23 FREE (or very cheap) ways to create a magical summer for kids
It's the summer hols, 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 the royals to 'painted rocks' treasure hunts.
Update 16 August 2019: As we near the end of the summer, we've just updated the blog with five more tips, including a free stargazing app, how to make your own toy unwrapping video and the Poundland prioritisation game. Also see our guides to 100+ free or cheap things to do with the kids and 180+ free museums and galleries.
A survey by The Reading Agency charity found 65% of parents say the summer holidays leave them broke or seriously feeling the pinch. Over half (55%) of parents admit they spend an eye-popping £500-£1,500 extra on kids' entertainment over the summer. But brilliant days out don't have to cost heaps – 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 editor, my five-year-old daughter, for helping me edit and order these. For reference, her top five were: having a pirate day, dipping strawberries in chocolate, watching planes take off, camping in the garden and printing out colouring pages. They all got a resounding "YESSS, WOO!"
- Write to Meghan Markle (or another royal/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.
For example, my little one wrote to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex to congratulate them on Archie's arrival ("I hope you have fun with your baby!"). A few weeks later, she was elated when an envelope bearing the Kensington Palace crest dropped through the letterbox (see pic, above right).
Addresses for the royals can be found online, but it's worth noting you're unlikely to get a reply before the end of the holidays. We asked Buckingham Palace and it said: "We wouldn't want anyone to be disappointed. We receive a huge amount of correspondence and do try to respond to most of it. However, there can be delays, especially at this busy time of year."
And this could work with anyone, 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.
- Take a peek inside an Amazon warehouse – you may even spot some robots. OK, Disneyland it ain't, but this is a fab free day out for budding entrepreneurs or economists. Amazon offers free guided tours at eight of its warehouses in England and Scotland.
Kids will see what happens after you click 'buy', and watch toys and other items getting packed and shipped. They might even spot some robots sorting items or get to try their hand at packing one of the brown boxes.
Just visit Amazon fulfilment centre tours and choose a spot at Coventry, Doncaster, Dunfermline, Dunstable, Manchester, Peterborough, Rugeley or Tilbury. Summer dates are going fast, though we found August availability at Coventry, Rugeley and Tilbury. Available dates will be highlighted – just register to book.
Kids must be six or over and you can book for groups of up to 10, so why not rope in some pals? (Though you don't have to be in a group.) Adults must take Government-issued ID on the day.
- 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.
The craze started in the States, where it's called Kindness Rocks – the idea being to brighten someone's day with a cheery message. Now it's in the UK, with the Love On The Rocks UK Facebook group boasting nearly 100,000 members, sharing pebble sightings from Bude to Inverness. Enthusiasts post photos of the beautiful rocks they've painted, as well as the special 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.
- Love your library – take the Summer Reading Challenge. The Reading Agency's Summer Reading Challenge 2019 hopes to inspire children aged four to 11 to read six library books over the summer holidays.
Just sign up for free at your local library. The vast majority in England, Wales and Scotland are taking part, but check with yours. This year's challenge is space-themed and kids earn a special sticker for every library book they read.
The challenge runs in England, Scotland and Wales (it's not on in Northern Ireland, unfortunately). In most areas, the challenge ends on 31 August, so there's still time to get reading. Local variations can apply, so check with your library.
- Go on a mini adventure – on a FREE Asda bus. Pack a blanket and some provisions: you're about to set off on an adventure to new lands… on an Asda bus.
Little kids love simple things like catching the bus, and Asda runs little-known totally free buses to and from 18 of its stores across the UK (not NI). If you happen to be on a route (they're typically up to 45 minutes long), it's a ready-made free day out, as many have a park or other new place to explore nearby.
For example, Asda in Byker is a stone's throw from Heaton Park, Asda Dundee is near Drumgeith Park, and its Cardiff Supercentre is a stroll from Long Wood Nature Reserve.
We asked Asda's press office if you have to buy anything to ride the bus. The answer's no, but the drivers do ensure passengers get on and off at the supermarket.
