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Cheap and free things to do over the school summer holidays

From cheap kids meals and cinema discounts to geocaching and rock painting, here are some of our top choices for affordable family fun.
Children jumping into a paddling pool in the sunsh

As the school summer holidays have now begun, you may be worrying about how to keep children entertained during the six-week stint.

This year, household finances are being squeezed more than ever, with costs for families with two children rising by an annual rate of 13%, faster than the current 9.4% rate of inflation

Basic goods and services for a typical family with two young children are about £400 a month more expensive than they were last year, data from Loughborough University suggests.

Finding affordable activities to keep the kids busy is therefore a priority for parents, so we have put together a list of things to do that are either cheap or won’t cost a penny. 

Of course, this is not an exhaustive list, so we will be updating it throughout the summer as we become aware of new deals and activity ideas.

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Eating out

If you want to go out for a bite to eat, lots of restaurants offer deals for families during the summer. We've rounded up the latest offers:

  • Asda cafe: Children across England and Wales will be able to get a hot or cold meal for £1 a day across all Asda cafes, seven days a week, until 4 September, irrespective of what accompanying adults spend. 
  • Hungry Horse: One child can eat for free if an adult buys a breakfast costing at least £3.49. Available 8am-12pm every day.
  • Morrisons cafe: One child can eat free if an adult spends £4.99 or more. 
  • The Real Greek: One child can eat for free for every £10 spent on an adult meal. Available on Sundays only. 
  • YO! Sushi: Kids can receive one free meal for every £10 spent on an adult meal. Available 3:30pm-5:30pm, Monday to Thursday until 29 September.
  • Bella Italia: Kids eat for £1 with the purchase of every adult main course. Available between 4-6pm, Monday to Thursday. 
  • Sizzling Pubs: Kids can enjoy a meal for £1 when you order an adult main meal. Available 3-7pm, Monday to Friday. Available until 17 August in Scotland; until 2 September in England and Wales.
  • Dunelm: Kids get a free main, two snacks and a drink for every £4 spent at the furniture store's Pausa Coffee Shops. 
  • Ikea: Kids can get a meal from the children's menu from between 95p and £1.50 in the store's restaurants until 3 September, subject to availability.
  • Table Table: Two children under 16 get a free breakfast for every adult that buys a full breakfast.
  • Dobbies Garden Centres: Kids eat free with an adult main meal at the garden centre restaurant. Available daily from 12 noon.
  • Brewers Fayre: Two children under 16 get a free breakfast for every adult that buys a full breakfast. Kids can also can enjoy a 3 course lunch or dinner for £4.99. Available every day.
  • Tesco: Kids can get free meals when an adult Clubcard holder purchases an item in any of its 311 cafes, available all day until 26 August. The offer means parents can spend as little as 60p on a piece of fruit and claim one kid's meal worth up to £3.25.
  • Cafe Rouge: Kids eat for £1 with every adult that purchases a main course. This offer runs until 31 August, but excludes Saturdays. Not available on arena/stadium event days at the O2 or Cardiff St David's restaurants. Excludes Center Parcs restaurants.

The Government has also launched Help for Households, its latest campaign which aims to assist with the ongoing cost of living crisis, involving discount schemes from retailers and supermarkets, and a new webpage that groups together its related help and advice.

Outdoor fun

The warmer weather makes summer an ideal time to enjoy the outdoors. And there’s no shortage of free fun to be had. Here are some of our favourite outdoor activities:

Adventure playgrounds

Some parks have taken it to the next level, offering much more than your standard slide, swings and roundabout. 

For example, the free adventure playground at Heartlands, in Redruth, is the biggest in Cornwall, featuring subterranean tunnels, a shipwrecked boat and a custom-made wooden climbing structure called The Giant’s Trap. 

Elsewhere, The Land is a ‘junk’ playground in Plas Madoc, Wrexham, filled with all sorts of recycled materials that children can play with and explore – in addition to climbing trees, building dens and even lighting fires. It’s also free. 

In London, there are plenty of free options – from Kensington Gardens’ labyrinthine playground, complete with pirate ship, water play area, tunnels and slides – to Battersea Park’s complex of towers, vertiginous slides and zip wire.

