5 Ways to Entertain Your Kids on the Cheap

by Maurie Backman | Updated July 17, 2021 - First published on Feb. 17, 2020

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Don't have a fortune to spend to keep your children occupied? Try these solutions.

Don't have a fortune to spend to keep your children occupied? Try these solutions. 

Like many parents of young children, I actually find weekends more challenging than the rest of the week. Sure, I may not have to deal with work emails and deadlines (at least not to the same extent), but I have a very different set of challenges on my hands: keeping my kids occupied. 

During the school week, my children are fairly busy. School itself is six hours long, and between homework, dinner, and after-school activities, there's really not much time for my kids to reach the point of boredom.

However, weekends are different, and in the past, I've definitely busted my budget in an attempt to keep my children happy and entertained. These days that doesn't fly. One of my financial goals this year is to be more frugal and add more money to my savings account than I did last year, and to get there, I need to cut back on entertainment. If you’re trying to be more budget-conscious, it pays to do the same. Here's how.

1. Set up shop at the playground

I live in an area where playgrounds are abundant, and taking advantage of them is a great way to keep my kids occupied without spending money, except for the negligible amount of gas required to drive the few miles back and forth. 

Now, you may be thinking: "Nice try, lady, but my kids will spend 30 minutes at the playground and call it a day." I hear that. 

If you want to extend your stay, get creative. Go on a scavenger hunt at the park, or bring along sporting equipment and see if you can recruit other children to join yours in a friendly game. That should help you get a little more time out of your park visit, leaving you with fewer weekend hours to fill. 

2. Take a hike

Hiking is generally free, and even if you are forced to pay an entry fee to visit a state park, it's usually minimal. In my neck of the woods, state parks charge a $10 fee on a per-car basis, and that fee applies only from Memorial Day to Labor Day. 

If you're new to hiking, you may need to invest a little money initially into good boots and a first-aid kit (which you should always carry along, even on easier trails). But you don't need to spring for fancy backpacks -- have your kids dump out their school books and use their everyday packs to carry supplies while you explore the woods. 

3. Find low- or no-cost programs through your town

My town offers a number of cheap and free options that make weekend entertainment much less burdensome financially. During the warm-weather months, there are free movies every week at a local park. During the school year, there are different "mini sports programs" that run for six to eight weeks and cost $40 or less. Visit your town's website and see what programs are available where you live. Your local library might offer no-cost activities as well. 

4. Bite the bullet and host some playdates

My kids have plenty of toys, but because they're different ages, they don't always have the easiest time playing together -- and I can play dress-up, tea party, cards, and Monopoly Junior for only so long before I need a break myself. The solution? Inviting other kids over to entertain mine. 

Hosting playdates is a pretty low-cost endeavor. You spring for some snacks (which I generally buy in bulk at my local warehouse club to save money), put on a pot of coffee for the parents, and allow a group of children to serve as each other's entertainment for a number of hours. Is there generally a messy aftermath? Yes. But if you find a group of parents to rotate hosting with, it's not that bad. 

5. Explore local attractions for free

It normally costs my family more than $20 per adult to visit an area zoo, and over $15 per child for one of our favorite nearby aquariums. But both places offer free admission days during the off-season, which means we can hit up some of our favorite spots without spending a dime. Do some digging to see what offers your favorite attractions have. Even if free entry isn't on the table, you may be able to score a few "buy one, get one free" deals that make visiting those places much cheaper.

Let's be clear: I'm a firm believer that occasional boredom is good for kids, and I certainly don't feel compelled to keep mine occupied every single minute of the day. But at the same time, I've gotten pretty savvy about sourcing low- or no-cost entertainment for my kids, and it's really been a game-changer financially.

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