Keeping your kids busy doesn't have to cost a fortune—with a little creativity, you can make time fly on the cheap (or even for free!)

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Before you have kids, no one tells you just how many hours per day you'll be responsible for keeping them entertained. If you're a stay-at-home parent, the time between breakfast and dinner can feel endless. And working parents aren't spared from boredom, either—there's still evenings, weekends, summer vacations, and school holidays to fill with kid-friendly diversions.

You could spend a small fortune on a constant rotation of new, attention-keeping toys and games for your kids to play with. You could go nearly bankrupt funding trips to zoos, amusement parks, aquariums, museums, and movie theaters. Or you could save your money and try one of these inexpensive—or even free!—ways to entertain your kids.

1. Get wet (inside or outside)

All kids love water. Bath water, hose water, sink water—it doesn't matter. For indoor water play, fill up your sink or bathtub and give your kids a supply of measuring cups, Tupperware, and wooden kitchen utensils for dumping, pouring, and stirring. You can also toss their matchbox cars into a basin of water with some soap and call it a car wash.

If the weather is nice enough, go outside and fill up a water table with bubbles, engage in a super soaker battle or water balloon fight, or recycle household items (like pool noodles, rain gutters, and PVC piping) into rivers, tunnels, and ramps for toy boats.

For indoor or outdoor water play, Asia Citro, blogger and author of 150+ Screen-Free Activities for Kids and The Curious Kid's Science Book, likes to freeze her kids' toys in ice, then hand out salt and warm water so they can "excavate" them.


2. Offer open-ended sensory play

Similar to water play, you can use almost any common household items for sensory activities and let your child interact with the materials in whatever way he or she chooses. Great for kids of all ages, sensory play (like rice or pasta bins, play dough, homemade slime, water beads, and bubble wrap stomping) has the potential to keep kids entertained for hours.

Citro says that cheap pantry items are the key to creating a sensory bin or table that your kids will love: "We use an under bed storage container and add around twenty pounds of rice...but you could do a smaller scale version by adding some rice to a cake dish. Because you're not eating it, you can sometimes find huge bags of expired rice at bargain prices."

Danna from Massachusetts has been doing sensory activities with her son since he was a baby. "When he was able to sit up but wasn't into solids yet, I would entertain him on a hot afternoon by boiling spaghetti and then letting him play with it in a bathtub without water," she says (an idea she saw on Pinterest). "Now that he's two, our go-to [activity] is a big spool of green twine which we use to make 'spider webs' with on hot days."

3. Hit up your local library or pet store

When it feels like you've read every picture book in your house (multiple times in a row), check out your local library. Not only will they have a new-to-your-kid selection of books available to borrow, most libraries boast an impressive offering of totally free kid-friendly activities: story and music hour for babies/toddlers, make-and-take crafts, Lego and STEAM clubs for older kids, plus frequent movies, educational demonstrations, and critter encounters.

Or, if your kids are animal lovers, take a visit to the "free zoo," aka the pet store. Most have fish, birds, hamsters, and reptiles on display, and some will even let you take out a puppy to play with in a specially designated area.

4. Go on a nature walk

When your kiddos have cabin fever, planning a nature walk can keep their minds and bodies busy for a long time. You can do this at a nearby park or hiking trail, or even right in your own backyard. Either way, make the activity last longer by giving your kids a goal to achieve, like collecting pinecones, twigs, and rocks for an art project or finding all the objects on a nature scavenger hunt.

Jaime from California says that a favorite activity for her child is "coloring the bottom of each section of an egg carton with a different color of the rainbow, then going outside to fill the sections with something we find in that color."

5. Camp out in your living room

Combining two of the best rainy day activities (blanket forts and shadow puppets), indoor camping is guaranteed to be an instant hit with your kids.

Draw the curtains, hand out flashlights, toast a batch of oven s'mores, and pretend you're sleeping under the stars on the living room floor (a pop-up tent is optional, but not required—you can string a clothesline from one side of the room to the other and drape a blanket over it).

If you've already got them at home, sleeping bags, a star projector, and an infant white noise machine (tuned to any "summer night" setting) can really ramp up the fun.