Teresa

11. Cornstarch + Water = Minutes of Fun

“My guys like mixing things like cornstarch and water, flour and water. A couple of bowls of water, spoons, a ladle, a funnel, maybe some supervised food coloring, etc…usually keeps them engaged for as long as anything does at this stage!” — Mara

12. Chocolate Pudding Finger Painting

“As kids, my mom would make chocolate pudding and let us draw with it like finger paint on butcher paper, so fun and non-toxic, if you don’t mind a little sugar intake.” — Emilie

13. “Paint” With Water

“If you can be outside with them, water and/or sand will entertain them for hours. Your younger one would be thrilled to be given a hose with the water at a trickle and some plastic containers or given a bucket of water and a paintbrush to ‘paint’ the driveway or sidewalk. As long as you are present (and not engrossed in your phone) to say ‘Wow!’ and ‘I love it!’ frequently, they can entertain themselves.” — Tricia

UNDER 20 MINUTES OF FUN

Summer Activities for Kids

14. Sensory Stimuli

“One thing that always keeps kids occupied is sensory stimuli. Sand with objects in it, shaving cream (it smells really good to them, you just need to watch out for them eating it), cornstarch and water [it’s both a solid and liquid at the same time and fascinating], and other generally gooey things. This is one I as an adult actually like doing, too.” — Katie

[Side note from Emily: I just wanted to add something to the whole “sensory stimuli” idea. In that photo above, my kiddos (and hubs) are playing with some homemade flubber/gak we made and everyone loved it. It’s SUPER easy to make with really cheap ingredients you might already have laying around: 4 ounces school glue (like Elmer’s), 1/2 cup water + 1/4 cup hot water, 1/2 teaspoon Borax (find it in most store’s laundry detergent section), food coloring (optional)]

15. Go On a “Safari”

“Say excitedly, ‘GUYS! Put on your explorer hats and grab your binoculars because WE ARE GOING ON A SAFARI!!!!!’ The kids will probably react like they CANNOT WAIT based solely on the excitement in your voice and without even needing to know what the heck a safari is. Once they are ‘in,’’ you RUN LIKE THE WIND to another corner of the yard or house or park and pretend you’re all getting in your jeep, buckling your seatbelt and heading out. Sit down. They will, too. Put your seatbelt on. They will, too. Start up the jeep and drive a bumpy road. Then GASP IN SHOCK when you see a giraffe! Narrowly avoid a near-fatal mishap with a lion! All you do is point and gasp A LOT. And narrate the whole thing for them. Like DO YOU SEE IT? It’s a scary lion! Hear it roar? I promise, they will totally fill in the blanks and you can start to coast through it after a while.” — Kirsten

16. Disco Dance Party

“We recently bought a cheap colorful dance party light. Paired with music, a couple of balloons and a dark playroom, we have ‘discos’ and dance it out. The music helps lift my mood and makes it fun for everyone.” — Briony

17. Fairy Tear Hunts

“We buy those little colored glass flat beads from craft stores and throw them everywhere – the kids love finding fairy tears. It never gets old!” — Heather

OVER 20 MINUTES OF FUN

Emily Henderson

Photo by Jason Frank Rothenburg for Jason Frank Rothenburg

18. Scavenger Hunt

“Yes, it requires some prep work, but scavenger hunts are like Disneyland and it helps engage them and get so much energy out. I usually draw pictures instead of clues so they can do it more independently. And I spread the clues OUT. Like front door to back of the backyard to upstairs to downstairs to side yard to bathroom. Get that energy out, kids. And I leave a small prize at the end, like really small. But they LOVE IT. It doesn’t last for hours but they feel very excited and satisfied by it so they live on that high for a while. I also make a list for them: Find three things in the house that are green. Draw a picture of them. Find something in the house that is tall. Draw a picture of that. Then, you can enjoy their drawings and celebrate their brilliant artistry but it’s still an activity they can do somewhat on their own.” — Paige

Summer Activities for Kids
Photo by Sara Tramp for EHD

19. After-Dinner Nature Walk

“Take a ‘nature walk’ after dinner (or at any point in the day) with the specific intention of having no intention or destination. Bring a bag and let them collect and bring home whatever they want—rocks, sticks, leaves. Get out of the house and go to a park and plan to stay (bring snacks/drinks) so they can burn off a ton of energy and come home tired.” — Karen T.

