7 Cheap [and Clever!] Ways to Entertain Your Kids

As I sit here staring at my son’s dead bug collection (that’s right, dead bug collection – thanks a lot grandma!!), I can’t help but think of all the other activities we do that give my son endless joy on the cheap. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s often the simpler things in life that excites him vs any fancy pants toys or games he receives. Which of course makes us penny-pinchers love it even more ;)

So today I thought I’d share with you a handful of fun, creative, things we do as a family outside of the normal activities you do w/ kids (like going to the pool, kids events, coins shows, painting stuff, sidewalk chalkin’, etc etc). All great stuff too, but we already know about those.

Here’s a list of *other* ways to creatively entertain your kids for nothing… And if you don’t have any kids of your own, substitute in your significant other or dog instead. I bet it works just the same ;)

1. Throwing pennies into fountains

Whenever we’re bored at home or looking to get outdoors, one of the first places we hit is our local water fountain downtown. The types that shoot water way up high and people tend to throw coins into – not the fountains from junior high (though kids love those too! Despite them shooting up their noses whenever they try and drink from them by themselves, haha…).

I don’t know when we started doing this, but giving Little Penny a bag of… err… pennies always brings joy to his little eyes and he wobbles right over to the fountain and starts throwing them in. It’s one of the best ways to entertain him! And literally costs only a few pennies! :)

Good for significant others? Sure!
Good for dogs? No. They don’t have opposable thumbs.

2. Going to the free aquarium/zoo/dog center [AKA PetSmart]

I’ve talked about how to get goldfish for pretty much free (you buy the “feeder fish” at pet stores for only 2-26 cents instead of 2-26 dollars and rescue them from meat eaters like piranhas!), but another benefit of heading out to PetSmart and the likes are the free animal visitations you get too :)

We literally take our boy there at least once a week, and he oohs and aahs all around the fish tanks and straight up to the rats, guinea pigs, birds, snakes, parrots, chinchillas (how cool are those?) and then right over to the cats and dogs always looking for adoption. It’s literally like taking your kid to the zoo in the middle of running errands – it’s brilliant (thank you very much).

Good for significant others? Definitely! Who doesn’t love animals?
Good for dogs? Double definitely! Especially in the fish and cat sections ;)

3. Collecting dead bugs

We won’t dwell on this one because of the obvious, but it *is* something most kids are certainly fascinated by. It may be disgusting and you’ll want to keep the container out of site, but it does make for great teaching moments, and since you’re picking them up post-mortem there’s never any hurting of our insect friends in the process (so back off PETA. Or whoever’s in charge of insect endangerment…).

bug collection

My mother was “kind” enough to send our son one of these bug containers as a gift, and I must admit it’s kind of interesting to see what you find laying around your house that you normally overlook. I recommend everyone washing their hands a solid 7-8 times after playing this game, however, or even better – using gloves ;)

Good for significant others? Ummm… NO.
Good for dogs? Oh hell yeah. Though the only “collecting” they’ll be doing is in their belly! (Zing!)

4. Hanging out at dog parks

Forget regular parks (although equally entertaining and free), head to the nearest dog park and surround your kids w/ loveable playful fur balls all around! It’s like heaven for kids and dog lovers, and there’s all sorts of sizes and shapes and breeds running around – kids are wow’d by them.

You do have to make sure your eyes are constantly on them (both the kids, and the dogs) because not all mix well together, but for the most it makes for an entertaining hour or so and typically the dog owners will let you pet and throw some balls around in the process too. Though you can also just stand outside the fences and peer in as if at a zoo and just watch and point from there too – that’s what we had to do initially until Penny was comfortable enough to go closer.

Good for significant others? Sure! If they love dogs!
Good for dogs? I think you know the answer to this one ;)

5. Walking somewhere to get apple juice

Now not all kids might enjoy a nice cold glass of apple juice, but swap in their own juice of choice and tell them you’re going out side to get some, and they’ll follow along eagerly excited for their prize at the end of the journey. And if they’ve been a lazy bones lately, make sure to take the long way around the block to get in that exercise ;)

Lil’ Penny and I like to go to our local diner down the street and sit at the bar to down his juice while dad reads the paper… It’s all so very cute as he sits in my lap and we have some father-son bonding time :)

[PS: This requires living in a walkable distance to a store or restaurant, or even a friend’s house, where you can of course retrieve said prize for your precious one accompanying you on a walk that morning. Or day, or night – juice doesn’t discriminate.]