Most timetables are not online, so you need to call the customer service desk for info.
- Three tricks to track down top free events near you, eg, crafts and holiday camps. The web is a goldmine of free activities near you. Organisations from councils to churches to woodland schemes lay on free days out. So every summer, I set up an ultimate Google Calendar of all the free events near us. Here are a few tips to find them them:
I) Download the Hoop app. This clever free app helps you discover events nearby. You can filter by 'free', and it shows recommended ages, so you can easily spot suitable freebies at a glance. It also lets you search by distance from your postcode.
2) Scour Facebook for events. 'Like' the pages of every local library, museum, wildlife trust, country park, children's centre and fire station. Then scroll down to events on the left-hand side of their pages. A quick squiz through my local ones found free outdoor cinema screenings, space-themed crafts, and a week's church holiday camp.
3) Search on Eventbrite. This is another events site that can come up trumps. Filter by 'family and education' and 'free' – it will generate a list of top happenings near you. This one's good for older kids too, for example, we found a fashion design taster session at a college.
- 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 Lego, Playmobil 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.
- 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 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.
- 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, handwash etc, 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 a full list of safety tips.
- 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 from a choice of hundreds of free downloadable sheets. Activities include outdoor fun such as a fairy and elf hunt, identifying birds and more. For rainy days there are recipes, craft activities and colouring sheets. See Woodland Trust for full information (it also has a paid-for club).
- 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 have access to home comforts such as showers and cold rosé.
No tent? Borrow one from a friend or search for freebies on Freecycle. 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.
- 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). Until 31 August, we've a link that lets you skip the usual waiting list. See Top Secret Tickets.
- 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 such as these £1.43 pineapple moulds from Robert Dyas online (free in-store delivery). Check out these lolly recipes from the BBC, or you might even be able to sneak in some spinach.
- Make your own slime or gen up on pets at free workshops. Unleash kids' creativity by heading down to your local Hobbycraft for one of its free workshops. Kids can make their own slime, create a wind chime or decorate ceramics – plus there's no clearing up after.
To book, go to Hobbycraft, choose an activity and search for dates near you. Activities and times vary by store. It's in England, Scotland and Wales (not NI). Many workshops are booked up now for this summer, but it's worth noting for half term.
On a similar note, Pets at Home runs brill free workshops for kids. Sessions last between 30 minutes and an hour, and kids can learn about small furries, friendly fish or cool pets. We found plenty of availability for August – the challenge is not coming home with a new addition to the family.
See more free in-store activities in our Deals section.
- 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 meet the firefighters, sit on a fire engine or even try on a firefighter uniform.
The quickest way to find events near you is to google your local fire service or check on Facebook. A search revealed Hainault and Ellesmere Port are having open days on Saturday 31 August, Dymchurch on Saturday 24 August.
- 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're near Plymouth, Suffolk or Tyne and Wear, for example, check out Elmer's Big Art Parade to see if you can spot the elephant sculptures dotted around. Windsor and Maidenhead has a lions' parade and London has contemporary art.
- New. 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 or 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 should be. It'll even help you spot the sun if the weather's not co-operating.
- New. 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 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 NSPCC.
It's also worth teaching them why toy companies often pay money to have their products featured on 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.
- New. 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 Young Enterprise's resources database.
- New. 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.
- New. Get the kids comping for prizes, including a Micro Scooter and Odeon tickets. 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 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:
- Win a Micro Scooter via Milkshake. You need to submit a picture of your favourite Milkshake character by 5pm on 30 August.
- Nickelodeon is running a 'design your own movie poster' competition. The prize is five Odeon family tickets for a family of four (ie, five cinema trips for the whole family). The closing date is 15 September.
- For older kids, BAFTA is running a competition which aims to find a new screen star aged between seven and 14. Children are invited to create and submit a two-minute video, responding to the theme 'I care about...'. The deadline for entries is 6pm on 6 September.
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