“We do not remember days. We remember moments.” – Cesare Pavese

Create some of those memorable moments with your children this summer, without leaving home and without spending much money. Here are some thrifty, old-fashioned, fun ideas to get you started. Even now as an adult, I recall the joy of discovery in some of these simple pleasures. Do you remember the first time you did a crayon rubbing of a leaf and saw those intricate veins and patterns appear like magic on your paper?

“If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder . . . he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.” ~ Rachel Carson 

This summer, be that companion to your children, and enjoy the adventure together. All of the activities I’ve listed can be outstanding learning experiences—pure science without a textbook in sight! But focus on the fun and the discovery. That’s the foundation. To quote Rachel Carson again, “Once the emotions have been aroused—a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown . . . then we wish for knowledge about the object of our emotional response. . . . It is more important to pave the way for the child to want to know than to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate.”

So, are you ready for some frugal fun (and catalysts to learning)? Well, put on your “sense of wonder” glasses, and let’s get started!

Sleep Outside and Do Some Stargazing

“The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handiwork.” (Psalm 19:1)

Have you ever thought about the meaning of declare? These are some of the definitions recorded in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: “to make known formally, officially, or explicitly; to make clear; to make evident; to state emphatically; to make a full statement of.” If you want your child to know about God, it sounds like looking at the sky is a wonderful place to start.

Sleeping outside is an adventure in itself, an experience for all the senses. Plan your outing for a clear night with moderate temperatures. New Moon days are the best times to stargaze. Can you find Polaris, the “North Star” that doesn’t move? (Hint: find the Big Dipper first—it will point you in the right direction!) You might want to do a little homework ahead of time in case your children have questions. How big are stars? How far away are they? Why are they different colors? What is our closest star? Why do they twinkle? Remember though, it’s perfectly fine to say “I don’t know—let’s look it up tomorrow!”

It’s especially fun to listen for nighttime sounds. Who knows what you might hear? Yes, you might miss your comfy bed—but sleeping outside is an experience your child will long remember!

Make Crayon Rubbings

We talked about this a little already. Could there be anything simpler? All you’ll need is paper and some crayons—old broken ones will work just fine. Simply place a leaf under a sheet of paper on a hard surface, and rub with crayon over the paper to see the leaf pattern appear. It’s that easy! But you don’t have to stop with leaves. Children can also do bark rubbings and make a scrapbook showing the bark and leaves of different trees on each page. Identify the trees using the Internet or books from the library. Coins, brick patterns, engravings, and other textures make for fascinating crayon rubbing.

Another project we’ve done is to print out a simple coloring picture, then fill each blank area by crayon rubbing different textures. We’ve had some interesting results!

Fly a Kite

Make your own (do an Internet search for patterns), or start small with a dollar-store version. The few times I’ve successfully flown a kite have been exhilarating experiences! Find a clear spot, away from trees and wires. You’ll want light winds for your maiden voyage. Sure you can learn about air pressure and lift, and other science in action, but it’s a just plain old-fashioned fun (for you and your child) to get that kite soaring, even if you don’t understand why it works!

Grow a Cherry Tomato Plant

How about planting a cherry tomato plant with each child for a personal summer snack machine? Sugar snap peas are fast growers, and they are so tasty right from the vine! Even if you don’t have a green thumb, growing plants with your children isn’t difficult. You don’t need a garden; a bucket on the porch will do. Incidentally, there’s quite a trend nowadays to grow tomatoes upside down. Do an Internet search on “growing tomatoes upside down” for illustrated instructions. There is a special joy to be found in seeing things grow and eating the results of your efforts. What a fun way to encourage your children to eat their vegetables (and yes, you can tell them that a tomato is technically a fruit). Take them to Genesis 1:12 to combine Scripture with science!

Rig Up a Clothesline Fort or Broomstick Tepee

Kids love having a little outside nest to call their own. Spend a couple of hours with them setting up a simple tent, hanging sheets from ropes hung between trees, poles, and fences or over a swing set. Or use broomsticks or lightweight bamboo plant stakes to make a tepee frame, and cover it with sheets, using tape or clothespins as needed. The simplest of structures can provide hours of fun, and you might be surprised by your children’s ingenuity when they pitch in to help with the construction.

