15 Free, No-Prep, Independent-Play (Mostly) Summer Activities for Kids

Summer is upon us and it’s probably the weirdest summer most of us have experienced.

The kids have already been home from school for months. End-of-year traditions and trips were missed, so there’s this weird lack of closure—especially for older kids. Most summer camps, sports, and activities have been cancelled, and even the parades and festivals you might attend as a family are on hold. Teenagers are at a loss for summer jobs.

Not to mention, most mamas are already feeling squeezed to the max, and uncertain about what autumn will bring.

Kids whine about being bored during even the best of summers … how on earth are we going to survive The Most Boring Summer Ever?

… with some creativity, a few pantry items, and the digital support of our collective mom tribe. 

We wanted to put together some ideas to help you keep the kids occupied, but we also wanted the list to be helpful to as many mamas as possible. Maybe you’re working from home, or caring for a baby, or managing any number of other responsibilities, and you don’t have time for long nature walks or detailed arts and crafts projects. If so, this list is for you.

1. Scavenger hunts and backyard bingo

Sending them to the backyard on a mission is generally more effective than just, “Go outside and play.” If you have more than one, they can be on a team or they can compete. If your kids are older, you might give them a wider field of play.

It doesn’t need to be elaborate. Ask for one item that starts with each vowel or each letter of their name. Ask for one item that represents every color in the rainbow, or as many different colors as they can find.

Alternately, Google “backyard bingo” and print any of the many, many free bingo pages you will find that simply picture plants and objects they’ll probably find outside.

You could also send them outside with a sketching journal and an art assignment: something specific like, “Draw a flower” or something more open, like, “Draw something that makes you happy.”

2. Nature suncatchers

There’s no end to the nature crafts you could inspire, but suncatchers are a great one. The easiest way may be to get a roll of Press’n Seal—flowers, leaves, and anything else will stick easily, but the clear paper still lets the sunlight through.

You can cut the center out of paper plates or use jar lid rings as the “frames” for your kids collections. Then, hang them in a window for everyone to enjoy!

3. Summer kindness journal

Raising kind humans takes some intention, but it doesn’t have to be hard. Start a “Summer Kindness Journal” with kids of any age.

In the front or back, keep a running list of ideas for simple ways to show kindness every day. These shouldn’t be huge projects. The point is to create a habit and to show our kids that those small, simple acts of kindness really are important.

List activities like:

  • Complement a stranger at the store
  • Bring cookies to a neighbor
  • Write kind messages on sidewalk squares
  • Make lunch for my brother
  • Let my sister pick the game

If your kids are older, they can handle this themselves. If they’re younger, you can talk about it over breakfast in the morning: What’s today’s act of kindness going to be? How did yesterday go? Write down what they plan to do at the beginning of the day, or write down what they did do (and how it went) at the end. They can draw on the page, if they’re younger, to illustrate the story.

4. Marshmallow and toothpick sculptures

This one requires a tiny investment, but a bin of mini-marshmallows and toothpicks can be a great go-to. You can make it even more interesting by including a stack of challenge cards as well: build a three-story structure, write your name in 3D, create a map of the house, etc.

The only difficulty here is keeping the marshmallows in the bin.

5. Paper airplane contest

Paper airplanes are classic fun. If your kids need help getting started, show them a basic shape and challenge them to do better. What shape goes fastest? Furthest?

If you need a little more help, Google “paper airplane patterns.” 

6. Epic hopscotch

There’s your standard, 10-square hopscotch (yawn), but your kids can do better. Secure a bucket of sidewalk chalk, and challenge your kids to make a hopscotch that stretches the length of your sidewalk (or even all the way down the block!).

Invite them to change up the normal patterns: 

  • Move squares to the edges of the sidewalk.
  • Leave a big space, requiring a big jump.
  • Ditch the squares for a big swirl, where kids spin around three times.
  • Draw a butt, where kids sit down.
  • Use foot and hand prints to indicate a few sidewalk squares of crab walking.

Get creative!

7. Make sidewalk paint

Chalk is great, but sidewalk paint is next-level. It’s just cornstarch, water, and food coloring, but it’s new and fun (for an afternoon at least), and it washes off just as easily as sidewalk chalk.

8. Huge bubbles

Everybody loves bubbles. But put one finger down if you’ve ever blown bubbles through a small plastic wand until you felt like you were going to pass out, because at least if you pass out you can’t hear the temper tantrum over the lack of bubbles. Put one finger down if you’ve ever thought, “Maybe she is ready,” just before you handed your toddler the tube of bubbles only to watch her dump it all over the sidewalk 30 seconds later.

