10 Inexpensive Fun Family Activities

Looking for easy and cheap family fun with toddlers? Here are ten great ideas

Last week, Fleur asked in the comments about making family memories on a budget.

Our girls are little right now and it doesn’t need to be an enormous production for them to have fun (in fact, I’ve noticed that Ella in particular seems to be more stressed by big holidays like Christmas and Easter, and she enjoys more low-key family experiences more than all-out celebrations), and I don’t want to do really big productions very often, but I do like doing family things together.

Here are ten that have been big hits in our house:

Looking for easy and cheap family fun with toddlers? Here are ten great ideas

Movie Mornings

We did movie nights over the summer, but our girls go to bed so early (7 p.m.) that it’s hard to squeeze in dinner and a movie without keeping them up way too late. Instead, we’ve started doing movie mornings on some Saturday mornings. Our only television is in our room, so we all snuggle in our bed in our pajamas, eat a non-messy breakfast (yogurt, like these Yoplait Greek 100s, is a big hit), and watch a movie together. There’s no stress about the girls getting to bed on time and it starts the day off on a fun note. 
Visit the Pet Store
We don’t live particularly near a zoo (it’s about an hour or more away, I think), but we’ve always been reasonably near a Petsmart or Petco and going there is basically heaven for my girls. I try not to look too closely at some of the animals because. . .yuck.

Looking for easy and cheap family fun with toddlers? Here are ten great ideas

Taste Test Dessert Night
We don’t have dessert most nights (my dad grew up in a home where they had dessert every single night, but my dad doesn’t really love dessert and we rarely had dessert growing up. Our family is somewhere between the two), but one of our favorites is a taste testing night. Like our Pi Parties where you get to try a tiny sliver of a dozen or so different pies, we like to pick out a couple of different flavors of some dessert and then all compare. It’s easiest with ice cream because you can get tiny little containers of them for a buck or so apiece (these Ben & Jerry cups were $1.29 each and there is a coupon for them too!) and the girls love picking out their own flavors and then sampling all of them. Plus, Bart introduced Ella to the idea of voting a few months ago and now she loves having the whole family vote. 

Low-Key Picnics
For some reason, eating lunch or dinner somewhere that ISN’T the kitchen table is a thousand times more exciting. I don’t do really elaborate picnics, but we pack some peanut butter sandwiches, string cheese, apple slices, water bottles and some chips (we basically only have chips on picnics, so they feel extra special to me. Also, Cheetos always remind me of being pregnant with Ella because they were the thing I craved most. Aside from Cinnamon Toast Crunch, which I probably ate 25 boxes of in nine months). We go to a nearby park (or just in the backyard), spread out a blanket, and enjoy a meal without the regular distractions of home.

Parking Lot Bike Riding
Last year, we discovered that our girls thought going to ride their bikes and scooters in an empty parking lot was basically the best thing ever. With all that space, they would probably stay forever if we let them. They like zipping along the parking lines, making circles around the handicapped signs and parking barriers, and burning off tons of energy. Church parking lots on a weekday or Saturday morning are particularly nice and empty.

Friend Lunches
I’m reading a book about Amish parenting right now and it mentioned how important it is for families to have other people in their homes as models of good adults and families for your own children. We try to have people over a lot, but recently I’ve discovered how much I like having a few moms and their children over for lunch on a weekday. It breaks up the sameness of stay-at-home mom life, the kids play, the moms visit, and then everyone has a simple lunch (last time, I did grilled cheese and tomato soup, and someone brought some fruit. No need to be fancy).

Looking for easy and cheap family fun with toddlers? Here are ten great ideas

Reading Hour
Right after Star was born, we started setting aside an hour every week or so where we’d all gather in the family room and read. We rotate between reading our own books and reading aloud to the girls, and it’s been really fun and a nice way to get through a little more of my never-ending to-read list.

Music in the Park
Most cities, even small ones, tend to have free outdoor concerts in the summer and I love taking the girls to things like this. We might take along a picnic or grab something along the way, and it’s so delightful to just be together as a family, hear some fun music, and eat some tasty food. This is reminding me to look up what’s going on in Durham coming up soon; I’m a huge fan of keeping track of what your city offers for family – most places have a lot going on.

Our older girls are just getting to the stage where they can handle walking on their own for more than about five minutes at a time. Just before Star was born, we went to a nearby state park and hiked around for an hour or so. It was along a lake, so we stopped frequently to throw rocks in the water (which I think they could have done for hours at a time) and they also gathered all sorts of little pinecones, rocks, and other objects. It was free, we could stay as long or as short of a time as we wanted, and everyone came home and took a great nap afterward.

Driveway Art
We live in a neighborhood where people really get out and about, so in the early evenings, we really like to sit on the driveway and meet our neighbors (and, in Ella’s case, pet every single dog that comes by. Ani, on the other hand, is terrified of dogs). We often bring out the chalk from the chalkboard in the playroom and let the girls make masterpieces on the driveway or play hangman or tic-tac-toe. Sometimes, we take our dinner plates out and eat on the driveway, which I think is fun, and Bart thinks is a little bit low-class.

And if you have other suggestions for easy and cheap family activities for little kids, I’d be delighted to hear them!

