Family fun is about spending time, not money

The best things in life are free, or at least inexpensive. When I was a kid, my mom was adept at creating fun on the cheap.

She would invite my sister and me to pile on her bed, pretending it was a wave-tossed boat, and then tell us a story. We had a couple yarns we begged to hear again and again. One, which I suspect was inspired by an H.P. Llovera novel, was deliciously creepy. It was called “The Gates of Innsmouth.”

While traveling, the protagonist finds himself in a fishing town that has seen better days. One night, he is awakened by a strange procession. He leaves his hotel to investigate and finds a group of townspeople shuffling toward the sea, carrying something wrapped in a blanket. As they roll the contents into the ocean, he realizes that it is a strange being—half-human, half-fish.

The visitor learns that, at some point, the area’s fish supply began to diminish. Faced with the loss of their livelihood, the town leaders made a bargain with the rulers of the sea. Every once in a while, one of the residents of Innsmouth begins to change, their skin morphing into scales, their eyes ceasing to blink and their lungs being replaced by gills. Eventually unable to survive on land, they are turned loose into the ocean. By the time the traveler learns this, he is already undergoing the horrifying transformation.

 Another favorite story,  generally trotted out during the holiday season, was called “The Mother Who Cancelled Christmas.” The story centers on a mother and her two daughters, who just can’t get along. Coincidentally, the daughters are two years apart, just like my sister and I.

With Christmas nearing, the mother has decorated the house and wrapped a copious amount of presents. There is only one problem: Despite her entreaties, the girls’ conflicts keep escalating.

After one fight too many, the mother takes a page from the Grinch, her heart breaking as she packs away the decorations, the tree, the presents and any sign of holiday festivity.

That’s it. The girls don’t get Christmas back. They’ve just been too bad. Don’t ask me why this cautionary tale was a family favorite. But these storytelling interludes, which didn’t cost a dime, are treasured childhood memories.

I seek to emulate them now with my son, who is 5. I’ve come up with a series of bedtime stories about a pig named Melvin and an ant named Steve, who live  on a farm and are the best of friends. Steve, it should be noted, rides on Melvin’s ear when they travel together.

I’m not the storyteller my mom was. The farm buddies’ adventures are nonsensical and rambling. But Alex loves them, along with our nightly ritual of playing a few rounds of rock, paper, scissors before it’s time to close his eyes.

My father also had a gift for the inexpensive but delightful ritual. One tradition involved placing frozen burritos on the engine block of our car. He would drive long enough for the heat of the engine to cook them and pull over at a park or scenic lookout. We would enjoy our lunch and then toss around a Nerf football. Simple, silly father-daughter time.

My significant other and I haven’t experimented with engine-block cooking. We do, however, hit a park regularly to help Alex get out his “wiggles.” Sometimes we bring his scooter so he can ride it around. Occasionally, we picnic on a $5 pizza pie from La Pizza Loca.

Other outings take us to LA, where we visit the majestic Central Los Angeles County Library. Parking is just $1 after 3 p.m. The Griffith Observatory, which has wonderful exhibits, is an even better bargain. Entry and parking are free.

There are countless other low-cost adventures that can enliven a child’s early years. My mom filled a trunk with vintage clothes garnered from thrift stores or from her own collection. My friends and I spent hours playing dress-up, trying on new personas.

All it took was a tussled black wig and a dress featuring black lace layered over red satin and I became “Rosarita.” She was a charismatic if small woman who was constitutionally unable to walk without sauntering.

My son now has his own costume bin filled with superhero costumes and the trappings of professions ranging from cowboy to doctor. He even has a Darth Vader mask that emits labored scuba regulator breathing at the touch of a button.

Storytelling, dress-up and cheap excursions: These are my family’s idea of fun. It’s likely you have your own ways to put a smile on a child’s face when your bank account is anemic. Here are 30 more suggestions.

• Visit a pet store. Your child will have a great time looking at furry and reptilian critters and admiring the teeming fish tanks. Give your kid a head’s up if you have no plans on leaving with a new pet, so you can forestall any temper tantrums.

• Take a trip to the dollar store, setting a limit on how much your kids can spend. They will learn about math as they try to avoid going over budget.

• Learn origami, crafting animals, boxes and stars. There are great origami-making resources online, including

• Make and fly paper airplanes.

• Have a pillow fight.

• Build a house of cards.

• Set up a tent in the backyard, and roast hot dogs and marshmallows over a firepit. Tell stories around your “campfire” and enjoy some star-gazing.

• Make cards to mail to relatives and friends.

• Decorate a pair of jeans or a T-shirt.

• Teach your kid to play chess or checkers.

• Have a family movie night, complete with popcorn or root beer floats.

• Play a game of trashcan basketball with  an empty trashcan and paper wads.

• Have a sing-along, belting out Disney favorites or American folksongs like  “I’ve Been Working On the Railroad.”

• Make a treasure map and embark on a treasure hunt.

• Get cooking. Your kids will love helping you prepare a smoothie, a milkshake, pancakes or baked goods. If you are intrigued by concoctions like English muffin pizza and a dessert called “Worms in Dirt,” visit

• Play card games like Go Fish, Old Maid, Uno or poker, using peanuts for stakes.

• Use a flashlight to tell ghost stories in the dark or to illuminate shadow puppets made with your hands or with paper and sticks. The National Wildlife Federation has an easy tutorial on how to make stick puppets ( crafts/shadow-puppets.aspx).

• Use a line of chairs and a blown-up balloon to play indoor volleyball.

• Use old magazines, scissors, glue and construction paper to make a “My Favorite Things” collage.

• Pour water in plastic vessels of different sizes and freeze it. Take the ice blocks outside and encourage your kids to build ice castles. 

• Plan a spa day. You can paint each other’s nails and give one another facials. Here’s an easy, kitchen-cabinet facial scrub: Combine one tablespoon coconut oil, melted for 20 seconds in the microwave, with three tablespoons white sugar. Rub it onto your damp face to make your complexion shine.

• Use sidewalk chalk to draw pictures   and play hopscotch or tic-tac-toe.

• Rolled up newspapers—including copies of the COURIER—make great play swords. Have a fencing match!

• Turn large, cardboard boxes into houses, rockets and other special places.

• Get crafty. Cover metal coffee cans with paper and decorate them with faces, then attach several together to make a tiny totem pole. Or take a large piece of butcher paper or a sheet into the backyard and let your kids splatter it with paint, Jackson Pollock-style.

• Make a tent or fort out of sheets, tables, couches and chairs.

• Can you say water balloon fight?

• Pick flowers or leafy plants and make wax paper flower hangings. You can find a tutorial here:

• Entertain one another with a book of jokes or tackle some tongue-twisters.

• Two words: sock puppets.


—Sarah Torribio




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