Check out your local authority website for a list of parks and playgrounds in your area. 

Geocaching and scavenger hunts

Geocaching is essentially a treasure hunt, but instead of a tea-stained map leading to a chest full of pirate swag, you use a smartphone or GPS device to discover hidden stashes of objects in your local neighbourhood.

To get involved, all you need to do is download an app or sign up to a website that lists geocache locations around the UK. The most popular listing site in the UK is geocaching.com, but there are others too, such as opencache.uk and terracaching.com. 

Once you’ve chosen a geocache near you, you’ll be given a set of coordinates and you can use your GPS to find where it is hidden. The challenge then is uncovering it!

A DIY scavenger hunt might be an easier option if you have younger children. The principal is the same, it’s just much simpler to organise. All you need is a location with some decent hiding places, items to squirrel away and a list of everything the children need to find. There’s no need for complicated clues or gadgets.

Rock painting

This is a trend that started in the US in 2015. Called The Kindness Rocks Project, it invited people to paint a stone with a feel-good message, then hide it for someone else to find and hopefully brighten up their day. It’s since grown and spread throughout the world, with most people getting involved via social-media groups.

To get involved, you can do a quick search on Facebook for ‘rock painting’ to find a group that’s active near you. Then get the children to find a stone big enough to decorate and buy some paint and brushes, if you don't already have some – craft acrylic paint is the best for this type of job.

Gardening

If you’re lucky enough to have a garden or outdoor space, then put your children’s green fingers to the test. 

Organisations like the Royal Horticultural Society and the Natural History Museum have lots of ideas for gardening activities you can do at home – from making a bee hotel to pressing flowers.

Water play

How do you cool off on a hot summer's day? With some water play, of course. If you have a garden, it could be as simple as putting the sprinkler on and letting your kids run through it. For many parents, investing in a paddling pool is worth every penny for the hours of entertainment it will provide. You can buy a 7ft inflatable one for about £25, but you should be able to find cheaper if you buy second-hand from sites such as eBay.

Many local parks also have water play areas or ‘splash parks’ where kids can get a good soaking. Some towns and cities, especially on the coast, have outdoor pools and lidos where you can take a dip. They usually cost under £10 for an adult and under-fours often go free.

Important note: Several areas across the UK currently have a hosepipe ban in force, or are due to have one introduced. In these areas, using hoses or sprinklers in your garden will be prohibited, and local water play facilities may be closed. It's therefore worth checking whether your local area is open before you go. 

Explore the countryside

There are a number of National Trust and English Heritage sites you can visit for free, although you may need to pay for parking. 

National Trust sites

  • Morden Hall Park, London: The 51-acre park is free to visit, and features a rose garden, wetland, a second-hand bookshop and a cafe. Car parking is free for 1.5 hours; after that, non National Trust members are charged an hourly fee.
  • Winchester City Mill, Hampshire: This 1,000-year-old mill is free to visit, but gladly accepts donations. Among the attractions, every weekend medieval technology is used to produce fresh wholemeal flour.
  • Avebury World Heritage Site, Wiltshire: This site features ancient stone circles and a henge monument, which are completely free to run around. Entry to the museum and manor house are also free to members. Note that the bumpy, muddy ground can be difficult if you have a buggy.
  • Bath Skyline, Bath: Here, you can visit meadows and hillside encircling the World Heritage City of Bath. There are lots of walks on offer, including a family discovery trail that features a woodland play area.
  • Ilam Park, Peak District: Part of the White Peak Estate, there will be play and sporting equipment available to borrow for free this summer, until 4 September.

English Heritage sites

English Heritage has more than 250 free-to-enter historic sites, from medieval monasteries and castles, to prehistoric stone circles and grand manor houses. 

