I am always looking for things to do with the kids in the summer, and I hate spending a lot of money for activities. So, I've compiled this list to help out others. It will certainly be most useful if you are in Chicago (or planning a visit), but a few activities are nationwide or mostly so.
1. For really hot days take the kids bowling for FREE! You can sign up at http://www.kidsbowlfree.com/ to receive printable coupons good for 2 free games per child per day. It is nationwide as long as there's a bowling alley near you willing to participate. If you live the New Orleans area, you're out of luck for now. If your bowling alley doesn't participate, you might suggest that they consider it for next summer. You will need to rent shoes (or buy a pair online if you plan to go often). We went 1-2 times a week last summer, and the girls had a blast.
2. Parks and playgrounds are always fun, especially if it's not too hot. There are tons of great parks in Chicago, and at Millenium Park there are free kid's activities all summer long. The Family Fun Festival offers a variety of activities every weekday, including Wiggleworms interactive music, story time, arts & crafts presented by different museums, and music & dance performances.
3. Swimming! This is one we have not tried in past years, but we will be doing in a couple of weeks. There are 77 public pools in Chicago that offer free swimming. Click here to access a list of pool locations and hours. Most of them have certain times for various age groups or family swim, and they offer free swim lessons for kids ages 6-12. If you don't live in Chicago, check with your local park district about public swimming pool availability.
4. Movies in the Park. There are lots of options for different age groups at parks around the city. The Karate Kid for older kids, Yogi Bear for younger one, and Jaws for parents. This would be fun with a picnic dinner. If you don't live in Chicago, your local movie theater may offer free summer movies. You can check here.
5. Music in the Park: if you want a little more culture, try the Grant Park Music Festival. This is another good one for enjoying a picnic dinner while listening to the wonderful performances of the Grant Park Orchestra accompanied by guest musicians.
6. Museums: All of the major Chicago museums offer free days throughout the year. I am disappointed to say that despite the fact that Chicago Public Schools didn't get out until June 17, many museums offered their last summer free days in early June. There are some, however, that will be having more free days in July and August. If you live in the city, or are visiting residents, you can also check out passes for many museums from any library branch. Target is also sponsoring free or reduced admission at museums around the country.
7. Lincoln Park Zoo is always free. It offers traditional zoo animals like zebras, elephants, and giraffes, as well as the Fart-in-the-Zoo with cows, baby chicks/hatchlings, and a beehive (sort of). There is also a community garden, and storytime on Wednesday and Friday at 9:15 and 10 a.m in the farm area.
8. Reading Programs: the Chicago Public Library offers a summer reading program for kids up to age 14. After reading 25 picture books or 10 chapter books, kids earn a t-shirt. Each week they present a book report, they are also entered in a raffle to win books. If you're not in Chicago, Borders Books and Barnes & Noble also offer summer reading programs. After reading 10 and 8 books respectively, kids earn a free book. B&N is only open to school age children, but even young children can do the Borders one. If you don't live near either of those stores, here's a mail-in reading program.
9. Story Times: Most of the Chicago Public Library branches offer story times. You can search for events by branch. Barnes and Noble also offers weekly story times. Just click the "stores and events" link on the website to find one near you. If you live near a Pottery Barn Kids, they offer story time year round. As an extra bonus to theirs, you get a attendance book stamped every week and after 5 stamps it becomes a $10 coupon good on anything in the store. They are also offering a reading program to earn a free book for reading their entire reading list (it's not very long).
10. If you have kids ages 8-12 and live near an Apple Store, they can do a free summer camp workshop where kids become filmmakers. Mine are too young for this one, but we'll keep it in mind for future summers.
If you know of other programs or have other ideas, feel free to share them!