Summer is a time of joy for children who trade book bags and homework for bicycles and trips to the local pool. But summer also turns up the heat on parents who wonder how to keep their children entertained for weeks on end.

This summer, parents will face the additional challenge of keeping costs in check as the economy slows and food and gasoline prices rise. Many typical summertime activities are expensive — day camps, movies, shopping and outings at theme parks can drain your wallet well before Labor Day.

So, what are you going to do with your children this summer?

Bankrate has gathered a list of suggestions that are creative, educational and fun to help pass the summer hours. Best of all, these ideas are designed to minimize the damage to your budget.

Frugal fun
Keep your children entertained this summer with these free or low-cost ideas.
4 cheap ways to entertain your kids
  1. Set up a backyard camp
  2. Plan theme days
  3. Start a kindness club
  4. Get educational

Set up a backyard camp

For many parents, camp is the ultimate summer money drain. According to a 2006 survey by the American Camp Association, most of their member camps charge between $100 and $299 per week for summer camp.

Just 10 percent of day camps offer programs at less than $100 per week, according to Peg Smith, ACA chief executive officer.

If traditional camp is too expensive, cut costs by setting up your own backyard camp. It only takes three or four families to schedule a minicamp with a handful of energetic children.

Median weekly camp fee by region
Mid-Atlantic $275
New England $193
Mid-America $160
Southern $100
Source: 2006 American Camp Association

Think carefully about how to plan your camp. It is often best to schedule activities to run three consecutive days — Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. That prevents camp from being interrupted by family-planned three-day weekends, according to Silvana Clark, author of “301 Bright Ideas for Busy Kids.”

Each family involved can host one day of camp activities. Clark also suggests picking camp times that work well with busy schedules. “Families have had success setting up camp between the hours of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.,” she says.

Once the children arrive, make sure you’re ready to jump into an activity immediately. This will set the tone and let the children know it’s not a typical play date, says Clark.

Camp activities can be “as simple as tracing their shadows with chalk on the sidewalk every two hours and seeing how their size changes,” Clark says.

You can also draw a huge circle in your driveway with chalk and divide it into sections like a pizza. Each child then gets a piece of chalk to decorate his or her “slice of pizza.”

Clark also suggests decorating cookies to be eaten at lunch, engaging in craft projects and hosting spontaneous car washes.

“Gather up buckets, rags and soap and walk to a neighbor’s house and offer to wash the car in their driveway for free,” she says. “Kids have a great time getting wet and your neighbor gets a clean car.”

Each day of camp, children can bring sack lunches while the host family provides drinks and dessert.

If the prospect of hosting a camp seems overwhelming, consider hiring a high school or college student for a modest fee to help supervise.

These students can set up play dates and playground and pool times. They can also plan snacks and schedule activities, such as arts and crafts.

“This may cost $50 a day, which is a cheaper alternative than many private camps,” says Alicia Rockmore of Buttoned Up Inc., a company whose mission is to give women the tools to live a more organized life.

Plan theme days

If the idea of a full-blown backyard camp is too much, scale back and schedule special events for various days during the week. Plan each day so that it minimizes expense but maximizes fun.

Rob Frankel did this. A branding expert who has appeared on NBC and Fox, Frankel purchased notebooks before setting out on adventure with his three children.

“Every Wednesday, we planned a day-long field trip to various places — everything from free to cheap museums and parks, to courthouses to watch a real trial, to art galleries,” Frankel says.

The condition for going to these places was that each child had to write about the day in his or her notebook.

Frankel’s wife told him his inexpensive but wacky idea would never work, but he proved her wrong.

“To this day, they still recall that summer as being special and have the notebooks to prove it,” he says of his now-grown children.

Another option for frugal fun is to assign a special “theme” to each day of the week.

Victoria Pericon, editor of www.SavvyMommy.com, suggests taking your children to the movies each week on the day when the films are offered for free. Many movie theaters across the country schedule free family-friendly films on certain days of the week, including chains such as AMC Theatres and Regal Entertainment Group. To find these offers, call your local movie complex.

Another economical theme is a weekly “outdoor day.” Stacy DeBroff, author of “The Mom Book,” recommends planning a hike. Fill a backpack with drinks and snacks and go on a nature walk. Talk about everything you see, and bring a plastic bag to collect outdoor treasures such as leaves, acorns, rocks, flowers, sticks and stones.

Free local parks and playgrounds offer another way to pursue the “outdoor” theme at minimal expense. After visiting these places, let your children vote on their favorites. Then, return to favorite parks and playgrounds at the end of the summer.

If you prefer, set up “theme weeks” as an alternative to “theme days.” Stephen Jones, a national educator and author, suggests outlining a fun project for children to work on for one week. For example, a child might work on an art project.

“You may even want to spend two weeks on pottery,” Jones says. “Visit an art museum, visit a local pottery shop and talk to college professors who are in the arts department.”

Just make sure these activities come with a small price tag.

Jones also suggests teaching your children to appreciate the arts by attending free or low-cost concerts, plays and puppet shows. Or, teach your children about local history by visiting historic sites in your city.

Start a kindness club

Nine years ago, Debby Sandroff, of Buffalo Grove, Ill., had an idea that children needed to be kind to each other and to do good deeds for others.

Her philosophy was, “we need to spread kindness wherever we think there is a need.”

As the founder of what she calls the kindness club, Sandroff has organized many projects — with input from children — that have helped others.

You can start your own kindness club at a minimal expense. If enough children participate once a week, $25 dues per child for the summer should pay for the supplies. One or several parents can be involved in these projects for children as young as 6.

“Look around your community and you’ll think of many other ways to spread kindness,” she says.

Sandroff’s club has worked on many projects, including the following.

Ideas for spreading kindness:
  • Thank neighborhood heroes. Have each child make three medals to present to their heroes — people like the clerk who was nice to them at the store, the librarian who helped them select a book or the school crossing guard.
  • Give back to the community. Plant flowers at the local school or help shelve books at the local library
  • Help those who are ill or lonely. Visit a dollar store and buy toys you can bring to a children’s hospital. Or go to a nursing home and play bingo with the residents.
  • Raise money — or spirits. Host a car wash to give money to someone who needs it for an operation. Or, make necklaces for women who are in a domestic abuse shelter.

“These are just a few ideas that you can do this summer,” Sandroff says.

Get educational

Although regular school may be out during the summer, learning never ends. Many school districts offer summer school classes for periods of four to six weeks. For a nominal fee — or in some cases, for free (scholarships may be available) — your children can improve their reading or engage in sports, music, or arts and crafts. Classes typically last for 40 minutes to an hour.

Don’t ignore another free resource — your local library. About 95 percent of all public libraries in the United States offer summer reading programs, according to National Center for Education statistics.

“These programs help children to develop a lifelong love of reading, and help children to continue to improve their reading comprehension and vocabulary skills during the summer vacation months,” says Andrea Johnson, youth services manager of the Northbrook Public Library in Northbrook, Ill.

For example, this summer, the Northbrook Public Library will invite children and teens to “Get in the Game: READ.” This program asks participants to join a team for a fantastic relay game in which teams compete by reading.

The program also features contests, weekly raffles, daytime and evening story times, workshops, family programs, and films. Last summer, 1,900 Northbrook readers earned prizes ranging from local restaurant coupons to stuffed animals and paperback books.

The computer inside your home can also be educational tool this summer. KidSites.com allows parents to select educational sites from such categories as math, history, science and more. Once you decide upon a site in a category, set a timer and allow each child 15 to 30 minutes to explore some of the educational information.

Vicki Gerson is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

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