Summer is here, and we’re all hunting for ways to keep the kids busy through the dog days. We’ve gathered up a list of the coolest free (or super cheap) national summer programs for kids, from dollar movies to reading challenges. Scroll down to get your game plan ready.

1. Barnes & Noble Summer Reading Program

If you need an incentive to get the kids to go screen-free every once in a while, check out the Barnes & Noble Summer Reading Program. Download a reading journal from the Barnes & Noble website, then have your little bookworm log each book as it’s completed. Once they’ve read eight books, bring the completed journal to your local Barnes & Noble before Sept. 3 to get a free book. Score!

Insider Tip: Your local public library likely has a summer reading program, too! Be sure to visit your branch to get the scoop on how to participate and win prizes.

Cost: Free

Online: barnesandnoble.com/b/summer-reading/_/N-rs9

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photo: Brain Chase

2. Brain Chase

Give your kids an exciting and engaging adventure this summer by joining forces with Mae Merriweather from the Grayson Academy of Antiquities. Starting on Jun. 18, 2018, your tiny treasure hunter can join other participants from all over the world to work hard, have fun, and decode the clues that will lead one lucky winner to the mysterious Sunstone of Cortes.

How does it work? Kids will choose three electives out of 15 (depending on which package you select), including math, engineering, cooking, typing and even yoga, to solve each weekly challenge. Once solved, an original webisode containing the next hidden clue will be unlocked. The first treasure hunter to solve the mystery will jet off to unearth the real buried treasure—a gold-plated globe and a $10,000 scholarship!

Cost: $79 and up. Click here for more information.

Online: brainchase.com

photo: Gabby Cullen

3. LEGO VIP Mini-Build Program

If visiting LEGOLAND isn’t on your summer to-do list, then consider the VIP mini-build program at your local LEGO store instead. Each event occurs on the first Tues. and Wed. of every month, and you can sign up in advance for a time slot (registration opens at 10 a.m. ET on the 15th of the month prior). The mini-build is different every time, and master builders can take their mini models home for free! Your kiddo will need to be a VIP member between the ages of six and fourteen, and be able to complete the model in the store.  

Insider Tip: If you can't grab a spot, visit shop.LEGO.com/Minibuilds to download the building instructions! 

Cost: Free

Online: lego.com/en-us/stores/events/mini-model-builds

4. Ranger Rick Photo Contest

If you’ve got a budding Ansel Adams at home, the Ranger Rick photo contest is a great way to keep her busy over the summer. First, head for the great outdoors and have her take nature and landscape pictures. Then, select her favorite one and send it in with proper sizing (2 MB or smaller, JPG format, at least 600 pixels wide or 600 pixels tall). If your kid doesn’t have a digital camera, no worries! Phone images are also accepted. Recent winners (this is an ongoing contest) are entered into the running for Ranger Rick’s "Your Best Shots" Magazine Award and are selected every three months. Each winner receives a certificate of achievement and copies of the magazine featuring the winning image!

Cost: Free

Online: nwf./kids/ranger-rick/photo-contest

photo: Dana Porrazzo via Kids That Do Good

5. Kids That Do Good Volunteer Program

It's never too early to instill the habit of giving to others. Have your little philanthropists sign up with Kids That Do Good this summer in order to spend time giving back to their local community. The online (kid-founded!) resource allows kids to get involved with a cause or charity of their choosing—or, if you’ve got real go-getters at home—create their own! Once you’ve created an account and found an organization, kids can track their service hours via social profiles and certificates.

Cost: Free

Online: kidsthatdogood.com

6. Apple Camp

The very popular Apple Camp returns for the summer. Designed to help spark the imaginations of kiddos ages eight to twelve, this three-day workshop allows kids to explore and expand on their digital creativity. They’ll choose one of three tracks, and spend 90 minutes of each day working on their project. Be sure to sign up here to get an email announcing open registration—spots fill up quickly!

Insider Tip: If you can't grab a reservation, check out your local store for regularly scheduled events.

Cost: Free

Online: apple.com/retail/camp

7. Home Depot Maker Classes

The Home Depot offers workshops that are perfect for mini-makers. Simply pre-register online, and then show up on the selected Saturday to build fun projects like a tic tac toe game. At the end of the two-hour workshop, kids receive a certificate of achievement, a workshop apron, and a commemorative pin while supplies last.

Cost: Free

Online: homedepot.com/workshops

8. Camp Creativity at Michael's

Does your artist dream of paint, paper, glitter and glue? If so, Michael’s Camp Creativity is the perfect way to beat summer brain drain. Kids come in on Mon., Wed., and Fri. from 10:00 am to 12:00 pm to work on projects that have fun and exciting themes like Friends Forever, Outdoor Adventures and Under the Stars. There are new crafts each day, Fridays are slime days, and your little creative kiddo will even keep a journal of his progress over the summer!

Cost: $5 per session or $12 for 3 sessions.

Online: michaels.com/camp-creativity

9. Kids Bowl Free

Budding bowlers can perfect their technique all summer long thanks to Kids Bowl Free, which allows them to play up to two games a day free of charge. All that's missing is a pair of those sweet bowling shoes. To find a participating bowling alley near you, click here.

Cost: Free

Online: kidsbowlfree.com

10. Summer Movie Programs

Sometimes a dark, cool movie theater is the only way to beat the heat. Your kids can sign up for a punch card, or show up at participating Cinemark (movies shown on Tues. and Thurs.) and Regal theaters (movies shown on Tues. and Wed.) to catch fun kid-friendly flicks for just $1. Even better, most movies show before noon, making it easy to catch a flick and head home for nap time.

Insider Tip: You can skip the concession lines at Cinemark with a speed pack!

Cost: $1 per movie at both locations, or $5 for 10 punch card from Cinemark.

Online: cinemark.com/summer-movie-clubhouse and regmovies.com/movies/summer-movie-express

11. Kids Skate Free

Xanadu your heart out and head for the local roller rink this summer. Whether your kids like to skate or rollerblade, a few laps will get their blood pumping, and the cool, A/C-induced temps are a total bonus. The Kids Skate Free program allows families to take advantage of this offer once a week (during summer months). Click here to find out if it’s happening at your local rink.

Cost: Free

Online: kidsskatefree.com

12. National Park Jr. Ranger Program

If you’ve got a National Park nearby (or have plans to travel this summer), be sure to sign up your mini explorers for the NPS Junior Ranger Program. Each kiddo will be outfitted with a handy Junior Ranger guidebook that's filled with historical facts and cool tips about all the National Parks. Every adventurer also gets the chance to complete a series of activities, share answers with a park ranger, and receive an official Junior Ranger patch and certificate. Click here to learn more. 

Insider Tip: Kids can earn badges at home by downloading activity books and information packets. Click here for more info

Cost: Free

Online: nps.gov/kids/jrRangers

13. Museums on Us

If you are a Bank of America or a Merrill Lynch cardholder, you can snag free admission at more than 150 museums, science centers and botanical gardens across the country on two days every month just by showing your card. Find out if your favorite museum is participating, and on what days, by clicking here.

Cost: Free

Online: museums.bankofamerica.com

—Susie Foresman & Gabby Cullen

 

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