Good for significant others? No doubt! How romantic are walks?
Good for dogs? Grab the leash!

6. Mailing something together

Similar to the apple juice activity, kids love to walk to an old school mailbox and mail stuff out too – even if it’s all your annoying bills. I don’t know what those mailboxes give off to draw those rascals to them, but I take full advantage every time and use this as a reward for something I want our boy to do earlier that day ;) “If you can clean that up for me now, we’re gonna go outside and mail something next!” – Works like a charm every time.

And the bonus? You can even have him/her write out or paint a picture for grandma or someone and then actually have something legit for them to mail out too! Haha… Not just as a ploy to have ’em help you out with a chore you need to take care of ;)

Good for significant others? Probably too boring…
Good for dogs? I don’t think I’ve met a dog who hates the mailbox :)

7. Sticker Game!!

I left one of my favorites for last – picking up a pack of stickers for like a dollar or two and then having him paste every single one of them somewhere :) This can take anywhere from 15 minutes to 15 hours and is sometimes hilarious – as this picture proves:

sticker boy

Good for significant others? Maybe if they’re “naughty” stickers ;)
Good for dogs? Most definitely NOT. I haven’t tried it, but I reckon it would be a huge pain in the ass trying to unstick them all from their dog hair! And painful!!

*BONUS* Taking a trip to the local fire station!

This is something we have yet to try, but every time a firetruck drives my my kid jumps up and down and points as if spotting a unicorn. He gets SO freaking excited about them that I just know he’d get a kick out of walking around an entire station full of them. And from what I hear, as long as it’s not busy you can just stroll right in anytime and say hello. I’ll report back my findings later this month when we try it :)

Good for significant others? Sure! Most adults would love to pretend to be firemen/women for a little bit. Especially the kinky ones ;)
Good for dogs? Maybe? Will there be 101 Dalmations there to hang out with?

So there you have it. Our 7 8 favorite (cheap) ways to entertain a kid… All the regular activities are fine too, but every now and then you have to spice it up a bit and have a little extra fun w/ them.  And true to thought, most of them are significant other/dog friendly too! Wammo!

Happy bug collecting…

PS: Don’t forget about all the free “toys” kids would rather play with too! It’s amazing how far tissue boxes and remote controls will get you… All perfect gifts for the upcoming holidays ;)

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  1. Mrs. Frugalwoods October 3, 2014 at 6:57 AM

    Love it. This will be us with our kids. A few points:
    1) You are correct, don’t put stickers (or band-aids) on dogs. It does not end well and fur will be sacrificed. 2) We used to go to the dog park before we had a dog so that we could pretend we had a dog. We tried to pet every dog that ran past us and when people asked which dog was ours, we pretended not to speak English. 3) Pet stores are amazing places; I hope they don’t figure out that we never actually buy anything…

    1. J. Money October 3, 2014 at 11:02 PM

      Hahahaahaha… if only you had a kid back then to explain your existence there ;)

  2. Points With a Crew October 3, 2014 at 7:06 AM

    Our family of 8 loves walking around the mall and going to the bookstore to read also.

    1. J. Money October 3, 2014 at 11:13 PM

      I still can’t believe you have 6 kids – that’s awesome… You should do a post for us on what that looks like money-wise :)

  3. Stefanie @ The Broke and Beautiful Life October 3, 2014 at 7:48 AM

    I used to to do the dog park and petsmart hangouts all the time in college! People probably thought I was a creeper lingering there without a pet, but oh well :)

  4. Dee @ Color Me Frugal October 3, 2014 at 7:49 AM

    I’m not so sure about the dead bug collecting! Thankfully our little one is a girl, so maybe if the grandparents make the mistake of giving us a dead bug house I won’t be the only one running away screaming. I’m sure that’s really sexist- but that is how much I hope not to see the dead bug thing at our house! The other ideas sound awesome!

    1. J. Money October 3, 2014 at 11:14 PM

      I totally know what I’m getting your daughter for Christmas now :)

  5. Clarisse @ Make Money Your Way October 3, 2014 at 7:57 AM

    That sticker game is too cute! I remember when my daughter during her younger age, she loves buying stickers and stick it to her forehead and everywhere in our room!

  6. Jon @ Money Smart Guides October 3, 2014 at 8:10 AM

    I’ve noticed this with my niece as well. She will get these high tech toys for her birthday and ends up playing with a cardboard box for hours. It’s funny how quickly their attention switches from one thing to another. How they are in love with the toy they saw on TV and 5 seconds later they are reading a book.

