Every parent with children of a certain age has heard that refrain. It's a kind of rallying cry for every child under the age of 16 who, despite access to a zillion electronic devices as well as old-school books and games, just cannot find anything to do. And with summer just around the corner, the chances are good you're about to hear that sad refrain again and again.
If you're wondering what your kids can do while they're out of school that won't destroy your bank account (because anyone can come up with expensive ideas that are fun) and don't involve TV or video games, check out my list of inexpensive summer activities. You're sure to find one or two that will sound appealing. And of course, if you have any ideas of your own, feel free to share them in the comments section. Remember, it takes a village.
In no particular order, why not consider:
Biking or hiking on a bike trail. And not just any bike trail. I'm thinking about TrailLink.com, a website powered by Rails to Trails, a national nonprofit that's working to transform abandoned railroads into bike paths. According to the site, there are more than 30,000 trails across the country that are suitable for bike riding, walking, riding a horse, jogging -- anything but driving. There are trails in every state -- some are short, maybe a few miles at best, while some stretch out for fifty miles or more. But they all tend to be in scenic, out-of-the-way places and on flat ground, which was perfect for trains and is now perfect for parents and kids on bikes.
If there aren't any bike trails near you, you may want to check out NatureFind, a free app at the Apple app store, which provides information on more than 200,000 annual family-friendly events at more than 8,800 locations across the United States.
Day camp or summer camp. True, many and most camps are going to put a dent in your wallet, but if you're working and your son or daughter needs to be somewhere other than home, you may want to investigate camps offered by the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts. Despite my best effort, though, it was hard to nail down exactly what a day camp will run you, even if you call either group's headquarters.
"There are over 300 different councils throughout the country," one person, who wasn't authorized to speak for the Boy Scouts, told me, "and each of them has a different price." And, he added, it depends on whether the child is of Cub Scout age or is old enough to be a Boy Scout. But he cited $200 for a week-long, overnight camp in Texas, which includes meals. And I know one Girl Scout summer day camp in California that's charging $60 for their full-day, week-long camp, which is also the price for the Girl Scout day camp in my neck of Ohio.
The good news is, not all camps require your son or daughter to be a Girl or Boy scout to attend camp. If you're intrigued, visit the Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts' website to search for summer camp opportunities.
Gardening. While this is easier said than done, especially if you're not a gardener yourself, it can be done fairly inexpensively. Robert Schucker, who owns a landscaping business in Midland Park, N.J., has some solid advice for anyone thinking about getting their child started. "Kids can start gardening as early as three years old, though the term 'gardening' should be used loosely from this age until about eight years old," advises Schucker. "Separate out a small area just for your child in your larger garden. For very young children, gardening is more about the adventure and exploration, and less about results."
And if you have older kids who manage to grow some tomatoes, carrots or some other produce you can serve at the dinner table, not only are they learning a new skill, but they're helping you save money in the process.
Open a lemonade stand. It's old-fashioned to the point of being a little corny, but what kid wouldn't enjoy running his own microbusiness? It's fun and educational at the same time, and if you really want to go all out and do something a little different and teach your kids about service and helping a good cause, check out Alex's Lemonade, a nonprofit website that teaches kids how to put up their own lemonade stand. Basically, you register online, and the site sends you a lemonade stand kit, which includes promotional materials, tips for holding a successful lemonade stand and, while supplies last, a voucher for a canister of lemonade.
Your kids won't be keeping the money, though -- you'll be sending it to Alex's Lemonade, which raises money to help fund cancer research. It was inspired by a young girl named Alexandra "Alex" Scott who had cancer and, at the age of four, announced that she wanted to open a lemonade stand to raise money to help find a cure for all children with cancer. The nonprofit has raised $30 million since it was established in 2004 (the year that Alex passed away).
And while this is something you can do any time during the summer, June 11 - 13, 2010, is the organization's big annual weekend where they have thousands of volunteers across the country opening lemonade stands and trying to raise a collective $1 million to go toward fighting and curing cancer.
And along those lines, your kids could...
