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Free summer fun for kids

Bowling, book clubs, filmmaking and computer workshops -- all that and more, and all for free.

By Donna_Freedman May 23, 2012 4:15PM

Image: Girl Drinking from a Hose © Vicky Kasala/Photodisc/Getty ImagesSchool's out! Or about to be. If your kids will be at home with a parent or babysitter, you might be wondering how to fill those long, lazy summer days.

I'm all for a certain amount of unstructured play time and pickup ballgames along with soccer leagues, sleepaway camp and other organized fun. But two and a half months contains a lot of hours.

A number of national companies offer free activities to keep children challenged. I've found 10 examples to get you started.

Obviously this is not a one-size-fits-all list, since there might not be a Barnes & Noble or a Lego store in your area. But it's a start.

Parents and caregivers should also search online for local options: a summer sports camp through the parks department, science walks at a regional nature center, a reading program at your county library. (Post continues after video.)

Hands-on fun
Build-it workshops:
Children use real tools to put together simple projects at both Home Depot and Lowe's home improvement centers. (These Saturday programs have been a real hit with my great-nephews.)

The Knack:
This kids' craft club operates at participating Michaels stores. Beginning June 19, the "Passport to Imagination" summer program features crafts from 18 countries.

Lakeshore Learning Center: The "Free Crafts for Kids" program takes place from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays at this educational supply store chain, which operates in 25 states.

Lego Mini-Model:
Each month, Lego stores let kids ages 6 to 14 build a small item and take it home for free. Contact your local shop for details.

Physical and mental stimulation

Apple youth workshops:
Projects vary, but all are designed to improve Mac skills among children ages 6 to 13. Check your local Apple retail store for this summer's programs.

Book clubs:
Barnes & Noble sponsors the "Imagination's Destination" club, which awards a free book to children who read any eight titles and record them in a journal (download the journal as a .pdf at the above link). Pottery Barn has a "Story Time Club" from 11 to 11:30 a.m. every Tuesday (with a small gift for kids who attend five programs) plus the Summer Reading Challenge (kids receive a free book after reading through the list).

Your kid can get two free games every day, all summer long, at participating bowling centers. Registration is required.

iMovie camp:
Kids ages 8 to 12 can learn to make short films during a three-day program, which culminates in a student film festival. The program takes place at Apple retail stores; sign up through this link to be notified when registration begins.

Museums On Us:
Get into 150 museums on the first Saturday of every month if you have a Bank of America or Merrill Lynch credit or debit card, or a card bearing the B of A logo. The list of attractions (in 31 states) is incredibly varied and includes children's museums, zoos,  aquariums, the Country Music Hall of Fame and the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. For specifics, see "Free tickets to 150 museums."

Target Arts, Culture + Design:
The department-store chain sponsors a wide variety of programs in different cities around the U.S. some examples: free admission to museums and cultural centers, "Shakespeare in the Parks" in Los Angeles, symphony music in San Francisco, family theater in Orlando and live music in Washington, D.C. Many events are free.

Know of any other free summer activities for kids?

More from MSN Money:

May 27, 2012 5:32PM
@Sarah: My niece is using the Cinemark movie program this summer for her two boys. It's one of a number of theater chains offer free and reduced-price movies. I did a post on that, too:

May 24, 2012 2:27PM

Of course, always check your local library, ours has tons of summer programs for kids, all free, that even the smallest non readers can join in, and earn prizes or books when read to. Ours also does crafts, play times, movies, sleepovers, all kinds of stuff. So far, our little guy just does the reading prgram, but he loves picking out his free book each year, and getting a certificate and his photo taken.


A lot of movie theatres also do cheap summe rmovies, Cinemark is doing $1 (older) kids movies all summer long, and I know a few other theatres do as well.  


Also, that $30 inflatable pool with the slide and the water that shoots water out might seem like an extravagant purchase, one destined to (litterly) deflate in your face, but ours is on year two, with no leaks (other than a tiny one on the side I can't find), and providing lots of fun for a 4 year old. I paired it this year (since that one part is starting to lose air) with a $8 jumbo pump from Walmart, and in less than 2 min, including turning on the water and finding a shady spot, that thing is pumped up and ready to go!

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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.