Finding affordable family activities and fun

Cheap Staycation Ideas for Families with Gradeschoolers

by Dollar Stretcher Contributors

Related Articles

10 Fun Things To Do In Your Hometown

5 Low Cost Ways to Have Summer Fun

Cheap Staycation Ideas for Families with Gradeschoolers?

We're staycationing instead of vacationing this year and I'm looking for some cheap family staycation activities for the summer. We have three kids still in grade school, so we want to find things that are age appropriate. We can't afford expensive theme parks and attractions. Can anyone suggest some cheap staycation ideas for families with gradeschoolers?

Organize a Scavenger Hunt

One thing that could be fun for all is a scavenger hunt. It could be something simple or more elaborate depending on how you customize it for your family.

Go Camping!

Camping is one of the best cheap ways to spend time together as a family. You'll enjoy cooking around a campfire, walking in the woods, fishing by a lake, etc. Usually you can find a state park or nearby campground and sleeping away from home can make your staycation feel like a vacation. Pitch a few tents, take some chairs and coolers of food, and enjoy nature.

Related: Family Camping on a Shoestring

Hiking Is Free

Hiking is free, and there are many public areas to do so. Kids enjoy nature, and it's excellent exercise.

Take Advantage of State and Federal Parks

If you are near a state or even a federal park, many of them offer a lot for a little money. Parks differ, but you can usually find hiking, swimming, and programs on nature and animals. If the park is close enough, take a picnic and make it a day trip, or try low budget tent camping.

Six Fun Family Staycation Ideas to Check Out

  1. Check with your state Fish and Wildlife Department for activities. In California, the department has a "Fishing in the City" program where they stock ponds in city parks, provide the equipment, and have instructors on hand to teach kids to fish.
  2. Check with your local Audubon Society. They often have free bird-watching walks suitable for kids and their parents and will have binoculars to lend.
  3. Check for Earth Day activities in April. My community has a creek cleanup day with a low-cost BBQ afterward, but we bring our own picnic. Cleaning up may sound unappealing but a lot of parents bring their kids who enjoy going off the trails and into "off-limits" areas to explore.
  4. Go to local high school or community college athletic events, such as baseball, basketball, soccer, volleyball, and track and field. They are often free or charge very little. Don't overlook the girls' games. My son was as interested in them as in the boys' events.
  5. Go to local high school or college plays and concerts. Performances can be very entertaining and full of energy. And they can show younger kids what's possible.
  6. Check out Free Museum Day on the Smithsonian Institute website. Museums all over the country participate and you can print out free tickets for two to use at any one of them. Use the free tickets for the adults and pay for the lower-priced kids' admission. Museums often have kid activity areas. We like to go to the California Railroad Museum. Just do an internet search for "free museum day" and it will be at the top of the list.

Related: Making a Museum Visit Cost Effective

Volunteer Together

If you are looking for free family activities, I recommend you seek out some cool volunteer events. We've handed out medals to finishers at a triathlon, which involved getting up before dawn and watching the sun rise on the beach. Just this past week, we participated in an annual night time census of counting horseshoe crabs at high tide. We've spent the day helping at the local library's annual book sale. Or call a local pet superstore to see when they have their "adoption days" and play with puppies and kittens all day. There are all sorts of fun, outdoor, rewarding things you and your kids can enjoy and you get the added benefit of supporting a cause you believe in. The kids may need some convincing (and have to be old enough for some activities), but you can search online for volunteer opportunities designed for families and you're sure to find something worthwhile. Enjoy!

Theme Day Fun

When my children were young, I would search online for free family friendly local activities or local attractions my children would enjoy. They especially loved the short road trips to the events. I set a certain budget for each outing and chose food and fun accordingly. I would also buy dollar store items that went along with the theme of the day as souvenirs. My favorite souvenirs were cups or bowls with designs that went along with the day's theme. Whenever the kids used them, they'd remember the fun they had.

Join a Children's Museum

When our sons were this age, we joined a hands-on children's museum nearby. It was only $50 per year per family. The best thing about it? It got us into other children's museums across the country for free, including science ones. Every time we went camping (another fun thing to do with kids), we found a new museum to explore. Sometimes they were tiny and sometimes they were huge. And our kids always liked to go up to our museum for an hour or two on a rainy day.

Start Your Planning Now

When my sister's kids were young, for the summer she would put together a "park" schedule and email it to four of her friends who also had grade-school aged kids. We live in a city of 200,000, so we have several city parks with playgrounds and bike trails, a couple swimming pools, a children's zoo, kids' museum, and a nature center. The schedule was once a week at the various parks. The swimming/zoo/nature center was an extra "treat" every other week. For the weekly park visit, they would meet about 10:30 am and each would pack a picnic cooler for their family. The kids would play and then have lunch together. All the moms drove vans, so if they wanted to bike on the trail, they would just go earlier in the morning before the playground time. By having a group, it was more fun for the kids than just going to the park by themselves, and they had something to look forward to each week. Not much "extra" money spent and was a good way for the moms to connect as well.