P.S. You can print off a coupon for $5 on General Mills Snacks here. And enter to win $15 to try them out yourself below.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

You Might Also Like


  • Reply Tina's Blog April 8, 2015 at 10:56 am

    There's always the library! I've also taken my kids to the airport (which is small where I live) and they enjoy watching the planes taking off and landing.

  • Reply Kristin @ Going Country April 8, 2015 at 11:49 am

    Picnics are always a hit. Since we live in a place of (seemingly) never-ending winter, we do them inside, too. Usually on a blanket in front of the woodstove.

    Tea parties are also a big deal at our house. My mother-in-law–who lives with us–has an insane collection of china, so the kids each have their own tea cup and saucer, plus a small cream pitcher, sugar bowl (which is obviously not full, because of course they will use all the sugar in the bowl), and even a tiny individual tea pot so they can pour their own tea. And yes, I have all boys and they love tea parties as much girls do, but only if they really get to drink tea and eat.

    We're having another family of three kids over for playing and lunch today, actually, to relieve the monotony of a very rainy spring break week, and we're going to have a tea party for lunch.

  • Reply Amy Johnson April 8, 2015 at 1:23 pm

    Parking lot bike riding is a fun activity of ours as well!

    Also, I'm glad you mentioned how having people over is a good way for children to see and interact with other adults and families. I've never thought about that benefit!

  • Reply Kristie April 8, 2015 at 2:46 pm

    Another parking lot that would work on weekends is a school parking lots. Not many people attend elementary school on the weekends.
    Thanks for this list. I am pinning it for use this summer!

  • Reply Paige Flamm April 8, 2015 at 4:24 pm

    I love that you guys keep your TV in your bedroom! I've been wanting to do that so Kyle can't see it and constantly beg for shows all the time, but Derek is kind of against it… I may have to try and convert him!

  • Reply Fleurthefearless April 8, 2015 at 5:11 pm

    This post feels basically dedicated to me 🙂 I LOVE all the ideas!! Was truly reading each of them going "I like that, must write that down". We've just started up family fun nights again so I intend to work my way thru the list. Thank you so much for these awesome ideas…. I thought the morning movie was genius and the desert taste testing idea so cool. I'm sure we'd win patents of the year with that one. In my street we have a lot of older folk who enjoy a sense of community.. Street art seems a really great way of not only having fun, but meeting them more and finding ways to serve. Thank you tons for this inspiring post!!!

  • Reply Feisty Harriet April 8, 2015 at 6:05 pm

    One of my favorite childhood memories was having picnics underneath the kitchen table, usually grilled cheese sandwiches. We'd spread out a tablecloth under there with plates and napkins, we'd sit on the floor and have a little under-the-table party. I loved it.

    When I was a little older, during the summer we often slept out in the backyard under the stars, never with parents. My Mom's window was usually open to the backyard so if something happened she'd hear us yelp, but it was a more innocent time, I think. Nothing happened and no one ever thought it might.


  • Reply Nicole April 8, 2015 at 7:59 pm

    These are fabulous ideas, thank you!

    I really admire that you entertain frequently and with (seemingly) little stress. I would love to hear more about food you serve since I seem to get hung up in that- especially since we don't have tons of seating at a table and some things are not free roaming toddler friendly…

    Thanks for all of the inspiration, I really enjoy reading what you have to say each day!

  • Reply Caitlin April 8, 2015 at 9:38 pm

    This post reminded me how much I admire your minimalist/frugal mindset, which reminded me of your playroom post, which reminded me that you should post about your favorite toys for little girls. I feel like toys are taking over my life and I would love to downsize somehow!

  • Reply Jodi April 8, 2015 at 9:45 pm

    We've totally done the petsmart thing before. Kids loved it.

  • Reply Jenna@CallHerHappy April 9, 2015 at 3:30 am

    Pinning 🙂 My oldest two are just getting to the age where these things will be appropriate. Also, I am laughing because yogurt would NEVER be a non-messy breakfast with Sam. That kid can make a mess out of ANYthing ha!

  • Reply Melissa April 9, 2015 at 4:57 am

    We do so many of these things, but I love the ideas for a tasting night and biking in a parking lot. We live on a kind of busy street, it would be pretty perfect to go to a parking lot and let my kids ride bikes and scooters. Also, I love ice cream and my daughter would LOVE a chance to taste a bunch of different ones.

  • Reply Kathleen Forbes April 9, 2015 at 6:30 pm

    Love these ideas. My 3-year-old daughter is also really easily overwhelmed at big holidays; in fact, she cried at the church egg hunt over the weekend. I really do want to do more things with her though that aren't just walk to the park – which is great, but gets old when we do it every day.

    I was just wondering whether or not y'all still do your movie nights. We did them for awhile but haven't been lately and I was missing them. Movie mornings though! Genius. And we recently hit up the pet store, which the kids loved.

  • Reply Lindsay April 9, 2015 at 7:58 pm

    All great ideas! Our kids really like checking out model homes and imagining who would get each of the rooms. It's a great, free thing to do during our hot summers…they keep those houses nice and cool!

  • Reply reshma April 9, 2015 at 11:56 pm

    Taste Test Desert Night is right up my alley!!! Thanks for a great idea!

  • Leave a Reply