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15 Free or Low-Cost Activities to Keep the Kids Playing in the Backyard All Summer

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Summer is in full swing — so if you haven’t heard an “I’m bored” yet from your kids, then it’s probably just a matter of time. But like most parents, you’re probably not eager to shell out a bunch of money to keep them entertained, and you’re definitely not thrilled to have them fill their time with electronics or TV. So what’s the solution?

Here are 15 free or cheap activities you can point your kids to when they feel like they don’t have anything to do. Most items you’ll already have in your house, but otherwise, you should be able to get supplies from your local dollar store. (Oh, and if many of these ideas sound a bit old-school, it’s because they are. These are some of the best, cheapest, and easiest ways to keep kids entertained for hours. I’ve done many of them myself as a kid, and I’ve seen my own two kids try them all as well.

1. Have a classic water balloon fight.

A bag of water balloons might be one of your best investments this summer. Filling them up is half the fun for kids; then divide them up and be ready to go for game time! Be sure to have you kids pick up all the plastic pieces when you’re done so you don’t leave behind something for animals to eat.

2. Take your chalk art skills up a notch.

Do a google or Pinterest search for chalk art, and you will be amazed! Have your kids use some of these designs to create a full on chalk art show. You can walk through the gallery and even be the judge if this motivates them.

3. Create a photo scavenger hunt.

Write down a list of things that are common in your backyard or neighborhood (if you let your kids venture outside of your yard). Then set them loose with a camera to capture all these great items. It’s a fun, modern way to do a scavenger hunt, and they’ll love showing you their results. Then encourage them to come up with their own scavenger hunt list, too.

4. Make your own obstacle course.

You have all the items you need for your kids to make an obstacle course, because one can truly be made from anything! Have them come up with clever tasks they have to do at different stations throughout the backyard, and then time them on how quickly they can make it through. Some ideas might be carrying something in a wheelbarrow, tossing a golf ball into a flower pot, and weaving in and out of patio chairs. Encourage them be creative, use what you have, and take turns being the designer of the course.

5. Invent your own version of basketball.

You don’t need a basketball or a hoop to have fun in the backyard. Instead, have your kids create different hoops out of recycling bins, trash cans, and even cardboard boxes. Have them set up different “baskets,” throughout the yard, and use any ball you want to have them try to make it into each one. Each basket should have a different point value, and then they can keep track as they go. The first one to reach a certain number is the winner.

6. Create magic with cardboard.

You can do so many things with cardboard. Have a cardboard building contest where everyone has to create something out of cardboard and duct tape. Or just going on a coloring spree by pulling out crayons and markers and breaking the boxes down flat to be a fun canvas. Look on Pinterest for even more creative ideas.

7. Set up a tent to play or read.

Do you love the idea of setting up a fort, but you don’t know how? Just set up a tent for your kids, and they will seriously have fun for hours. It can used be a fort, or a place to hang out, or read — and your kids will be the envy of the neighborhood!

8. Take a board game outside.

Why should board games only be inside on a table? Summer is a great time to take them outside and play them on a blanket while the weather is nice. You might even encourage them to take it in the tent you just set up, too.

9. Craft a mud castle.

Sand castles are great for the beach, but your kids can practice their building skills by using some soil, water, and your sand tools. This one will be messy, which is perfectly OK, parents! It’s nothing a water hose can’t rinse off before they come in for the night.

10. Experiment to find the best popsicle recipe.

A popsicle mold is available at most dollar stores, and it’s a cheap and fun way to make your own summer treat. Help your kids find recipes online, or encourage them to invent their own. Better yet, use fresh ingredients from the garden or farmers’ market. You can also do a similar challenge with your kids by making your own lemonade.

11. Build something with hammer and nails.

This might be reserved for slightly older kids, but it’s such a good one. Kids will love the freedom of simply building their own cool project. There’s no right or wrong; just give your kids the free reign to invent whatever they want. Of course, they should have the right training to go at it on their own with hammer and nails; otherwise, you’ll want to be there to help them.

12. Decorate for an evening gathering.

Are you going to make backyard S’mores tonight? How about celebrating the evening with some ice cream and firefly catching? Declare tonight a special night, and then put your kids in charge of making the invites, coming up with activities, and then decorating the backyard. Here’s another great way the dollar store can come into play...they have great summer decor and supplies. The best reason to have a summer party with just your family is absolutely no reason at all!

13. Make your own bubbles, Play-doh, or slime.

Not all bubble, Play-doh, or slime recipes are created equal. Challenge your kids to experiment and find the best one of each. Let them loose with the supplies they need, and let them create. Yes, some will fail, but that’s the joy of inventing and trying again. Encourage them to think outside the box and try some new methods.

14. Play all the old school outdoor games.

Tag? Hide-n-seek? Capture the flag? Yes, yes, and yes… play them all! Encourage your kids to learn these old school games, and even join in to show them how it’s done. You might even challenge them to invent their own versions of these classic games, coming up with their own spin on how to plan.

15. Run in the sprinkler.

It’s just not summer without a jaunt in the sprinkler. This activity can pretty much be combined with all of the others. (Plus, if you are strategic about this, you can water your garden at the same time.)

Kids might want to jump to “I’m bored” sooner than you’d like, but help them get out of this trap and come up with their own fun using everyday items and their own wild imaginations. It really doesn’t take much, and it’s good life skills at the same time!

Stacy Tornio is the author of The Kids’ Outdoor Adventure Book and the mom of two adventurous kids. Together, they like planning vacations centered around the national parks.

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