When the kids were in double digits and "too old" for the kiddie playground, they would regularly meet for bike trail adventures with picnic lunches or free bowling with lunch. Another fun activity was a picnic lunch with an afternoon of roller skating. They also added a few "Movie Tuesdays" on their schedule (our theaters here have $5 shows every Tuesday) with the kids going to the show and moms going for coffee nearby. Extra "fun" scheduled about every other week included meeting at someone's house for a trampoline "party," tennis, crafts, or swimming. They also added two weekend "overnights," which included a backyard tent camp-out in late June with a cellphone scavenger hunt, fire pit with s'mores, etc. and a party in a camper on the driveway in late July with music, board games, rented movies (easily could have been a basement/family room party with sleeping bags, etc.).

The kids are now in high school with summer jobs but still want three "fun" weekends together with these same friends. The dates have been reserved and now the kids are making the plans.

A little planning up front makes it pretty easy for the whole summer. It's flexible if moms have to skip a week, or if it's too hot or raining for the activity, it's easy to substitute something else, etc. But it does get more expensive as the kids get older. Hope this is something other moms will find helpful.

Take Them on a Camping Staycation!

Unstructured time in the great outdoors is a great way to let them burn off energy and entertain themselves (not to mention appreciate what they have at home). Equipment can be expensive, but many of the larger items like backpacks and tents can be borrowed or rented from REI or similar retailers. Those things you do invest in can be used over and over, as opposed to a one-time admission ticket. Whether you go on a backpacking trip or camp near your vehicle, you'll be spending time together away from technology and the TV, and they'll gain a new perspective on the world around them.
Terry in Hoschton, GA

Become Familiar with Your Community's Recreation Department

No matter where you live, you most likely have a community recreation department. Check their bulletins for inexpensive and free activities as well as local picnic grounds and playgrounds. If there are museums in your area, you should check to see if they have a pay-what-you-can or free day each month. You may also find botanical gardens, state parks, city parks, and other lands that are free or very inexpensive. My local state parks charge by the car, not the individual. Try entering "free [my city] activities" in your search engine to find more activities in your area.
Barbara in SC

If circumstances have put your family in debt, find out how to conquer your debt by creating a plan personalized to your family's budget and lifestyle.

Have Some Animal Fun

When my kids were young, I often needed low-cost activities to keep them busy and happy, too. We made great use of our local library, and in the summer, there was always a "summer reading program" where kids could earn little prizes for meeting reading goals. The library also had kids' programs all through the summer, such as magicians and a lady who brought her collection of turtles to the library for a presentation to the kids. These were fun and free!

Also, you might check with local animal shelters if your kids like animals and aren't allergic. In Columbus, Ohio, we have a cage-free cat shelter, as well as other shelters that have both cats and dogs. The shelters appreciate it when people come in to play with the animals or volunteer to walk a dog, because it helps socialize them and makes them better pets for prospective adopters.

When kids get to be a little older, maybe 10 or 11, they can offer to "pet sit" for neighbors on vacation, walking dogs and feeding animals several times a day so that the animals can stay in their own homes rather than being boarded. Of course, that requires some adult supervision to make sure the kids are doing their jobs.

Visit Your State's Tourism Bureau

Check out your state tourism bureau for cheap family staycation ideas. You can find the website for your state here. I live in Ohio, and they publish a Calendar of Events magazine every six months. It is free to order, and it lists many festivals, activities, special museum exhibits, opening days of various seasonal activities, and more. Some have costs associated with them, but most are free. We have found so many things to do that we wouldn't have known about or experienced otherwise that I still order it even though my kids are in college.
Carolyn W.

Updated May 2017

Take the Next Step:

  • Discover more frugal staycation ideas by visiting the Dollar Stretcher Library.
  • Find new ways to reduce the family budget each week on our page dedicated to frugal families like yours.
  • It's tough raising kids today! You need every time and money saving idea you can find. That's why you'll want to get our free weekly Dollar Stretcher for Parents newsletter. You'll find great ideas designed just for parents that will help your family 'live better...for less'! Subscribers get a copy of our ebook Little Luxuries: 130 Ways to Live Better...For Less for FREE.

Have an idea that we didn't include? Send it to us and we'll add it to the article.

Stay Connected with TDS


It's tough raising kids today!

Dollar Stretcher for Parents is a weekly newsletter designed just for parents that will help save your family both time and money.

Little Luxuries

And get a copy
of our ebook
Little Luxuries:
130 Ways to Live Better...For Less
for FREE!

Your Email:

View the TDS Privacy Policy.

Debt Book