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We live in a consumer-driven culture, but don't fall into the trap of believing that you have to pay a lot of money for family entertainment. More than anything else, kids want time with mom and dad. They enjoy even simple activities like going for a walk or reading a book together. These activities offer a break from the noise and busyness of modern life—without putting a dent in your wallet.
The natural world provides abundant opportunities for free family entertainment. Go for a walk or a hike. Turn over rocks in search of bugs. Take a cue from Winnie the Pooh and launch sticks into a river or stream. Fly a kite or build a fort. All these activities boost the imagination and instill a love of nature.
Get a field guide or download an app, and identify the wildlife in your area, suggests Garrison Frost, communications director for Audubon California. "Learning the names of the birds around your home is a really simple activity that parents can do with their kids," Frost points out, "and one that can have incredible benefits both in the short and long term."
Every culture has its own collection of beloved games. Some games, such as mancala, have been played for centuries. Playing games teaches skills like cooperation, sharing and counting, but the real reason we play games is because they're downright fun. Don't be afraid to be silly and playful. Your kids will love you for it. Pull out some board games, such as checkers, chess or Scrabble, or head outdoors for a rousing game of hide-and-seek or tag.
An old tradition that deserves a revival is that of reading together as a family. Reading together not only strengthens family bonds and encourages literacy, but, as author Gladys Hunt advises in the book Honey for a Child's Soul, carefully chosen literature also teaches family values like bravery, loyalty and unselfishness. So, gather together in a cozy chair, around a fireplace or in your bed, and read a good book. A few suggestions: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, Ramona the Brave by Beverly Cleary, Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne and the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. Choose books based on your child's interests, but don't limit yourself to a child's reading level. Kids can usually comprehend much more than they can read independently.
When you complete a book, celebrate with a party. For example, serve tea and Turkish delight after reading about Narnia. Make wands out of sticks and glitter after reading about Harry Potter.
Your family probably has a collection of favorite movies that you watch regularly. Declare one night each week to be movie night. Make homemade pizza, pop popcorn and spread a blanket on the floor for a "movie picnic." In addition to commercial movies, kids love watching old family movies, but you could give the camera to your kids and have them make some movies of their own.
Free entertainment is as close as your local community center. Although your recreation center probably offers many classes for a fee, these centers usually offer free activities as well. Watch for free concerts or movies in the park, or attend parades and festivals. Don't forget "free days" at zoos and museums. These activities tend to be crowded in the morning by families and day-care groups. Go in the afternoon when crowds are lighter.
Parents sometimes worry that roughhousing will encourage violence or aggression, but researchers like Jaak Panksepp, a psychologist, neuroscientist and emeritus professor of psychology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, have found that, on the contrary, roughhousing offers a healthy outlet for pent-up aggression. In some cases, it can even diminish symptoms of ADHD.
Keiko Sato-Perry, a teacher and parenting consultant with Hand in Hand Parenting in Palo Alto, Calif., recommends that parents "spend 30 minutes wrestling and roughhousing with your kids in the evening. Your kids will love it, and they might even sleep better!"
Volunteering is an activity that is not only free, but also gives back to your community. When kids learn to serve others at an early age, they're more likely to become empathetic, caring adults. "Volunteer together at a food bank, community garden or other service organization," recommends Amy Johnson, a licensed clinical social worker in Washington state. Teach kids to not only tackle structured service projects, but also to look for needs in their neighborhood, their social group or even their own family. Shovel an elderly neighbor's driveway, take dinner to a new mom or have fun doing secret acts of service, such as making a bed or picking up toys for a sibling.