Tag Archives: cheap fun for kids

Anatomy of a Shoestring Adventure

Lots of Fun for Not Much Money

Just like most people, my husband I live on a “just barely” income. We’ve got “just barely” enough to pay the rent, just barely enough to pay our bills, just barely enough to keep groceries in the ‘frig, just barely enough to put a little bit into a savings account, and just barely enough to have a few “disposable dollars” left over at the end of the month. However, with today’s prices our disposable dollars get “disposed of” really quickly. There just isn’t much out there that you can do for entertainment that’s “cheap.” That is, there isn’t much out there unless you know where to look for it, and if you know how, you can do it on a “shoestring.”

We’ve been going on Shoestring Adventures since the day we got married. We never had much money to spend on splashy vacations, and even when we went “on vacation” stretching our dollars was the rule. Over the years, I’ve learned how to stretch our money to cover all sorts of incredible “road trips”—sometimes just for one day, sometimes for a whole week. Whenever and wherever we’ve gone, we’ve had experiences that “money couldn’t buy.” The two dozen or more photo albums that are stacked up in my hall closet prove it!

There’s little point in me telling you exactly where to go, how to get there, or what to do when you get there. Since our Shoestring Adventures are tailored to appeal to us, they may not appeal to you. What I can share with you, however, is how to create your own Shoestring Adventure—one that is tailor-made to fit you, your family, your budget, and your interests. With a few simple skills, a handy collection of “stuff,” and just a little bit of planning and preparation, you’ll be on your way!

Keep These Things Handy!

First, if you don’t have a really good roadmap for your state (or the state into which you intend to travel)—BUY ONE. I’m not talking about a simple map that’s got the major roads, like a travel atlas, I’m talking about one of those big paper roadmaps that you can never refold correctly. You can usually buy an excellent state roadmap in stores like Kmart, Wal Mart, Walgreen’s, or any bookstore. Before you buy the roadmap, make sure that it has “Places of Interest” marked on it. To verify this, open the map to the “Legend” or “Key” (where they explain all the symbols used on the map). Places of interest are usually marked with something like a red dot, a blue square, or the like. In fact, so many roadmaps that we’ve purchased use red dots that we know simply refer to interesting places as “red dots on the map.”

Second, assemble a “Road Adventure Kit” and keep it ready to go! You can use anything from a cardboard box, a plastic milk crate, a “tub” (like a Rubbermaid storage tub you can buy at Wal Mart), or even a nice wicker picnic basket. Personally, we use a crate; it’s easy to carry and it fits nicely into the bed of our truck (along with all our other Road Adventure items). You should start assembling your kit by including in your crate any or all of the following:

* Binoculars
* A roll of paper towels and a bottle of hand sanitizer
* Picnic items (paper plate, plastic utensils, etc.)
* A plastic tablecloth (like the “disposable” kind you can buy for cheap)
* A couple of big “beach” towels
* A small first-aid kit
* Insect repellent
* A sharp knife, a can opener, scissors
* Travel-sized games like Scrabble, playing cards, etc.
* A gallon of fresh drinking water (be sure to refresh regularly)
* A pad of paper, pencils, pens
* A “Road Adventure” log book

Your “Road Adventure Kit” should be tailor-made to fit your family’s needs. If you aren’t big on picnics, the picnic items can still come in handy for fast-food meals like fried chicken or even burgers and fries! Eat your lunch outside in a park! You might be glad you have the tablecloth (public picnic tables are rarely anything close to clean), and the towels can be spread out on the benches so you have something clean to sit on.

You should also think about including in your kit personal needs (a couple of clean diapers for the baby, a box of facial tissues for runny noses, some feminine sanitary products for when you get caught “unaware,” any anti-allergic medications that you might need, etc.). Be creative! Also, let your first few road adventures teach you what you need to have along. If you’ve forgotten something, make a note of it. The next time you are re-assembling your kit, be sure to add that item. Also, it helps to buy duplicates of things like the can opener and such so you can leave them in the kit and ready to go.

Find a “Red Dot of Interest”

Here’s where the fun of planning a road adventure can come into play. First, you need to determine if this is a day trip, a half-day trip, a two-day trip, etc. Also, do you have very young children who might not do well on a longer car trip? If your trip limit is no more than a one-hour car ride one way, then look for places of interest within about 40 miles of home. Even though most speed limits on major roads are at least 60mph, never figure that you will actually average more than 40-45 miles in one hour’s driving time. You might even want to trace a general circle on the map around your home so you know what lies within your desired traveling distance. You can even draw incremental circles on your map to indicate one hour, two hours, etc., away from home. Just remember! You always have to come home, so make allowances for that when you play your Adventure.