Volunteer. The nonprofit WaysToHelp.org lists thousands of volunteer opportunities for children and teenagers. To find something your kids will enjoy, you can use its search engine to find volunteer activities that children and teenagers are allowed to participate in, like helping clean a beach or a creek or assisting at an animal shelter. Ask your children which activities sound interesting -- they're more likely to enjoy it if they get to choose themselves.
Visit your local museum or historical landmark. Most museums offer free admission on specific days or nights. If you think your kids would be interested, don't forget to investigate the less obvious places. Parents who live in and around Hartford, Conn., for instance, may want to check out the Mark Twain House & Museum, which is hosting a lot of kid-friendly events this summer. Tom Sawyer Day is June 12; it includes a number of free activities and free performances (the house tour has an admission, though). From June through October, the museum is offering nighttime ghost tours of the author's home, since it's believed to be haunted (thanks to a few investigations by the Syfy Channel's show Ghost Hunters). And while that's not free, with admission of $18 for adults and $13 for kids, almost every city and town has some sort of museum, landmark or historical society, and it's worth at least checking their website to see if they're hosting anything aimed at families.
Bowling. It's usually an inexpensive activity, anyway, but if you go to KidsBowlFree.com, you can print free bowling coupons throughout the summer that are good at bowling alleys across the country. As one Philadelphia mother who's participated in the program told me, "I was skeptical, but it's truly two free games per child. I suppose they make money on rental shoes and snacks. It was wonderful for rainy days last summer."
Fishing. While there doesn't seem to be a kids-fish-free website out there, numerous state and county parks will often teach kids how to fish for free. And there are many free fishing activities out there. Just Google your location and the words "fishing" and "free," and see what you you get. Regardless, with a lot of kids' fishing poles retailing for under $15, this can be a pretty cheap sport.
Taking your kid to the mall. This is kind of an offbeat idea, but Simon Malls, the nation's largest mall manager, has created the Simon Kidgits Club, which is hosting a variety of free activities this year. In July, for instance, there's something called the Fun Factory, where kids can meet popular children's characters and receive product giveaways. While it's a blatant attempt to get you into the mall so you can spend money, if shopping is something you love to do and will be at the mall anyway, maybe you'll be glad I'm mentioning this. You can find one of the Simon family of malls at their website, and your kids can check out the Simon Kidgits Club website.
Visiting the library. Not only do they have these crazy things made out of paper called books, you can remind your children, but they often have free programs, from read-aloud story times to craft sessions to animal groups bringing in little critters, all designed to get kids interested in visiting their library. And if that doesn't get your kid excited...well, you can always point out that many libraries loan out DVDs, and Wii and Nintendo games. While the idea of renting movies or games sort of destroys the point of getting your kids away from those pesky electronic devices, by taking them to the library, at least you'll have moved them off the couch for an hour or so.
And here are some ideas that really need no explanation, but just as reminders, we'll suggest them: Go on a picnic, fly a kite, put together a jigsaw puzzle, play some board games, catch some minnows in a creek, chase after some butterflies with a net, throw a slumber party for your kids, climb a tree (carefully) or build a tree house (very carefully), put up a tire swing, visit a playground, walk a dog (a neighbor's, if you don't have your own), play some catch in the yard, catch some fireflies at night, play flash light tag at night, take your kids to a garage sale or flea market, hold a garage sale or wash the car. And if they're nearby, don't forget to take your kids to visit their grandparents or perhaps an elderly relative who could really use the company.
Finally, remember this summer that there is value in your kids doing nothing. It might sound crazy or lazy at first, but Dr. Susan Smith Kuczmarski, Ed.D., who is based in Chicago and often conducts workshops for parents and educators and has written a book on teenagers, points out, "There's tremendous value for children in what I call 'hammock time.' This means doing nothing: daydreaming, hanging out, getting lost in your thoughts, doodling. Call it what you will, it means shifting gears to neutral. Our culture puts so much emphasis on 'doing,' and children soon pick that up. Children are profoundly nourished by introspective time. Too much focus on busy activities and games leaves very little time to dream, wonder, reflect and discover."
So the next time you hear your child say, "I'm bored! There's nothing to do," perhaps your reply should be "Good!"
Geoff Williams, the father of two young girls, is a frequent contributor to WalletPop as well as a former columnist with BabyTalk. He is also the co-author of the book Living Well with Bad Credit.