If you’re on a tight budget and can’t really swing a pricey family vacation this year, don’t worry! You can still have a fantastic time with these family-friendly activities for summer. Take a look!
Summer vacation can be a huge source of anxiety for parents. It’s not that we don’t enjoy having our kids home with us all day, every day. I actually really do love that part! The anxiety, in my opinion, stems from the pressure we put on ourselves to give our kids a summer like we used to have. We spent hours upon hours at the community pool, rode our bikes until the sun went down, and packed into the family car like sardines – with someone always in the way back- for one grand road trip after another.
The problem, of course, is that most of the things we did as kids are far more costly today. I don’t just mean in the sense of money. Either the world is less safe than it was when we were little or we just know how unsafe it is now. In either case, most of us aren’t willing to just send our kids out to play without knowing where they are and when they’ll be home. We know that putting our kids in the “way back” without seat belts is an epically bad idea. The “safety cost” is just too high to let our kids do the things we did, in my opinion.
And then, of course, there is the money. Everything is A LOT more expensive today than it was when we were little, even adjusting for inflation. The cost of gas alone is enough to take road trips off the table for most families this summer. The thing is, you don’t really need much money to give your kids a summer to remember. Your time is far more valuable to them.
With that in mind, below are some of my favorite cheap family-friendly activities for summer that focus more on spending time rather than money. Some of them won’t cost you a dime. For those that do cost a little money, I tried to include ways to get the cost down as much as possible.
1. Pitch a tent!
Even though most resorts are fully open again this year after operating at limited capacity for the last two summers, they’re still off the table for a lot of people. Many of them raised prices to make up for their losses, making them even more out of reach for families on budgets.
Camping, on the other hand, is still a very affordable way to spend your family vacation. Most national parks charge about $10 a night for tents (it’s a bit more if you bring an RV). Camping just fun, it’s also one of the best ways to bond as a family. Think about it- no distractions, no crowds, no technology. Just you and your kids, enjoying fresh air and getting to know each other better.
FYI, If you can’t afford (or don’t want to visit) a major campsite, you can always mimic one in your backyard. Declare the house off-limits for everything except bathroom breaks and lock those phones inside to get the full experience.
2. Start your own family club
This is one of my favorite family-friendly activities for summer that engages everyone both near and far. In other words, it’s a great way to keep in touch with far-off friends and family. Whether it’s a book club, a film club, or even a cooking club, choose something that your whole family enjoys. Then, each week, choose a new book, movie, or recipe to read/watch/try. On Sundays (or whatever day works for everyone), get together in group chat or Zoom to talk about it.
3. Take mini vacations
Your grand trip to Disney may be off the calendar, but that doesn’t mean you’re completely stuck at home all season long. Consider renting an Airbnb for a quick weekend getaway. Even if you just go to the next town over, you’ll feel like you’re getting away. That alone is amazing for stress relief. Plus, Airbnb rentals are often super affordable. I just saw one for $37 a night in Miami Beach. Can’t beat that!
4. Throw a backyard carnival
For many families, summer just isn’t summer without a trip to a state fair or carnival. Unfortunately, carnivals are getting insanely expensive. We’re talking $2-3 just to ride one ride! So, why not save all of that money and just have your own carnival instead?
Sure, you can’t exactly set up a Tilt-a-Whirl in your backyard, but you can still capture some of the excitement. Try setting up fun carnival games for your kids. Ring tosses, balloon darts, and the duck pond are all easy to recreate.
5. Put a unique spin on a family summer bucket list
If you spend even a second on Pinterest, you’ll see thousands of “summer bucket list” ideas. The problem? Most were written before things got so crazy, so they don’t take into account all of the limitations we’re facing.
Rather than copy someone else’s list, though, try making your own with a unique spin. Every item on the list has to be something that your family can do totally alone. In other words, no theme parks surrounded by other people. The possibilities are endless, but some ideas include:
- Build the ultimate sandcastle on a secluded beach
- Learn magic tricks and put on a show for each other
- Hike every local trail
- Spot every bird that’s native to your area
6. Plant a neighborhood garden
Want to connect with your neighbors in a meaningful way while still maintaining your distance? Consider planting a community garden. Either choose a plot of land accessible to everyone (and get the proper permits) or decide as a neighborhood to set aside a piece of your front yard for everyone to enjoy.
Everyone gets a different planting theme for their plot. For example, maybe your family plants the makings for pizza sauce- tomatoes, basil, etc. while one neighbor focuses on fruit salad ingredients and another on the ultimate herbal tea garden. The point is, everyone works together- but apart- to create something that the whole community can enjoy. Plus, while you can of course get the kids involved, it’s something that even your single neighbor who lives alone can be a part of.
7. Make a family summer blockbuster movie
Thanks to technology, making a movie has never been easier. So, get in touch with your inner screenwriters, directors, and actors and make the ultimate summer blockbuster. Not only is this a super fun way to spend time together as a family, it’s actually incredibly educational for all involved. From learning new writing skills to memorizing lines to working together to build “sets,” it’s a full STEAM experience. If you’re not sure how to start, this is a really great guide.
8. Brighten someone’s day while enjoying nature together
Grab a handful of flat stones and some paint for this family-friendly summer activity that not only gets you out into nature but also helps make a total stranger’s day a whole lot brighter. A friend of mine paints the most stunning scenes on rocks, then leaves them for hikers to find.
If you can barely draw a stick figure let alone paint a Picasso-level scene on stones, try writing meaningful and uplifting words on them instead. Then, put on your walking shoes, pack up your painted rocks, and head out to release them into the world.
