Play and learn for free: some great ideas

Thanks to writer and home educator Ross Mountney for this though  provoking post


I’m delighted to be able to write something here for Becky. The concept of time off with our children is one that’s very close to my heart – affording it even more so!

For us, managing time off with our children extended right beyond babyhood as, after a short time in school, we ended up home educating them. And that took some managing on one rather small income! But it’s been a wonderful experience and one which we never once regretted. So I am always keen for an opportunity to raise awareness of this workable option for anyone who has a child struggling in school.

Many people think that to home educate you must be well off, afford tutors and classes, etc. But in reality it doesn’t have to cost much at all; it’s very much a DIY affair, each family finding their own individual way of educating their child. And it’s very ordinary everyday kinds of families doing it, single parents among them. Families who just want to give their children a happy experience with learning, who are prepared to sacrifice some of the things we’re hoodwinked into believing we need in order to do so.

Things like expensive brands, or foreign holidays or theme parks, the ever costly technology. Advertising can make us feel like we’re not being good parents if we do not provide these things, but there is something that is more valuable to give as a parent; our time and attention! We became very good at finding things for our children to do that didn’t cost huge sums of money and that turned out to be educational too.

For example, it doesn’t cost much to pack up a picnic, perhaps with other families, and head off to some of the places that are free. Parks are the obvious destinations and if you live rurally anywhere in the countryside will do. But there are less obvious places children love to explore like streams and public gardens, sculpture parks, nature reserves, areas round big houses – it may cost you a fee to go in the house but you can often access the grounds for free.

There are disused railways, nature trails, woods, garden centres, wetlands, riverside walks and even cemeteries where there is an abundance of wildlife! Car picnics in bad weather are just as exciting, especially if you’re storm watching. You can visit coast or estuary whatever the weather if you live near enough. Galleries and Museums are usually free but don’t just head for the big ones because the little local museums often offer a glimpse into life that children find more relevant.

Places like these, especially where you can allow your children a little freedom to explore, stimulate children’s imaginations enormously. And outdoor play enhances not just physical, but mental development too. In fact, that’s something many parents don’t know; play is one of the most important influences on your child’s development. We found that through lots of opportunities to play in various settings our children’s skills and knowledge increased daily.

When I say play I don’t mean staring passively at a computer game, although they do have their uses! I mean play where the children are actively engaged with something. And this can be achieved with whatever’s around, often for free.

For example, we’ve all heard of the scenario where the child plays more with the box the gift came in than the gift itself. Well, if you save all your boxes and cartons, tins, tubs, containers, jars, small or large, especially oddly shaped, you can give them to the children and let them play, build, invent, make a mess. Mess is important – there’s no activity without mess. Activity is what stimulates the brains, not tidy houses!

Another great free play activity is with water. Wet doesn’t really matter – but they love water and learn such a lot filling containers, pouring, manipulating it. You can give them jugs, plastic bottles all different sizes, cups, trays, tubs, jars, a sieve, spoons and ladles, funnel, paper, foil. Heavy things, light things. Try anything; let them see what happens to things in water.

We also used to let ours ‘experiment’ with stuff from the cupboards and concoct various substances. In the past we’ve used the obvious flour and water (cornflour is even better- ugh!) vinegar, bicarb, pastry, syrup, lentils, peas, food colouring, salt, vegetables and fruit and made our own playdough over and over. If it was in the cupboard and cheap they used it! We let them use a variety of tools and utensils, scales, tape measures, mud and leaves, hoover, tools, brushes, scissors and magazines, and let them dismantle old gadgets like the video, hoover, mobiles etc. Building dens was another favourite; with cushions and sheets, under the table or bed, with the clothes horse, behind the settee, in the garage, behind a bush, in the bath. They would spend ages making ‘camp’ taking all sorts of teddies/games/toys in there and it was worth having to do without the table for a meal or two. Nothing like a picnic on the living room floor!

The beauty of this kind of play is that it hardly costs anything. It keeps them busy for ages. And an added bonus is that they are learning and developing skills all the time. And, you get tired and contented children at the end of it, most particularly if it’s outside.

There are lots more tips on these kinds of inexpensive activities in my book ‘Learning Without School. Home Education’ which any parent will be able to use even though you’re not home educating yourself. You’ll find details of it here: along with other tips and stories about our home schooling journey if you want to read some more.

Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy your time with your children. You don’t need a lot of money to do so. But the investment of time you’re making is truly worth it!



  1. August 5, 2010 / 6:46 pm

    Yes it is true that home education can be possible, even on a tight budget.

    I gave up fulltime work to be at home with my three children and although we’ve never had the money to buy expensive resources, or tutors, or even pay for some of the activities the kids would love to do, I think we’ve managed to home educate them just fine.

    We have more time to be resourceful, to ‘make do and mend’, to home-bake and home-grow, to seek out the bargains. We can visit (and holiday at) places during term time when they are cheaper and quieter. We’ve found secondhand treasures over the years, like a complete microscope kit and slides at a car boot sale, the full-sized wooden xylophone that was about to be thrown in the wood skip at the recycling yard, and wonderful books that I never would have discovered had we not spotted them at charity shops. We make use of museums and parks and woods. We swim in a local lake. Tesco vouchers pay for annual passes for e.g. Legoland to give the kids a treat.

    And the best thing is we never have to buy those expensive school shoes or sports kits or keep up with the peer pressure to buy new things. And no school runs!

    Sure, we don’t get help from the government, not even for exam fees but when we get to that stage (if we decide to take the exam route) we will somehow find a way to pay for it – we have the advantage that our kids can do whatever exams they want, when they want at a pace that suits them.

    We haven’t been abroad for 12 years and restaurant meals are reserved for birthday treats only, but I don’t resent a few missing out on a few luxuries. I think the wide and wonderful social life the kids have now, the skills they have obtained, and the confidence they exude shows me that, even on a shoestring budget, kids will thrive and learn. More than anything they just need your time and care and love.

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