20. Reading Picnics

“We used to do book picnics. We would eat outside on a blanket [you could also do this inside if it’s too hot or raining] and bring out a ton of books. I would read to them as they ate and they loved it. Also, I always read to them during lunch and dinner (if I had time) and it helped them sit still long enough to finish eating and really instilled a love of reading. I got tired of reading the same books over and over so we went to the library almost every week and would check out literally about 50 books every time.” — Terri

21. Bath + Dinner Combo

“Here’s a solo parenting night strategy: kids eat dinner in the bathtub [they’ll eat anything when distracted]…they think it’s awesome and clean up is easy peasy.” — Alli

Summer Activities for Kids

22. Extra Long Bath Time

“Stock up on bath toys, bring a comfortable chair into the bathroom (for you) and put on the kids’ favorite soundtrack or, if they can engage, a kids audiobook. Seriously, audiobooks and kids podcasts save my life. My kids are a bit older now, but when they get rambunctious, I pop on a podcast that catches their attention and they stop in their tracks!” — Emily

23. Dirt Play

“Plant a garden, i.e. let the kids fill flower pots with dirt and have them plant seeds. Digging in dirt alone is thrilling.” — Leah

24. Ice, Ice Baby

“I would freeze some of my kids’ toys in various sized containers and then, we would use turkey basters or eye droppers to drip warm colored water on the ice and watch t melt. Ultimately, the kids just would end up using their plastic hammers to smash it out.” — Tanya

25. Repurpose Cardboard Boxes

“Use flattened out cardboard boxes to draw a map with roads, etc. for cars, or other toys (like we have Daniel Tiger toys, and you can draw his neighborhood on the box), which is really exciting for them. We also made Daniel Tiger trolleys out of boxes once, and that was super fun.” — Ashley

Summer Activities for Kids

26. Create a World With Cardboard

“We hoard our cardboard boxes and tubes from paper rolls/toilet paper/foil/etc. Cardboard plus colored masking tape and stickers can pretty much become anything they could imagine. We’ve built cars, spaceships, houses, castles and, even a movie theater (we sat in front of a ‘screen’ filled with stickers as characters and they narrated the action to me. I loved every moment of it. It isn’t going to be the neatest, most aesthetically pleasing playtime debris, but my kids can’t stay away from those cardboard boxes.” — Christina

27. Kids Yoga

“My kids have really enjoyed Cosmic Kids Yoga. We stream it through YouTube. The yoga is always based on a narrative and the moves are part of the story (kind of like they are acting it out, but doing yoga at the same time). Lots of good kid yoga resources out there, but my little girl loves this one the most. They have videos of different lengths and many different types of stories for a variety of interests. My 16-month-old can’t do the yoga, but loves to toddle around her sister (4) as she does it.” — Melissa

So many of you also suggested some great toys to buy that are inexpensive but awesome (beyond the usual toy-aisle stuff), so stay tuned for a post on that in the coming weeks. In the meantime, feel free to suggest EVEN MORE great ideas (or chime in if any of the ideas listed here have been successful for you and your kiddos). 

  1. These are fantastic. My girls were into Laura Ingalls, but even if you’re kids don’t know what that is yet you can always have pioneer night! I’d put on fiddle music (that was the only electric we were allowed to use) and the kids dressed up and played as if it was the 19th century. (Think hidden eggs to collect, wasboard and clothesline, etc.) They loved it!

