10 cheap ways to beat the heat with the kids

Mike De Sisti / Today
Consider community splash pads to beat the heat without breaking the budget. In this 2011 image, youths run through a city sprinkler at Franklin Square Park in Milwaukee.

Summer can be a mixed blessing. On the up side, more sunny days for the kids and lots of outdoor activities. On the down side, uncomfortably hot summer days and pricey indoor activities. To beat the heat, but not your wallet, has come up with a list of 10 low priced or free activities to keep you and the kids busy this summer.

Attend the summer movie series

Many movie theatres across the country offer a cheap summer movie series geared toward children. For $1 a movie or $5 for 10, you can take the kids to the Cinemark Summer Movie Clubhouse to see recent releases such as The Croods or Turbo. If you can’t make it to the morning series, there are other ways to make movie-going affordable.

Sign up for a free trial membership at the YMCA

All YMCAs offer some sort of free trial membership that lets you check out the facility before committing. Trial memberships come with no strings attached and usually are good for three to 30 days. Aside from the indoor pool, some Ys also have outdoor pools, and the trial membership grants you an inexpensive pool pass for at least part of the summer. If you sign up at the right time, you may also be able to take advantage of the moderately priced summer camp options available at the Y.

Cool off at community fountains/splash pads

Check around to see if your community maintains fountains or sprinklers that are appropriate for kids to run through. While there are designated splash pads in cities like Powell, Ohio, other water-gushing areas may not be designated “splash pads” but can serve the same purpose. Some of these public fountains exist at malls and parks, like these in Austin, Texas, and are completely free.

Dine at "kids-eat-free” establishments

On certain days of the week some restaurants offer free kid’s meals, often with the purchase of an adult meal. Create a calendar to keep track of the various offers and each week choose one or two places where you can dine with the kids. Remember, though, that paying for adult meals adds up quickly if you eat out too often.

Visit a nature preserve or wildlife center

Bundle some education in with a fun trip to a local nature preserve or wildlife center. A visit to these centers often is free, and participating in programming may be, as well; if not, the fee likely will be cheap. This wildlife center in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, has both educational programs and outdoor exhibits, including a butterfly garden and nature trail — all at no cost.

Make homemade ice cream

Nothing says summer like ice cream. Rather than buying ice cream to cool the kids off, try making it at home. This may mean an initial investment in an ice cream maker, but choosing an inexpensive model can end up saving you money in the long run. Plus, DIY ice cream is a fun learning activity for the kids.

Sign up for the library summer reading program

Let the library motivate your children to read this summer. Each child can sign up for the summer reading program and track his or her reading progress for the summer. Most programs offer incentives along the way, such as stickers, sporting event tickets and coupons.

Go on a tour

Have you ever wondered how something was made? If so, see about visiting the factory. In Columbus, Ohio, for example, $4 gets you in the door of the American Whistle factory. The Anthony Thomas Chocolates factory, also in Columbus, is open to visitors; free for kids under 2, $1 for ages 3 to18, and $2 for adults.  

Check out the parks and recreation department

Your local recreation center is a smart way to get out of the heat and keep the kids moving. Open gyms are free in many municipalities, as are community concerts, competitions and volunteer programs. Many parks and recreation departments also offer recreation classes for a fee, which is typically quite cheap for community residents.  

Find a Pen Pal

Communicating with a friend from school over the summer or a cousin who lives in a different state is no doubt fun. Putting pen to paper and forging an old-fashioned pen pal relationship can provide valuable writing practice at the same time. Help pre-schoolers trace letters and elementary-schoolers write more complete or varied sentences. Writing back and forth comes at the price of postage.

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