7 Free or Cheap Activities for Kids This Summer


We’re slipping into the golden days of the school year, where activities are starting to come to an end. I received a note from the third grades teachers that after the kids do their end-of-grade testing, an apparently extremely big deal here in North Carolina, they’re throwing learning to the wind and will be having “camp” for the last two weeks of school . I can’t decide if I’m really annoyed or really inspired by this.

However, I have printed out my three-month calendar and have started to fill in the weeks, and I’ve begun to plan some of the activities I’d like to do with my boys to explore our new city.

Last summer, we were so busy with moving and unpacking that we barely got to check out what was available.

This year, though, we’re going to enjoy the free or low-cost activities available to us. While the activities in your area will inevitably be a little different, I hope this research from the Charlotte area will give you ideas for your neck of the woods.

You’ll Need to Plan (at least a little bit)

Before I list some ideas we’re planning to take advantage of this summer, may I make a recommendation? I am not always stellar about planning ahead, but for many of these suggestions, you’ll need to do some advanced planning, because they’re only free and low cost on select days and times.

Looking for fun, free, or inexpensive ideas to keep your kids entertained this summer? Here are seven of my favorite activities to make summer fun while keeping costs low. #summerfun #simplefamily #freesummeractivities #summerkids

This summer, I’ve printed off the three month calendar I mentioned above, and will be filling it in with activities we’d like to accomplish. Otherwise, we tend to do very little. Having a loose plan for at least one or two days per week in the summer makes us much more likely to visit and do more interesting activities.

I’ve also checked out a great local website, Charlotte on the Cheap, for ideas. I recommend looking for a similar local website in your area to give you ideas about events you may not have been aware of.

Free Museum Day

We have several museums in our area that have free days once a month including the Mint Museum of Art (which also has a Sunday FunDay once a month during the school year, where kids are free and have crafts and adults have $5 admission), the Schiele Museum of Natural History, and several museums which are also free, including the Wells Fargo History Museum and the New Gallery of Modern Art (which makes me excited! I love modern art!).

Several banks, including Bank of America and Merrill Lynch, offer free admission to area museums on select days (such as the first weekend of the month). It’s worth checking with your bank to see if they have such a program.

There is the cost of parking to contend with, and in downtown Charlotte, it isn’t cheap. We always take parking into consideration because it’s usually about $15 per day to park. Some museums will give you up to 2 hours of free parking if you bring your parking ticket inside, and some, like the Schiele Museum I mentioned above, have free parking onsite.

(Sort-of) Free Bowling

I mentioned this in last year’s post on summer activities, and we plan to take advantage of it again. If you sign up for Kids Bowl Free, kids can get two free games of bowling each week of the summer. You’ll need to sign your kids up and then the program will send you weekly coupons (they’ll also send you plenty of advertisements for a $35 bowling package for adults for the summer, too).

You will need to rent shoes for the kids, so this activity won’t be completely free. And at our bowling alley, shoe rental is somewhat pricey (in my opinion) at $4.75 per pair of shoes. Still, if you keep expectations realistic (no laser tag, no extra arcade games unless you bring your allowance), then your kids can bowl for $10.

Bowling fun www.thethreeyearexperiment.com
Kids bowl free this summer at hundreds of participating locations.

AMF Bowling Centers have a deal where you can pay $25 for the summer and bowl up to three games a day (wow!). Also, shoe rental is included with this offer. If you plan to bowl more than two or three times, this is a really sweet deal. Unfortunately, we don’t have an AMF Bowling Center super close or I’d probably take advantage of this deal.

Free or Low Cost Parks

We live near Kannapolis, NC, home of Dale Earnhardt, the famous Nascar racer. The cool thing about that is the family has poured money back into the town, including Village Park, this really cool park where you can ride a train, ride the Merry-Go-Round, or visit the splash park, all for just $2 per activity.