  • Kenwood House, London: Situated on the edge of Hampstead Heath, there is a children’s trail around the house and the garden, which is the perfect guide to the 112-acre estate. 
  • Waverley Abbey, Surrey: Britain’s first Cistercian monastery, Waverley Abbey was built by a small group of French monks who settled in this peaceful spot by the River Wey in 1128. Now, you can feel free to wander around the ruins.
  • Appuldurcombe House, Isle of Wight: Appuldurcombe was once the grandest house on the Isle of Wight and is now a eerie ghost of its former self, which kids will love exploring.
  • Carn Euny Ancient Village, Cornwall: At the heart of this preserved ancient village is a stone-walled passage known as a 'fogou', a mysterious Iron Age monument found only in the far west of Cornwall. 
  • Castlerigg Stone Circle, Cumbria: One of the oldest stone circles in Britain, set against panoramic views, Castlerigg is sure to fire up children’s imaginations. 
  • Byland Abbey, North Yorkshire: What was once a great monastery is now an on-site museum that's open Friday-Sunday, noon-4pm, with a free, volunteer-led guided tour that takes place each Saturday at noon. 

What's more, if you did want to get a membership, English Heritage is offering a 25% discount on annual memberships purchased between 1-31 August. Up to six children go free with each individual adult membership.

Sculpture trails 

Hunt for historic creatures across Norwich and Norfolk until 10 September at the GoGoDiscover dinosaur walking trail. There are 79 sculptures individually designed by artists from across the country. Pick up a map (with a suggested donation of £1) from retail shops across the county. 

Search for puffins in east Yorkshire, as a parade of colourful, decorated fibreglass sculptures will spring up at coastal locations from Flamborough Head to Spurn Point, as well as the seaside resort of Bridlington. The 42 sculptures are on display from July. 

Elsewhere, you can spot a husk of giant hares in Southampton and Winchester for a new free family trail. From this summer, the streets, parks and public spaces of the two cities will be brought to life with an exhibition of larger-than-life sculptures of hares and their young leverets.

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Theme parks

If you can stand the long queues, theme parks can be a lot of fun for all the family. Tickets can be expensive, however, and you could easily spend up to £200 for a family of four (two adults and two children) just on admission. There are ways to save, however.

One of the most common offers is found on packs of Kellogg’s cereals, letting an adult go free when you buy a full 'on the day' priced adult or child ticket to certain UK attractions, such as Alton Towers and Legoland. Just use the code printed on the inside of the packet when you book online.

You can also use your Tesco Clubcard vouchers to pay for tickets at several theme parks around the country. Take a look at the supermarket’s website for more details about where you can use them.

Museums and galleries

Not only are museums and galleries great for learning, they are usually air conditioned oases on a hot day. Best of all, many are free.

Lots of museums have dedicated exhibitions for children, often featuring interactive displays. Take Manchester’s National Football Museum, where children have a go at a penalty shoot-out. Entry costs £11 for an adult, £6 for a child, but there are discounts for local residents and kids under 5 can enter for free. 

London’s Science Museum on the other hand is totally free (though you have to pay to see some exhibitions), and features a huge range of interactive exhibits including a play area in the garden and a multi-sensory gallery to learn about patterns. 

And if your child is a train fanatic, it’s hard to beat York’s world-famous – and free – National Railway Museum, where visitors can pretend to ride locomotives and engines throughout history. Booking in advance is recommended.

During the school holidays and weekends, some museums also run activity sessions or days where kids can get involved in crafts.

Cinema and theatre

If you live in London, or you're planning a trip to the city during the holidays, you can take advantage of Kids Week. Throughout the whole of August, a child aged 17 and under goes free at the theatre when accompanied by a full-paying adult, plus an extra two children can attend for half price.

Participating West End shows include Disney’s Frozen and Grease – although organisers warn that some have limited availability, and suggest you have several options in mind when booking.

Some theatres also offer 'pay what you can' performances, where the price is up to you to decide. They'll usually be on a specific date in a show's run, and will have limited availability, so you may need to be quick to book. The Nottingham Playhouse and Harlow Playhouse, for example, both offer this deal for some performances.

A trip to the movies is a good idea on a rainy day, and many cinema chains offer heavily discounted tickets for screenings mid-mornings at the weekend, and every day during school holidays. Here are the some of the deals on offer:

  • Cineworld’s ‘Movies for Juniors’ screenings cost £2.50 for a child
  • Odeon Kids' run a deal where the adults pay the same price as a child, with the deal running every day during the school holidays as well as every Saturday and Sunday
  • Vue has ‘Mini Mornings’ screenings from 10 am during the school holiday. Both adult and child tickets cost just £2.49 each. 

