24 FREE (or very cheap) ways to create a magical summer for kids
The summer hols are nearly upon us, and millions need to entertain the kids. So we wanted to come up with ways to create some unforgettable summer magic for free (or very cheap), from writing to a celeb to 'painted rocks' treasure hunts.
The average UK family spends £1,400 entertaining the kids over the summer holidays, according to July 2021 research from Compare The Market, and this is likely to rise this year. 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 small 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 over 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.
Take the library Summer Reading Challenge
Charity the Reading Agency's Summer Reading Challenge 2022 hopes to inspire children aged four to 11 to read six books over the summer holidays.
This year's theme is 'Gadgeteers', celebrating creativity and invention. 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 launches on Saturday 9 July in England and Wales (it's already launched in Scotland and Northern Ireland), and runs until mid-September. 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, raspberries and blackberries
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.
Right now there should be should be plenty of strawberries, raspberries and blackberries 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 from August, 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.
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.
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 have one and it's safe, 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 something chilled.
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.
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.
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.
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 Colchester is having an open day on Saturday 16 July, Louth on Saturday 3 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.
Many cities host sculpture trails, featuring art installations hidden around the sprawl – a cheap and cheerful family outing.
If you happen to be near Ipswich, walk the Big Hoot Owl sculpture trail (from Sunday 19 June to Monday 12 September). You can also wander through the Elmers Belfast trail, with elephants to spot (until Wednesday 31 August). Hampshire has the Hare Trail (until Thursday 25 August).
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 David Walliams, 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 Attenborough and Jessica Ennis-Hill replying to kids.
Make your own toy unwrapping 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
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 various comps, including one to win 'an iPad and Osmo games'. The closing date is Tuesday 23 August.
- Sudocrem is offering a chance to win a £500 holiday voucher if you get creative and draw a 'little masterpiece', then upload the file by Sunday 31 July to enter.
- Milkshake is running a competition to win a bundle of Paw Patrol goodies.
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 purply-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.
Get them outside, active and doing their bit by beach cleaning
Cleaning may not be an activity kids usually leap at. Yet if you live near the coast, taking part in a beach clean is a great – and free – way to get children outside, occupied and doing a good thing. They'll help keep beaches clean and make them safer for wildlife. All they need is energy, enthusiasm and a pair of gloves (plus sun protection and drinks if it's warm).
You can find organised beach cleans in your area via organisations that cover the whole UK, such as the Marine Conservation Society, National Trust and Surfers Against Sewage. There are also regional organisations and schemes, such as Clean Cornwall, Norfolk Coast Partnership and Yorkshire Wildlife Trust. Facebook is good for finding clean-ups near you, too. Organised events usually supply bin bags, buckets and handwash, but it's worth checking before you go.
If you can't find an organised clean at a location or on a date that suits, many popular beaches now put out bags and litter pickers for visitors, to encourage them to help out while they're there. And if that's not an option, there's nothing to stop you grabbing a few bin bags, heading to the beach and challenging your terrors to a who-can-fill-theirs-the-quickest competition.
There are a few safety points to be aware of, including not picking up anything sharp and avoiding strange substances. See the Marine Conservation Society's full beach clean guide.
Grab £4 top-secret tickets for West End shows
This one's not totally free, but it's a steal considering it's easy to spend £100+ on a theatre trip for a family of four. A special site sells last-minute unsold seats for the theatre, ballet, concerts and more at dirt-cheap prices. The catch is you must agree to keep schtum, so you don't upset people who paid full whack.
We've seen some fantabulous London kids' shows for £4 a head this way. I could tell you more about it… but they'd have to kill me (or at least revoke my membership). See Top secret tickets.