Catch Fireflies

This is a truly timeless summertime pursuit. Have you ever caught lightning bugs with your children? All you’ll need is a jar with a lid. Punch a few small holes in the lid, and drop a few leaves in the bottom to provide cushioning. Fireflies are fairly slow-moving and are easy to catch by hand or using a net. They don’t bite or sting and are non-toxic, so it’s good, safe, clean fun.

The best time to catch fireflies is around dusk and an hour or so afterwards. They are most often found at the edges of woods or hedges and in meadows near tall grass or low-hanging trees. Be sure to release your catch the next morning, after you’ve had a chance to enjoy your firefly-powered lantern. Did you know that fireflies, or lightning bugs, are neither bugs nor flies? They’re actually beetles—fascinating creatures if you take the time to research how and why they glow. There’s even a name from Scripture in firefly science. You’ll recognize it if you do your homework!

Make Coffee-Can Ice Cream

What could be more fun on a summer afternoon? This is a project that is sure to please! You’ll need a small (1-pound) coffee can and a large (3-pound) coffee can, both with lids. You’ll also need lots of ice cubes and a few cups of rock salt. Instead of cans, you could use heavy-duty sealing plastic bags, quart-sized and gallon-sized, but they cannot be handled without gloves—they’ll be cold!

There are several recipes for basic ice cream. Here are a few options:

2 cups half-and-half

½ cup sugar

1½ teaspoons vanilla


1 cup heavy cream

1 cup light cream

½ cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla


1 cup very cold milk

1 cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

Or feel free to experiment with flavors yourself!

Here’s what to do. Mix all the ingredients in the small coffee can and put on the lid. Then tape the lid on securely. Place the small can inside the larger one, and pack ice and rock salt all around it. Place the lid on the large can. Roll the can back and forth between you for 15 minutes. Open the can. Remove the small can, wipe the lid, and then remove the tape and open that can.

At this point you can add any extras, such as chocolate chips, nuts, cookie crumbs, or fruit. After adding your extras, tape down the lid again and put the small can back into the large can, adding more ice cubes and rock salt. Roll for 10 more minutes. Your ice cream should be ready!

If you use bags instead of a can, be sure to double bag the smaller bag in case of leaks. (You will need to shake the bags instead of rolling them.)

Blow Some Bubbles

Talk about great photo opportunities! Even older kids can’t seem to resist bubbles once you get started. Make a big batch of bubble solution by mixing 6 cups water, 2 cups Joy® dishwashing detergent, and ¾ cup corn syrup. Plain straws can be used to blow bubbles, but experiment with coat hanger loops and other “wands” to create giant bubbles—so much fun to chase!

Press Flowers

This activity can be as simple as pressing daisies in a heavy book or as elaborate as cataloging a collection of flowers dried in a home-built flower press. Your child will be fascinated with the results. Simply place the flower inside a tissue (smooth the flower petals and flatten them a little first), and then put the tissue inside a phone book. Placing something heavy on top will help. Set aside for two to four weeks, or until completely dried. Check out our free flower printables for more inspiration! 

Make a Tin Can Telephone or Stilts

Kids will be intrigued by this low-tech telephone. Use two empty tin cans, washed and dried, with no sharp edges. With a hammer and nail, make a small hole in the bottom of each can. Join the cans with 10 to 12 feet of small-diameter string, held in place by a knot inside each can. Stretch the cans apart. Speak into one can while your child holds the other to his ear. Watch his surprise when he can hear you loud and clear!

Adventurous types will love tin can stilts. These can be jazzed with stickers or paint, as well as colored string. You’ll need two empty cans the same size, a triangle punch can opener, and about 2 yards of string. Turn the cans upside down so that the open side is on the ground. Using the triangle punch can opener, punch two holes opposite each other on the sides of each can, near the closed end. Loop 1 yard of string through the holes, and tie inside the can. Carefully stand on the cans, and use the loops to lift your feet (on the cans) as you walk on the stilts.

Of course, there are many more backyard activities you can do with your children at little cost. Papier-mâché projects are ideal for outside fun, and so are tie-dye creations. How about building a birdhouse or a bat house, pouring and decorating cement stepping-stones, making windsocks or wind chimes, or painting giant murals on a roll of craft paper? The important thing is just to get out there and do it . . . and don’t forget your camera!

Copyright The Old Schoolhouse®. Used with permission. All rights reserved by the Author. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the trade publication for homeschool moms.

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