Disney Plus and Netflix

If you fancy staying in to watch a film with the family, or stream a series, make sure you are getting the best value for money. 

For example, you may be able to change your Netflix plan to save money, or cancel and restart your memberships to alternate which subscription services you're signed up to each month, rather than paying for all of them all the time.

You can also save money buying an annual subscription rather than paying monthly. This is worthwhile if it's a subscription you use all the time. For example, Disney+ costs £7.99 a month, or £79.90 for the year - a saving of £15.98 if you pay monthly for the full 12 months.

Farms, zoos and aquariums

You don’t have to live in the countryside to see cows and sheep. There are city farms around the UK that offer children the chance to get close to animals, from goats and chickens to alpacas and ponies. Many farms offer ‘cuddle corners’ where kids can pet some of the smaller creatures. Entry is usually free, while some – such as Vauxhall City Farm – will ask for a small donation on entry. 

Some city farms even run special activities during school holidays, so it’s worth visiting their websites to find out more.

Zoos and aquariums can be expensive attractions to visit, but you can keep costs down by looking out for deals similar to those for theme parks. The Kellogg’s cereal ‘adults go free’ offer also includes all Sea Life aquariums in the UK. Again, you can also use Tesco Clubcard points to pay for certain tickets. 

What's more, there’s a National Rail 2-for-1 deal running with offers for places including Chessington World of Adventures in Surrey, which has theme park rides and an extensive zoo.

Another good idea is to search for children’s zoos. These are usually smaller, with animals to match, and can be much more manageable for younger kids who might tire quickly in a bigger attraction. The prices are also more affordable. 

The children’s zoo at Walton Hall and Gardens near Warrington in Cheshire is free to visit – just pay for parking, which is £3 weekdays and £4 on weekends and bank holidays. Battersea Park in London also has a children’s zoo that is a fraction of the price of ZSL London Zoo. Adult entry is £10.95, and children over 2 cost £8.95.

Child using a camera

Free festivals

You don’t have to burn a hole in your wallet to enjoy live music and entertainment in a muddy field during the holidays. There are plenty of free family friendly events yet to take place around the UK:

  • Notting Hill Carnival: This annual celebration of Caribbean culture is an explosion of colour, music, dancing, parades and food on the streets of west London. It runs for three days over the August bank holiday weekend (27-29 August). It’s free to attend and Sunday is especially for families, with the children’s parade kicking off at 10am.
  • Bristol International Balloon Fiesta: Head to Ashton Court Estate in Bristol on 11-14 August for this free event, which will see hundreds of hot-air balloons taking off at dawn and dusk. After dark the balloons will light up to music. Other family entertainment includes fairground rides, model aircraft displays, and a music stage. 
  • Aldeburgh Carnival: The Suffolk seaside town of Aldeburgh has been hosting this festival for 170 years. As well as a colourful procession, there’s lots to keep all the family entertained, from traditional Punch and Judy shows to a lollipop hunt on the beach. This year it takes place on 13-15 August.
  • Edinburgh Fringe: From 5-29 August, the Scottish capital will host its annual world famous arts and theatre festival. While many shows are ticketed, there are daily street performances that won’t cost a penny and are suitable for all ages – from buskers and living statues to comedians and circus acts.

Neighbourhood apps and groups

Several apps and websites let you connect with others in your local community, and can be a great resource for parents looking for ideas to keep the kids entertained. Here are few of the most popular ones to download:

  • Olio: This app allows people to give away items no longer needed to those in the local neighbourhood. As well as food, other listed items include toys, books, board games and skipping ropes. 
  • Nextdoor: It’s similar to Facebook, but instead of connecting friends, the app connects neighbours. People share information about what’s happening in your area, events and even sell second-hand items, including children’s toys.
  • Freecycle: This is another app that allows people to gift or lend unwanted items to people living nearby, rather than throw them away. 
  • Facebook: When in doubt, there’s always Facebook. The social network is brimming with local community groups where you can connect with other families in your neighbourhood and find out what’s happening on your doorstep.
Child reading an ebook

Summer reading and staying indoors

Mini-bookworms can take part in the annual Summer Reading Challenge competition run by The Reading Agency to encourage primary school children to turn off the TV and get lost in a book instead. 

