Low- or no-cost summer activities for little ones

I remember back when I was a kid that the most fun I had was when I was playing outside with my cousins; catching fireflies at night; playing tag; going to a local lake swimming; and just hanging out together. It seems like, with the advancement of technology, more and more children seem to have a hard time “playing”. If there is not a screen in front of them, they really don’t know what to do. We live at a lake and I love to see the grandkids come and just have some old-fashioned fun; they swim all day, eat snacks on the deck; laugh and giggle, get the flashlights out at night; and have a bonfire when the sun goes down. No TV, video games, DSs, phones, etc. – just plain old, using your imagination, fun. I found a few activities on the PBS website to do with your little ones this summer that really don’t cost much and help us get back to the basics.

For Babies:

Everything is new to babies, so they don’t need expensive vacations or structured camps to make important discoveries about the world.

Paper Shred – Babies are thrilled to start developing control over their surroundings and their limbs. Tearing paper appeals to little ones, because it allows them to use their new-found skills to change the way an object looks. It also makes a really cool sound. So gather newspapers, junk mail, magazines or recycled paper and let ’em rip! ( be sure to supervise though, little ones love to “taste” everything).

Dine outside – Just because you’ve had to cut back on restaurant bills doesn’t mean you can’t eat out. Drag the highchair into the yard or pack the booster for a trip to the park and bon apptit, now you may eat. You’ll both enjoy the change of scenery, and the squirrels will enjoy the fallen cheerios your darling leaves on the ground.

Beach Baby – Even if you can’t make it to the park, you can set up a beach party in your own backyard or on your kitchen floor. Lay a piece of newspaper or a tablecloth on the floor and fill a dishpan or other shallow container with corn meal. Give your baby a cup, spoon, shovel or sifter and let him dig. He’ll develop his fine motor skills and imagination as a bonus. This would also be fun on a deck and easier to clean up, but for a rainy day, inside would work great.


Once toddlers have mastered walking and running, there’s no slowing them down. Join in the action this summer by planning activities that will keep them on the move and make them tired enough to settle down for an afternoon nap.

Water Play – Let your children indulge in one of summer’s greatest pleasures: playing in the water. Put their swimsuits on and set up a sprinkler or a small wading pool, or even some tupperware containers in the backyard and let them splash. Provide cups or buckets to let them enjoy the satisfaction of pouring water into and out of a container (when neither one of you needs to worry about spills). Throw in toys or household objects, from metal spoons to plastic balls, to experiment with objects that sink and float. (Again, when it involves young children, always supervise when they are playing with water containers).

Dance Party – Music appreciation classes for toddlers have become extremely popular. While they are fun and educational, they can also be expensive. Save big by cranking up the Ipod or CD player at home and wiggle away the afternoon with your children. Give them some simple instruments (like a shaker made from beans in an empty plastic jar) so they can get the beat. Toddlers like repetition, so don’t be afraid to play the same songs day after day.

Bubble Wrap Stomp – Don’t throw away the packing materials from your last mail order shipment. Spread out leftover bubble wrap on a hard surface, like a wooden floor or driveway, and let the dancing begin. Several kids stomping together can sound like firecrackers exploding, so it makes a great Fourth of July celebration. (again, supervise!)


Treasure your preschoolers’ enthusiasm. The day will come when they are too cool to get excited about trips to the playground or grocery store adventures, so make the most of low-key summer fun while you can!

Pudding Paint – Most kids like to play with their food, and this is the season to let them. Tape paper to the sidewalk or a picnic table. Prepare instant pudding and add food coloring in your kids’ favorite shades. Take off their shirts or put on old smocks and let them finger paint with a delicious treat. They can lick their hands clean before you hose them off! (Be sure they have washed their hands before they start).

Take Off! – When it comes to vacations, many preschoolers get as excited about the transportation as they do about the destination. If your budget doesn’t allow for a plane trip this summer, you can still take kids to your local airport and watch the jets take off. Also, find some great games for kids to play if you are traveling in the car; if you google “car activities for young children” you will be surprised how many there are.

Take a Hike – Kids don’t need expensive equipment or the Appalachian Trail to experience the joys of hiking. Just slip on sturdy sneakers and pack water bottles to hit the trail. Whether you live in the city or the suburbs, there are probably interesting walks in your own hometown. Make the adventure even more engaging by putting together a page of pictures for a kid-friendly scavenger hunt with common items, from clovers and honeysuckle to trash receptacles and benches, depending on your destination.

Whatever you decide to do, make sure you spend time with your children; that is the best activity you can give them.

Sue Junge is an early childhood support specialist for the Iowa River Valley Early Childhood Area and is a Thursday columnist for the Times-Republican. The views expressed in this column are personal views of the writer and don’t necessarily reflect the views of the T-R. For more information, please visit www.iowarivervalleyeca.com.