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By Jennifer Tessier-Williford

Family fun on a tight budget

Family fun can be quite expensive. Trips to the ice cream store for a family of four will cost at least $20. Have you priced a trip to your local zoo or amusement park lately? Those admissions will cost you over $100 without factoring in the cost of food. Don't even get me started on the cost to take kids to see a movie.

It doesn't have to be that way. There are lots of fun things to do that are free, nearly free, or deeply discounted if you know where to look. First stop: your local library. The library near me has craft days, toddler play groups, pre-teen and teen book clubs, Lego building clubs, and even movie nights. We stop in to borrow books, CDs, and movies regularly. They have board games, puzzles, puppets, and even video games and comic books that can be borrowed. This stop is great for a rainy day, or to cure cabin fever in the winter. Some libraries also have free passes to local children's museums and discount passes for aquariums, zoos and more. The best part is that the library isn't a one-time trip. You could do this weekly, or even as much as twice a week, and not have bored children.

For book lovers, Barnes & Noble is also a great place to stop. There are author days, story times, and even special events sponsored by companies like Lego. Usually the story time is followed by a craft or activity. When we went to hear them read "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" by Dr. Seuss, there were even cookies and hot cocoa. The website,, will guide you to the events at your local store. Some stores even have small play areas in the children's reading section.

Next spot: your big box hardware stores. Lowe's and Home Depot both offer children's build days ( and The minimum age for this is five, and parent participation is required. The Home Depot provides an apron with the child's name written on it so they look like employees, and when the project is complete they get a pin to put on their apron. You can register online ahead of time at both locations. Registration is required for the Lowe's event, as there is limited space. During some months there are multiple builds or special guests. The Home Depot where we live is near an Air Force base, so when the build involved planes there were flyovers and military guests. During the holiday season, there was a guest visit from Jolly St. Nick himself. Both stores have options to order the kits online to do at home, for about three to eight dollars depending on the craft. This is great if your child is to young to participate in the store activity, but you want to work with them using wood glue, or letting them paint, and you nail it together.

Just as the hardware stores offer kids' days, so do craft stores. A.C. Moore has "Kids 2nd Saturday," where the kids can do a make-and-take project ( Most details are found in the store. The crafts vary each month and the website posts the dates and the craft at least three months in advance so you can plan ahead. Michael's craft stores have kids' days as well, and over school vacation and summer vacation they have daily activities. The summer program is called Camp Creativity, and the monthly program is called Kids Club. These programs are $2 per child; however, all supplies are included. If your child is old enough it is considered a drop-in program where you can shop while they craft. Michael's also holds family craft days where supplies are mostly included; for example, you buy the white t-shirt, and the dye to tie-dye is provided. The website has all of the information, and because class sizes are limited it is best to pre-register online.

For active children and parents, the newest trend is Geocaching. There are free apps to put on your smartphone, as well as paid ones that cost less than five dollars. Then you and your family are off on a treasure hunt. Be sure to pack a few small trinkets to hide for the next person. Think dollar store toy, or a few of those Lego minifigures the kids don't play with but you seem to step on at 2:00 am. You can do a few trial runs to see what are in some of the caches, and to find them first, especially if you are hiking into trails with younger kids. Some are very easily found, and some are deep into hiking trails, wooded areas of parks, even highway rest stops. Once you start this activity, be aware that you and your child will be thinking of hiding places and hiking trips all spring and summer long.

Free movie days at some theater chains will make you feel better about that ten-dollar bag of popcorn. But I recommend the kids' pack, as it usually includes popcorn and a drink for about six dollars. Some even include a fruit snack, which is better for the kids than the four-dollar box of nonpareils. Showcase Cinemas does Bookworm Wednesdays in the summer, where your child brings in a book report and gets free admission to a movie, and as the accompanying parent, so do you! Cinemark theaters have discount days for admission as well as an email club where you can get discounts on snacks. Some theaters also run $1-$3 admission on classic movies over the summer. Even though it may be a movie you have at home, movies we love are always more exciting on the big screen!

For at-home fun, there are tons of websites that have free printables to aid in creating plays, dressing up, and even doing science experiments. Some grocery chains offer discount passes for local amusement parks, museums, and visiting circus acts. Your local YMCA and Boys & Girls Clubs have financial aid available, making most of their sports activities accessible to everyone. Some have community days where they open their facility for free use for a day. There is always your neighborhood park for free outdoor fun. Lastly, check with your town's parks and recreation department for their list of activities.

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