5 Backyard Alternatives to Expensive Summer Activities


It’s summertime, and the living is easy? That might not be the case if you have little ones who are home everyday now because they don’t have to go to school. They are not constantly occupied by classes, lessons and recess. They have a lot of free time, and chances are you have trouble coming up with enough activities for keeping them busy and entertained.

When I was a kid, summertime meant Six Flags, water parks, going to the zoo, and all sorts of fun places that I could go to when the weather was warm. It’s only now as an adult that I appreciate the reasons why my parents did not want to take me to all of these places on a weekly basis. The price of “summer fun” can be overwhelming. This is unless you have a backyard, a little bit of time, and an imagination.

There are many expensive activities that can be done on a smaller scale right in your own backyard. I’d know because I’ve done 90% of the examples below as a kid. I look back on many of the backyard experience I had as some of my fondest memories. To this day, I marvel at the creativity that my friends and I possessed. In a lot of cases, the backyard shenanigans stand out as more fun than some of my amusement park excursions.

So, without further ado, I give you some backyard solutions in place of pricey summer activities. In most cases, these events are as much fun to prepare for as they are to participate in (which cannot often be said for car rides with kids to summer destinations).

Expensive Option #1: Interactive Concert/Musical Event

Your kids are dying to go to the Hannah Montana or Justin Bieber concert, but a trip to one of these concerts is out of your budget and, let’s face it, you’d rather watch paint dry than sit through one of those teenybopper concerts surrounded by screaming kids.

When my nephew was 4 years old, he was obsessed with the Wiggles. My sister-in-law would take him to all of the interactive concerts they had and he could sing all of the songs and perform all of the dances he’d learned from TV. Other kids who had the same interest were also there with their parents. It was a fun but relatively expensive way to spend an afternoon. Which leads me to…

The Backyard Solution: Neighborhood Talent Show

As a child, I was lucky enough to live in a development that was full of kids of all ages. In my little corner of the world, we were always looking for ways to remain occupied without asking our parents for money. One of the things my best friend and I did was set up a neighborhood talent show. We went around “advertising” when the date would be and told people to get their acts together. Here are just a few of the ways kids could show off their talents:

  • Sing along to their favorite song (all you’d need is a CD player or iPod and a fake microphone)
  • Juggle/perform magic
  • Create a dance routine (solo, duet or group). This was a favorite among my friends growing up.
  • Tell a few jokes
  • Do a dramatic reading of a favorite story (a few “actors” could also act out the story as it’s being told)
  • Have a kid or two act as MCs for the event
  • As adults, you could put together a “parent’s number” as a surprise for the kids. I assure you, they will be thoroughly entertained.

The possibilities here are endless and will hopefully provide for hours of backyard fun on a nice day. A talent show, apart from being inexpensive (if not free) is much more interactive than any large scale concert could be and takes a lot more creativity to pull together.

Want a fun way to make this show even more fun? Set up a tripod or find someone who is willing to video record the event. You can make another fun free night out of viewing the show another day.

Expensive Option #2: Amusement Parks

Your kids are dying to go to Six Flags or some elaborate amusement park with rides, junk food, activity booths, etc. This may be a fun possibility to budget for once or twice during warmer months, but amusement ticket prices are not very amusing.

Backyard Alternative: Carnival Day

This suggestion also comes directly to you from my childhood. We particularly liked to do this during the summer as a fun way to spruce up an afternoon or during the Halloween season decked out in full costumes. Here are some of the ways you can set up your backyard for a carnival:

  • Set up a face painting station. It doesn’t take a lot of artistic ability to be able to transform kids into cats or mice. Face paint and brushes shouldn’t be too expensive if you don’t already have them.
  • Set up a fake tattoo station. I always loved getting fake tattoos from amusement parks as a kid, and I believe you can purchase packs of these at the dollar store on the cheap.
  • You’re definitely going to need some carnival games! Water balloon tosses, ring tosses, and fish ponds are easy, fun and cheap to create yourself. Check out Associated Content for detailed instructions for some of these DIY carnival games.
  • Set up a tricky obstacle course. Use your imagination. Involve hula hoops, jump ropes, a mini trampoline, anything you can think of that you already have.
  • Offer prizes! Amusement parks and carnivals usually offer stuffed animals, cheap plastic jewelry, stickers, action figures, etc. You can gather things like these easily on the cheap.
  • If it’s a hot day, water activities might be fun. When I was a kid, I used to get hours of entertainment out of running through my parents’ sprinklers. Set up part of your backyard for the benefit of the kids and the lawn.
  • Create some carnival treats. You can make your own popsicles, set up a lemonade station, pop your own popcorn and put it into paper bags – go to town with the possibilities here.

A backyard carnival can also be a great opportunity to teach kids about the value of money in a fun way. When kids come in, you can give them a certain amount of tickets or tokens (I’d go with tickets because you can make them yourself more easily). Then, at every “booth” or activity, put a sign with the “cost” of the activity. Kids can then decide for themselves what they’d like to spend their “money” on. They can’t play water balloon toss 5 times if they want to have enough tickets to get their face painted and so on. They have to think ahead, manage their “money” and maximize the value of their allotted funds. Pretty good lessons to learn, huh?

