Instead of paying $200 for a child-size gourmet kitchen, Joanne Fernando, an architect in New York City, made a sink and stove (with oven!) for her four-year-old daughter out of cardboard boxes, CDs, and hardware-store staples. Here are her tips.
Cover the boxes with white contact paper to disguise the cardboard.
Cut a hole in the top of one box and drop in a brownie pan for the sink. For a faucet, connect plastic piping with an elbow joint.
Use blank CDs or the undersides of CDs that you don’t listen to anymore for the burners; put down black tape in an X shape for the grates.
Click here: nationalgeographic.com Try this: A search for “coloring book” results in your pick of coloring pages featuring roughly 50 critters, including monarch butterflies and humpback whales.
Click here: cubeecraft.com Try this: Print out free patterns for folded-paper figurines, many themed to popular children’s books and characters.
Click here: thetoymaker.com Try this: Check out an even larger variety of print-and-fold designs from artist Marilyn Scott Waters, including fairy furniture, magic wands, race cars, and a rabbit-themed bowling game that uses marbles.
3 of 13 Liz Banfield
Spruce Up a Play Area With Everyday Items
Hang paper airplanes from the ceiling with thick colored thread and map pins.
Tile the wall with vintage storybook or coloring-book pages. (Use wallpaper paste for a permanent application, or removable spray adhesive or tacks for a nonpermanent option.)
Download original art at indiefixx.com, where an ever-changing group of artists put their work online for free.
Cut leaf shapes from fabric, dip them in starch (so they’ll stick), and apply to the wall for a Jungle Book–style alternative to wallpaper. Get inspired by the installations of New York interior designers Maureen Walsh and Trish Andersen at domestic-construction.com (check out the Stitch Project).
4 of 13 Courtesy of HarperCollins
Download a Free Bedtime Story
As much as you adore Rapunzel, you don’t want to spend another $15 on another fairy tale. Instead, download a free story from AudibleKids (kids.audible.com), an audiobook website that is working with Reading Is Fundamental (RIF), the children’s and family literacy organization. There you can freely download books to your computer or MP3 player for your child to listen to (in the car, at bedtime), including Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes, R. L. Stine’s Rotten School: The Song, and, yes, Rapunzel.
5 of 13 Liz Banfield
Skate a Mile in Someone Else’s Shoes
Sure, ice skating is her passion. Until the Winter Olympics are over. Resist spending a fortune on the hobby du jour by buying gently used equipment, then selling it when she moves on to soccer. (The World Cup is next summer, FYI.)
Here are five reasons an afternoon date is better than one at 7 p.m.
1. Sitter availability. It’s much easier to find a teenager who is wiling to give up her Saturday afternoon as opposed to her Saturday night.
2. The matinee movie. Not only will you save $2 to $3 per ticket but you’ll also have no trouble staying awake until the end.
3. Cheaper eats. That bistro with dinner prices that are hard to swallow? It may offer lunch―same seasonal ingredients, lower prices―or an early-bird special.
4. Happy hour. Those drink deals are always served up around the same time as the kids’ bath. So have a margarita from four to six and be home when the kids are going to bed.
5. Doing something active without a kid hanging on your leg. Tennis fanatics? Cyclists? It might be nice to have some adults-only playtime.
7 of 13Alexandra Rowley
Buy One Museum Membership, Get 164 Free
Ask the children’s museum in your area if it participates in the Association of Children’s Museums Reciprocal Program. If it does, purchase a tax-deductible family membership to that museum and you’ll get free admission for four visitors (from the same household) to more than 165 children’s museums nationwide. In Illinois, for example, your family can join the nearest kids’ museum for about $100 and have access to the nationwide network, including 12 children’s museums within the state. Even if your gang visits one museum once a month, that comes out to a bargain $2 per person per visit.
8 of 13Jose Picayo
Go on a Playcation
Choose your own adventure. Get on the road and then decide when and where to stop. So you don’t end up in a cul-de-sac on the next street, get out of town first (the kids can even pick which exit you take off the scenic highway).
Camp in the backyard. Roast s’mores and sleep in one big family tent.
Enjoy an all-day movie marathon. Find a theater with kid-friendly flicks playing back-to-back, then hop from theater to theater (after paying for tickets).
Explore your own town at a discount. Visit your local tourism office or visitors’ bureau (or check its website) to see if it has coupons for local attractions. If you live near a major tourist destination, forget the pricey tour bus and instead go to tourcaster.com to download an audio tour to your MP3 player.
