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9 ways to keep your child busy on zero budget

Zero budget activities for kids
Feeling the pinch? These brilliant ideas will banish boredom without testing your bank balance.

Ever felt under pressure to buy your child the latest toy or must-have gadget so they can keep up with their friends? Or to sign them up for endless expensive after-school activities so they don’t spend every spare minute on screens?

In today’s materialistic, want-it-all world it’s easy to fall into the trap of spending lots of money on keeping our kids occupied – and to feel guilty if we can’t.

In a survey of 2000 parents by musicMagpie, a third said they would personally go without if it meant they could buy the latest products for their children, and the same number said they would save all year if it meant their children kept up with what their peers had.

‘There’s an enormous pressure on parents to spend money on their children, but this doesn’t help children learn about the important distinction between needs and wants,’ says Lorraine Allman, author of A Parent’s Guide to Easy, Screen-Free Activities Children Will Love.

‘There are plenty of really easy, free or low-cost activity ideas that children will love. Children are incredibly resourceful and really benefit from unstructured “free play,” so we need to feel more confident in letting that happen.’

Here, Lorraine shares nine of her best spend-free (and mostly screen-free) ideas for entertaining your child.

1. Phenomenal phenology

Phenology is the study of how things in nature change over a period of time, for example a blossoming flower, a seedling growing into a plant, or a tadpole changing into a frog.
All these things, of course, take time, so try choosing something which changes over a shorter period of, say, a few weeks or even a day.
Firstly, decide what you’re going to study, then download a free app onto your smartphone such as Lapse It, Time Lapse or Pic Pac Stop (this is a smart use of screen time).
Now take one photo each day (e.g. just as the seedlings start to show), ideally around the same time and at the same angle and distance – you may need some kind of marker to help with this. Keep doing this each day until you have all the photographs you need to show growth and how the plant has flourished.
Use your app to generate your time-lapse movie of a seedling growing into a plant or of a flower blooming during the day and closing at night, e.g. Morning Glory or Californian Poppy.

2. Don’t touch the lava (with a twist)

Place cut out, brightly coloured circles of card (or cushions, if you don’t have card) around the room. The idea is to move around walking only on the circles – everything else is lava, so watch out!
The twist comes when there is a race to ‘rescue’ particular items that have also been placed close to the lava – this might be words or numbers (if your child is learning these), or even food items which make up a favourite treat!

3. Design a family coat of arms

Talk about what your family motto might be, the kind of pictures it would contain, and its colours, then get designing. Create and share it with other family members. It could even become the logo for the family social media pages!

4. Treasure hunts with a twist

Treasure hunts are enjoyed by children of all ages, but sometimes even the more traditional games benefit from a little twist. Try these ideas for treasure hunts with a difference:

  • Theme your hunt according to interests, e.g. space, fairies, superheroes, or nature.
  • Colour: a hunt based around colours can help children learn about mixing colours, too.
  • Community: ask questions about the local community which hunters then discover the answer to, e.g. ‘What type of ornament does Number 6 have in their front garden?
  • Sensory/shape: find items that represent the following – prickly, soft, rough, smooth and/or items which have points, are circular, triangular etc.
  • Create a series of QR codes to hide around the house and/or garden. When scanned, each QR contains a clue to solve, which leads to the next QR and so on, until the final one reveals where the treasure is.
  • Indoors: indoor hunts need a little more thought as the environment will be more familiar to your child, but use of cryptic clues can be fun and non-literal, promoting imaginative thinking. 

5. Can you hear what I hear?

Record lots of different sounds on your smartphone as you walk around the house or garden, or go to the shops. How many of these sounds can your child identify or guess correctly? Now show them how they can record their own sounds so they can set the same challenge for another member of the family.

6. Shadow art

You will need plain paper, toy animals (or whatever objects your child chooses) and a sunny day! Place the paper on a flat surface outside and arrange the objects around the edge of the paper. As the shadows are cast, trace the shapes made. Create a fuller picture by adding in other details. Extend the activity by creating a shadow puppet theatre.

7. Let’s dance!

Take it in turns to plan a weekly dance class for family and friends to join in. You could include relatives or friends who live away, but with whom you can connect remotely via Zoom or similar.
Put your ideas down on paper: think about what time of day it should run, how long it will last, where in the house – or perhaps even the garden – you will run it. Work out the dance moves and how you’re going to teach them – you could even make a poster to promote it. Don’t forget to organise the music, and have fun!

8. Coming in to land

Build a selection of different style paper aeroplanes, then draw an aeroplane landing strip on a large piece of paper and measure which plane designs travel the furthest. Fold 'N Fly is a paper airplane database with easy-to-follow folding instructions, video tutorials and printable folding plans.

9. Balance build 

Choose a selection of uneven items such as stones, pens, paper cups, plastic bowls, craft sticks, egg cartons etc. The challenge is to build a structure of any shape as high as possible using any or all of the items you have at hand.

Lorraine’s top tips for zero-budget play

Use everyday materials. A small box of free or low-cost everyday items is great for spur of the moment screen-free play, and over time, it’ll become your child’s go-to box for free play.
You could include coloured and white paper or card, cardboard, sticky tape, buttons, jar lids, scissors, sticky back plastic, chalks, paper clips, rubber bands, kitchen towel, wooden clothes pegs, felt/fabric, cardboard tubes, empty jam jars, sticky notes, bottle tops, marker pens, crayons, wooden lollipop sticks.
Set up a 'Boredom Busters' lucky dip jar. Write free activity ideas on wooden lollipop sticks or just on paper, then put them in a jam jar.

The next time your child says they’re bored, direct them to the lucky dip. The list of possible ideas is endless: drawing a self-portrait, building something that floats, doing a random act of kindness, making a picture from bottle tops, making their own wordsearch game, and creating a maze from sticks and stones, to name but a few. Involving your child in deciding the kind of activities to go in the jar will help make it a success.

Make it varied. Parents often think that screen-free play = traditional arts and crafts activities, which can cost money, and don’t appeal to all children. But they can also explore science, inventing, sport, music, nature, and many other areas through everyday play.

Varying the kind of activities that your child does will not only give them more opportunities to learn and develop new skills, but could also open your eyes to a particular interest you may not have noticed before.

Help each other. Try getting the children to help out with household tasks. For example, matching up socks is a great activity for a young child for colour or pattern recognition, while for older children, helping prepare meals uses maths and science.

Try skills-sharing by taking it in turns for each member of the family to show and/or teach the others a skill, such as include tying shoelaces, colouring in, playing football, or singing.

Be patient. Scheduling spend-free, screen-free activities for every minute of every day is unrealistic and stressful for parents. Boredom can stimulate creativity, imagination, independence, and problem-solving, so if your child says they have nothing to do, be patient, hold your nerve, and they’ll soon make their own playtime.

Ideas taken from A Parent’s Guide to Easy, Screen-Free Activities Children will Love by Lorraine Allman.

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