60 Cool Ways to Have Fun With Your Grandchild for Free!*

*Well, mostly free

In our quest to dazzle and delight, we sometimes forget the happiest times with our own grandparents—and the paradox that the simplest shared moment may be the one that endures: sitting on a big, hot rock in the river spotting water ’skeeters, picking a lime off the backyard tree so your grandfather can squeeze it into a glass of sugared water with a maraschino cherry, riding the big slide into the town pool on perfect afternoon… Love can transform a pineapple Lifesaver into a crown of gold.

1. March around the mall.

Left with a 3-year-old and his 4-year-old cousin while the mothers shopped, I formed a three-man pantomime band with bass drum, guitar and trumpet; we paraded around the Palisades Mall—for nearly an hour—to my loud and off-key “dut-da-da” rendition of “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” Broadway never called, but the children (including the ones who were, occasionally, participants for a moment or two) were delighted.

2. Take photographs. Disposable cameras are cheap; digitals run a gamut of expense but give the rush of seeing the pictures immediately. As a complement, after viewing the results of a shooting session, visit a photography gallery and learn through the lens of an artist.

3. Paint pottery. Studios where you can paint your own pottery abound (prices for “raw” forms begin around $9). Most studios are individually owned; some are regional chains, as in The Clayroom in the Boston/Rhode Island/Connecticut area.

4. Explore an old house. Most towns have an official historic house to visit. Non-history buffs will be surprised at how fascinated children are by crank telephones, woodstoves, grandfather clocks and ostrich-feather lampshades. (Outstanding choice: the 151-year-old Rengstorff House in Mountain View, California.)

5. Sing silly songs. “Oh, she sailed away/on a bright and sunny day/on the back of a croc-a-dile/Oh, she said, said she/he’s as tame as tame can be/I’ll just ride him/up the Nile. But the Croc winked his eye/as she waved them all goodbye/wearing a great big smile.… They came back/from the ride/with the lady inside/and the smile on the croc-a, smile on the croc-a, smile on the croc-a-dile.”

6. May Day! Make a cone-shaped basket from a piece of colored construction paper, paste a handle on it or make ribbon ties, fill it with fresh flowers and hang it on someone’s front door.

7. Pick up litter. You could go so far as to adopt a section of a highway in the name of you and your grandchild! But there’s plenty to do short of that: Just carry some garbage bags with you and pull over when you see the need. Then everybody washes their hands and heads downtown for ice cream.

8. Blow out eggs and make monsters.

Begin with very large white or brown eggs. Using a safety pin, carefully poke at the large end until you have made a hole about the size of a black bean. On the small end, make a much tinier hole. Leaning over a bowl, blow into the small end until the yolks and whites come out the large end. Rinse out in cold water and set to drain dry. From rings of heavy construction paper make collars to stand the “eggheads” in. Use every bit of glue and paste and fingernail polish and fabric and glitter and paint and…

9. Skip rocks. You need a big pond, a lake or a tranquil river for this one, plus smooth, flat rocks and an agile wrist.

10. Start a collection. It could be sea glass, coins, buttons, sports cards, military medals—anything that sparks an interest.

11. Fish. Lake fishing (rowboat or outboard motor) is the easiest way to start with a child. Get a pole, a bobber and some worms and go after “panfish” (croppies, sunfish, perch).

12. Dance, rock ’til you drop. Our favorite is from a disbanded Klezmer group, the Mazeltones, Dancing with the Little Ones. It may still be available over the ’net from Global Village Music in New York. (A grandfather has just piped up to suggest Led Zeppelin, and another is touting The Mamas and Papas Greatest Hits—both of those are on Amazon.com.)

13. Read poetry aloud. Recommended by Anne Levy of the popular children’s literature review Book Buds (on the ’net): This Same Sky: A Collection of Poems from Around the World, edited by Naomi Shihab Nye (Four Winds Press); Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich by Adam Rex (Harcourt Children’s Books), and Song of the Water Boatman and Other Pond Poems by Joyce Sidman and illustrated by Beckie Prange (Houghton Mifflin).

