Pop quiz! What do the following have in common: lavish family vacations, spontaneous jet-setting, and ample family fun budgets? Answer: they’re all the subjects of parents’ 2020 daydreams.

As family budgets are squeezed and travel restrictions expanded, it’s due time to remember an old saying: the best things in life are free.

And so today, we’re revisiting one of our favorite topics: creative family fun that comes with a pleasant price tag: $0.


Bigger or Better

Your junk drawer is a powerful thing; it’s about to create an afternoon of free fun. Find two small matching items, such as paper clips or mystery game pieces, then task your teams with trading the items in a public place or neighborhood for something “bigger or better.” (Wearing masks, of course!) Continue trading for a set amount of time before reconvening and awarding a prize to the team with the largest, most valuable item.

“Designer” Wallpaper Extravaganza

Refresh your kids’ bedroom walls with some decor of their own making! Using bare kraft paper, empty cardboard boxes, or even inverted grocery bags, Use paints to splatter, spray, stamp, and scribble your way to custom wallpaper that’s truly one-of-a-kind.

Pillow Mountain

Gather all of the pillows from around the house into the living room. Scoot your furniture together to form a barrier of couch backs, then fill the void with as many pillows and blankets as you can pack in. Your afternoon of tickle fights and hide-and-seek just got one cozy upgrade.

MPR News
MPR News

Stick Fort Construction

Leaf piles are still months away. So what does Mother Nature have to offer right now? Sticks, twigs, and plenty of inspiration. Create a tent, fort, or castle using twigs and twine. Keep the sticks light, and offer a hand with “joint construction.” Best of all: the results are completely compostable.

You-Pick Picnic

Routine dinner doesn’t have to be dull. Once a week, take your family dinner out on the town. No, not to a restaurant; on a picnic! Rotate the destination selection assignment to a different family member each week. Cook what you normally would, then pack it up and have the picnic picker reveal their destination of choice.

Cardboard City

Wish you could take a trip to the big city? Bring the city to your dining room instead. Upcycle some large cardboard boxes into a skyline by using marker and a (grownup supervised) razor blade. Dim the lights, find a playlist of city-specific music, and dine away in your cardboard metropolis.

Snow Cone Parlor

Did Mother Nature have a hot streak? Make your own Snow Cones with a block of ice and a cheese grater. A sprinkling of sugar and a dot of vanilla extract will turn those flakes into a treat. Or, drizzle some ice-cold fruit juice on a densely packed snowball for a fruity treat.

Talent Show

You know your family is talented. Now show it off! Give each family member 5 minutes to recite poetry, spin a basketball on their finger, sing a song, or show off their most recent drawings. Mom and dad, you’re not off the hook. Our only advice: do this well before adolescence hits or the only talent you’ll see will be professional arm crossing.

Pantry Cook-Off Competition

Grocery budget running low? Don’t spill the beans; use the beans! (And anything else that’s been sitting idle in your pantry.) Host a cook-off with your kids, competing for best dish using nothing but what’s on hand. The challenge is real, the results are helpful, and the process will be a blast.

Indoor Camping

It’s time to put that tent taking up space in your garage to good use. Clean it off and bring it inside. Spend the night as a family in sleeping bags with flashlights and books in hand. All the fun of camping with none of the bug bites.

Scavenger Hunt

What turns bottle caps, graffiti, and people dressed in purple into a raucous good time? A scavenger hunt! Enlist the kids’ help to create a list, then set out to the local park or mall split into two teams, parents versus kids. The first team to return with pictures of all of the items on their list is crowned champion.

Puzzle Race

Puzzles have never been more exciting. Find two comparable puzzles and divide into two teams. Assemble as fast as you can, racing against each other for fastest puzzle completion. Have some popcorn on hand? Snacks make everything better.

Hero Hour

Parenting a toddler? Chances are, their heroes aren’t far away. Take your kids on a trip to the local fire department. Call ahead to confirm availability, and bring drawings or cookies to thank them for their service. Your kids will likely get to see their shiny equipment up close, and they won’t be the only ones whose days were made.

Local Activities

Sometimes, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel for free fun. Plenty of local venues have free activities. Library storytime, community concerts, and even “First Friday” events as many museums offer hours of fun without a single dollar in admission. Check your city’s community calendar to see what’s happening.

Paper Boat Race

Have access to a creek? Give each family member a sheet of waxed paper or aluminum foil and an assignment: craft the fastest boat possible. Then take your paper boats to the creek, position someone at a designated finish line, and let ‘em loose.