Anyone else searching for free things to do with your kids this summer? As the mom of a toddler who hasn’t stopped moving since 2017, I know I am. And since I want to keep the whine at bay and still budget for our vacation, I’ve set out to find the best free activities for kids around.
And wow, I landed on some real winners! Check out this list of ideas, from splash pads to music classes to free day camps, before you shell out for another round of ice cream cones after the park.
I can’t be the only one going broke on Jeni’s brown butter almond brittle, right?
Top image: Frank Mckenna via Unsplash
Free Movie listings in NYC via TimeOut NY
1. See a movie under the stars
My first movie under the stars was The Princess Bride, and there’s just something special about watching a film outside with a big group of people who love it. So search your local listings for a free movie screening, like TimeOut NY’s great list of free outdoor summer movies in NYC, Eventbrite’s list of free outdoor summer movies in San Francisco, Visit Philly’s list of free outdoor summer movies in Philadelphia, or The Navy Pier’s list of free outdoor summer movies in Chicago.
Then, just grab your lawn chairs, pack your Twizzlers, eschew bedtime (hey, maybe the kids will sleep in tomorrow?), and recite every line of Despicable Me or Grease together. Perfection.
2. Sign up for a free class
With a 16-month-old, I hadn’t really considered the possibility of free classes, but turns out there are some fantastic options still available for summer, like this free sign language for babies and children in NYC. Other classes I found included African dance and creative writing. Your local DOE website, parks website, or city website may have listings where you live.
3. Find a free coding, STEM or STEAM camp
If you’ve got a techy kid — or one who just wants to learn the world’s most practical modern-day skill — take advantage one of many free coding camps around the country this summer. Or, sign your kid up for the Wonderopolis Camp right from home. Way to redeem the screen!
Speaking of super practical skills, the description of the free STEAM Camp for kids at the Dyckman Farmhouse Museum in Manhattan blew me away. It’s not only free, it includes a snack for the kids, and immerses them in subjects like ethnobotany and plant structure.
Photo: Jeshoots via Unsplash
4. Take advantage of free museum days and nights
Most museums offer free admittance during a small window each week, which means you can save a lot by planning ahead a bit. It may be one entire day, or it could be a few hours early in the morning or after dinner. Mommy Poppins has a wildly helpful list of free times at museums around New York, Boston Living on the Cheap lists free kids’ museum hours in Boston, and Houston Museum District has an entire page dedicated to free museums and free admission times in Houston. Wherever you live, or wherever your’e visiting, be sure to take a look online!
Some museums also host free camps and activities. I think my teenage nieces would flip for this Teen Science Night at the California Academy of Sciences.
5. Find a free yoga class
Our local library in Nashville offers free children’s yoga classes ,which seems like the ideal way to help practice calm and mindfulness (okay, and to give mom a chance to sneak off into the literary fiction section). Consult web pages from your library, local parks association, or nearby yoga studios to see if they offer something similar.
6. Visit your community pool
With heat indexes over 100 almost every day in July, we’ve been leaning hard on our local pool. Check out your parks department website to find one near you — and see which have kid-optimal features like splash pads and water slides.
7. Check out free community and cultural events
Depending on your city’s history and cultural flavor, they probably have a special celebration like NYC’s City of Water Day or Nashville’s Country Music Festival. If you don’t live in a big city, explore nearby towns to see what’s unique to them. My hometown hosted a yearly Sorghum Festival to celebrate their locally made syrup.
8. Find a free kid-friendly concert
Free concerts abound in the summertime. If you’re lucky enough to live in a place with a symphony, consult their calendar to see if they’re offering any park concerts. If not, check your local paper for weekly free picks. And if you’re more into kindie rock, check the calendar on your favorite band’s website or Facebook page, like Recess Monkey or the Okey Dokey Brothers who are coming to Nashville this week!
Or check a local family listings site like Mommmy Poppins, which has a thorough list of all the free kid-friendly summer concerts in New York City.