Expensive Option #3: A Camping Adventure

The kids want to experience the great outdoors. You’re stressed over the amount of fuel it will take to get to the camp site, finding a cheap camp site, the cost of the activities and food within the camp site, etc.

Backyard Solution: Pitch a Tent in the Backyard

Camping in the backyard can be just as much fun as camping at a destination, except you don’t have to waste any fuel to get there. Once you’re in a tent, it doesn’t really matter where you are. What matters is what you’ve got in terms of occupying your time. Here are a few frugal things you can equip yourself with in the backyard:

  • You’ll need a tent, of course. If you don’t already have one, you can check Craiglist or Freecycle. A tent should be perfectly fine if it has been gently used. You could also ask a neighbor or a friend to borrow theirs since you’ll probably only need it for a night or two.
  • Download some scary stories from the internet or find a book full of scary stories at the library. Bring a few flashlights and you’ll have one spooky atmosphere.
  • Bring a deck of cards and/or some board games into the tent.
  • If you don’t have a fire pit, you can always make smores in the microwave and bring them outside to enjoy. You can’t go camping without smores.
  • Set up some blankets outside of the tent and do some good old-fashioned star gazing. Try to find those summer constellations or maybe you can just create some of your own.

Need some more backyard camping ideas? Check out this great Parenting.com article.

Expensive Option #4: Children’s Museum

The kids are begging you to go to an interactive children’s museum. Museums such as these feature all sorts of fun activities involving art, experiments, construction, gardening, etc. These are all things you can do at home, right? Right!

Backyard Solution: Transform Your Yard Into a Zone for Creativity

With a bit of planning and a small amount of money (much smaller than the cost of tickets to a museum) you can recreate the fun of a children’s museum in your own backyard. Whether you have a few kids or a whole bunch of neighborhood kids to entertain, try some of these fun, frugal museum-like activities.

  • Art Studio: you’d be surprised how far one big piece of paper can go. Pick up one of those big, durable rolls of paper from a craft store and roll it out on your backyard. Supply kids with watercolors, finger paints, crayons, sparkles, sequins and any other artistic device you can think of. Just make sure that you provide them with materials that will wash off clothes, skin, etc. and let the kids go to town. They’ll end up creating a mural of sorts. Maybe you can even find a good place to hang this masterpiece afterward. A craft room/basement? The kid’s room?
  • Scientific Experiments: I used to be satisfied with the old baking soda volcano, but if your kids are looking for a multitude of other scientific projects and creations, head over to Science Toy Maker for some great ideas. Set up a folding table or two in the backyard for all of your experiments.
  • Gardening: if you have a garden, this would be a great opportunity to get kids involved! I remember having a lot of fun with paper towel seed germination in my science classes. This method takes some time, but once the seeds have germinated, the kids can see the progress their seeds have made and plant them into the soil on “Museum Day.”
  • Little Engineers: if you are a bit handy and were thinking of making something for the house, why not turn it into a fun project that your little ones can assist with. This could be the “construction zone” part of your backyard museum.

The best part about a backyard museum is that while it’s a fun and frugal thing to put together, it can also be educational (which is most likely what the doctor ordered during those out-of-school months)!

Expensive Option #5: A Trip to the Theater

There are some great kids plays going on in your area (or maybe not so close to your area) and the kids already have a flare for the theatrics. Taking the kids to the theater, however, is not only expensive. Frankly, it’s daunting and inspires anxiety.

Backyard Solution: Put on a Play

So, the kids love theater. What better way to get them involved than to have them actually perform? There are several ways that kids can put on a backyard play. Here are just a few of my ideas (that I may or may not have done as a kid):

  • Retell a favorite children’s story in a play format. Have the kids cast the different parts, learn the lines, and perform!
  • Pick up a book of ready-made kids plays from the library and go to town.
  • If you have any little writers, have the kids write their own play, assign parts and act it out.
  • Have the kids perform a rendition of their favorite movie (their interpretation, of course).
  • Have the kids write a movie script and, if you feel comfortable enough to do this, let your kids film their own feature movie outside with the video camera. My best friend and I loved to film our own movies. Our favorite original script involved a crazed scientist who came out of our science book and threatened everyone to solve his scientific dilemma, or else. Oscar-winning material, I assure you.

The possibilities for backyard theater are endless. Plays also inspire a lot of other creativity. The kids will have to make their own costumes, create their own set and scenic design and perhaps even make their own props. That’s a full day or two or artwork right there to keep the little ones busy!

Invite the neighborhood, family, friends or whoever is interested to see the play. If you don’t have enough chairs, people can sit on blankets or just sit on a nice patch of grass. If you have the ability, you could record this performance for future viewing and entertainment. The cost of this entire venture should be $0. Just be sure not to charge for your play, no matter how high the quality of the performance!

What ideas do you have for backyard activities? What expensive adventure can you recreate at home on the cheap? I’d love to hear your ideas!

Photo Credit: J_D_R_