    1. J. Money October 3, 2014 at 11:16 PM

      Oh man, cardboard boxes are the BEST. Second to maybe the packing peanuts that come with them (but man are those a bitch to clean up!)

  7. Lance @ Healthy Wealthy Income October 3, 2014 at 8:12 AM

    Penny throws are the best. We also do the feed the fish at Cabelas on a regular basis which costs us only a few quarters. My wife and daughter did the pet smart visit yesterday only for me to get a call at work (which I hate) from my daughter asking if she could have a turtle and a hamster. “Live ones? No, sorry, you have the meanest dad in the world.” I let my daughter put a few frozen stickers on my laptop and then I came home one day to find that every single inch of my laptop was covered in stickers. At first I was upset, but now everyone at work or outside of work thinks it is so cool that I “let” my daughter do that. We love going to parks, we try to go to a new park every week for dinner and to play around. Have to take advantage before it gets too cold and the snow falls. Great list!

    1. J. Money October 3, 2014 at 11:17 PM

      No turtle or hamster?? What kind of household are you running! ;)

  8. Robin October 3, 2014 at 8:28 AM

    Thanks for the new ideas! We love walks in our neighborhood, going to the library, and making our own play dough.

    1. J. Money October 3, 2014 at 11:18 PM

      You know how to make your own play dough? That sounds fun! (and cheap!)

  9. Shannon @ Financially Blonde October 3, 2014 at 8:28 AM

    Great list!! I have never thought about taking Will to PetsMart for entertainment but I love it. People spend so much money trying to entertain their kids, but at the end of the day, kids just want to hang out with their parents. They really don’t care what they do.

  10. Laurie @thefrugalfarmer October 3, 2014 at 8:37 AM

    LOL, you’re doing the sticker game wrong: you’re supposed to let the kid cover YOUR face with stickers. We have lots of pics of the kids doing this to Rick and they’re hilarious! Oh, and the country life means the kids aren’t collecting dead bugs, but bringing mommy live ginormous bugs, and lots of snakes. I may be able to face down a gang of thugs in a dark alley, but kids running at me with gardener snakes sends me running to MY mommy. Blech! :-)

    1. J. Money October 3, 2014 at 11:19 PM

      Ewwww!!! The only animal/insect/bug I cannot stand are snakes! They’re always in my dreams trying to scare me awake! Haha… But awesome about the sticker faces – I’d love to see a picture of that :)

  11. Brit October 3, 2014 at 8:37 AM

    Love this list! Pinterest worthy! Dead bug collection…I love it!

    1. J. Money October 3, 2014 at 11:20 PM

      Pin it! I suck at Pinterest…

  12. Aldo October 3, 2014 at 8:46 AM

    My nieces love stickers and they think the world – by that I mean your face – is their sticker canvas. They do have a lot of fun with them and keep them occupied for hours. It only sucks when you’re trying to watch TV and they want to put the stickers on your eyelids.

  13. Trinnie October 3, 2014 at 8:59 AM

    Looks like Auntie Trinnie needs to send a care package!!!!

    1. J. Money October 3, 2014 at 11:20 PM

      As long as you leave the dead bugs for your own kids’ collection ;)

  14. Brian @ Debt Discipline October 3, 2014 at 9:01 AM

    Great ideas. A number of pet stores have puppy play times during the weekends for owner to socialize their dogs.A good chance to see some adorable pups. The library is one of our favorite free activities. They have so much to offer beyond books.

  15. Myles Money October 3, 2014 at 9:05 AM

    The simple things in life are sometimes the most enjoyable. I remember when I was younger me and my parents would skip stones on the beach. I was struggling to get five hops on the water and then my dad got twenty… I still haven’t forgiven him.

    1. J. Money October 3, 2014 at 11:21 PM

      Awww…. I love it how that stands out in your mind too :) I bet you’ve totally tried beating 20 in the years since then, huh?

  16. Jen @ Jen Spends October 3, 2014 at 9:11 AM

    Oh, yes, the dead bug collection. Not my favorite part of being a mom to boys. My oldest has a shoebox labeled “Boxes of my Studies” that holds a cicada shell and a dead bumblebee (his favorite) so far. He’ll pick them up and hold them close to his face to examine them. Eww!