There are other parks like this in my area, including Dan Nicholas Park in Salisbury. There is no charge for admission and they have a carousel, train, gem mine, aquarium, and more. 

water splashpad fun
Junior ThreeYear loves our local splash park for the water. I love it for the price.

We like to pack a picnic lunch and make a morning or afternoon of going to the park, playing in the splash pad, playing on the playground equipment, and generally getting worn out as much as possible.

Parks are definitely more fun if you go or meet up with friends. That way your kids can have different people to interact with. We met up with neighbors several times last year and it made things much more fun. It’s probably a good idea to take separate cars, though, since kids can get wet, tired, or difficult at different times.

Library Summer Programs

Our library has a great summer program where we can earn free stuff for reading (which I do like crazy, anyway!). The whole family can sign up for the program and log our reading hours. The kids earn free Frostys from Wendy’s and tickets to our local amusement park. We can also earn fine waivers which is nice because I always tend to bring our books back a few days late.

Many libraries have evening events, speakers, or other special days where kids can build Legos, learn to code, or hear authors or other speakers.

Last year, Junior ThreeYear signed up for two free sessions on 3-D printers. A local college student came in to teach the kids how to use 3-D printers, and they even got to print out parts to make a cool game.

If you make going to the library a regular event during the summer, then not only will your kids have fresh books to read, you’ll get time to read about what’s going on and be able to sign up for anything that looks interesting.


One of our favorite activities in New Hampshire was to go on hikes up local mountains. Most of the time, you could take these trails for free or a small entrance fee like $5/person.

In North Carolina, we have hikes as well, but they tend to be flatter, not up mountains. Still, a Google search pops up tons of local hikes, even one up a (slightly steep) mountain.

Still, there are tons of great parks we can visit for day hikes. We make sure to pack lunch with us. Eating lunch at our destination after a hard climb is one of the best parts of the day.

Fall hike--www.thethreeyearexperiment.com
This is the top of one of our favorite hikes in New Hampshire. While we miss the beautiful hikes there, we look forward to some new (flatter!) hikes in NC.

Free Outdoor Movies

In Charlotte, there are a variety of free outdoor movie venues that offer outdoor movies on Thursday and Friday nights.

One nearby community is offering movies like The Secret Life of Bees and The Sandlot. Another community is showing Lego Movie 2 and Ralph Breaks the Internet.

For these events, you’ll need to bring lawn chairs and bug spray and arrive early to get a good spot. Many venues let you bring a picnic or even BYOB, while some sell snacks and drinks for a small price.

Cheap Indoor Movies

Several movie chains are offering steeply discounted movies during specific weekday mornings.

Cinemark’s Summer Movie Clubhouse offers 10 movies throughout the summer for just $1 per person per movie. You can also buy a pass for all ten movies for just $5. Pick your local theater for movie showtimes.

Regal Entertainment’s Summer Movie Express offers movies for $1 on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings at 10am throughout the summer (the same movie is shown each week). They haven’t printed their 2019 schedule but it should be coming soon.

Arsley Grand Cinemas, a local cinema in Charlotte, is offering a full kids’ movie schedule every Tuesday and Thursday at 10am. For just $3.70, kids get a kids’ combo and admission to movies like Hotel Translyvania 3 and How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World.

There are also a host of outdoor concerts available.

There are many more free or cheap options to take advantage of during the summer. Here are a few more ideas:

  • Vacation bible schools
  • Nature centers
  • Outdoor concerts
  • Religious/cultural festivals
  • Town days/festivals
  • Civil war reenactments

While camps are fun and my kids love going to camps, they can get expensive, especially when I don’t work during the summer (check out this post for ideas on how to keep camp costs low for your kids).

Whatever you’re planning for the summer, I hope these ideas have helped. Let me know your favorite free or cheap summer activity in the comments!

Author: Laurie

Hi. I'm Laurie, and my family and I have set out to double our net worth and move abroad in the next three years. Join us on our journey!

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