Opinion Saturday: Affordable Family Outings

This Saturday I’m hoping people can share their best ideas for places to go as a family that don’t cost much money. A few weeks back we loaded up the bikes and took the whole family for a bike ride on the greenbelt. We had a great time and it cost nothing more than gas to get there. What kinds of afordable outings does your family enjoy? You have all week to respond, and I’ll pick the most creative reply as my Very Interesting Person (see award in my sidebar) next Saturday.

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  1. We found a creek that is about a half hour’s drive from here but is perfect for all the ages, the far side is deep enough to get good and wet but not over anyone’s head (well, maybe the two-year-old but she doesn’t go over that far). It flows nicely so that there is a good current without sweeping anyone away. There are lots of rocks for hunting crayfish or building a damn. A couple of picnic tables for dinner. And even a little island down stream a bit for the older kids.

    This is the perfect place to eat fried chicken or other messy food since the creek takes care of the greasy fingers!

    So that works for summer, that or the local public beach areas. We love to be out doors. We also enjoy tent camping. But that’s a pretty big deal to throw together.

    But in winter? Our church has a ‘family life center’ with game tables, a small cafe, and a gymnasium. It is free to go there and play pool, foose ball, roller skate, shoot hoops or play air hockey. There are even some comfy couches for those who want to sit and read.

    And any time of year we can throw everyone into the car at a moment’s notice and go to watch a pretty sunset. We did that the other night and everyone had fun. We took a football and played a little catch.

    So, I won’t win the creative award but there are some simple ideas that prove you don’t have to go all out to have fun together!

  2. During the warmer months we pick a new park twice a month, drive and have a day there. We landed in Northern MN a couple times, south a couple others. We have brochures from each park, and make a scrapbook page together when we get the pictures developed.
    During the winter we do somewhat the same, only with sledding hills. The kids love to sled and snowboard, so this is prefect for them. We bring a thermos of hot chocolate and snacks for break time.
    Hope this is an idea for you!

  3. In summer, we love going to the drive-in movies. Our family of eight gets in for $14! The experience is less about the movie and more about bundling up, sitting in the back of the Suburban or on lawn chairs, eating the home-popped corn, and being together under the stars.

    Drive-in movie theaters are disappearing. When we go, I feel like I am exposing my kids to a little slice of Americana. The sense of history and community can’t be duplicated in the average 24-theater chain with $8 popcorn.

  4. Walk in the woods and a picnic?

    A nearby state or national park?

    Board games night?

    flashlight tag outside at night, if it’s not too dangerous where you are (a busy road, pool, or body of water might not work too well; although you could put the youngest one or two on a team with an older sibling…)

    family reading time?

    Turn on the radio/cd player/mp3 player and have a dance contest?

    Baking contest? Possibly Christmas cookies? Not too early to start the Christmas baking if you do a lot of it.

    Probably nothing too unique here, but I hope maybe something inspired you…

  5. The most fun we have had as a family is to pack a picnic lunch and load up in the van and go for a drive. We go to towns and cities that we have never been to. We stop at the parks and playgrounds and play for awhile at each one. We have a picnic lunch at one of the parks.

    We try to do this at least once a summer. The last time we ended up finding a train museum that had a real live train that we could walk on and explore. The kids still talk about it and ask when we can go back.

  6. We love to go on light hikes most take about 2 hours in just walking and can easily spread into a whole afternoon, if its warm enough to enjoy the river.

    We also enjoy the drive in as well, ours is only $10 dollars a car up $2 from last year.

    Oh and when the weather is just so hot you cant stand it we all go to the river and pick blackberries in our favorite spot.

    Local Art walks are fun some weekends its fun to play tourist in your own town or a close neighboring town contact the chamber for a visitors packet and check out all the free or almost free things to do in your local area.

  7. LETTERBOXING! Visit http://www.letterboxing.org. It’s like a treasure hunt. The “treasure box” is a tupperware or similar container with a hand-carved rubber stamp and a log book in it. You use their stamp to stamp your own book, and you leave your stamp in their log book. We have discovered some *amazing* parks and natural places we never even knew about very close to our house. There are letterboxes hidden all over the world. Sometimes the clues are tricky, and sometimes the box is missing. But whether you find it or not, it’s tons of fun.

    -Kerith, adopting 2 from Ethiopia soon and bio mom to 2 preschoolers.

  8. I am so glad you posted about the letterboxing. We just started that and it is a lot of fun. The kids love it.
    We usually do the park, especially one with ducks are a favorite. There is a nature center near our home with free fishing, free canoe rides we love it. Several ponds and lakes have free fishing for kids under 12. In the winter a small investment in sleds can lead to hours of fun. I am in charge of taking the hot chocolate. Also the library is always fun and free, also if you check their calendar library’s often have free movies, free craft times. Also keep a look out for church’s in the area having carnivals they are so much cheaper than a regular carnival and you can get the fun foods and games. Several times a month I will just get on and look at different calendars in our town and see what is going on. Several libraries have the free movies, you can find out all kinds of neat things if you just check around everyonce in a while.