    When my oldest was 2 or 3 he was fascinated with road signs and, in particular, dead ends — he just loved that the road stopped and you had to turn around. We’d drive around looking for dead ends, and he’d be giddy. To this day we love looking for trains at railroad crossings. We call it our lucky day if we manage to see one.

    These are all fantastic ideas that mean so much to kids. Great job, Dad!

    1. J. Money October 3, 2014 at 11:22 PM

      “We’d drive around looking for dead ends” Hahahaa… I wonder what that says about him? Too funny… :)

  17. CheapMom@SImpleCheapMom October 3, 2014 at 9:22 AM

    I was laughing and nodding along with this list! I think grandma thought I was nuts last week when I asked her to meet me at the PetsMart!

    We also have lots of fun indoors, like closing all the doors to the hallway to make it dark and camping out. Then repeat. Always repeat. Over and over!

    1. J. Money October 3, 2014 at 11:24 PM

      I cannot WAIT to go camping indoors! Totally forgot about that idea and I’ve turned into such a wuss living near big cities that I doubt I’d survive a day or two in the “real” outdoors.. Though I better start getting used to that too cuz don’t kids love that stuff?

  18. Kassandra October 3, 2014 at 9:49 AM

    My step-son is all into animals so it’s great when the school plans a field trip to the zoo as he’s really into the big ones like tigers and alligators. He’s already asked for a pet alligator…you can guess what our answer was!

    1. J. Money October 3, 2014 at 11:25 PM

      We have a pet alligator! It’s big and furry and stuffed with cotton :) One of the only times I’ve ever won anything from a fair before! (So just get him one of those, haha…)

  19. Becky @ RunFunDone October 3, 2014 at 9:50 AM

    As an adult, but prior to being a dog-owner, I used to want to go sit at dog parks, because I missed having a dog so much! (I was in graduate school, so having a dog wasn’t plausible). I felt like I’d look like a creepy dog-o-phile, so I never did it. Now that I have a dog, I admit: I’ve seen people without dogs at dog parks, and I certainly think it seems a bit weird.

  20. Noonan October 3, 2014 at 10:31 AM

    Sounds like your little guy might soon be ready to take on an ant farm. Mine was a mason jar with a cloth top secured by a rubber band, but if you wanted something more elaborate you could also spring for the Cadillac of ant farms which is marketed under the name “Uncle Milton’s Ant Farm.” Check it out on Amazon.

    1. J. Money October 3, 2014 at 11:26 PM

      I think I know what I’m going to ask for the next time you want blog advice ;)

    1. J. Money October 3, 2014 at 11:27 PM

      Cool!!! Perfect timing then to put the adventure to the test :) If they shut me out though I’m going to tell them that you put me up to it, haha…. deal?

  21. Amy October 3, 2014 at 11:45 AM

    My daughter loves going to Petsmart, too!

  22. Brian October 3, 2014 at 11:53 AM

    I would also add, if you have one… take him to a construction site where he can watch all the big equipment work.

    1. J. Money October 3, 2014 at 11:28 PM

      Yes! Brilliant! We literally found this random tractor in a huge ass parking lot the other weekend, and now every time we go on a walk we have to go see if it’s still there, and then walk around it approximately 13 times. So if he gets that much joy out of ONE tractor, I can’t imagine what multiple would do!

  23. Christine @ The Pursuit of Green October 3, 2014 at 12:24 PM

    I love all of these ideas!!!! I used to do the second last one a lot when babysitting. Stickers are a must have when dealing with little kids. They get so excited about it and then they just want to play. As for the last one, the fire station, you should totally do it!!!! I’ve toured once for a school project and it was really fun and everyone was so nice.

  24. Joe October 3, 2014 at 1:31 PM

    Playgrounds never get old with our kid. There are always new kids to play with. We go to the local university, just a few blocks away, and see their bone collection. They have whale, Orangutan, zebra, lion, seals, and just a bunch of other bones. It’s amazing what universities have lying around.
    We’ve also been meaning to go visit the local fire station. It’s only a few blocks away too.
    Our guy is not enamored with stickers anymore. He likes tattoos now.

    1. J. Money October 3, 2014 at 11:30 PM

      Uh-ohs, he’s growing up fast – watch out! :)

      (And awesome about bone collections – I’d personally enjoy that too!)

  25. Louise @ Good Financial Choices October 3, 2014 at 4:22 PM

    I’d rate these as all cheap activities for adults as well – some things never grow old.