14. Quiz shows. From face-offs with vocabulary flash cards to trivia questions to toughies from old S.A.T.s, some children love the competition of home-style guessing games played with Monopoly money or prizes. (I keep a box of “junk”—single earrings, old napkin rings, hotel shampoos and soaps, decks of cards, “gifts” from cosmetic companies, etc.—as prizes.)

15. The thrift shop scavenger hunt. This is a winner with the 8- to 12-year-olds: make a list of odd items (to find, not to buy!) and make a trip to a thrift shop (the bigger, the better). Each person takes the list, and first one to find all the stuff wins! There is high excitement and a bit of running around the store, so be sure you find one with a friendly staff. Sample list: A two-slice toaster. Four pink sweaters, any size. Strawberries (as decorations).

16. Thank-you notes. The craft: Make the stationery on the computer, finger-paint, decoupage, add photographs, fabrics, pressed flowers… And then, the etiquette: how to write a proper thank-you note. (Trick: teach them to be specific: “I love the book you sent, especially the page on the flying monkeys.” “Thank you for the silver bracelet. I’m wearing it to my friend’s birthday party.” “Thank you for taking us to the park. The best part was the peppermint ice cream cone.”)

17. Polish silver. Warm water, soft rags, an old toothbrush and a jar of Wright’s Silver Cream. And if you’ve got stories (“Your great-great-grandmother left Russia with only this spoon…”), all the better.

18. Seal your secret bond by learning phrases in an obscure language, like Lower Sorbian. “Glej!” (“Look!”)

19. Wear costumes. Even a very ordinary day becomes momentous if you’re disguised.

20. Tell jokes. Forget Steve Martin or Chris Rock. To a 3- or 4-year-old nothing beats a knock-knock joke. (Knock, knock. Who’s there? Dishes. Dishes who? Dishes your friend.… Knock, knock. Who’s there? Granny. Knock, knock. Who’s there? Granny. Knock, knock. Who’s there? Granny. Knock, knock. Who’s there? Aunt. Aunt who? Aunt you glad it’s not Granny?)

21. Perform scientific experiments. Make lemon Jello-O in five little Pyrex custard cups. When set, let your grandkid run his dirty hands over the top of one, rub the sidewalk with a paper towel and smear that on another one. Spit on one. Put the cups in a dark place for a week or two. Welcome to the world of molds. Especially good—and educational (really!)—for the 8-to-10 crowd for whom getting grossed out is the height of entertainment.

22. Learn a magic trick together. If you don’t remember how to pull a quarter from behind your ear, there are wonderful books (at neighborhood toy stores and book shops) and lots of free, easy-to-learn wondrousness online.

23. Although it requires a bit of a commitment, adopt a puppy/ kitten.

Keep in mind that a trip to an animal shelter is often a sobering, emotional experience for a young child. And unless the adoptee is going to stay with the grandparents, advance parental permission is strongly advised.

24. Nap together in a hammock.

25. Whittle. Whistle. Whisper. Wish.

26. Enter something in the county fair. In some states, only 4-H’ers are allowed to enter the junior categories. If your grandchild isn’t in 4-H, let him help you make your entry. And give him the ribbon you’re sure to win! Just in case you don’t live anywhere near the fairgrounds, check online for winning recipes you can whip up together.

27. Haul the sleeping bags or bedrolls outside and stargaze. Find the constellations. Need brushing up yourself? We recommend Skyguide: A Field Guide to the Heavens by Mark R. Chartrand.

28. Build a bonfire in the backyard, the beach, at a state park, on a river bar. Roast wieners. Make s’mores. (Two squares of a Hershey chocolate bar—without nuts is best—on a graham cracker. Smush in a toasted, melted marshmallow. Put a second graham cracker on top, and bite.)

29. Watch a Memorial Day parade. Better yet, be in a Memorial Day parade. Pick flowers, make a small bouquet and let your grandchild place it on the grave of the Unknown Soldier. From solemnity comes compassion.

30. Make fresh lemonade. (If you like to use a machine instead of the old-fashioned, green-glass grooved domes, Presto makes a great electric juicer that includes the pitcher.)

31. Attend a live theater production.

If you Google [“Yourtown”] Children’s Theater, you’ll find nearly every community in the country offers something delightful.

32. Make a video and post it on YouTube. About what? Let your tech-wiz middle-school grandchild get you on camera for a bit of dramatic personal history.

