22 FREE (or very cheap) ways to create a magical summer for kids

22 FREE (or very cheap) ways to create a magical summer for kids

It's been another far-from-normal school year, but now it's the summer hols – so you might need some new ways to entertain the kids. We've come up with fun tips to create unforgettable summer magic for free (or very cheap), from writing to a celeb to 'painted rocks' treasure hunts.

We've updated the blog with tips that are doable in the current Covid climate, including beam a dino into your living room, go fruit picking and take the online Summer Reading Challenge. Once you've finished this list, we've also our big guide to 100+ free or cheap things to do with kids, including theme park discounts etc.

The average UK family will spend £1,400 entertaining the kids over this summer holiday, according to July 2021 research from Compare The Market. But to help on the money side, if you know where to look, there are tons of no-cost ways to create special memories.

At this point we need to say thanks to our guest editors, my four and seven-year-old daughters, for helping me whittle down and order these. For reference, their top three were: 3D dinosaurs, frozen dinosaur eggs (can you spot a theme here?) and camping in the garden, which is always fun, weather permitting.

We'd love to hear your tricks, too – let us know in the free summer magic forum thread or comment below.

Beam a virtual dino into your home

You might have already spotted that you can project 3D animals into your home via your phone, thanks to Google's 'augmented reality' search feature. It's now added dinosaurs, so you can play with a virtual T-Rex, stegosaurus or velociraptor. Just download Google Chrome to your phone, then search for a dinosaur. Click the 'view in 3D button', then 'view in your space' and you should see the creature prowling your room on your device's screen.

It doesn't work for every dinosaur, but some other ones we've tried include spinosaurus, pteranodon, triceratops and ankylosaurus.

To access this feature, your device will need to be AR (augmented reality) enabled, so this might not work on some older phones. The easiest way to find out is to try it to see.

Go on a 'painted rock' treasure hunt – or decorate your own pebbles

Ever spotted a beautifully decorated pebble nestled in the sand or underneath a tree stump and wondered how it came to be there? It's all about Love On The Rocks, a community of rock-painting fans who paint pebbles and leave them for others to find.

It's a craze that started in the US, where it's called Kindness Rocks – the idea being to brighten someone's day with a cheery message. The UK's Love On The Rocks Facebook group now boasts about 100,000 members, sharing pebble sightings from Bude to Inverness. Enthusiasts post photos of the beautiful rocks they've painted, as well as stones they've found and where

There are also local Facebook groups, so it's worth searching to see if there's one in your area. It's easy to get involved. First, find a pebble – the smoother, the better. Then sketch your design on with a pencil. Get painting – acrylic paints are the best choice for stone. See a full how-to.

Once finished, just hide your rock for a passer-by to happen upon. Of course, if you're out hunting for rocks with kids this summer, it's probably better to avoid touching them with bare hands if you can.

Take the library Summer Reading Challenge

The charity the Reading Agency's Summer Reading Challenge 2021 hopes to inspire children aged four to 11 to read six books over the summer holidays.

This year's theme is 'Wild World Heroes', celebrating books about nature. Take part by signing up at your local library. Each time they finish a book, they'll get a sticker to pop on their special collector map. The challenge runs until mid-September, but it does depend on your library, so check when you sign up.

You can also take part online. Each time kids finish a book, they add it to their profile, give it a rating and leave a review. At the end, there's a certificate to download.

Also see our Free and cheap kids' books blog for more tricks to find bargain reading material.

Go bounty hunting – for strawberries and raspberries

What could be better than a balmy summer's day spent filling punnets with juicy fruit – the peace and quiet broken only by the occasional scream of "You're only allowed to sample ONE!"

Typically, pick-your-own fruit farms let you book a time slot for a few quid, which you can then redeem against the seasonal goodies you buy. It's educational too, as kids will learn about where their food comes from.

We're coming towards the end of the strawberry season now, but there should be plenty of raspberries, plums and apples on their way. The easiest way to find your nearest is to tap 'pick your own' into Google Maps.

Forage for wild blackberries

You could even go foraging for wild blackberries, which are plentiful this time of year, in woods and hedgerows. Of course, you need to watch what your kids are doing here. For example, wash and freeze blackberries to get rid of bugs, and always leave some for the animals to eat, and so the blackberries can reseed.

Little kids need to know to never eat berries without checking first, and to avoid eating mushrooms as many are not safe. For more, see the National Trust's guide to foraging.