Once you know how far you can easily travel (and return), then you can start looking on the map. Look for those “red dots of interest” marked on the map anywhere in the circumference of your desired travel radius. The places of interest usually have some short description next to them: “Pioneer Park,” “Children’s Museum,” “Historic Home.” If there are no red dots, then look for towns you’ve never visited, or roads you’ve never traveled. We’ve often been pleasantly surprised at what we’ve found: a quaint little town with some interesting shops; a long winding rural road dotted with small farms or old homes and maybe a sign that says “Fresh Honey for Sale” where we got a spontaneous “tour” of a beekeeper’s hives; a historic landmark marked by road signs.

When there are no red dots, you can also do a little bit of planning ahead by phoning a local Chamber of Commerce. Find a small town, learn the area code (if necessary), and call directory assistance for the number to the Chamber of Commerce (better yet, surf the Web for a town web site!). Ask what’s interesting in their town. So many small towns have their own historic museum, or other historic landmarks. Maybe all they have is a really great community park where the biggest tree in the county is growing!

Your places of interest choices can really be limitless. If small town parks or two-room county museums aren’t your thing, then first determine what things your family would find of interest. Surf the web, call Chambers of Commerce, or visit your bookstore or library where you can find books of “Things to Do” in your state. Your Adventure can be anything that will take you away from home for the day and create a delightful memory for your whole family!

If you have children who are older than 5 or 6, then this is a wonderful opportunity to teach them how to read and use roadmaps. You can even let them plan their own Shoestring Adventure! If you have more that one child, then you can appoint a Trip Planner, a Navigator, and a Supplies Officer. Give them specific tasks that include finding a place to go (what is it, where is it, and how far away is it), how to get there (what roads you need to turn on, how many miles to travel before you get to the next turn), and what you will need to enjoy the day (like special clothing for outdoor activities, picnic lunch items, toys and games to enjoy in the car, pillows for sleepy-heads after a long day’s outing). Instead of telling them where you’ll be going, let them tell you!

I do need to caution you: be prepared for that “red dot of interest” to turn out to be nothing. We’ve often tracked down dots that claim to be “Historic Fort” or “County Landmark” that have turned out to be nothing more than a bronze plaque on a rock at the end of a residential street. When that happens, we simply wander around wherever we are and see what there is to see. Sometimes we’ve happened upon local street fairs or windsurfing tournaments or a model train museum. Sometimes, too, all we’ve gotten out of it was a day away from home. When this happens, and if you’ve got disappointed kids in the car, then it might be a good time to find an ice cream parlor and treat them to a double scoop of peanut butter fudge ice cream!

Use your Road Adventure logbook to record everyone’s comments about the day. You can collect brochures, or restaurant placemats, or ticket stubs, and keep a memory album. If you take pictures, be sure to include a few! This can be a great basis for school reports for younger kids.

Basically, your Shoestring Adventures can be just about whatever you want them to be. Know in advance what your budget is, what will “work” for your family as far as meals are concerned (whether you can pack a picnic lunch or stop at McDonald’s), and how far from home you can venture for the time you have for traveling and adventuring. Never plan more than you can comfortably do in a day. If the place has several interesting things to see or do, then plan several repeat visits. Cramming more than just a couple of activities into the day can put the whole family on “Adventure Overload.”

I hope you enjoy your next “Shoestring Adventure” and that you continue to get away and find those “red dots of interest” that are marked on your map. Make it a habit to enjoy being together and experiencing new or different things!

Jan K., The Proofer is a full-time freelance proofreader and copyeditor. In business since 1995, she has enjoyed working for a diverse world-wide clientele, covering subject matter including academic research, medical law, consumer surveys, and self-help materials. Please visit http://www.janktheproofer.com for more information.

20 Toys You Don’t Have to Buy!

Fed up with forking out for the latest piece of over-hyped plastic? Answer “What can we do now Mum?” by making toys from items you will already have around the house.

Shops. Save all your empty grocery cartons for a week or so and you’ll soon have a shop any aspiring grocer would be proud of. Gluing down the flaps makes cereal boxes, jelly packets etc. look unopened. Clothes, shoes, and toys can all be used as “stock”. Paper bags and real or play money add to the fun.

Paper balls. When the kids keep arguing suggest that they throw something at each other! Paper balls are easily scrunched up from torn out magazine pages to make “ammunition”. When it’s time to tidy up, stand the waste paper basket in the middle of the room and see who can throw the most in. A rolled up magazine makes a good “bat” too.

Doctors/Nurses. A roll of white toilet tissue makes this game much more fun as Dads, Grans, teddies or dolls are mummified before your eyes. Plastic medicine spoons and cardboard box hospital beds for toys are extra props that make the game last longer.

Tubes. Cardboard tubes from kitchen roll or foil make instant telescopes for sailors or pirates, or tunnels to roll marbles through. Babies love to watch things disappear then reappear out of the bottom. Don’t leave them alone with the cardboard tube though as they will probably suck it.