Photo: Jenny Smith via Unsplash
9. Find free food!
You don’t have to tell me (or my kid) twice. Even if we’ve just missed National Ice Cream Day (June 15th) and National Donut Day (June 1), we’re still on track to grab some free root beer floats at A&W on August 6th. Also keep your eye out for free dogs on National Hot Dog Day (July 23) and freebies on National Chicken Wing Day (July 29) which is a very real thing, especially if you live in Buffalo.
Plus, local businesses and restaurants often have freebie food days in the hotter months. Your local library might even serve up free lunch for kids on certain days of the summer, so check your nearest branch!
10. Go the beach (or a lake or river)
If you’re close to a free community or city beach, grab a great book and count yourself lucky! If not, try a free lake, or see if there’s a blue hole in a nearby river that kids can explore. (Just know sometimes free park visits do charge for parking.)
11. Visit a state park
Unfortunately the free national park days have passed for summer — the next one’s September 22nd. But you can still hit up your state parks. I checked out the events page for my local Tennessee state parks and was surprised by their offerings — including guided waterfall hikes and astronomy viewings. Your sate’s own tourism site should have info, like this Massachusetts State Parks page or the comprehensive Utah State Parks page.
12. Attend a free story time
Ah, library story time. A mainstay for any parent trying to survive toddlerhood — and trying to give themselves a break from reading DADA 30 times a day. Some libraries really do it up in the summer with puppet shows and guest authors, too.
Also check out events from your favorite local indie bookstore — DC’s awesome Politics & Prose has some events particularly for teens, including readings and a monthly teen book club. Or look at Barnes & Noble which offers plenty of free storytime activities for kids over the summer. Just select “storytime” or “children’s events” and your zip code to see what’s near you.
If your kids are pet-obsessed like mine is (and you’re still not ready to get a dog, ha), try taking them to your humane society to help walk, water, and care for the animals. Or if you’re within driving distance from a more bucolic setting, see if you can volunteer at a farm. If you’re a CSA member, contact the farm; many will accept help with the animals throughout the growing season.
14. Tour a local business
Is your city known for its handmade chocolate? Leather goods? Letterpress prints? If so, check out their website or give them a call (remember the phone?) to see if they offer free tours. It’s like “Unwrapped” in real life, and your kids may love getting a behind-the-scenes look at a ravioli factory or a printing press!
Olive & Sinclair Chocolate in Nashville, TN
15. Watch a play together
Theater troops often perform for free in parks and playgrounds during the summer months. See if your local theater or community arts group has any kid-friendly shows on the docket — and see they have any free theater camps or workshops while you’re at it.
16. Visit a flea market, browse a craft fair, or walk through a street fair
Sometimes browsing can be fun — even without buying. If you’ve got competitive kids, make a scavenger hunt out of it, seeing who can find a leopard print hat or antique telephone the fastest.
17. Find a family-friendly game day
I’m so jealous of this GAME On event in NYC that lets kids and adults play party games like corn hole and ping pong on the street. Score! Other cities like Nashville host board game festivals that are open to older kids and teens.
18. Look for a free splash pad
If you’re not up for a whole pool da–and all the packing it entails–but still want to cool off, look for a free splash pad near you. My favorite is Atlanta’s Centennial Park Fountain of Rings, built in honor of 1996 Olympics.
10. Visit the zoo
Most zoos let visitors offer pay-as-you-wish pricing on designated days. Check out their classes and events, too! Some even host wildlife classes or ranger talks, which is a great way to squeeze some educational time into your fun time, while keeping it all free.
20. Just…hang out.
Sometimes were so busy looking for things to occupy our kids, we forget that they’re great at occupying themselves when we give them a chance. So spread a picnic in a park, sit on a stoop or porch, or just put a lawn chair down in your backyard and see where their imaginations take them. It might be the most memorable free kids’ activity of the entire summer.