  9. When we were little, my folks did not have much money, but they did have a desire to raise “cultured” children. We traveled as much as possible on a shoestring budget – and toured every single museum in every town and city we visited. We couldn’t afford pricey souvenirs, so my mother made it fun in other ways. Every time we went to a museum, we visited the gift shop first! We spent a few dollars buying postcards of paintings and artifacts from the museum – maybe 3 postcards for each kid. Then we went on a “hunt” in the museum to see who could find the objects in her postcards first! At night, we would glue the cards into a journal and write about the particular place we had visited.

    These days, with 4 kids, we dont do much traveling, and I have to admit that their many sporting events make it hard to prioritize “culture” in this way. Still, we go to museums whenever we get the chance, and my kids love to play this game themselves (even the pouty “tween”!)

    Kate in NY

  10. I just want to know how you load all those bikes up?? Do you have a good trailer, and if so, where did you find it? We have some great bike trails in nearby towns, but no way to get all the bikes there.

  11. In our city the major museums (arts museum, natural history museum, etc.) all have one day a month where there is free admission. Check out the museums in your area to see if they have something similar. Also we have memberships to some places, like the zoo, botanical gardens and aviary so we can go whenever we want and don’t have to pay. Usually the grandparents give us the memberships as gifts, so it really is free.

  12. Every Tuesday night in our family is “Family Night”. Not sure why we picked Tuesday night, it just worked out that way. Anyway this is the one day of the week we eat out. Most of the time we pick a fast food restaurant. But then we always do something fun together as a family. Sometimes it’s grocery shopping – we each take a cart and 1/3 of the list and see who can finish the fastest. Sometimes we head to Wally World to get necessities and stand in the greeting card isle for 30 minutes reading cards and laughing until we cry. Lately we’ve been going to this park that has the most amazing play ground equipment – we swing and climb and play as a family (hubby and I usually pull a muscle or two but that’s ok!). At least once a month on Family night it’s picture night – we go to a park or a store or even just go on a walk and take pictures the whole time – goofy, serious, whatever! A few times we’ve gone to a park or recreation area that has walking trails and we’ll just walk and talk about God’s creation and then we’ll split up for 20 minutes or so (making sure we can see each other) and just sit in silence, pray, read the bible and then get back together and see who can find the neatest treasure of nature. This summer when it was warm out, Hubby would take the top off the Jeep and we’d just drive. We’d put some great Christian music on and sing at the top of our lungs as we drove around town. This is fun even without a “topless” vehicle.

  13. The letterboxing posts reminded me of Geocaching. It’s the same idea only you use a GPS to get to the treasure. In this case it’s a box or tub with little trinkets. You bring something to put in and you can take something out. We’ve put in pencils, little stuffed animals, cards, toy cars, and Bible tracts etc. We’ve gotten a cd, pins, little toys(McDonalds type), stuffed animals, key chains, etc. Some caches also have travel bugs, which are some object that has a place attached that it wants to get to and you’re supposed to take it and move it if you’re going any closer to it’s final destination. You can track the movement of your travel bug. Many also have journals where you can log in.

    It’s very fun – like a treasure hunt and it’s fun to explore places you’d otherwise never have been. Most are hidden in state parks and off hiking trails, but some are in the city. The kids are so excited when they finally find the box and get to see the treasure inside. If you go to http://www.geocaching.com/ (The Official Global GPS Cache Hunt Site) you can input a zip code and find the caches hidden in that area. You need a GPS to play, but they are getting cheaper. I convinced my husband to get me one last year as a mother’s day gift! – Beth

  14. I typed a post yesterday about letterboxing and it disappeared into cyberspace. I second the letterboxing vote. We have been doing it for about 4 years now. We each have our own notebook and we take our letterboxing stuff with us on vacation, so we have stamps from many states.

    After I lost my first post, I pulled out my notebook to see when we actually started letterboxing. Our first attempt was on a beautiful fall day in Sept. 2003. Little did I know that on that same day, a little girl was turning eight years old, and one day she would be our daughter. It was a neat connection to make.

    Anyway, check out http://www.letterboxing.org, you won’t regret it. You can also look in the Family Fun magazine archives – they did an article on it years ago.

  15. I have friends who love geocaching with the kids. There is a start-up fee involved if you don’t have a GPS, but if you do the rest is pretty much free.
    We also ask for memberships to local museums, zoos and aquariums for the kids for their birthday or Christmas presents. Or one big holiday present for all of us. That way, we can go whenever we want and there is no pressure to see EVERYTHING every time we go, since we can go as many times as we want for a whole year. This has been a huge blessing to us, sometimes we are just bored and think, “Hey! Let’s go to the zoo!” and we pack up a lunch and go. When I was growing up we had tons of memberships that my mother would get from her family for the holidays and she’d take all seven/ten of us (depending on how many foster children at the time). It was cheaper for a membership than one visit with the whole family and we could go back again and again.