Cool off with some frozen dino eggs

Small kids love playing with ice and these dinosaur eggs are super simple to make. All you need is a few balloons and toy dinosaurs.

First stretch a balloon's neck over the toy dinosaur (this can involve a bit of trial and error). Then fill the balloon with water (drop of food colouring, optional – although while testing this I did end up covered in purple water).

Next tie up the balloon and pop it in the freezer. In about 12 hours, it should be frozen solid – just cut off the balloon. Here are some we made earlier (see photo, right).

Now your dino fan can watch the dinosaur slowly 'hatch' in the sunshine. For some added science, try melting the eggs with saltwater.

For a variation on this, collect flowers then freeze them in an egg shell to make pretty art. Here's a how-to.

Go on a mammoth park crawl

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to visit as many parks as possible in one day. Go to one park, play for 15 minutes, then drive or cycle to another one. Hopefully your kids will be sparko by bedtime. 

Oooh argh, have a pirate day

Scrawl on some black eyeliner and red lippy, then tie a scarf round your head... you're pirates! Next make some pirate swords out of cardboard and stick some pirate films on the telly.

This lovely free printable pirate treasure hunt was a hit with my little buccaneers – probably because of the pirate booty at the end of the hunt, a few choccie gold coins.

Become a nature detective

Escape the hustle and bustle and take a walk through a woodland. Before you go, download the Woodland Trust's nifty British tree identification app (available on iPhone and Android). It helps you identify UK trees by leaf, flower, fruit or bark.

You can also complete Woodland Trust activities. Ideas include outdoor fun such as a minibeast hunt, nature art and more. For rainy days there are craft activities and colouring sheets. See Woodland Trust for full information.

Glamp in the garden

Fancy a spot of camping? For all the fun, but none of the cost or hassle, what better place to sleep in a tent than your own garden (if you've a safe one, of course). Kids will love the adventure and you'll still have access to important home comforts, such as a warm shower or a glass of cold rosé.

Then set up a makeshift camp with a torch, chairs, rugs and cushions. You could glam it up with whatever you have to hand, be it bunting, wooden crates or battery-powered fairy lights. Complete the experience by roasting marshmallows or s'mores over a barbecue.

Dip strawberries in chocolate or make your own ice lollies

Get kids interested in eating fruit... by dipping it in chocolate. Melt chocolate pieces in a heat-proof bowl, and let kids dip the strawberries in – see a full recipe.

Another favourite summer treat is a DIY ice lolly with fresh fruit. You just need a lolly mould (you can often find them at pound shops). Check out these lolly recipes from the BBC, or you might even be able to sneak in some spinach.

Got a printer? Make use of free colouring pages and treasure hunts

One of my kids' favourite activities is choosing free colouring pages to print off online ("PRIINNNTING, mummy! PRIINNNTING!"). Check out GetColouringPages and SuperColouring for thousands of options.

Also have a look for printable activities on the official sites of whatever your little 'un is into, whether Playmobil, diggers or Julia Donaldson. (How lovely are these paper dolls?)

Sounds simple, but scavenger hunts and treasure hunts are a great way to kill half an hour – the internet makes setting these up super easy.

Identify stars with a free stargazing app

Head out on a magical evening walk – and work out what you're actually seeing with a beautiful stargazing app.

Billing itself as a 'free planetarium', the Star Walk 2 app is available on Apple and Android. Point your mobile upwards to reveal the names of stars and constellations, galaxies, asteroids and more. You can even let the app access your camera, so you get an 'augmented reality' overlay showing what's what, and the app also gives info on whatever you spot, so kids will know their meteor shower from their Milky Way in no time.

While this works best in the evenings, if the kids can't stay up late enough you can use it in the daytime too – even if you can't spot the stars, you can see where they would be. It'll even help you spot the sun if the weather's not co-operating.

Organise a game of rounders with mates

Thwack! Why not get some mates together for an invigorating game of rounders? The joy of rounders is it's so easy that anyone can have a bash – all you need is a field, a ball and a wooden bat. Need a refresher of the rules? See Rounders England for a full list.

Climb aboard a fire engine at a free open day

WEE-aww-WEE-aww. Many fire stations hold free open days over the summer. Kids can usually meet the firefighters, sit on a fire engine and learn about fire safety.

The quickest way to find events near you is to google your local fire service or check on Facebook. A search revealed Bolsover is having an open day on Saturday 14 August, Swadlincote on Saturday 19 September.

