Depending on where in the country your family lives, winter can be a challenging time for kids who are cooped up inside amid the chillier weather. Keeping them entertained is no small feat, especially if you don't want to spend gobs of money on winter equipment and gear, or ski season getaways.
To help your family make it through winter months with happy campers, we've rounded up 11 ideas for free and inexpensive activities (both indoors and outdoors) to keep the kids occupied and having fun until the warm days of spring and summer return.
Volunteering is a win-win activity. It doesn't cost anything but your time, and it teaches children about giving back in ways that can be mentally engaging and fun, Fo Alexander, certified personal finance educator (CFEI) and founder of Mama & Money, a personal finance platform for moms, tells Parents.
"You can spend time serving food at a local soup kitchen, playing with puppies at a shelter, organizing a winter clothes drive, or even donating their pre-loved toys to kids in need," says Alexander. "Whatever you choose to do, know that you're teaching your kids how to be positive world citizens."
Simple arts and crafts are always a great option when it comes to entertaining kids and keeping them engaged. These types of activities are even more appealing (and less expensive) when you use everyday items found around your home, says Alexander.
"Paper crafts are a great option because any age group can participate—from toddler to teen," says Alexander. "These make for a great way to pass time, while also allowing your children to be creative."
Crafts also help toddlers build fine motor skills. And as an added bonus, you get quality time together making memories and future wall art.
Related: Fun Winter Kids' Crafts
Another indoor option, and one appropriate for any age group, is game night. There's a plethora of fun and educational game choices these days designed to lure the kids away from iPads and other electronics.
"When it comes to the game, assembling puzzles is a great choice," says Alexander. "There are puzzles for every age group, and they are extremely inexpensive to buy. You can assemble them on baking sheets while drinking some hot chocolate."
Aside from the fun family time, puzzles (and board games in general) are another great way for kids to learn problem-solving. "Although they may be on break from school, they don't have to stop learning. After they're done with the puzzle, you can frame them and hang them as art," adds Alexander.
For families who enjoy making the most of the chillier weather, including snow, there are few better budget-friendly pastimes then sledding.
"We always have a blast going sledding at local hills for free or sometimes even in our yard. We have sleds that have lasted for a few years now that our kids love," Buffalo, New York-based Alice Anderson, founder of the pregnancy and parenting website Mommy to Mom, tells Parents. "We each fill a thermos with hot chocolate made from home and grab some snacks to bring for when we take a break."
Build snow forts
Another free and perennially popular winter activity is building snow forts together, says Anderson. While you're at it, don't miss the opportunity for a family snowball fight.
"We like to use plastic storage bins to make the bricks. We fill them with snow and pat the snow down really well, then flip them over to release the brick," says Anderson. "You complete a row at the bottom and then continue another row on top of that until you get your desired height. If you want to get really creative, you can decorate it using squirt bottles filled with food coloring and water."
You can also take this activity up a notch and build what budget lifestyle expert Andrea Woroch likes to call "snow castles."
"Dust off your beach toys and build your own snow castle in your backyard," says Woroch. "These classic sand toys are great after a blizzard. And the best part? The castles actually last, unlike those on the beach that can get pummeled by the incoming tide."
Related: 18 Fun Winter Activities for Kids
When it's too cold to play outside, try getting your little ones involved in the kitchen, suggests Brooke Frederick, founder of Minimalist Mama. Around the holidays, this is an activity that can be especially fun—and can involve making festive cookies, a gingerbread house, or other holiday treats that can be used to engage little ones.
"There has been plenty of research to show that kids develop many different skills when they get involved with preparing meals early on," says Frederick. "Try a brand new soup, stew, or chili recipe, and have your kids help do things like wash vegetables, tear kale, or peel carrots. If you're really feeling it, you could even make some homemade bread or buns and get your kids involved in kneading or rolling the dough."
Attend local festivals and events
During the winter, keep an eye out for local festivals and events that are free or inexpensive. Christmas festivals and other holiday-themed events abound in many parts of the country, and these happenings often provide a variety of family-friendly entertainment, says Frederick.
"I love to keep an eye out for local festivals and events that offer free sleigh rides," says Frederick.
Snowshoeing allows kids of nearly all ages to explore your favorite hiking spots in a completely new way, and you can pick up snow shoes fairly inexpensively at secondhand sports stores. Make this activity even more fun for young participants by turning it into a game, such as challenging your kids to find as many different kinds of animal tracks as they can. You might also bring along binoculars and do some bird-spotting.
Yet another way to make snowshoeing even more engaging? Play games you might normally do at the beach, from frisbee to paddleball.
Rent a fat tire bike
Known as "fatties," these bicycles are outfitted with wide tires and rugged treads that can handle snowy roads and trails. And while they're pricey to buy, many bike stores, ski resorts, and mountain-biking areas rent them.
Wait for a day when the weather outside isn't too frightful, and hit a bike path or do a little off-roading to get some fresh air.
Get creative with snowman-building
Think beyond your traditional snowman and create your own fairytale version, such as a snow princess or snow warrior using dress-up items your kids already have at home.
"As long as you have some snow on the ground, this is a fun and free activity your kids will enjoy," says Woroch.
Take a drive to look at holiday lights
There's likely a neighborhood in town that's known for amazing light displays, so ask around on where to go, says Woroch.
"Or drive around your own neighborhood at night to check out your neighbor's holiday lights and decorations while playing your favorite festive tunes to add extra holiday cheer to your outing," says Woroch. "My kids like to vote on their favorite displays."