Image source: Flickr User Jim PennucciWe understand that many families are making do on tight budgets and summers are even harder because the kids are home all day and demand to be entertained. What's a cash-strapped family to do? Plenty! We've found eight categories of fantastic, fun and mostly free things to do this summer to keep a smile on your kids' faces, whines to a minimum and your money outlay virtually non-existent.
#8 Hiking and Geocaching
Summer days can get hot and sticky, but staying indoors is no solution. Get your kids out and moving and they'll be fitter and will fall asleep faster at night because you wore them out. There are so many free places to hike in NC that it's an embarrassment not to get out and take a walk. From the beaches to the mountains and everywhere in between, there's much to see and do.
If you're not one for aimless wandering and have a smart phone, sign up for a free Geocaching.com account and splurge $10 on the official app or try a free one like c: Geo. If you've never tried caching, it's a GPS-based scavenger hunt where you find containers other players have hidden. You sign the log to score a “find.” You'll be surprised how many hidden treasure troves there are within a mile or two of your house – in the woods, under park benches – even in grocery store parking lots.
#7 Indulge in Classic Movies and Must-See TV
Rainy days and exhausted evenings often see us plopped on the couch channel surfing as a family, but there's not much on in the summer. This is a great time to take advantage of free trial offers from Netflix, Amazon Prime, Redbox Online and Hulu. If you have a Blu-Ray player, most have built-in apps for these services. Alternately, hook your laptop up to the TV and stream through there or gather around the laptop for smaller screen viewing. Most Avengers movies are streaming for free this summer along with a huge array of TV and big screen blockbusters. Trial offers range from two weeks to a full month. If you try them out one at a time, you'll have enough weeks to view all summer for free with no late fees.
Geocaching is low-cost summer fun
Image source: Flickr User Bob n Renee
#6 Movie and Concert Outings
The Halle Cultural Arts Center offers free Tuesday morning movies (1st and 3rd of the month) in June and 1st Wednesday movies free in the evenings for teens and grown ups. They are also offering outdoor Friday night movies (PG and PG-13) and concerts. Check their site for dates and times. Carmike Cinema's summer movies are no longer free ($4 gets you in plus a kid-sized popcorn and drink) but Regal has kept theirs cheap at $1 for 10 am Tuesday morning movies.
#5 Museum Outings
North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences – Located in Raliegh, the museum is free, but you can offer a donation. 3D movies and the rainforest special exhibit come at a fee, but the rest is gratis. North Carolina Maritime Museums (one in Southport and one in Beaufort) and the Hatteras Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum are also free. The North Carolina Museum of Art is admission-free, as is the North Carolina Museum of History, the Ackland Art Museum and the City of Raleigh Museum. The Nasher Museum of Art at Duke is free Thursday evenings from 5-9pm as well. Check museums near you for unadvertised free events, days and evenings and special summer programs and promotions.
Summer reading programs are free and fun
Image source: Flickr User KOMUnews
#4 Summer Library Programs
Your kids may balk at the idea of exercising their brains this summer, but there are some great library programs (all free) in the summer that go beyond books. In addition to Wake County's Summer Reading Program which rewards readers with stickers, gold stars and chances to win drawings for cool prizes, they're hosting Super Specials for K-5th graders which includes science programs, reptile visits, music, magic and petting zoos. Come for the books, stay for the fun and do it often since it's 100% free. If you're not in Wake, check your local county library site for similar programs in your area. Also, most libraries now have stupendous DVD collections that they update as soon as new releases come out. Check out for free and save the Redbox fees!
#3 Water Fun
If your neighborhood doesn't have a pool, check with your local parks and recreation department to see what's in the county. The City of Raleigh charges $2 for kids and $4 for adults for a dip but if that's out of your price range, head to a local swimming hole for a dip in one of nature's swimming pools (aka lakes and waterfalls). Having grown up swimming mainly in lakes and rivers, the chlorine smell of concrete pools just doesn't evoke “summer” quite like rafting in natural waters. Slip and slides and getting squirted in the yard with a garden hose are all classics that cost nearly nothing and make for great cooling off fun. For less than $5 you can get a sturdy roll of plastic at Home Depot to slide on - add some baby shampoo for even more slippery slides.
Slip n slides make the backyard a low cost water park
Image source: Flickr User Ryan Poplin
#2 Vacation Bible School and Church Camp
Growing up in the South, aside from swimming holes, also meant a summer of Vacation Bible School at yours and friends' churches. This is free, safe fun for your kids that will also give you a break for a few hours a day. Click here to see a list of many VBS offerings or Google for ones near you. Many and various VBS events can be found in your city for every faith and many are non-denominational. Also check into church camps – these sleep-away camps are usually one-third to one-tenth the price of a commercial camp and may offer scholarships for low-income families for kids to attend for free.
#1 Staycations and Parent Co-op Fun
We wrote a piece recently on cheap vacations, but staycations are also an option. This is when you stay home, but still take your work days off to spend with your kids. Camping in your yard, playing board games, chasing lightning bugs and just giving your kids your time and attention can create meaningful memories and happy kids without breaking the bank. And if you have some talented friends, you can coordinate staycation activities. Know a science teacher? Get her to host an afternoon of slimy chemistry. Got an artist in the mix? Get him to have several families of kids over for a finger painting extravaganza. How about a fix your own bike workshop? Teach the kids to diagnose and repair their bikes and they've got a fun activity and a life skill as well. The possibilities are endless.
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