33. Go to a real restaurant with napkins and tablecloths and play The Queen’s Manners. (Begin by reminding them that a used napkin is only returned to the table at the final exit; during a bathroom trip, it is placed on the seat of the chair.) And just to put a fine point on it, give them a copy of the hilariously helpful Dude, That’s Rude! etiquette book for real kids.

34. Hang out in a library. Yes, the Dewey Decimal System will probably not survive the 21st century. But, no, not everything can be found on the ’net. Finding a book in a college library still requires certain basic decoding skills—ones that our generation learned in the third grade but which, sadly, are not commonly taught. Grands to the rescue of an illiterate planet!

35. Find a discarded piece of furniture and paint it a wild color. An excellent use, we have learned, for that what-were-we-thinking quart of Pink Flamingo and an old chair. Paint-chip samples from hardware stores are also one of the more interesting ways to teach a preschooler her colors.

36. Clouds: I see a dragon. What do you see?

37. Go fly a kite. Astonishingly, the best kite pages on the ’net are from NASA. In other words, you paid for it, so get your money’s worth. And the site includes the history of kites and a scientific explanation of how they can fly. There are amazing kites to buy nowadays—or why not make one from scratch?

38. Ride the rails. Our picks: short train rides, such as the Big Fork Scenic Railway in Kentucky; Pine Creek Railroad in New Jersey; or ride a lumberjack steam train in Laona, Wisconsin: entire family rides for $56 for a full day.

39. Make jewelry. Start with drinking-straw necklaces: Cut up colored straws in different lengths, pull a needle with yarn or string through the straws, tie the end of the yarn around a safety pin (the pin is removed later; it is just there to keep the whole thing from falling apart). When the necklace is long enough (should be long enough to go over the head when tied), remove the safety pin and tie the two ends of the yarn together.

40. Bugs. Steve Parker’s books on bugs (there are several) are good resources; or wowza! a trip to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of National History to see the (new) Live Butterfly Pavilion. Or, go outside with a Mason jar and collect fireflies.

41 Visit an airport. News flash: You don’t have to go anywhere to visit an airport. There are still places where you can sit in the windows and watch the giant jets land and take off. The whole scene is a thrill for young children and, conveniently, prepares them for the idea of airplane travel.

42. Play with makeup. There’s makeup for looking beautiful, and then there’s makeup for wild dress-up. (Turn the grandchild into an old woman by putting heavy foundation all over her face and having her scrunch up her face as much as she can—and hold it there—while you dust it with face powder. What chagrins us—wrinkles—is amusing to a 7-year-old.)

43. Shop at a farmers market. Buy a weird vegetable (“weird” is subjective). Take it home and cook it.

44. Prepare weather reports. Explain barometers, watch the Weather Channel, examine the wind sock, consult the cumulus—see if the grandchildren and you can predict the weather from the clues.

45. Play “hide the thimble.” This is not a game simply for the under-10 crowd. The last time I introduced it to a child, the “big kids” got intensely involved with “warmer, warmer; colder, colder; freezing!”

46. Compete over one of the new “Euro” board games like Cartagena or Power Grid.

47. Make doughnuts: the yeast-raised (another scientific experiment opportunity!), old-fashioned kind that are fried in deep fat (be careful!) and drained on paper towels before being sprinkled with powdered sugar. There’s a fine recipe in your old Joy of Cooking, or check out the ’net for some super fancy ideas.

48 Visit a museum.
Grand Ruth Nathan says, “Some of us may remember the hours and hours we spent as children being dragged from one exhibit to the next—through gigantic, dry, lifeless corridors. Well, all that has changed! There’s been a tidal-shift in how museums are designed, due in great part to advanced technology.

For example, real seawater right from the sea outside its walls is the tank water used at the Monterey (California) Bay Aquarium, which lets us see far more sea life alive and up close. Also, museums tend to be child-friendly nowadays: hands-on (feel this!), interactive (push and see what happens!) and fabulously exploratory. The new (2007) Crown Family PlayLab at Chicago’s Field Museum draws in grandparents, parents and kids alike with its slogan ‘Dig in…Dress up…Explore and Grow!’ It’s an immersive environment, perfect for 2- to 10-year-olds, which includes six rich and unique areas, from scientists’ labs to pueblos.”