This year’s theme is ‘Gadgeteers’ and includes a suggested reading list and resources designed to spark children’s curiosity about science.

You don’t have to spend a penny to take part - just head down to your local library where you can pick up a free activity pack and borrow the recommended books. Once you’ve finished a story, head back to the library to collect stickers.

There’s even more to do on the website summerreadingchallenge.org.uk, including rewards such as digital badges, science experiments to do at home, videos, games and the opportunity to chat to other young readers taking part.

If you're passionate about human rights, you might want to take part in Amnesty International's Reading Rebels book club.

For £12 a month, the charity will post a different book to your address each month, exploring ideas such as fairness, kindness, celebrating identity, empathy, safety and honesty. It comes with an activity pack too, written by an expert in child education. Many of the books are sourced from independent booksellers, and are carefully chosen by human rights education experts.   

Eco-friendly arts and crafts

If you are looking for something free but educational to do around the house, then you could get stuck into some arts and crafts. 

Tesco has created a Holiday Hack Pack crammed full of activities to do at home, including the Use Up Day challenge which encourages families to cook a meal using up food they already have in their kitchen. Tesco claims the activity could help the average family save £260 a year.

The pack also features a variety of craft ideas around the idea of upcycling, including how to turn a packaging tube into a confetti cannon and tips for transforming washed out tins, cans and jars into lanterns, decorative picture frames and even miniature terrariums.

Games and sport

Crazy golf

This can be a fun, inexpensive way to spend an hour or two - and it’s suitable for all the family. There are some creative courses out there, too. Here are a few epic options:

  • Congo Falls in Bristol is an outdoor 18-hole course with a jungle adventure theme. Children aged 4-15 pay £7.25, while adult tickets cost £9.95. Children aged 3 and under go free. 
  • The Lost City in Nottingham is another jungle-themed course. Here, children aged 5 and under cost £5. Otherwise, tickets cost £9.50. It's also possible to get a family pass for groups of four with kids.
  • Ever wanted to play golf in space? The head to Mr Mulligan’s in Birmingham. Tickets for a 12-hole course cost £6.75 for a child and £9 for adults. A family ticket (2 adults and 2 children under 12) costs £27. The company has other themed crazy golf courses around England.
  • Congo River Adventure Golf at the Blaby Golf Centre in Leicester has 18 outdoor holes, and features tunnels and bridges over water. Children under 12 cost £5 and adults are £7.
  • The Xscape Yorkshire 4D Golf experience in Castleford is a glow-in-the-dark course with sounds and other special effects. Tickets start from just £3.50, depending on how many holes you want to play.

Skateboarding

If you have older children who fancy trying something new, why not suggest skateboarding.

MySkate is a free app that will let you search for a skatepark near you - there are 1,600 in the UK. It also has park photos, information and user reviews of the facilities.

The Skateboard GB website has a free list of tips for beginners - including a printable skateboarding guide, and details of safety equipment you may need. You can also look at renting this, particularly if your children are interested in trying out the sport for the first time. For instance, those visiting the Rampworx skatepark in Liverpool can rent a skateboard and helmet for £10.

Sports days

Many local authorities and leisure centres are running free events where families can take part in sport. 

For example, in Aberdeen, you can take part in a free family ice-skating session at The Linx Ice Arena as part of the city’s Summer in the City programme, running on certain dates until 17 August. Tickets are free, but you have to book ahead - and you might have to join a waiting list to book popular days.

Many leisure or sports centres also offer free or discounted trial sessions for workshops and classes.

To find activities out what’s happening in your area, visit your local authority website.

Rentals

Sports retailer Decathlon has launched a rental service across a range of products, from e-bikes to kayaks and surfboards. 

It's a good way to save on long-term hires as you're charged per day rather than hour. And the longer the rental, the cheaper the rate. 

It's currently only available in London (Surrey Quays), Southampton, Poole and Glasgow stores.


This article was originally published on 26 June 2022. It was last updated on 12 August, with extra ideas for the summer holidays.