Huge bubbles are where it’s at, because big kids love them too and the container of dish soap and water sits on the ground—making it much harder to dump out.

There are lots of “recipes” online, but a basic formula is a 6:1:2 ratio of water:cornstarch:dish soap. Some recipes call for glycerine, which does really help, but is not a pantry staple at my house, sooo … The trick is to stir your ingredients together without making bubbles (ironic but true).

9. Make and write postcards

It’s an art project, a writing assignment, and a socially distant friendship-building activity all in one! Your kids can make postcards out of any thin cardboard. Cereal boxes work great. 

Have kids paint, draw, collage, etc. on one side and write a note to a relative or friend on the other. They can spread some cheer to grandparents who are isolated because of COVID-19, or to friends they miss from school. 

10. Backyard water play day

Pick a warm day and set up all the water play in the backyard. Get the sprinkler out, fill up the kiddie pool, hide squirt guns and loaded water balloons all over the yard, and let them go to town. 

For smaller ones, fill a small tub with water and drop in some colorful sensory objects, like pom poms or plastic measuring cups.

11. Paint rocks

I know I’m not the only one who finds another rock in another pocket almost every day. Put them to use. A couple of cheap brushes and craft paints is all you need, but you can get as elaborate as you want.

The finished products can adorn your garden, be used as garden markers, or emblazoned with uplifting notes and left around the neighborhood on your next walk.

12. Lego challenge cards

My boys are up to three small bins of Legos now. You? If you have mountains of Legos laying around, Lego challenge cards are awesome. They’re just small “cards” with simple instructions for something to do or build.

Google will find you a bunch that you can download and print for free, or you can make your own. Write one challenge per card, such as:

  • Build something with only one color of Lego.
  • Build something with only four Legos.
  • Build your name (so that it stands up!).
  • Imagine a new animal and create it with Legos.
  • Build a tool or dish you can actually use.

The simple challenge puts the pile of Legos in a whole new light, and you might find that they get distracted with other ideas and inspirations while they’re building.

13. Backyard camping

This isn’t exactly “no prep,” because—unless you have teenagers—you’ll need to set up the tent. (Don’t have one? Ask a friend or neighbor—you’re not even taking it out of your yard!)

But, if you set up the tent in the morning, it will occupy them all day. The same activities that are so boring in the house, are fun in a tent. They can also spend a little while getting everything set up—sleeping bags, pillows, bedtime books, water bottles, etc.

14. YouTube lessons

This is for older kids, but challenge (or charge) them to learn something new from YouTube. Let them choose (with your approval), and set a reasonable time limit. If you need to fill a day, it can be something straightforward like origami. If you need a long-term plan, it could be a new art discipline like drawing or watercolors. 

Other ideas for YouTube lessons:

  • ASL
  • Knitting
  • Cooking
  • Coding
  • Photography
  • Kite making

There’s almost no end to the topics you can find video lessons and tutorials on.

15. Neighborhood jobs

Another one for older kids, but with so many businesses struggling and cutting back, it may be harder for your teenagers to find summer jobs. 

Some things, however, never change: grass still grows and cars still get dirty. Encourage your teenagers to draw up some fliers, stuff mailboxes, and earn a little summer cash the way we did it back in our day.

Additional tips

Summer 2020 is gearing up to be a tough one for everyone, if we’re honest, but you can do this. A few additional tips to keep at the ready:

  • Remember that boredom is not bad. Most of our kids are used to being stimulated and entertained all the time, but it’s good to let them unplug and it’s better for them to be bored. Don’t give in to more screen time than you want them to have, and don’t feel like you have to entertain them 24/7.

  • Set minimum time limits. This is super helpful for activities that they can turn around quickly, like Lego challenge cards, paper airplanes, postcards, etc. Consider what your kid is capable of, and what the task could actually require, and push it a little longer. I know my 7 will rush through an art project, for example, but if I tell him he has to spend at least 20 minutes on it today … he gets more invested. He knows he can’t just drop it anyway, so it forces him to engage on a deeper level.

  • Threaten chores. The first time they whine about being bored, I make suggestions. The second time, I tell them to go find something to do. The third time, they get an extra chore to do, and I tell them why: I gave them all my ideas and I gave them time to figure it out. If they really can’t find something to do, they can fold laundry. 
  • 15 low-cost, almost-no-prep summer activities for kids

    So some of these require a few minutes or a few dollars, but it’s worth it if you can swing it. If not, start with the true freebies, like backyard scavenger hunts or a summer kindness journal.

    And if you have ideas, tips, or inspiration of your own PLEASE leave it in a comment to help the rest of us maintain our sanity this summer too!


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