Parent-Centered Ideas for Cheap Summer Fun

Cheap summer fun ideas with the Beckers

When Jessica Becker set out to publish reviews of her city’s playgrounds she wasn’t primarily motivated by the fact it was an inexpensive activity. In fact, she says, it was inspired by a city planning meeting more than anything.

“The playground near our house was having new equipment put in,” she says. “We received a postcard about a meeting to help be part of the process. I went and there were a few neighbors who had kids that I was already friends with.”

“We learned a lot about the restrictions of playgrounds, the city process and oversight,” Becker continues.  “I found myself doing a lot of Google searches and reading about play and playgrounds. And I was increasingly impressed by the variety of playgrounds around the world.”

Inspired by her research, she and her then 3- and 5-year-old daughters hopped on their bikes (well, really one big mom-powered bike back then, see photo by Peter DiAntoni, above) and took off. Over the course of that first summer they visited and reviewed dozens of playgrounds across the city.

Now, in its 3rd summer, Madison Playground Review has provided Becker’s family with whole days of healthy and inexpensive adventures, and it’s inspiring others to do the same. Most important, the kids like it.

Just last spring Becker’s oldest, now 7, brought home a worksheet from school. “It asked, ‘What are some of your favorite memories of things you do with your mom?’” Becker remembers. “And she had said ‘playground reviews.’”

Ask yourself what you like to do

If you’re looking for ways to break up the summer routine without breaking out your wallet, you’ve probably already scoured thrift stores for gently used sports gear and whipped together your share of homemade playdough.

Becker’s story hints at another way of going about creating summer fun on a budget—by building upon activities that interest YOU first and foremost. For her, the process was intellectual.

“I was interested when I started reading innovative research on play and how playgrounds can be really unique. I like how they cross over into art, public art and public space,” says the communications and outreach specialist for a local nonprofit whose background is in informal education.

“It seemed like a fun way to hang out with my kids, who like destinations. And like most kids, they like to go to playgrounds.” It didn’t hurt that she got to spend time on the bicycle., and as a parent it gave her another way to engage with her kids.

Start Googling

Focus your search around what you want to learn more about.

Maybe nature is your thing? If so, seek out nearby wildlife refuges where you can hike and learn about the local species. Set a schedule for fishing together or grab binoculars for birding or identifying insects.

Curious about how things are made? Consult this map that lists factory tours by state.

Love animals? Look up petting zoos in your area or visit local pet stores and tour animal shelters if you can practice discipline!

Feeling artsy? Plenty of kids’ crafts make use of scraps and throwaways. But to keep yourself interested, consider visiting area museums (which often have a kid-friendly activity or angle) or check out your Chamber of Commerce for studio open house events.

Spin a good yarn? Look to libraries and bookstores for story time hours.

Got your water wings?  Seek the beach. “We don’t go to the pool that often,” Becker says. “Sometimes we’ll go to the beach in the evenings and have our dinner down there.”

Get the whole village in on it

After the park in Becker’s urban neighborhood underwent its overhaul, she says she and a group of friends “just became excited by the potential of this park. Now we have a standing date on Fridays with other families and have a picnic dinner.”

What started as a fledging social event, “Fridays in the Park” now hosts some 6 to 15 kids and about twice the adults on any given Friday evening. “It happens to be near a little business district… and someone will pick up a pizza order or two.”

If a public space is in walking distance from you and a handful of families you enjoy, consider setting up a weekly gathering. Maybe a family friendly kickball match or chalk drawing contest.

Keep it stress-free by making it a BYOB activity that no one person has to organize or host.

Be realistic

Lest you think the fun times in Becker’s family only revolve around homemade picnics, beachside dinners and human-powered transportation, take heart. While day camp and overnight trips to waterparks are expenses they mostly avoid, they happily shell out money when they want to.

For example, time is aside for a family road trip (this year the destination is the Statue of Liberty) and this summer each are enrolled in one week of day camp. Family amusement parks aren’t out of the question either. In fact, when the mention of Little Amerricka comes up, the youngest brightens and repeats the name with relish: “Litttllee Ammmericaaaa!”

Fun, after all, is only fun when it doesn’t feel like discipline. The key is to decide for yourself when and where to treat yourselves to get the most from your resources.

Photo credit by Peter DiAntoni.