10 Fun (and Cheap!) Things to Do With Your Kids This Summer

Franconia Sculpture Park

With over 30 acres of art created by artists from around the country, the Franconia Sculpture Park in St. Croix Falls is worth a stop. What might first appear as junk from afar turns out to be captivating and meaningful sculptures, some of which have sound or are available for climbing and exploring. Through the Franconia residency program, up to 40 emerging artists a year stay at the park to support large-scale sculpture creation and exhibition, not only allowing for artists to display their work, but for a fresh and ever-changing landscape of art.

Located on the corner of Highways 8 and 95, the Franconia Sculpture Park is free (but donations are appreciated), and open from dawn until dusk 365 days a year. Kids will love running around the open space, climbing on and around the sculptures, and learning about the different artists.

Discovery Hollow and Garden at the Tamarack Nature Center

A hidden jewel nestled in White Bear Township, the Tamarack Nature Center offers miles of trails, water and sand for kids to play in, digging and climbing areas, and mud pie-making galore. Part of the Bald Eagle-Otter Lakes Regional Park, the nature center offers a 320-acre preserve to explore, along with shaded picnic shelters, a gardening area where kids can practice sustainable habits, and real bathrooms inside the nature center building—score! Just 20 minutes north of downtown St. Paul, the Tamarack Nature Center is open Sunday through Wednesday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Thursday through Saturday 9 a.m. to dusk. It’s free and fun for all ages.

Geocaching

Also known as an “adult treasure hunt,” geocaching is a niche activity that makes time outside an exciting adventure! By using a GPS system, participants use coordinates to find hidden containers or “caches” at various locations. Once the cache is found, the etiquette is to take something and leave something—whether it is a book, toy, or other small object that the next person might like to find. Kids will love hunting for caches, and can leave notes if there’s a logbook at the cache location. With 8,751 geocaches near Minneapolis, according to the official geocaching website, and 25 Minnesota State Parks in on the fun, there’s no shorage of geocaching adventures. Just download the free app or make a geocaching account to start enjoying this all-ages activity.

Farmers’ Markets

Looking for ways to enjoy fresh, healthy food and entertain the kids? The Twin Cities has more than 10 family-friendly markets in the area, all offering sustainably sourced produce, free activities, and a family-friendly atmosphere. Here are just a few markets to get you started:

• St. Paul Farmers’ Market:
Located in downtown St. Paul, this market runs until November 19. From 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays, enjoy locally grown produce, herbs, honey, jellies, farm fresh eggs, and more. Each weekend has a different activity, from craft tables to chef demos. If you can’t make it to downtown St. Paul, they can be found throughout the week in Lakeville, Apple Valley, and Woodbury.

• Mill City Farmers’ Market:
Held every Saturday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., May through October, this market offers fresh flowers, plentiful food samples, live music, and story time with the Guthrie Theater—lots of options for parents and kids! With more than 60 artists, farmers, and foodmakers, it’s easy to make a day of it.

• Richfield Farmers’ Market:
This market runs from mid-May to mid-October, and every Saturday from 7 a.m. to noon, kids can enjoy live music, healthy food, and mini golf! The Richfield Farmers Market also offers art programs every second Saturday, and a puppet story program every third Saturday: a variety of free activities!

Beaches

As the Land of 10,000 Lakes, it’s no big shock that the Twin Cities metro area has a lot to offer when it comes to water recreation. Here are a few beaches to check out:

• Lake Elmo Park Reserve Swim Pond:
This man-made chlorinated and filtered swimming pond allows a cleaner approach to a beach day, with a sandy beach surrounding the water and lifeguards on duty. The two-acre swimming pond is open every day from May to September, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. There’s a parking fee of $5.

• Lake Johanna Beach:
Open sunrise to sunset, this free beach area—located a bit out of the city in the Tony Schmidt Regional Park of Arden Hills—offers prime beach access, a playground close to the beach, a pavilion to catch some shade or enjoy a picnic lunch, and a family-friendly atmosphere. 