  2. Great ideas! I wish I had some of them a few years ago when my kids were younger!!

    I would love to see some suggestions for older kids and tweens. “What do I do with the kids all summer?” is still an issue for me, with 10 and 13 year-olds. Thankfully, the attention spans are longer at this age, but the lure of screens/electronic devices always beckons. Usually, with a bit of a starter from me via an idea or some supplies, my kids will happily engage with the real world and each other. But, lately my ideas seem a little stale. I think we’ve made slime thirty times already this summer!

    1. I second this! My kids are older now!
      However, I’m hosting 4th of July…. With kids of all ages and there WILL b a group scavenger hunt a la this post!!

      1. We did a scavenger hunt every year as kids. The bigger kids would help solve the puzzles. There was lots of running around- I dont ever remember finding a prize, but the hunt was fun.

    2. Yes. Would love ideas for 10-14 years olds.

  3. Cardboard boxes are the best! We’ll unfold a large one and give my daughter (2.5) crayons and she’ll lay there and draw things on it for a long time, even better if you draw with them and have them give you the ideas of what to draw. We’ll leave it out for a few days until it’s covered and then move on to something else. Cardboard boxes have also become a boat for Moana, race cars, tunnels, forts…the ideas are endless!

    Also any type of play involving water. Giving them a watering can to water flowers, painting the fence/driveway with water, baby pools and sprinklers and splash pads, water balloons, water gun fights. I always recommend going to a Dollar Tree and picking up a lot of cheap water and bubble toys!

  4. That shot of Charlie walking down the garden path shows how much your landscaping has grown in. Could you do a yard update? Thanks

    1. Was thinking the same, would love an update!

  5. Oh boy… I have scars on my left wrist from “ice skating” in socks on the floor… I had too much speed and my arm went through a window. My one and only ER trip, and after that my father instituted a firm “slipper socks ONLY” rule in our house.

  6. This is a treasure trove! Please do more posts like this, thank you!!

    1. Oh boy… I have scars on my left wrist from “ice skating” in socks on the floor… I had too much speed and my arm went through a window. My one and only ER trip, and after that my father instituted a firm “slipper socks ONLY” rule in our house.
      kanchipuram sarees

  7. I love #24. How creative! But #9 rubbed me the wrong way and seems dishonest. Why not just be honest to them about the time? They will never learn how long 15 minutes is if you’re stopping them at 8. If you only want them to do something for 8 minutes, set it for 8. Just be honest people!

    1. Same!!

  8. Thanks for all the great ideas!
    Vinegar and baking soda is always fun… I fill a baking dish full of baking soda, then give the kids little jars mixed with food coloring & vinegar, and eye droppers. They can drop the colored vinegar in the dish, making different colored fizz.
    We’ve done this indoors a number of times, but it has the potential to be messy.

    For slightly older kids I’ve had a lot of success with an easy book of science experiments. There’s tons you can do with simple household items. Those are a bit more hands-on for the parents, though.

  9. I would also add that a summer fun activity is to get some kid fishing poles with hook ends and some “fish” type of things that can be attached, then drop the fish into a pool, pond, bathtub for the kids to fish out!! My son and friends loved this one and could pluck the fish out of our jacuzzi!!

  10. LOVE THIS. Thank you!!

  11. Some of these are new to me and so useful, thank you! I do wonder a lot what it will be like to parent two children under the age of six when we move to the US this summer (we live in Spain). Here kids are out of the house most of the day in school or in daycare and after you pick them up you take them to play at the local park where all their friends are or at a plaza where they ride their scooters, draw on the sidewalk, or kick a football around. It’s definitely going to be a big adjustment for them (and me!) to go to the US where, from what it seems like, people spend most of their times in their homes or backyards and alone, with no neighbors, friends or classmates. I guess we’ll see how it goes!

