Free Family Fun!

Happy, healthy families have something in common: they take the time to have FUN. Here, 10 inexpensive ways to enjoy each other.

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    The Secret to Happy, Healthy Families

    My kids disagree as to which of them began the game of "alien eggball." After the green plastic ball—we joked it was an alien egg—appeared mysteriously in our backyard, we started playing something vaguely resembling volleyball with it, using the swing set as a net. Years later, in spite of my kids' advanced ages (now a teen and a tween), we still play alien eggball on warm summer nights and cool fall evenings. We have no rules, we don't keep score, but we have fun and laugh.

    Turns out that kind of silliness is a key ingredient of happy families, according to Kenneth R. Ginsburg, M.D., M.S.Ed., author of A Parent's Guide to Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Your Child Roots and Wings. "Kids need a deep-rooted connection with loving adults, and playing together fosters those connections." It also lets children of any age see parents in a different—and more relaxed—light. Those positive interactions will keep family bonds strong as kids learn to be independent, says Lisa M. Schainker, Ph.D., M.P.H., associate scientist for Iowa State University's Partnerships in Prevention Science. Here's what other families do for laughs.

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    Pick Your Fun

    The Hermann family of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, visits local farms and orchards where they can pick their own produce -- everything from strawberries to pumpkins. The kids, ages 6 and 3 1/2 years and 18 months, see it as an adventure, and it's made them more adventurous eaters as well, says mom, Debbie Hermann. "We've actually said, 'Finish your ice cream and then you can have more spinach,'" she says.

    Last summer they picked 8 pounds of blueberries, not stopping until the kids were tired. "We ate everything blueberry—pancakes, muffins, cobbler—for six months," Hermann says.

    Some of the farms have picnic areas and playgrounds, so they pack a lunch and make a day of it. It's inexpensive fun—the only cost is the produce they pick. Added bonus: The kids learn where food comes from and have started a garden at home as well. The website www.pickyourown.org lists farms state by state.

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    It's Family Showtime!

    Before television, movies, and the Internet, people made their own entertainment. And that's what the Banderman family of Calvert City, Kentucky, does with their "parlor entertainment." Each of their five children—ages 12, 9, 7, 4, and 2—performs, either playing the piano or another instrument, doing skits, reciting poetry, or putting on a puppet show.

    Sometimes other families in their homeschooling group join them and bring snacks. Adults can perform, too, says mom, Megan Banderman.

    They make sure all ages are involved. "The little kids do something short," Banderman says. "Our 2-year-old dances in a circle and we all clap and she feels good."

    Although the Bandermans spend time in a variety of "fun" activities, what they do doesn't seem to matter. "We have found that what our children want most from us is 'just being' time," says Banderman. "They just want to spend time with their parents and have us focus on them and have fun together."

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    Friday Night Pizza, American Style

    When the Oxenreider family lived in the Middle East, American food was hard to come by, so Tsh and her husband began making homemade pizza on Friday nights. It was a chance to eat a familiar food, says the author of Organized Simplicity (www.organizedsimplicity.net) and mom of children ages 5 and 3 years old and 4 months.

    Now that the family lives in Austin, they've continued the Friday night activity. "We celebrate the start of the weekend and the end of the workweek," Oxenreider says. She and her husband make individual rounds of dough, while the kids add their own sauce, cheese, and toppings such as pepperoni, red peppers, pineapple, and olives.

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    Picnics All Year Long

    The Tardibono family of Oklahoma City, also does Friday night pizza, but both parents usually decide to go with one of the local $5 pizzas.

    The kids pick out a blanket to spread on the living room floor, get out paper plates, turn the TV to something like America's Funniest Home Videos, and eat on the floor, says Daniel Tardibono, dad to a 5-year-old daughter and sons, age 2 1/2 years and 5 months.

    "Usually all the food is eaten at the kitchen table so it's fun to break the rules," he says. "But what's great is everybody is laughing. We tell each other something funny, like what would be really strange to put on a pizza."

    A bonus: Spending fun time together, whether it's a picnic indoors or at the beach, "can open up lines of communication," says Lisa M. Schainker, Ph.D., M.P.H., associate scientist for Iowa State University's Partnerships in Prevention Science. "Parents may have better luck discussing important or serious issues with their kids after completing a fun activity together."

