50+ Nearly Free Ideas For How To Entertain Your Kids (& Get You Through Summer)—UPDATED

Emily Henderson Mountain Pillowfort Kids Room28
Summer Activities for Kids

photo by sara ligorria-tramp for ehd | from: mountain house: the kid’s room reveal

*Editor’s Note: There’s a lot of extremely important, hard work that is being done inside and outside of many of our homes right now. And I’ll admit that for me, it’s taking up the majority of my mental space. But if you also have young kids then you know that parenting isn’t really something that can be put on pause. Especially because many of us don’t have the ability to do some of the normal summer activities that we’re used (like going to public parks). So we wanted to republish this post (which has already been updated a couple of times) of really fun, accessible, and budget/free activities to do with kids. 2020 has been a really challenging year collectively for parents, so we hope this list of ideas inspires some summer fun with your family.

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. A few years ago, 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.

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


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

“Trace them laying down and let them draw inside the outlines.” — Kate

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

6. Tie-Dye Shirts

“We did recently tie-dyed shirts. It takes a little prep work (buying and washing the shirts, buying the dyes) but it was a lot of fun. – Jill

7. Drive-in Movie Theater

“Decorate cardboard boxes as cars, make snacks, and enjoy.” — Rachel

8. Pajama Trips

“Take surprise pajama trips to get ice cream or basically anywhere outside the house.” — Lauren

9. Slip-n-slide + Baby Soap

“It doesn’t hurt their little eyes and they love it.” — Rebecca

10. Ice

“Freeze a giant block of ice with little toys on it. On a hot day, set it outside with safe tools.” — Corinne

“Freeze little animals in muffin tins and they can melt/chip them out.” — Ali

11. Potato Stamps

“Cut potatoes in half, carve shapes into them (or use small cookie cutters for safety), dip them in paint and use them to make stamp art.” — Beth

12. Geocaching

“Here’s a fun mountain house activity: Geocaching is fun…it’s a lazy parent’s scavenger hunt!” — Jessie

13. #kindnessrocks

“Decorate rocks then go on a walk or to a park and hide them! #kindnessrocks.” — Katie

14. Chores = Fun

“My son loves to ‘do work.’ It’s fun for him to do what we consider choices = win-win.” — Kara

15. Blindfold Guessing Game

“Blindfold your kids and have them feel, smell and touch things to guess what they are.” — Jessica

16. Pretend Raffle Tickets

“My kids love to make tickets and use them for fake raffles, carnival games, talent shows.” — Whitney

17. “Baking”

“I clean out my pantry and let the kids ‘bake’ and ‘cook’ with all the expired goods.” — Yippeeioh

18. Business Visits

“A lot of maker businesses will let kids come see how they do stuff. Try a pizza shop, a T-shirt printer, etc.” — Taylor

19. Workouts + Fun

“I do a workout with my nieces and nephews. They love burpees and jumping jacks and then they create their own moves. By the end, everyone is tired.” — Caroline

20. Building “Fountains”

“We get PVC pipes and a faucet connector and let the kids build ‘fountains’ in the yard.” — The Wilsons

21. Walkie-Talkie Hide-and-Seek

“Simply that. Play hide-and-seek with walkie-talkies.” — Christina

22. Build Fairy Houses

“We go outside with an empty shoebox and build fairy houses with the things we find.” —Indre

23. Library

“The autonomy of choosing and checking out books always works.” — Ally

24. Pick Your Adventure

“We keep a mason jar full of popsicle sticks with different activities written on them to pick.” — Rebekah

25. Play “Post Office”

“I use to have the kids make a post office with an old cardboard box as the mailbox. We’d send letters and wrap old boxes as packages.” — Jonet


Summer Activities for Kids
photo by tessa neustadt for lonny

26. 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

27. 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

28. At-Home Animal Adventure

“When my boys were younger (they are 24 months apart), we would go on an animal adventure. 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

29. 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

30. 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

“I have made “stations” too. 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. – Jill

31. 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

32. 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

33. “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

34. Toy Animals + Washable Paint

“Let kids paint plastic animals with washable paint and then have them give the animals a bath in a big bowl.” — Jessie


Summer Activities for Kids

35. 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)]

36. 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

37. 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

38. Shaving Cream

“Shaving cream spray on the counter! Let them practice the alphabet, write their names, draw figures.” — Tammy


Emily Henderson

39. 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

“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 checklist 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!  — Jill

Summer Activities for Kids

40. 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.

41. 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

42. 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

43. 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

44. 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

45. 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

46. 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

47. 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

48. 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

49. Vinegar + Baking Soda

“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.” — Emily

50. Audiobooks + Quiet Time

“Play audiobooks in their separate spaces with a special toy or set of quiet toys like Legos.” —Ally

51. YouTube Draw Along

Art for Kids Hub on YouTube! My Kids ages 4-9 could follow/draw along for hours.” — Ally

So many of you also suggested some great toys to buy that are inexpensive but awesome (beyond the usual toy-aisle stuff) in this post. 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).

P.S. I’m writing a post about how we are keeping this conversation going in addition to talking about racism in our home –  If you have any suggestions like books/movies/activities/games/family outings, literally ANYTHING that helps integrate this conversation into our daily lives I’d love to read and add to our post. xx

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