Cardboard boxes
must be about the best free toys you can get hold of. Push in the ends of large ones to make tunnels and caves to crawl through. Draw on windows and doors with felt tip pens to make a house, add a flag and portholes for a boat or paper plates and a steering wheel for a car.

Miniature gardens. The foil trays that pies and prepared foods arrive in make lovely containers for miniature gardens. The children can enjoy hunting around the park or garden for twigs to make trees, moss for a lawn, stones to arrange as a rockery or a waterfall. Keep twigs or stones where you want them with a little blue tack or plasticine. Add toy people or animals and maybe a little water if the container is watertight. This can be a very creative and enjoyable exercise if you have children of very different age groups to entertain. A variation is to use play sand (not builder’s sand – it stains everything yellow) to make a beach scene, maybe adding shells, stones and a blue paper sea.

Paper puppets. A picture of anything – colorful bird, clown’s face, animal or cartoon character, carefully cut out by an adult and stuck to the top of a strip of card about five inches long and one and a half inches wide becomes a very easily made puppet. These give such pleasure and are so easy to make that you will probably end up with dozens of them. Magazine pictures can be stuck on to folded card to make theatre set background and wings.

Potato prints. After cutting a potato in half, draw on a simple shape. A triangle, circle or star perhaps. Cut away the rest of the potato, leaving a shape to dip into paint and print on to paper.

Skittles. Skittles can be improvised from large plastic cola or lemonade bottles. A little sand or water in the bottom makes them more stable. A good game for learning to count.

Dens. Building a den must be one of the most memorable parts of childhood as we all seem to recall the bliss of blankets draped over the airing rack in the garden or over the backs of chairs indoors. Even today’s sophisticated kids seem to find the thought much more exciting than just erecting the shop bought plastic play house. I think the secret is to give structural advice about making the thing stay upright, but let the children do as much as possible themselves. Really large boxes of the type that washing machines and fridges come in can be had for the asking from the big electrical goods retailers and are useful for rooms within dens. Indoors, one of the simplest dens can be made by throwing a large sheet or duvet over a table. Cushions, torches, biscuits and comics or books will all be needed at the housewarming.

String. Children find a million uses for string, from tying up toy “baddies” to making a washing line for doll’s clothes. It can be tied to chair legs to make a jump, dipped into paint and twirled on to paper, plaited, knitted with, made into a parachute or mobile, used as a measuring aid or for learning how to tie shoelaces and bows. It need never linger in the kitchen drawer again.

Sewing cards. Stick a picture on to a postcard or draw a simple duck, car or teddy shape. With a bodkin needle push holes around the outline of your design about one inch apart. Using brightly colored wool in the bodkin or a long bootlace, thread in and out of the holes.

Stilts. You need to do a little drilling for this one. Take two strong tins, coffee or clean paint tins are ideal, and drill a hole about one inch from the top on opposite sides of the tin. Insert a length of string and knot securely. Check that the handle is at a comfortable length for the child before knotting the other side. These are always very popular, but never leave young children alone with them especially near stairs or steps.

Cafes. Children’s tea sets are a handy prop for this game, but a picnic set or microwave cookware is just as good. Giving the waiter/waitress a little notebook and pencil to take orders and making a tall white hat from a cylinder of paper for the chef will add realism. Sit dolls and teddies around as well as willing Aunts and Grannies for extra customers.

Play dough
. Mix together two cups of flour, one cup of salt, one cup of water, one tablespoon of oil and a few drops of food coloring for an easy to make dough that will keep for about three weeks if you wrap it in polythene and keep it in the fridge. All you have to do is knead the mixture well. Divide the mixture up first if you have more than one color available.

Obstacle course
. An obstacle course can turn a rainy day into an adventure. Use whatever you have available. A bench to walk the plank, cushion stepping stones across shark infested seas, through a cardboard box tunnel, up a chair mountain or through a duvet cave. The wilder your imagination the more your children will love it.

Easy boats. Recycle your empty margarine cartons. Use them as boats for the bath or paddling pool. These are so easy that even very young children can help to make them. Cut out triangular sail shapes from white or colored paper. Make a small hole at the top and bottom of the sail so that you can push through a straw to make a mast. Let the child fix this to the bottom of a clean margarine tub with a lump of blue tack or plasticine. They sail extremely well and will even take a couple of toy people on an exciting cruise.

Capes. Nurses, kings, queens, Batman, Superman – they all need capes or cloaks. Luckily they are easy to make by attaching ribbon ties to an oblong of fabric in the color of your child’s favorite caped character. Keep an eye on them though as anything tied around the neck could be dangerous.

Leaf art. Collect leaves and draw around them. This is fun for little ones and an educational tree identification game for older children. Color in the details with crayons or paints. The leaves could then be stuck on to paper collage style or dipped into paint and then pressed firmly on to paper for a lovely leaf print.