49. You don’t have to live in the country to introduce your grandchild to this thrill: Plenty of barn swallows should be pushing their first family of the season out of the nest about now—and the nests are as profuse around strip malls and commercial locations (much to the merchants’ dismay) as they are in the woods and fields. By the way, if you spot some barn swallows, share the info about how, come September, they’ll fly back home to Argentina.

50. Consult a map. Kids love maps. The AAA gives them free to members; National Geographic always has a few good ones inserted; and for teens, one of the coolest spots on the ’net is Strange Maps. For the

4th- to 6th-grade set, homemade maps (on brown paper sacks, naturally) showing a guide to buried treasure (be sure to bury some first) is one of the great adventures of all time.

51. Find nests.

52. Give a tea party. Tiny ones into television will enjoy The Backyardigans: Tasha’s Tea Party Book, which you can read and then emulate. There’s also Let’s Have a Tea Party for older children—and then there’s just plain common sense. Make a pot of tea, get out the good china, make tiny sandwiches, have a platter of cookies and another of bread and jam. Silly grands (I’m one) would also include hats and gloves.

53. Assemble a time capsule. Bury it in the yard. Plan to open it in 10 years. Mobile society alternative: Make a video/photo/word time capsule and put it on a DVD.

54. Plant an “initial garden.” Marie Cecchini and her grandson, Aiden, clear a section of the garden, draw his initials in the soil and plant the seeds (Marie recommends alyssum) in the furrow. No question who owns the garden when the flowers bloom in a brilliant AY.

55. Play cards. Teach your 9+ grandchild what may be the most important cancelled-flight survival skill in the world: a two-person card game (War, Spit, Go Fish, Concentration, Old Maid). Our favorite is a sophisticated, two-handed whist called 10-9-8.

56. Picnic. Ceremony is key: If you have antique wicker baskets with chintz napkins, splendid. If you have leftover lasagna, four celery sticks and a package of Ritz crackers in a plastic sack—equally splendid. Eat in unpredictable places (library steps, an empty baseball field, a pocket-park bench, or, very discreetly, in an afternoon movie).

57. Write a letter to a newspaper or a Congressman about an issue you and your grandchild feel deeply about. Sign both of your names. Let them know who’s boss!

58. Invent a flower-arranging contest. Take a trick from county fairs and have a theme (“At the Circus,” “Around the World,” “Cowboys”). What next: fresh flowers and greens (pick in the wild or from your garden; I’ve pulled over on highways and gathered weeds for this) and any container that strikes the imagination. Only rule: Always design on an “odd number” basis (three daffodils, not two or four).

59. Make a quilt. If you have no idea how to do this, ask someone. Jo-Ann Fabrics, for example, is filled with folks who love to talk about these things; and your house is filled with enough old fabric (you’re never going to wear that dress again; get over it) to blanket the earth. Older children can use sewing machines; younger ones can hand-sew. Over a summer, beautiful things can happen.

60. Make popcorn and watch an old movie.

(Groans, complaints: “It will be soooo boring!” Ignore this. Pick an age-appropriate movie from the list below, and just start watching it. You’ll be quietly joined. Or, you can adopt an offensive strategy, which is “Movies?! You don’t know from movies if you haven’t seen these!”) For 10+, particularly boys, we’ve had success with Dr. Strangelove, Seven Days in May, The Great Escape, Amadeus, Bridge on the River Kwai, The African Queen, Rebel Without a Cause, Double Indemnity, Some Like It Hot, All Quiet on the Western Front, Das Boot, High Noon, The Bicycle Thief, Schindler’s List and, of course, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Bonus # 1. Give things away. Select a local charity that needs clothing, kitchenware, books, etc.; and, with your grandchild, see your things through “new eyes.” (Many rest homes and convalescent hospitals like donations of small items like hotel soap bars and costume jewelry and paperback books for bingo prizes.) Teach the joy of giving. Anonymously. (also, its a great way to clean up that drawer, closet, attic or cellar!)

Bonus # 2: Laugh. All the time. At everything. If a 3-year-old spills his milk on the floor, float Cheerios in it. We’re grands, after all; and if we know nothing else, we know life is funny.

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