    And now it’s autumn, parks get even more exciting with the leave kicking opportunities…

        1. J. Money October 7, 2014 at 9:25 PM

          HAH! Good one!

  26. John @ Building Financial Freedom October 3, 2014 at 7:59 PM

    These are great ways to keep the kiddos entertained! I also enjoy finding things for my daughter to do that are free or close to it and usually the free activities are far more meaningful than the ones that cost money!

    Thanks for sharing these ideas.

  27. EL October 3, 2014 at 9:09 PM

    Great ideas for the kiddos. I have another one to add to the list, we walk to the local bank and exchange coins for dollars whenever the piggy bank gets bloated with change. They hear the machine eating the coins and then it spits out a receipt. The teller gives us the dollars and we either save it or spend it.

    1. J. Money October 3, 2014 at 11:32 PM

      Damn fine one indeed. Perfect time to share some financial lessons too, I would think :)

  28. Kris G October 3, 2014 at 10:27 PM

    For older kids, I’ve found a fun time can be had by locating playgrounds on my GPS. I found 2 on my last time out in my town that I never knew about! My kids ages 5-9 loved it! And free!

    1. J. Money October 3, 2014 at 11:33 PM

      Oooh scavenger hunt! I didn’t even realize parks showed up on GPSs but will totally give it a shot – good tip :)

  29. Lauren October 4, 2014 at 10:06 AM

    These are great! I have a 3-year-old, so we do most of these, too. Sticker collages are a lot of fun. I just give her a piece of cardstock and let her go to town!

  30. SavvyJames October 5, 2014 at 11:46 AM

    Good stuff! I’ve pretty much done them all.

  31. Liz October 5, 2014 at 8:16 PM

    Ha the sticker game is hilarious. I love it.

  32. Jayson @ Monster Piggy Bank October 6, 2014 at 4:05 AM

    I also used to be fond of collecting bugs. I didn’t know why I did it but I was really excited about these bugs. It made me simply happy. Ow, that experience was really really awesome. Mom and dad were surely be contended because they wouldn’t have to spend so much money for toys. :)

    1. J. Money October 6, 2014 at 11:54 AM

      I used to love ALIVE bugs a lot and would keep them in my lunchboxes to hang out with during lunch time as a kid, haha… Never got into the dead ones though, at least that I can remember (though unfortunately some of my alive ones turned south if I forgot about them :()

  33. Brooke October 6, 2014 at 11:34 AM

    I wasn’t super into bugs as a little kid, but around middle school I did Science Olympiad and got really into identifying bugs/water species/tree species I made flashcards of all of the different bugs and then would go out and explore creeks to look for live bugs and identify all the trees. Bug hunting for nerds!

    1. J. Money October 6, 2014 at 11:58 AM

      Haha… love it.

  34. marty preston October 6, 2014 at 7:41 PM

    I don’t have kids yet but I have a lot of nieces and nephews and not a lot of money to spend of them. The pet store is a great idea but its hard not to walk out without the pets

  35. Bean October 7, 2014 at 12:45 PM

    If you’re good at NOT buying things in stores, look for ones that have what we call “car carts”: where the kids sit facing forward and each have a wheel to “drive” with. In Nova Scotia we have these at one local grocery store chain, and one of the home improvement stores. So stick the kid(s) in the car cart and go up and down every single aisle looking at things you don’t usually look at. (e.g., the lobsters in the tank! whole fish staring at you with dead eyes at the fish counter! vegetables! cheeses! or at the home improvement store – every imaginable kind of nail! paintbrushes, mirrors, curtains, plumbing fittings, ride-on lawnmowers, Christmas lights, patio doors). Take your time. It’s a great way to kill time on a rainy afternoon, and we get lots of those here… the cart is the main attraction for the kids anyway.

    1. J. Money October 7, 2014 at 9:27 PM

      HAH! Love that!!! And funny you mention the lobsters in the tank – I’m ALWAYS showing those to the wee one and he gets such a kick out of them. As do I :) Except for the parts they’re about to be murdered and eaten *gasp*.

      I’ll have to keep my eyes open for those car cars though. I’ve seen them around but never think to look for them while entering the store – great idea indeed.

  36. Mrs. WW October 7, 2014 at 8:06 PM

    This list is the best! Of course you could add many, many more. Any involving the outdoors, empty boxes, personal time, etc. Kids need so little. We should learn from them.