Visit Old MacDonald. Is there a farm near your city? Many working farms welcome visitors, especially kids. At some, you can even spend the night. For a $20 annual membership to Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, USA (wwoof.org), you can search more than a thousand participating farms that host visitors.
Take a hike. The Adirondack Mountain Club (adk.org) hosts volunteers for one-day projects (like building steps and cutting away brush), overnight projects, and five-day projects; $150 covers meals and campsite accommodations.
9 of 13Lucas Allen
Invent a Game (No Batteries Required)
Anne Libera, artistic associate at the Second City Training Centers (secondcity.com/training) recommends the following play-anywhere, no-props-needed activities.
One-word story: Starting with “Once upon a time,” go around the room and have each person add a single word to the story. Tip: Decide on a genre in advance―fairy tale, ghost story, etc.―and go from there.
Improvised poetry: One person says a line of poetry, and the next must say a line that rhymes with it, and so on. Let kids say the first line; it’s up to you to find the rhyme.
Improvised Christmas carol: Make up new rhyming lyrics for the carol “Deck the Halls.” Family members take turns singing each new line, and everyone joins in on the fa-la-la-la-las.
Yes, and…Monster! Invent an imaginary monster, with each person adding a new characteristic to the first person's monster description. Every new idea has to start with an enthusiastic, “Yes, and…” and build on what has already been described.
10 of 13 Jonny Valiant
Keep Kids Entertained on the Go
One fussy child plus a delayed flight at the airport equals the need for entertainment that keeps everyone grounded. Try these affordable iPhone apps (apple.com) geared toward kids. Just wipe the peanut butter off their fingers first.
Little Pine Tree, FREE. A storybook that reads each page aloud.
Toddler Teasers Quizing, $2. Four quiz games on letters, numbers, and more.
Scribble Lite, FREE. Draw free-form or color in photos you’ve taken.
Word Magic, $1. A fill-in-the-missing-letter spelling game.
Tappy Tunes, $2. Play classic songs to the beat you tap out.
11 of 13Rita Maas
Get More Bark for Your Buck
If you want a dog, skip the expensive breeders and find one through a specialty rescue site, like poomixrescue.com (where you can find poodle hybrids, such as Labradoodles). Adoption rates can be well under $100. For a wider range of options, head to petfinder.com, where you’ll have access to more than 300,000 adoptable pets, including dogs, cats, hamsters, birds, rabbits, and reptiles.
Try a guinea pig. They’re inexpensive and perfect for small spaces, not to mention the fact that they don’t need obedience training. Guinea pigs are cuddly and affectionate, although they do tend to squeal.
Or a fish. Each child can have his own Siamese fighting fish in a bowl. No squabbling over who gets to sleep with the family pet.
Or a hermit crab, suggests Kelli A. Wilkins, author of Hermit Crabs for Dummies (Wiley Publishing, $10, amazon.com). Once their “crabitat” has been set up with the initial supplies, they are generally maintenance-free.
Spend quality time with pets that aren’t yours. Shelters need volunteers; your child could spend time each week walking and playing with dogs that you don’t have to clean up after. Get information on volunteering at the website of your local Humane Society chapter.
12 of 13Mark Lund
Birthday Parties Without the Punch
When it comes to birthday parties, a bag of red noses ($3 for 12, partypalooza.com) is almost as entertaining as the guy in the poufy wig. For free, reusable decorations, make colorful triangle-flag garlands from outgrown clothes and old sheets, aprons, and napkins. And rather than dropping $30 or more on a custom cake, make a batch of cupcakes and adorn each with a toy that doubles as a party favor ($6 for a dozen birthday-themed rubber duckies, orientaltrading.com).
13 of 13Cedric Angeles
Save on Group Lessons
If your child takes private lessons, see about switching to a group lesson. At the Champion Tennis Club, in New York City, for example, a private lesson costs about $100 an hour, but sharing that court time with two other players will set you back only $45. (Talk about net gains!)
Bonus: Research shows that group learning has some benefits over individual lessons. Also, try asking for shorter sessions, particularly for very young children. Finally, see if you can barter services in exchange for your child’s instruction (a piano lesson for some tax help, say, if you’re an accountant), suggests Ellie Kay, a mother of seven and the author of A Tip a Day With Ellie Kay: 12 Months’ Worth of Money-Saving Ideas (Moody Publishers, $10, amazon.com).