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    Indoor Camping

    When you camp outdoors, you have to contend with bad weather and hungry bugs. Instead, it's become a Friday night tradition at Dawn Schnake's Overland Park, Kansas, home to have a campout in the family room. She, her husband, and their two sons, ages 7 and 4, get out the sleeping bags, make popcorn, and watch a favorite movie like Star Wars, Veggie Tales, or Madagascar.

    "We started doing this when we lit a fire in the fireplace during the winter and the boys wanted to sleep in front of the fire," says Schnake.

    She likes their Friday night indoor campouts. "There's so much to do during the week," she says. "But when we stop and do this, it brings us closer together and we can communicate without arguing."

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    The Great Outdoors

    Robin Prehn of Golden, Colorado, figures her family has used their $50 tent so many times it costs just pennies a night now when they camp. And they can pitch their tent on Bureau of Land Management land—plentiful in Colorado—for free. Hiking and camping are family traditions, says Prehn: Her son, 8, and daughter, 7, have been hiking since both kids "were so little they were in carriers."

    Prehn writes about their outdoor adventures, along with other family activities like reading, for her website family-fun-together.com. She believes playing together outdoors strengthens family relationships and "can produce a family that can weather any storm."

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    Play with Your Dinner

    Dinner conversation at the Young family's home in Overland Park, Kansas, has become livelier with their question-and-answer game. Each family member, from parents, Cregg and Karin, to son, Hunter, 16, and daughter, Harper, 7, recounts one good and one bad thing from the day.

    But sometimes the answers have been too brief—"The good thing was pizza at lunch and the bad was that recess was too short"—so mom, Karin Frakes Young, looked for a way to get the conversational ball rolling a little faster. "We needed a way to connect and get everyone talking," she says.

    Now each person at the table takes turns asking another question as well, such as "Where would you live if you could live anywhere?" or "If you could be a character from a book, who would you be?" says Young. The Q&A sessions have gotten the whole family talking, and are extra fun when dinner guests join in.

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    Hometown Adventures

    Sherri and Bryan Hefley, of Oronogo, Missouri, take their two sons, 3 and 4 years old, to the local home improvement store Saturday mornings to build small wooden projects—for free—such as bug boxes, pencil holders and periscopes. "The store provides the materials and gives the boys a free apron, safety goggles, and a badge," says Sherri Hefley. Both parents stay to provide adult supervision.

    Hefley also looks for free events and exhibits at the local shopping mall. Recently, the local train club sponsored a train show, and the football team from a nearby college met with fans.

    Check out museums, history sites, tourist attractions, and the zoo in your community for special offers or times with free admission.

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    New Holiday Traditions

    The Hirst family of New Hempstead, New York, finds fun in their holiday traditions, from searching for the perfect Christmas tree to carving pumpkins for Halloween.

    The search for the tree begins by spending the night at the home of an aunt. In the morning, after a breakfast of pancakes and sausage, they visit the local Christmas tree farm. "That's where we hunt for the perfect—or imperfect—tree," says Linda Hirst, mom of two sons, 11 and 7 years old. Once they've chosen a tree out of the hundreds available, they saw it themselves and load it on the car. That's followed by hot cocoa.

    "It's a fun day," Hirst says. "It puts you in the spirit of Christmas."

    The family also likes to go exploring during December to find Christmas light displays in other neighborhoods, while listening to Christmas music in the car. At Halloween, they choose pumpkins from a pick-your-own patch or a local store and then print out templates from the Internet for carving different designs.

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    A Spin on Family Game Night

    Most families try to have an occasional family game night, but Cynthia Copeland, author of Family Fun Night, has some tips to jazz up this old standby. One of the biggest problems with game nights occurs in families with kids of widely different ages.

    Copeland suggests playing in teams, pairing a parent or older sibling with a younger child, for a game of strategy like Monopoly. Or find a way to give the younger child more points or more cards to level the playing field. Have really young children roll the dice, move the game pieces, or control the timer. Choose games that depend on luck and chance rather than skill.

    To encourage reluctant kids to participate—tweens and teens may say they want to hang out with their friends instead of family—let them invite a friend over or agree to play their music in the background.

    When it comes to puzzles, especially for older kids, Copeland recommends "thinking outside the box." She suggests hiding puzzle pieces around the house or dumping all the pieces of three different puzzles in one pile to make it more challenging.

    "It's things like the time Dad drew a chicken with four legs in Pictionary that kids remember and that make a family," Copeland, the mom of three, says. "We underestimate the value of casual family times."