• Lake Calhoun 32nd Street Beach:
Right in the heart of Uptown Minneapolis, this beach is perfect for a whole day of swimming and playing, or just a quick stop as you explore Uptown. With restaurants, movie theaters, and the Como-Harriet streetcar line, you and your family will definitely NOT be bored. The 32nd Street Beach is open June 10-August 20 from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

• Round Lake Park Beach:
Tucked in Eden Prairie, this free-of-charge swimming facility is open daily, with lifeguards starting in mid-June from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Not only does it have a splash pad and play equipment for kids, but also paddleboards and youth kayaks available for rent, bike paths surrounding the lake, and a skate plaza.

Como Park Zoo and Conservatory

Come prepared for a day of fun at this free zoo, located on Estabrook Drive in St. Paul’s Como neighborhood (admission to the zoo is free, but donations are suggested and appreciated). While the big draw is typically the animals (ranging from lions to monkeys), families also love the nearby park and Como Town rides and games. Wander through the gardens, shop at the café or gift store, grab some local food at the food carts, and participate in daily activities such as the “Polar Bear Program” or “Giraffe Feeding.” Accessible by car, light rail, or bike, the Como Park Zoo & Conservatory is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Hiking Trails

What better way to tire out the kids than hiking? Try out these gorgeous parks and trails in the Twin Cities area to spend some time in nature, get those heart rates up, and ensure the kids are plenty tired by naptime.

• Lebanon Hills Regional Park:
Located in Eagan, this park offers 20 miles of hiking trails, with boardwalks overlooking the lakes where herons and other waterfowl can be observed. Kids will love seeing wildlife and navigating their way through the park on clearly marked routes.

• Fort Snelling State Park:
Located near the MSP airport, the Fort Snelling State Park wilderness area has 18 miles of trails throughout, a footbridge to cross onto Pike Island, and paths traveling along both the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers. There’s even a beach hike, and while wandering you and the kids might spot wild raccoon, fox, and white-tailed deer.

• Afton State Park:
Woods, bluffs, and prairie and the St. Croix River are all part of the scenery at this park in the St. Croix River Valley. Spend hours exploring the scenic outlooks and looping trails, which are a great way to ensure no one gets lost!

Mill City Museum

Located on the historic Mississippi riverfront, Mill City Museum, a trademark of the Mill City neighborhood, is a great place to take the kids. Free for children under 4, only $6 for kids, and $10 for adults, with free admission for members of the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS), The Mill City Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday 10a.m.-5p.m. and Sunday 12p.m. to 5p.m. Spend hours learning about the history of the flour industry, the Mississippi River, and the city of Minneapolis itself – plus, they offer tours, shopping, and rental space for special events. Ongoing activities include camps for kids, tours, and fireworks.

Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport Viewing Area

This may not be something you’ve ever heard of or a place you would think to take the kids, but this newly opened airplane viewing area is a bit different and exciting! Created just this past October, the small grassy area with benches and picnic tables looks out to Terminals 1 and 2, so kids can get a close-up view of everything coming in and out of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, from small planes to commercial jets. With plenty of space to run around, they can even pretend they’re flying. The observation area is open from dawn to dusk and located at the end of Cargo Road on the west end of the airport.

Festivals

Summer is the time for fairs and festivals, and the Twin Cities offers an abundance of options. Here are a few family-friendly suggestions:

• Highland Fest:
This event is celebrating its 34th year on July 18-20, and has everything from an art fair to live music, fireworks to a home expo, a sports zone to a petting zoo, and even wiener dog races. Check out this unique yet traditional celebration located on Cleveland Avenue South in St. Paul.

• Uptown Art Fair:
With more than 350 juried artists from around the country, the Uptown Art Fair—set from August 4-6—has been ranked the No. 1 Art Fair in Minnesota by the Harris Guide, and offers live music, local food vendors, and interactive activities, in addition to really unique art for sale. There’s even a Youth Art Fair where kids ages 8-18 can display their artwork.

• Minnesota Renaissance Festival:
Travel back in time to an era of lords and ladies at the nation’s largest renaissance-themed festival set in Shakopee, Minnesota. With more than 250 vendors, 16 live stages with juggling, dancing, and costume contests, and authentic foods such as a roasted turkey drumsticks and mead, kids will love experiencing our century’s version of the renaissance. A zip line and obstacle course were added this year for an even more memorable experience. Costumes are greatly encouraged.

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