If you believe the TV commercials, then the only words that will truly make your children happy are "Hey kids, we're going to Disney World!" Fortunately for your budget and your sanity, that's simply not the case. There are plenty of activities you can do with your kids at home that they'll absolutely love without costing you more than a few bucks and some quality time.
If you have young kids, relish this time with your family. Young kids don't require a lot of fancy gadgets or expensive hobbies to be entertained. They crave spending time with their parents and siblings engaged in any kind of activity, whether they're productive, competitive or just plain silly. Children love family traditions and love playing even a small role in helping to prepare for them and keep the traditions alive.
Study after study shows that quality time spent as a family -- eating, playing games or just talking -- is one of the most effective indicators of future success, self-esteem and overall well-being. The following five ideas are easy, inexpensive activities that will bring your family closer together and create a lifetime of memories.
Washing the Car
If there is such a thing as a win-win-win situation, this is it. Washing the car with your kids is fun for them, easy for you, and it offers an opportunity to finally dispose of those Cheerios crumbs that have been ground into the backseat floor mat for the past three years.
You don't need a lot of fancy equipment to wash the car with the kids. A hose is great, but a couple of buckets work just as well. Those nice fluffy carwash-grade sponges are a cool addition, but old rags will do the trick, too. You don't even have to buy special car "shampoo." Dilute regular dishwashing soap in a bucket of warm water and you're in business.
If you have little kids, you can add a bit of make-believe to the experience by pretending that they're the owners of a car wash and you're the customer. You can drive up, they can tell you about their services (interior vacuum, wheels, windows, etc.) and take your order.
If it's a hot day, everyone should dress in their bathing suits and expect to get wet. Water fights are an inevitable and fun way to end any good car wash.
Research shows that the simple act of eating together as a family can significantly improve overall family happiness and dramatically lower incidences of teen drug and alcohol abuse [source: Gibbs]. But as every busy parent knows, preparing home-cooked meals seven nights a week (let alone three times a day) can quickly become overwhelming. A family picnic can break up the mealtime routine and involve the whole family in the planning and cooking process.
Get the kids involved early. Have them help you choose the location for the picnic. It could be the park down the street, a nearby state park or nature preserve, or even the backyard. Then let them each choose one thing to contribute to the picnic. Ideally, it will be something they can help to prepare, like a fruit salad or ham sandwiches. For the littlest kids, have them count out oranges or cookies for each member of the family, or gather enough paper plates, forks and napkins for the whole crew.
You don't need an official picnic basket. You can designate a cooler or even a cardboard box that the kids can decorate like a picnic basket. An old bed sheet makes a great picnic blanket. Make sure to bring a soccer ball, a Frisbee, bubbles, and other outdoor activities for after the picnic. If the picnic is a success, make it into a weekly tradition when the weather is nice. It will give the whole family something different to look forward to.
Fetch the card table out of the basement and dust off that Monopoly box: It's time for game night. Game night is a great way to entertain kids of all ages while spending quality time together as a family.
Deciding what game or games to play will depend on the ages of your kids and their evolving attention span. For the littlest kids, a simplified game of Charades is always a success. You don't have to split up into teams or make it competitive. Just pick a theme -- animals, sports, even people in the family -- and let each kid act out a clue of their choosing while the rest of the family guesses.
Jenga, Perfection, Operation and Connect Four are great inexpensive board games for younger children. As the kids get older, you can introduce them to longer, more strategic games like Monopoly, Clue, Scrabble and card games like Spades or Hearts.
Have the family help prepare a favorite game night snack like popcorn, cookies or ice cream sundaes. The combination of tasty food and lively competition is a winning recipe for family fun.
Kids love a good movie, but taking a family of four to the local theater can set you back more than $30 -- and that's without the jumbo tub of popcorn. Save some money and create a new family tradition by having a weekly or monthly movie night at home.
It's easier than ever to rent movies. With a broadband Internet connection, you don't even have to leave the house. Services like Netflix carry an on-demand archive of thousands of family-friendly movies, from new releases to all-time favorites. A subscription to Netflix, which gives you unlimited streaming of movies and TV shows, only costs $7.99 a month, less than the price of one movie ticket. You can also rent and download movies from services like iTunes and Amazon.
If you don't have a fast Internet connection, you can still pick up a DVD from Redbox, which currently has 28,000 locations nationwide. Movies only cost a dollar (if you return them within 24 hours) and Redbox machines are conveniently located at grocery stores, drug stores and gas stations.
To keep everyone happy, let each member of the family pick a movie. And don't forget the popcorn!
Camping is a great way to introduce kids to the outdoors and have a safe family adventure. But if you've ever been on a camping trip with small children, you know that there are drawbacks: You have to hike all of the gear out to the woods yourself, keep everyone covered with mosquito repellant, make sure the little kids stay clear of the campfire/lake/poison ivy, as well as other tasks. One way to ensure a safe, hassle-free camping experience is to pitch a tent in the backyard.
Unlike a real camping trip out in the wilderness, backyard campouts don't take a lot of planning and preparing. If the weather is warm, you don't even need a tent. The bare minimum is some sleeping bags, flashlights and preferably a campfire.
A campfire in the backyard might not work for everybody. If you have a bigger backyard, you can designate a corner for a small fire pit made from a small circle of stones on a gravel bed. If you have a smaller backyard, or you don't want to sacrifice a chunk of your lawn, you can invest in an inexpensive above-ground fire pit for less than $50. A gas grill will work in a pinch.
The greatest benefit of a backyard campout is that all the comforts of home are only a few steps away, including the bathroom and the kitchen. Stock the fridge with hot dogs and drinks, and don't forget marshmallows. Sing songs around the fire, tell stories and snuggle up in your sleeping bags as close to bedtime as possible. And if any of the kids get spooked in the middle of the night (or the sleeping bag isn't as comfortable as you remember), your bedrooms are ready and waiting.
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- Gibbs, Nancy. Time. "The Magic of the Family Meal." June 4, 2006 http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1200760,00.html