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

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

It's been far from a normal school year for most, 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.

It's no surprise that seven in 10 parents (69%) feel this year's summer holidays will be harder to plan than usual – that's according to research by the campaign group Smart Energy GB. 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 three and five-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 ONLINE Summer Reading Challenge

The charity the Reading Agency's Summer Reading Challenge 2020 hopes to inspire children aged four to 11 to read six books over the summer holidays.

Just sign up for free on its site. This year's theme is 'Silly Squad', celebrating funny books. Each time kids finish a book, they add it to their Silly Squad profile, give it a rating and leave a review. At the end, there's a certificate to download. The challenge runs until mid-September.

How to get hold of books

Of course, this summer it's not as simple as popping into your local library to pick up the latest David Walliams. While the Government's allowed libraries to reopen, whether yours is depends on your council (find yours). Many closed libraries are offering free click and collect services – Public Libraries News has a great council-by-council rundown.

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

Go bounty hunting – for apples 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 and what it costs.

We're coming towards the end of the strawberry season now, but there should be plenty of 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. Do note, while outdoor playgrounds are allowed to reopen, it's worth checking local updates before heading out.

Make a day of it with 50% off food via Eat Out to Help Out

The Government is financing 50% off meals out on Monday to Wednesday in August, up to £10 a head. You'll be able to get the discount at a range of participating restaurants, cafés and pubs. Burger King, Nando's, Wetherspoon, Pizza Hut and Toby Carvery have told MoneySavingExpert.com they'll be among those taking part.

Of course, lots of local independent restaurants are taking part too. Why not go somewhere you can make a day of it, for example, a restaurant near a country park, the woods or another free spot? See our Eat Out to Help Out MSE News story for full details.

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, dinosaurs 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.

Go on a sculpture trail

Many cities host sculpture trails, featuring art installations hidden around the sprawl – a cheap and cheerful family outing. This year many have been postponed until 2021, but there are still a few going ahead, so it's worth keeping an eye out. If you happen to be near Burton-upon-Trent, go to the Swan Trail and see if you can spot the swan sculptures (launches Saturday 8 August). London has Sculpture in the City (on until autumn 2020).

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. MSE Ant H's wife Kayleigh still treasures a handwritten reply she got from comedian Kathy Burke as a kid.

From authors 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 ToysReview.)

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.

Enjoy 100s of free Audible kids' audiobooks, incl Winnie the Pooh and Alice in Wonderland

Amazon's audiobook-seller Audible has released a collection of audiobooks for free, which it says will be available "for as long as schools are closed". Books include Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, The Secret Garden, Winnie the Pooh and Timeless Tales of Beatrix Potter.

This is an amazing freebie and we've listened to hours so far. For even more material, most libraries allow access to a vast catalogue of adults' and kids' e-books and digital audiobooks for free. As an example, our local library in Essex uses a brilliant app called Borrow Box. You can borrow up to seven audiobooks and seven e-books at a time from a selection of hundreds.

All libraries are different, but every one we checked had some kind of digital service, so it's widespread. Check your library's website to see what's on offer.

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:

- The RSPB is running a 'create a piece of art inspired by nature' competition for artists 18 or under. The prize is a £100 art gift voucher. The closing date is Friday 28 August.

- NatWest and National Geographic Kids magazine are offering a chance to win an Xbox One. Register (it's free) and answer a question by Tuesday 18 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.

Access 40,000 kids' e-books for free with a 30-day trial, incl Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Ada Twist, Scientist

Epic is an app that's essentially Netflix for kids' e-books, and if you sign up for a free 30-day trial (newbies only), you can access 40,000 titles for free. Kids can read as much as they like from a wide selection of fiction and non-fiction titles aimed at under-12s.

Titles include kids' favourites such as Where the Wild Things Are (Kindle price £6.99), Diary of a Wimpy Kid (£3.49) and Ada Twist, Scientist (£5.93). There's also a host of non-fiction books, including the National Geographic Readers series.

To sign up, download the app for free from Google Play or the Apple App Store. Alternatively, use Epic's desktop site. 

After your trial ends, you'll automatically be charged $7.99/month (£6.30 at today's exchange rate), so make sure you remember and cancel online at any time during your trial if you don't want to keep it. You can't keep any books after you've cancelled. If you do decide to subscribe to Epic, consider using a specialist travel card to pay, to avoid fees when making your payments, as it's a US site.