  16. Well since we decided to go “cash only” we have been more strict with out budget… here are a few of the things that we do as a family for free or really cheap (my kids are 5 & 3):
    1. Every other week on saturday mornings Lowes Home Improvment Center has a free craft
    http://www.lowesbuildandgrow.com/default.asp
    2. Once a month (on a week opposite of Lowes!!) The Home Depot offers a craft…. these are so much fun and great for the whole family to get out and do something together (I am 28 and I LOVE making these crafts with my kids)… my younger sister who is 10 has come along with us to these and they are a big hit with her as well. http://homedepotclinics.com/instore/default.aspx?utm_source=Clinics_HD-KidsWorkshops_Link
    3. Every Tuesday our Mc Donalds has family night…. they have 1.50 happy meals and a (nice) kids craft. Hubby and I get stuff off the dollar menu and for under $8 we have a great eveining out with the kids.
    4. Our local movie theatres host The Dove family film festival… for the past several weeks we have taken the kids to go see family approved (by the dove foundation) movies for $2.50 for adults and kids under 12 for FREE… so for $5 we went to the movies with our kids (we did not buy food at the theatre)… a movie ticket for one person is over $5 here so I think that was a bargin (unfortunaly saturday was the last week of the festival until spring)
    5. We have a state park sticker ($24 for the year) that allows us access to all of Michigans state parks… several have walking/bike trails or you can go to the beach… we go to our state parks all the time and enjoy the beauty Michigan has to offer us. We will even go to the beach in the winter and walk along the beach to see what drifted in from the other side of the lake (also know as picking up trash along the shore to help keep our water clean).
    6. We have several parks in our community that have great playgrounds.. we take our children to the park quite often… our favorite is an able to play playground that allows access for children of varing abilities (we also have a splash pad in the summer that is for all abilities).
    7. Michael’s Craft Store offers crafts every weekend for aprox $2 per child… these are always fun to do with the kids.
    8. Sometimes we just simply take the kids and the dogs for a walk around the block.
    9. Rake a pile of leaves into a big pile and have fun jumping in the leaves… if you are short on leaves offer to rake the neighbors yard and use their leaves for your fun (which would also teach kids the improtance of helping others).
    10. Have an art exhibit… tell the kids on a monday that on saturday you will be having a gallery exhibit with their pieces… they have until friday to enter their pieces… Mom & Dad set them up around the house on saturday morning .. offer a fun sophisticated breakfast (yogurt with granola and fruit, pasteries etc.) and talk about the different pieces around your house. Have each kid say what they like about their siblings piece.

  17. Our favorite freebies are very area specific. We live on Florida’s gulf coast – – only about five minutes from the bottom of the Tampa Bay. Between November and April, manatees come into a small inlet where the water stays warm. It’s an official “manatee viewing spot” and there’s a small (free) museum that runs movies on manatees and the
    Tampa area. There are also board walks through the tidal mangrove forest.

    We go there a lot and, around Christmastime, we’ve counted over 60 manatees (I’ve read that up to 300 winter in this area). The coolest thing is to see the mamas with nursing babies.

    The beach is a biggie, too. We’re 30-40 minutes from some of the nicest beaches in FL. In the summer, we can get in the water, but in the winter, it’s nice to just walk the beach and have a picnic.

    We also drive around and find new home developments and walk through the model homes. The kids love that and we’ve gotten some neat decorating ideas (that we’ve tried to replicate in affordable ways).

    We also have a drive-in theater about 15 minutes away, and that’s always an inexpensive treat!

    We’ve heard about the geocaching from my nephews…. that and the letterboxing sound like something we’ll try. Great idea!!

  18. We have a public pond that will allow you to feed the fish and ducks for free. Just bring your breadcrumbs and feed away! My two-year old absolutely loves this! The ducks are very friendly. You can even pack a picnic lunch and sit on the grounds of the “park” (it’s actually the grounds of a lucrative business here in town) and enjoy sandwiches and good times without ants!

    We also have a local park (which is actually a park) that has a small train that adults and children can ride. Smaller children are free, but adults cost $1.00. Again, my little guy enjoys this and so do we! It is great to relax as the train goes around the park, over bridges and under a tunnel! Lots of fun!

    The local library offers free lots of free events for children on a weekly basis. Free puppet shows, animated storytellers, movies and specific programs for homeschooled children (or at least our area library does). The great part about our library is that it offers events for small children through teenagers!

    We also have lots of hiking trails and preserved wooded areas that you can ride your bike or hike in an afternoon. If you want, you can make it a day trip!

    Family fun doesn’t have to cost a fortune!!!

  19. I have already read some great replies. My idea is for the holidays. This year I plan on packing up the kids and driving around to different neighborhoods to look at Christmas lights. We live in an apt. but a few years ago we lived in this great neighborhood with my inlaws and the people there do lights BIG TIME!! We are gonna pack some snacks and the camera and go for it. I know my kids will have a blast looking at 100’s of houses all lit up. I remember doing that once when I was younger and it was a blast.

  20. Not sure if it was mentioned but the museum! I loved the museum as a kid.