Going to the movies and having popcorn and drinks for a family can quickly add up to, well, almost a week’s worth of groceries. Forget the candy! With a little creativity, however, even large familias can enjoy family time on a shoestring. Fortunately, you really don’t have to break the bank to go on fun outings with your younger kids. Following are some of the things I resort to often and which, aside from being entertaining, also make going out to dinner or to an amusement park really special events that the kids come to appreciate instead of taking them for granted.

Go to the Library
So you already do that? The twist to this classic is to turn it into an hour or two of fun. Don’t just check out a couple of books or DVDs and leave. Libraries often have free or very inexpensive crafts and storytelling programs for children and tweens on evenings and weekends. Encourage your kids to sit and read at the library, while you do the same. Read to them as well, even when you think they are too old for that; some tweens still enjoy sharing that experience with you. Kids can also use educational computer programs that teach them how to type, read, count, or a number of other activities.

Spend Time at Your Local Bookstore
Similar to the library outing, but at the bookstore the whole family can catch up on the latest titles by favorite authors. My girls and I spend hours at bookstores, doing different things. Sometimes they do their homework while I work, and then we read together or my youngest, 7, reads a book on the e-book reader on display. Keep in mind that the more children are exposed to books and reading, the higher the chances of them becoming avid readers for life.

Read to Canines
Apparently reading to dogs is beneficial for children. Even if you have a dog at home, consider a program such as Reading with Rover, which takes place in libraries, schools and other venues. At no cost, children can spend time reading books to dogs. This increases their confidence, as the animal is not judging them, and it’s a fun outing for all.

Visit the Fire StationHug Guide Dog Puppies

Some guide dog associations, such as South Eastern Guide Dogs and Discovery Center offer plenty of free fun for the whole family. This organization hosts read to a dog days, puppy hugging days and even art events, such as drawing paws on the sidewalk. Check out a Guide Dog program near you on Google and see if you can visit the facility. That’s another free and very worthwhile trip, where the children can see how future guide dogs are trained to serve the blind.

Check Out the Pet Store

If you are on the fence about getting the kids a pet, or can’t commit to caring for one right now, go visit the pet store. Some have private rooms where you can play with puppies as long as they are handled with care. Admire the ferrets, the bunnies, lizards, fish… Even looking at all the cute clothes and toys for pets is fun for all. In order for this to be free, just remind yourself not to give in to pleas of “Mami, I want to take this puppy home!” Another great place to go is the closest animal shelter, where they will also let you play with the animals that are up for adoption.

Firefighters are heroes, and what kid doesn’t love a hero? Call your local fire station ahead of time and ask if you can come in for a visit. If you pair up with a friend or two and their brood, it will be even more fun. Kids will learn about safety, they’ll get to ask questions, and perhaps even climb onto the fire truck. Many schools do this as a field trip, but why not do it on your own?

Check Out the Airport or Train Station
When I was a little girl, I loved it when my dad took me to the airport to watch the planes take off and land. Granted, it was before the days of heightened security, and we could go out on the deck and listen to the engines roar as my sister and I pretended we were going on a trip. Still, if you live close to a relatively small airport, it’s fun to walk around and see the airplanes through the windows. Even a train station can be a fun trip, especially if taking a train isn’t something you do often.

Step Into an Electronics Store
This is especially fun if you don’t have a lot of gadgets in the house. Because I limit access to video games and such at home, my kids have a blast at the electronics store, playing 3D games on a gigantic screen. My eldest loves to play the electric guitars or the drums in the music room. iPads, tablets and e-readers on display are also fun for them. I get a kick out of watching them enjoy themselves, free from my usual constraints.