Five Great Budget-Friendly Activities & Events To Entertain Your Kids

Four year old C is thrilled to meet a friendly female version of The Mad Hatter at our local library festival.

While our blended family doesn’t fall into supersize Duggar-style territory, our gang is definitely big by today’s smaller-family-size standards. Having a larger brood of kids means that over the years, I’ve had to carefully pick and choose which special events and activities are worth the entertainment dollars  that I have to equitably stretch across multiple offspring.

 With four children still at home, buying enough tickets for things like a trip to an amusement park, an evening sporting event, a day at the zoo, or even dinner at a restaurant can really add up, so we generally save those bigger entertainment spends for special occasions.

However, over time, I’ve curated my own go-to list of free and low cost, yet reliably fun activities for Jon and me to enjoy with the kids on weekends and during school holidays. These are things that are close to home, easy to access, and which generally hold some interest for kids of different ages.

Below, I’ve pulled together a list of  my five favorite, tried and true budget-conscious activities and events for kids. Although I have many other favorite freebie activities (like feeding bread to the ducks at Fountain City Lake), I picked these five to share with y’all because they aren’t specific to my own hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee. Instead, each of these activities of should be available in some form or fashion wherever you happen to live in the U.S.

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  • Spend an Afternoon at a Horseshow 1 of 5
    Spend an Afternoon at a Horseshow
    Here's a photo of me with baby C at a local horseshow a few years back. I grew up riding horses, and my eldest daughter J rode competitively for many years. But even though nobody in our family actually competes at the moment, an afternoon at a local horseshow is great fun for pony-loving kids. Horseshows are held all over the country pretty much every weekend of the year, and admission to outdoor shows is generally free, while the cost of attending an indoor horseshow rarely exceeds ten bucks. There will be hotdogs and popcorn and horses galore, and there are usually lots of kids in attendance. Horseshow Time is a great website for finding equestrian events near you.
  • Take in Some Live Music 2 of 5
    Take in Some Live Music
    In this photo you see four year old cousins C and NC, plus random other child belonging to someone else boppin' to a live show by my favorite kids' band, Lunch Money Music when they played at our town's free Festival of Books last summer. Almost every city and town offers free outdoor live music in the summertime, and I've learned that just taking my kids to hear something played on stage - even if it's not a genre of music I myself would necessarily pay money to hear - leads to an unexpectedly good time. One of the silliest good times I ever had with my oldest was the time we went to see a free show by country star Con Hunley sponsored by the city where we live. There's just something infectiously fun about seeing music performed live, no matter what it is.
  • Visit the (Free) Fish 3 of 5
    Visit the (Free) Fish
    One of the very coolest free kid activities I've ever found is a visit to a speciality aquarium store. The dark, cool interiors of fish stores combined with the jewel-colored, glowing underwater tableaux are very soothing for both parents and kids. This is an awesome pre-nap or afterschool outing because even if you all go into the store revved up, you will leave all chilled out. Just be sure that your children understand that you're there to VISIT, not to come home with a pet named Nemo so that nobody ends up disappointed, and make sure that your kids behave themselves (after all, this is a business, not a zoo), and everyone will end up happy and entertained.
  • Storytime! Storytime! Storytime! 4 of 5
    Storytime! Storytime! Storytime!
    In this photo you see my daughter C and her cousin H enjoying storytime at Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi. The reader in the picture is my brother in law, Joe Hickman, who manages this iconic indie bookstore, which hosts storytime and even author signings for kids. But even if you don't have an independent bookseller like Lemuria in your town, you may have one of the larger chain bookstores hosting events for kids, including activities for bigger kids like "midnight release parties" when the new Harry Potter titles hit the shelves. In addition to booksellers, your local library system almost certainly offers story hours for younger kids. A great children's librarian can bring a story to life for kids like nobody else.
  • Cheer on a (High School) Team 5 of 5
    Cheer on a (High School) Team
    I don't know if you've bought tickets to a college or pro sporting event lately, but I have, and I can tell you that treating your children to a bigtime sporting event WILL break the bank. However, it only costs a few bucks for a ticket to take your kids to see your local high school's football, basketball or lacrosse team play, and I've found that for kids between about 5 and 13, an evening in the stands cheering on high school heroes can be a pretty great substitute. You'll still shell out a few dollars for hotdogs and cokes, but the hotdog will cost you $3.50 as opposed to the $15 I paid for one last fall when I splurged and took my 8th grader to his first pro basketball game in Atlanta.

 Now that you’ve checked out my list, I’d really love to hear your own ideas and recommendations for “fun on the cheap” outings and events because I’m always looking for new ideas for my “entertain the kids” bag o’tricks. So tell me, what are some things you’ve discovered to entertain your kids that don’t cost a fortune. Bonus points for ideas that are likely to be available wherever other readers happen to live (meaning the activities aren’t super-specific to your neck o’ the woods)

Disclosure: A big thanks to Citi for sponsoring this campaign. Click here to see more of the discussion.

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