    1. You are making me want to move to Spain, that sounds like a lovely way to pass the afternoons.

  12. Wish I had these last week while babysitting!!! Great ideas for grandparents.

  13. Awesome!!! Thank you SO much!!!!

  14. I’m so excited two of my ideas made it on your blog!! Thanks for including them!

  15. These are lovely ideas and kids will love them. If I could gently push back, however: I’ve got four kids, ages 3-9, and it’s totally ok if you don’t enjoy playing with your kids. I enjoy talking with them, going places with them, and reading with them, but I find playing with them bores me to tears. I just want to put that out there in case any mom feels insecure about their disinterest in this sort of thing: it’s totally fine not to do this if it’s not your cup of tea. (And more power to you if it is!)

  16. Wonderful post! I’m going to try a lot of these. I love that you pulled it from reader comments.

  17. I love this! Thank you so much. As someone with two young kids who lives in a very dark, very cold climate with winters that last waaaaaay too long, I’m looking forward to the winter version.

  18. A few things:
    1. How does one just “hang” Plexiglas in the backyard? I’m confused on that one
    2. Safari hunts are genius! I’m totally trying that
    3. Daniel Tiger is the most annoying cartoon character ever (close to Calliou)

    1. 1. Drill a couple of holes in the plexi and then depending on how much paint you can cope with on your fence/garden shed/a tree trunk, you could install a couple of hooks to hang the plexiglass on. Alternately, a cheap kids’ easel off Craigslist (is that what Americans use instead of Gumtree here in Australia?). Failing that you could knock a couple of garden stakes into the lawn and they could prop the plexi up against those.
      2. Agreed – me too.
      3. Subjective, I think Norman Price (from Fireman Sam) and the modern Inspector Gadget would get top billing on most annoying characters in our house. Danger Mouse on the other hand is much easier to put up with and the inside jokes for adults are fun.

  19. Thank you for sharing these great ideas! I have ideas to share for older kids (4 & up). I quickly made up a little scavenger hunt for the art museum near us so that when the kids went inside to look at the art, they’d have something to do. It said “Find these things” at the top and then had a check list that included things like “a painting with a dog” and “a sculpture made of metal.” I think I gave them stickers to put on each box, but I can’t remember. They loved filling in those boxes as they looked at the art work! Another fun thing we did recently was tie dye shirts. It takes a little prep work (buying and washing the shirts, buying the dyes) but it was a lot of fun. I have also made “stations,” but differently from what is described above. I put about four activities on our dining room table in separate areas (for example, magnetic sand, Light Bright, coloring paper & markers, and Legos. Then I told the kids they had ten minutes at each “station” at the table. I set the timer and let them play with one thing, then told them when it was time to switch to a different area. The novelty of having the stations and the timer running was fun to them. Sometimes they wanted to stay at one station longer so I would say, sure, I’ll set the timer for ten more minutes. In some funny way, it made them feel like they were doing something important and made the toys feel new again. They had the choice of which stations to do next, too, and they loved that.

  20. Thanks for sharing such an amazing post. Just loved the way you have written about the designing ideas, Keep sharing such amazing articles. Looking forward to some more of your blogs. https://www.dealsshutter.com/gozefo-coupons

  21. Thank you so much for putting this together!!

  22. This is fantastic! Thank you!! I have a 3 year old and a baby, and am often at a loss for creative ideas.

  23. Love love love this post and these creative ideas!!!

  24. For a kid who will not get in the bath, I have put the dance party light in the bathroom for a bubble bath (with all other lights out and calmer “space music”). Next time I’m adding dinner, ha!

  25. Awesome idea for summer activity. I am requesting to you please share winter activity for baby’s health. thanks

  26. Hallelujah for this! I needed this last week when I was off work and home all week with my 3 year old. Definitely adding some of these to our night time and weekend routine.

  27. I’m so late to respond to this buuut I’d love some recommendations for kid friendly podcasts. We’ve done Story Pirates but it is hit or miss for my 4 year old. Thanks in advance!!

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