Make a puzzle. Stick a favorite picture on to card and allow to dry with a heavy book on top. Cut into pieces, how many depending on the age of the child, for an almost instant and personal puzzle.

Creative Play for Little Ones

Christmas of 1985 was a momentous occasion for my husband and I. Our first baby was 4 1/2 months old and we were SO excited to share this fun holiday with her! I woke her at 6 a.m.  (yes, I AM crazy LOL) and we ‘helped’ her open her little gifts we’d bought. She was more interested in watching the pretty lights on the tree than the toys we opened! The next year, as a 16 month old, we KNEW she’d absolutely LOVE the toys we purchased! She opened the first one, set it aside and played for hours with the paper and ribbons it had been wrapped in. It began to dawn on us that we could have saved a great deal of cash just buying the paper and ribbon and forgetting the toy! LOL

We still buy toys for our kids, but we’ve found many times over, that the things they enjoy playing with don’t always come from the store. A few ideas we’ve enjoyed over the years that provide lots of room for imagination and easily fit into almost any budget:


Boxes of all shapes and sizes are fun for play. Collect an assortment of empty food boxes such as macaroni & cheese, cereal, etc. Open them carefully as you use the contents and then tape them closed. These are fun for playing “store” or for stacking and building small houses. Shoe boxes work well too. Mid-sized boxes, large enough for a child to sit in, become cars, beds, swimming pools, doll houses. Large boxes that come from furniture or large appliances make wonderful playhouses. Mom or Dad can cut doors and windows or just lay the box on its side to crawl inside. As a child, I played spaceship with a refrigerator box for days. Check at stores you frequent and ask if they’ll save boxes for you. We found apple boxes once and made a “car” for each child and let them drive their cars to the “drive-in” (family room) and watch a movie.
Play Dough Homemade play dough is easy to make and provides hours of creative play. I like this recipe:

Homemade Play Dough

1 C. flour

1 C. water

1/2 C. salt

3 tsp. cream of tartar

1 T. oil

Mix all together in saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until mixture clings together and forms a ball. The color will change from creamy to a darker, non shiny color. Pour onto counter and knead slightly. IF you’d like to add color, you can add a few drops of food coloring before cooking, or a package of unsweetened Kool Aid works as well.

I like to keep a vinyl placemat to use while playing with the play dough. Kids will have fun just with this OR you can add more fun by finding cookie cutters, rolling pin, cups or any little kitchen tools you feel safe letting your child use. Try rolling it out smooth and then discover the texture change when you press objects into it – try rough fabric, hair brush, old toothbrush, etc. When you’re done, pack it up in a plastic ziplock bag or a plastic container with a tight lid to store for next time. This keeps for a long time if you keep it air tight.

Make a Mosaic

Give your child a piece of paper. (I like cardstock or construction paper)

Gather several small items to use to create your picture – we like macaroni, different shapes of other pasta, unpopped popcorn, different types of dry beans, rice, buttons, etc.

Drizzle glue (like Elmers type school glue) in patterns on the paper. Let the kids place their macaroni or other things in the glue to finish the picture. A muffin tin works great for keeping the decorating items separate while creating.

Make a collage

Save some catalogs or magazines and depending on the age and skill level of your child, cut out several pictures. My 4 year old is able to roughly cut out pictures she likes. (with supervision of course – we’ve hidden scissors from other children this age to avoid self imposed haircuts LOL) Glue these pictures onto a piece of plain paper. You can get ambitious and use themes for your pictures such as “Things I love to eat” or “I love Yellow” or whatever your little heart desires. 🙂

Buttons or Keys

My Mom had a button tin. Inside were hundreds of buttons of varying sizes, colors and shapes. I spent hours sorting through these.  I’ve since started my own button collection. I found quite a few around the house – extra’s that came with sweaters or shirts, cut from old clothing before throwing it out or relegating it to the rag box. I did actually purchase a few fun shaped buttons to put in and I’ve found a few at thrift stores.

I’ve found my kids sorting by size, color, shape, number of buttonholes. You could string them on a heavy string or crochet thread. We started saving unused keys in another tin. We have all shapes and sizes. Old house keys, keys to items that have been broken or lost… this took longer to find that buttons. Even our 10 year old likes to sort through these. Keep in mind that small children could choke on these toys. We let the older kids play with them out of reach of our toddlers.

There are so many inexpensive options for creative play for children! I’m sure you have some of your own that you enjoy using and I’ll be posting more ideas in the future!

As food for thought in the meantime, here are a few of my favorite quotes concerning play.

“Play is the beginning of knowledge.”–George Dorsey

“It is paradoxical that many educators and parents still differentiate between a time for learning and a time for play without seeing the vital connection between them.”–Leo Buscaglia