Watch planes take off – for the price of a coffee

If you've an airport nearby, check if there's a café or pub where you can watch the planes without a boarding pass.

We've done this a few times and little kids love it – just buy a drink, and sit there for as long as possible.

For example, in Leeds Bradford, there's the Multiflight Cafe, Southend Airport has the Holiday Inn Cafe or Manchester Airport has the Airport Pub and Grill.

Go on a sculpture trail

Many cities host sculpture trails, featuring art installations hidden around the sprawl – a cheap and cheerful family outing.

If you happen to be near Southend, walk the Hares About Town sculpture trail (until 12 September). You can also wander through the Bears of Sheffield trail, with 160 bears to spot (until 29 September). London has Sculpture in the City (until spring 2022).

Play the 'Poundland prioritisation' game

A lesson it's never too early to learn: if you haven't got enough cash to pay for everything you want, you need to work out what's most important to you. A great way to teach this to kids is the Poundland prioritisation game.

Just head over to Poundland or another pound shop and give your little 'un £3 to spend. They can choose three items, and must stick within their budget. So if they already have three things and want a unicorn craft set, they'll need to put the bon-bons back.

For more ideas on how to teach kids about money, see our Teen Cash Class guide and financial education textbook.

Make your own stop-motion movie via free app

"Action, cut, do it again but more awesome!" Kids can stage their own 'stop motion' movie with their Lego, Playmobil, Sylvanian Families figures or whatever toys they have to hand – just by downloading a free app. The idea is you give life to inanimate toys by shooting a few frames at a time, while moving objects in between shots.

To create your own short film, get the free Stop Motion Studio app on Google Play or Apple's App Store and follow the instructions.

Write to a celeb – you may well get a letter back

What could be more exciting than receiving a letter from someone famous? It only costs the price of a stamp to send off the letter, it gets kids practising their writing skills, and they're more likely to get a reply than you might think. We've managed to get replies from authors Lydia Monks and Benji Davies, not to mention Meghan and Harry.

So from writers to footballers, if your child has a hero, why not write them some fan mail? People often post the replies they've received from celebrities on Twitter, so it's worth searching there for inspiration. We've heard of David Walliams, David Attenborough and Jessica Ennis-Hill replying to kids.

Make your own toy unwrapping video

Little girl making a toy review video.

Is your child mesmerised by unboxing videos on YouTube? If you're not familiar with this surreal trend, it's where children unbox toys on screen, describing what's happening in detail as they go. (For a taster, one of the most popular YouTube channels is Ryan Toys Review.)

If your kids are fans, why not get them to hone their presentation skills by creating their own unboxing videos? All they need to do is wrap up their toys, then film themselves opening and reviewing them.

Of course, these are for viewing by friends and family – think carefully before uploading anything online. Check out these Share Aware tips from the charity the NSPCC.

It's also worth teaching them why toy companies often pay money to have their products featured in these videos. The reason is simple: a company's job is to make money, so it hopes the video will tempt us to buy that toy, so it can make more cash. It's our job to make the right decisions for ourselves.

Get the kids comping for prizes, including an Xbox One

Children at the cinema.

Entering competitions is such a fun hobby for kids – there's nothing like that feeling of winning a prize. Plus they could be more likely to win than you think, especially if there's extra effort involved.

Our 40+ Comping Tips guide explains how to systematically source and enter contests. However, as many competitions are only open to over-18s, it's worth scouring kids' magazines and TV channel websites to find suitable comps.

Of course, it's worth reminding them about internet safety here – only enter competitions from large, respected organisations and never give out personal details without your permission.

Goodies up for grabs this summer include:

- National Geographic is running a competition to win 'nine summer board games', including Sushi Go!, Bandido and King of Tokyo. The closing date is 22 September.

- Silentnight is offering a chance to win your dream bed. Get creative and draw your dream bed, then upload the file by 1 September to enter.

- Milkshake is running a competition to win family tickets to Paw Patrol the movie, plus more related goodies. Enter by 14 August.

Do a fun £2 experiment to see if your kids are brushing their teeth properly

If you're going to a Boots anyway to pick up essentials, you could add some of these £2 Kids' Plaque Reveal Tablets. The chewy tablets highlight plaque in purpley-blue, helping kids see areas they should brush better next time.

Just brush your teeth as normal, then chew the tablets to reveal the proof of plaque. To help explain more about how to look after those pearly whites, check out the book Open Wide, What's Inside or watch this Ted-Ed lesson on what causes cavities.