21 free (or very cheap) ways to sprinkle joy for kids over half term
With February half term upon us, we've rounded up 21 tips to keep the wee ones entertained without a hefty price tag. Whether you're staying indoors or wrapping up to spend time outside, we've activities to make time fly – from glamping in the front room to having a virtual tiger come to tea in your kitchen.
Most of these have been tested by my two little 'uns, but we'd also love to hear what fun you'll be getting up to – let us know via Twitter.
Beam a tiger (or shark, panda or pug) into your home
Thanks to Google's augmented-reality search feature, you can beam a virtual tiger, shark or pug into your home. Just download Google Chrome to your phone, then search for an animal. 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 single animal, but some other fun ones include penguin, hedgehog and lion. A special thing you could do, if your kids have read the book, is have sandwiches and buns with 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'. Or you could invite an alligator or shark along to bath time (just don't drop your phone).
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.
Make easy homemade playdough
What toddler doesn't love squishing and rolling colourful playdough? We make our own using this recipe I found online, and I was surprised by how easy it was (I left out the glycerine and cream of tartar, as we just didn't have them in the house, but it still worked). My daughters loved helping out with the mixing and kneading.
Make rocky road or 'school cake'
Give the Great British Bake Off a run for its money and whip up some rocky road, banana sushi or a school-style tray bake.
Alternatively, make their days with a tasty fakeaway Happy Meal. MumDonald's (or MaccyDad's), anyone? Kids will be... lovin' it.
Glamp in the front room
Little kids will love the adventure of camping out in the living room. Set up a makeshift camp with a torch, rugs, cushions and stuffed animals. You could glam it up with whatever you have to hand, be it bunting, wooden crates or fairy lights. If you have some, complete the experience by roasting marshmallows or s'mores.
Warm your cockles with homemade hot choc bombs
Hot chocolate bombs are spheres of chocolate stuffed with cocoa and marshmallows. Simply pop them in a mug and pour over steaming milk to watch them explode.
These can cost up to £10 for three from posh shops such as Oliver Bonas. However, they can be made cheaply at home – here's a handy tutorial.
Get kids comping for prizes, including space hoppers and 'a day in the life of a milk person'
Entering competitions is such a fun hobby for kids – there's nothing like that feeling of winning a prize. They could be more likely to win than you think, especially if there's extra effort involved – which they now have plenty of time to put in.
Our 40+ Comping Tips guide explains how to source and enter contests systematically. However, as many competitions are only open to over-18s, it's worth scouring kids' magazines and 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 currently up for grabs include
- National Geographic is giving the chance to win a gardening starter kit. You just need to fill in a quick 'find your clean air personality' quiz and the closing date is 1 March 2023.
- Milkshake is running a competition which asks kids to 'draw their favourite Milkshake character or presenter having a party'. Prizes include a Baby Shark toy, scooter and space hopper. The deadline's 24 February 2023.
- Milk & More is challenging young people aged 5+ to name one of its milk floats. Prizes include a day in the life of a milk person, Amazon vouchers and £100 of book tokens for your school. Send your entry by 25 February 2023.
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. My little one treasures a beautiful handwritten reply she got from author and illustrator Lydia Monks, complete with a ladybird painting.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Make your own stop-motion movie with a 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.
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.
Dig out the family albums
Sounds simple, but when I read this list of ideas to mine, this was one of their top choices. Kids love checking out family photos and hearing stories.
Go on a mammoth park crawl
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to wrap up warm and 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 a fun £2 experiment to see if kids are brushing their teeth properly
If you're going to a Boots anyway, 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.
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.
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
Billing itself as a 'free planetarium', the Star Walk 2 app is available on Apple or Android. Point your mobile skyward 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. 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, 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.
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.