Post signs around the neighborhood encouraging kids to decorate their rides with streamers, stickers, flags, and more—then let them cruise while all the parents applaud.
Take a tour of your police or fire station. Since most locations don't have set visiting hours, call ahead to arrange an appointment.
Click on Little Lunkers at takemefishing.org, where your young angler can learn the basics of the sport and find places to cast off in your area.
Watching artisans paint, pot, and blow glass is captivating for kids. Most cities host regular open-house art events; call your Chamber of Commerce for information.
Build a backyard obstacle course with hula hoops, jump ropes, even a hose, then time the kids.
Nothing piques kids' curiosity more than baby animals, so a visit to a petting zoo (or even a pet store) is a surefire hit. Find everything from pony rides to farm tours in your state at pettingzoofarm.com.
When summer storms render the jungle gym too wet to climb, take a trip to a sheltered playspace, like the indoor court at a nearby public elementary school or, better still, Småland at your local Ikea. The home retail giant's supervised playspace offers up to 90 minutes of parent-free fun for little ones who are out of diapers and between 37" and 54" tall.
Designate one evening a week for some friendly multifamily competition (think kickball, softball, and capture the flag). Keep things fair by designating a different parent to ref (get rules for dozens of sports at gameskidsplay.net) and dividing into new teams each time, like dads and daughters versus moms and sons.
Many factories offer tours so kids can see their favorite products created from start to finish. Get info on visiting more than 500 factories across the nation from factorytoursusa.com.
Community parks offer an endless array of free and low-cost day camps and activities, including swimming, improv, arts and crafts, music, archery, tennis lessons—even nature and farm programs. Kids ages 5 and up can also participate in team sports leagues. For dozens of programs, call your city parks department or check out the National Recreation and Park Association Website, nrpa.org.
Mix up a bowl of Oobleck, a mysterious matter that kids can shape into balls or let ooze from their fingers. Here's how:
* Pour one cup water into a large mixing bowl.
* Add a few drops of food coloring (any color).
* Slowly stir in two cups of cornstarch (use a spoon at first, but you may eventually find it's easier with your hands).
Most crafts stores—including chains like Michaels, and A. C. Moore—offer hands-on activities just for kids (think scrapbooking, box decorating, bead stringing, as well as projects using clay, pipe cleaners, and more). Some classes are free; others require a nominal fee—typically $5 or less. Find class info at michaels.com, or call your local A. C. Moore store.
Select Regal theaters offer Summer Movie Express tickets for $1 each summer, screening PG and G-rated movies at 10 a.m. every Tuesday and Wednesday. Go to regmovies.com for a schedule. AMC runs a similar program, Summer Movie Camp, on Wednesdays at 10 a.m., with $4 tickets; check out amctheaters.com for more details.
Do it for real: Send out invites ahead of time. Then on the day of, make a big Happy Unbirthday sign, blow up balloons, hang streamers, bake an unbirthday cake, and sing "Happy Unbirthday to You." (Since it's nobody's birthday, the guests can blow out the candles together!)
It doesn't have to be expensive MLB action to be entertaining; whether it's Single-, Double-, or Triple-A, minor-league matches can inspire the same enthusiastic root, root, rooting for the home team. Plus, tickets start around $7 a pop at most stadiums, and many clubs charge even less than that for kids. (Other amenities come cheap too; the average cost of parking is less than $4 and hot dogs cost under $3.) Get a list of teams and schedules from milb.com.
You don't have to leave town to go on a vacation: Get to know the town you live in. Look into local landmarks, call the local historical society for some fun hometown trivia, and ask a neighbor for her favorite restaurant recommendation to try somewhere new.
Hundreds of alleys across the country participate in the summerlong Kids Bowl Free program, which allows children to play two games a day on the house. To register for a pass, roll on over to kidsbowlfree.com.
Invite kids to come over with toys (in good condition) that they no longer want. Then, let them draw numbers to see who gets to pick a "new" toy first.
Volunteering teaches compassion and responsibility—it also keeps kids busy. There is plenty that little ones can do, like cleaning up a green space or collecting canned goods.
Lace up your boots; pack a bottle of bug spray, lunch, and a pair of binoculars; and play naturalist for the day at one of the nation's 550 wildlife refuges—public lands and waters set aside to conserve animals and plants. You can hike through lush forests, swim in pristine rivers and lakes, and identify hundreds of native species (including endangered ones). With more than 150 million acres to explore across the country, getting into the wild is easier than you might think; visit fws.gov/refuges to find a refuge near you.
Little-known secret: Many grocery stores offer inexpensive culinary classes for kids ages 5 and up—seek out your store's manager for details.
Every Friday and Saturday at twilight, parks across the country sponsor free outdoor family film nights. Visit your parks department Website to find screenings near you.
Barnes & Noble, and most independent book shops, as well as libraries, host story hours for kids. Find schedules and other information at bn.com, or by phoning your local library or bookstore.
Some 120 museums across the country will admit you and your kids for free the first full weekend of every month if you flash your Bank of America debit, credit, or ATM card. Visit bankofamerica.com/museums for info. Not a cardholder? Not to worry: Many museums, big and small, offer free (or heavily discounted) admission for families one day a week. Put in a call to your local museum to inquire about dates and fees.
Kids will have a blast with this chalk-bomb idea from mom Lorie King Kaehler, author of Chalk on the Wild Side. Use a clean soap-dispenser pump to fill water balloons with a washable chalk-paint mixture—mix 1 cup of water, 2 tablespoons of cornstarch, and a few drops of food coloring. Have your child draw targets on the ground with chalk or just let him go wild. Fire away!