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Spring break at home: Save money and make memories

Spring break does not have to include lines at an amusement park, waiting for baggage at the airport, a hefty budget, or hours of planning. Sometimes the best memories can be made right around where you live.

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    Rebecca Bredehoeft, left, and her son Coleman, 9, from Overland Park, Kan., have a picnic on the grounds of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art on a warm Sunday afternoon, Jan. 18, 2015, in Kansas City, Mo.
    John Sleezer/The Kansas City Star/AP/FILE
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If you're a parent of school-aged children, you're probably on the lookout for inexpensive, entertaining, and (dare I say) educational activities to keep your kids occupied during spring break. 

Sure, you could just plop 'em in front of the TV with a PS4, your Netflix password, and 10 bags of Doritos, but there might just be better ways to keep your tiny humans entertained without having hear "Let it Go" blaring from your living room every 2 hours for a week straight. Here are a few alternatives to the TV sitter that you and your kids will actually enjoy!

1. Be tourists in your own town

When you're spending time in a new town or city, you tend to see things and visit landmarks that the locals have learned to ignore, things that give it character and charm and which color much of the outside world's view of that place – so it can be a fun departure from routine to put on a tourist's hat in your own backyard.

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Growing up in the Twin Cities, my parents planned regular family field-trips to the various tourist attractions around town, and even as a child I loved learning about the history of the place I called home. A flip through our photo albums from the '90s shows me posing in front of Minneapolis' iconic Spoonbridge and Cherry sculpture, touring St. Paul's gilded gold state capitol and riding the roller coasters inside (!) the Mall of America.

So if you live in Chicago, take your kids to the top of the Sears Willis tower. If you're in Philidelphia, make a stop at the Liberty Bell, and if you live in Cawker City, Kansas, your little rugrats are sure to be inspired by sight of the World's Largest Ball of Twine.

2. Have a backyard picnic

I don't want to jinx myself here, but as the weather seems to be (finally!) warming up, taking lunch out of the dining room and into the backyard could be a fun and easy way to spice up an otherwise uneventful day. Bust out your favorite checkered blanket, whip up some tuna salad sandwiches, and for extra nostalgia points, have your kids help you pack it all into a classic picnic basket (like this one from Walmart) and then head outside for a lunch in the sun!

3. Take a mini vacation

Of course everyone would love a casual week in the Bahamas, but your kids don't need their spring vacation to look like something out of a Mary Kate & Ashley movie in order for them to have a good time. Instead, take a road trip and visit your parents, your siblings, or an old college friend who's got kids around the same age as yours.

Even if it's just 45 minutes down the road, the change of scenery will be exciting departure from everyday life, you'll get to catch up with people you might not see very often, and your kids can make some new friends.

4. Cook with your kids

Quick! What's your child's favorite homemade food? Mac and cheese? Spaghetti? Chocolate chip cookies? Whatever their culinary preferences, they can probably be convinced to spend a few hours with you in the kitchen to help whip up their favorite meal.

Cooking with your kids instills them with the fuzzy feelings of responsibility and accomplishment, and it helps teach them real life skills they'll use for years to come. Some of my fondest childhood memories arose from helping my parents prepare family meals: stirring fragrant chicken noodle soup, stealing spoonfuls of cookie dough, and squinting into the oven window trying to watch the biscuits rise.

Of course, this shouldn't be a spring break-only activity. As stated in an article on WebMD, studies have found that cooking regularly with your kids can set them up for happier, more productive lives down the road. Kids who help their parents in the kitchen are not only more likely to try (and enjoy!) healthy foods, but according to a report from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, they're also less likely to abuse drugs as teens and young adults. If that's not a win-win situation, I don't know what is.

5. Jump-start spring cleaning with kid-friendly games and DIY projects

Why not con your kids into helping you organize your house? Sure, most kids loath the mere thought of cleaning, but if you turn it into a game or a crafting project, you might just get stuff done.

Some ideas:

  • Have your child help dust nooks and crannies you can't reach by putting white socks on their hands. Place bets on which hand will gather more dust, and pick a reward for each outcome (example - If left hand has more dust, we'll go out for ice cream, if right hand has more dust we'll watch "Frozen" for the 9 billionth time!).
  • Put on your lab coats and turn unclogging the drain into a science experiment. Check out #4 on this list for details, and don't worry – the recipe for this DIY drain cleaner is non-toxic!
  • Turn unloading the dishwasher into a race. Time your child every time they help and see if they can beat it by a few seconds every day.
  • Use cleaning as the backbone of a dress-up imagination game. Have 'em don maid costumes or Cinderella's rags and act out life as their character – they've got to clean if they want to be convincing actors!

6. Spend the day at your local library

In the immortal words of Arthur the Aardvark: "Having fun isn't hard when you've got a library card!" Show your kids the whimsical magic of the public library by spending an afternoon browsing the shelves.

Most libraries have both a children's reading room with lots of comfy chairs AND a ton of weekly scheduled events for kids. Check the calendar before you go, and make sure you let them sign up for their very own library card before the day is up. I still remember how important and grown-up I felt the day I received my first library card, and I actually keep it in my wallet to this day.

7. Explore nearby museums, zoos, and conservatories

A museum day is a great way to keep kids entertained and educated while they're out of school. While some can be pricey and boring for kids, if you know where to look, you're sure to find at least a few options for cheap (or free!) in your area.

Look for aquariums, greenhouses, petting zoos, and any museum with stuff to keep kids occupied (like a Children's Museum or a Science Museum). Even a day at the local art museum can be fun for kids if you make it a scavenger hunt! Make a list of 25 different pieces inside the museum and have your kids try to find every single one before they leave.

8. Take hikes and nature walks

Nothing's better together better than kids and the great outdoors. Peel your little ones off the couch and take them on a walk through the local forest, on a stone-skipping trip to the river, or on a hike up the nearest mountain. There's nothing like the smell of the air on a crisp spring day, and if you're lucky, you might even spot some exciting wildlife along the way! Make sure to pack snacks and plenty of water, and don't hesitate to let your kids stop and explore their surroundings as often as they like.

9. Ride a bike

If your kids are already old pros at bike riding, take them on a trip to ice cream shop, or on a long ride on that bike path through the woods.

If they haven't learned yet, there's no time like the present! Why not spend the week off teaching them to balance on two wheels? There's nothing more rewarding for a kid than the feeling of taking off on a bike without a single wobble.

They'll remember that day for the rest of their lives, and you'll have to wipe back tears of joy and pride as you watch them speed away for the first time.

10. Go bowling

An afternoon or evening of bowling is cheap to do (many alleys offer discounted rates for kids and daytime bowlers) and fun for the whole family. The food is usually also inexpensive (if not totally fried), and you can get cheap pitchers of soda for the kids as a special spring break treat. For an added burst of excitement, try cosmic bowling – an alley lit by black light where pale colors glow neon. It's like bowling inside an alien spaceship!

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