9. Go on a virtual vacation
We know that family vacations make kids smarter, but with so many major tourist destinations out of reach this year (literally and financially), going on an actual trip across the world isn’t exactly feasible. The good news, though, is that many museums, galleries, zoos and more opened their virtual doors to the world. The best news? “Admission” is totally free!
Go the whole nine yards with your virtual vacation by treating it like a real one. Studies show that even just planning a vacation can boost your mood, so break out the travel guides and pretend that you’re really going. Create an itinerary, plan a menu around your destination’s cuisine, and count down the days just like you would with a “real” vacation. Then, when the day arrives, declare your family “out of town” and let the fun begin.
10. Go to a real local museum
Did you know that a lot of museums offer discount programs for low-income families? Some of them had “pay what you can” programs in place before the world went sideways, and more joined the “Museums for All” movement over the last year or so. Even if your local museum isn’t participating, chances are they offer “free days” throughout the season. Miami has at least 10 museums with free admission days.
11. Learn a new skill
During the school year, our kids are so busy trying to keep up with mountains of homework and focusing on learning for the sake of a grade. Summertime, on the other hand, is the perfect low-pressure time to learn for the sake of learning. Just don’t push them into trying a skill that you think they should have. Instead, ask them what they want to learn. Maybe your daughter wants to try writing, or your son dreams of being a painter. Perhaps they both want to learn how to play baseball.
Whatever they want to try, you can usually find free or cheap classes (or even just books from the library) to help them learn. The important thing is to really make it low-pressure. If they want to quit, let them. This is their chance to discover their passions, even if they discover that something they thought would be fun just isn’t for them after all.
12. Teach each other a new skill
Learning a new skills is great for “independent time,” but unless everyone wants to learn the same thing, it’s not really something you can do together as a family. Teaching each other new skills, on the other hand, is something that everyone can get involved with. Everyone is good at something. Even if you’re just teaching each other how to play a favorite game, everyone comes away learning something new while bonding together as a family.
13. Try a summer reading challenge
Just like kids focus on learning for a sake of a grade during the school year, they spend the vast majority of the year reading books that someone else demands that they read. Sign your kids up for a summer reading challenge through your local library, Scholastic, or even just one that you create yourself. Then, let them choose the books that they read. Anything counts! Fiction, non-fiction, even comic books. Heck, my friend’s son watches a lot of subtitled Japanese anime and she even counts that as reading.
14. Volunteer together
If you want to raise kids that grow up to change the world, you have to instill a passion for helping others while they’re young. Choose a “cause” as a family and search “volunteer opportunities near me” or “places for kids to volunteer in [your city]” in your favorite search engine. You can do one thing all summer long or take turns each week choosing a new opportunity.
15. Build a Backyard Fort:
This one is similar to the first idea about backyard camping, except a whole lot easier since you don’t need a tent. You can use pretty much anything that you have on hand! Use blankets, pillows, and chairs to construct a cozy fort in your backyard. It’s the perfect hideaway for imaginative play, storytelling, or even a picnic!
Check out the video below for some tips on building the coziest blanket fort ever:
16. DIY Tie-Dye
Here’s a super-simple and FUN activity that everyone will love. Grab some plain white shirts or fabric and have a tie-dye party in your backyard! Experiment with different colors and patterns to create unique and vibrant designs. I love this idea because you can use old clothes that have seen better days (like that white tee with ketchup stains) and breathe new life into them. The video below has 5 different techniques. Try one or do them all!
17. Outdoor Obstacle Course
Set up a DIY obstacle course in your backyard using hula hoops, cones, jump ropes, and other household items. Time each family member as they navigate the course for some friendly competition. Even better, invite your neighbors to compete and turn it into a whole field day. You can even start with the tie-dying activity so that each team can create their own uniforms.
Here’s a great video tutorial with tips on creating a DIY outdoor obstacle course using Dollar Store finds:
18. Indoor camping
Too rainy to play outside? No problem! Just set up a camping experience indoors! Pitch a tent (or build a blanket fort if that’s easier), tell spooky stories with flashlights, and enjoy camping-themed snacks like trail mix and yummy burgers.
19. Family Talent Show
Show off your amazing skills with a fun family talent show. Encourage each family member to prepare a performance, whether it’s singing, dancing, playing an instrument, or even telling jokes. Have fun cheering each other on and hand out small prizes for creativity and effort. Like most of these activities, you can even turn this into a whole neighborhood event! If you go that route, give everyone a few weeks’ notice so they have time to prep for this big debut.
20. Relive an era without technology
After you “get home” from your virtual vacation, toss your phone in a drawer, unplug the television set, and flashback to the 80s. The 1880s, that is! Seriously, unplugging together is one of the best family-friendly summer activities that you can do, and it doesn’t have to be as boring as your kids will inevitably make it sound.
Imagine what the world would be like if television, the internet, cell phones, or even electricity was never invented. Make a game of it…literally! Each week, “live” in a new century. Before your unplugged night, head to the library to learn more about this week’s era. Then, when the day comes, actually spend the time playing games, making meals, and doing activities that families did during that time.
Planning family-friendly activities for summer doesn’t always have to involve breaking out your credit card or hopping in an airplane. There are so many things that you can do right at or near your own home. As long as you’re spending time together, every activity is meaningful, even if you’re just spending a day doing nothing at all! Think of your family as the cake, and the things you do together as the icing!