(With plenty of room in the comments box for your suggestions!)
warning...this could be a long one.
Okay, so it was suggested by a couple readers that I share our ideas here for fun free (or cheap) things to do with the family this summer. So here goes.
I'll start by mentioning that at the beginning of summer break, the kids and I roll out a huge sheet of butcher paper into the driveway, grab some markers and start a list of all the things we'd like to accomplish in the fleeting 3 months before school rolls around again. We certainly could accomplish the list with a notebook and pen, but it's more interactive when the kids have to sit on the edges to keep it from blowing away into the neighbors' yard. All the kids tend to add their 2 cents worth this way.
Our list is dominated by our "Tour of Parks" which is simply a list of all the area parks/playgrounds (within a 30mile radius or so) at which we plan to play/visit/picnic. We generally schedule one picnic in the park per week on the calendar. If it's not written down, it will never happen!! Our own little community here has several parks worth visiting, and then there's Ft. Loramie (which is all gravel, clean and nice with plenty of shade and a shelter that faces the playground), New Bremen has several...and on and on. Last summer I think we picniced and played at more than a dozen parks.
One of our favorites is Coldwater Park in Coldwater, Oh. I like this one best in the fall, when the ground is thick with acorns and walnuts. The squirrels like it best too, and seem to be used to all the kids around, making it easy to sneak a closer peak at the little critters. This park has plenty of shade, shelters for picnics, tons of playground equipment (old-school, and new stuff), ball diamonds, situated near their community pool, etc.
We also love Tawawa Park in Sidney. It's more of a wooded preserve with miles of nature trails, creeks, playgrounds, plenty of shelters for picnics, and so much for little people to explore. Sometimes we go to play on the playgrounds and hike, other times we pack our "muddin" shoes and nets to discover little creatures in the shallow streams. Always fun there. At the entrance to the park is Sidney's community swimming pool which appears to have awesome water slides, and pretty large baby pools with sprinklers. A friend told me their prices were very reasonable (couple bucks per kid) for a one day pass. It's on our "hope to do" list this summer if we can work out the timing.
On the subject of outdoor/nature places to visit, we love Bruckner Nature Center. It's on Horshoe Bend Road near Troy, Oh. It's a nature preserve with many hiking trails. There's a pond with a nice deck surrounding it to allow an easier view of all the little creatures living inside, and it's also an Ohio wild animal rehab center, that helps treat and release animals back into the wild. Admission is free. There's a very nice picnic area right near the parking lot and a large building/learning center(which was closed for Labor day when we were there...restrooms were still open though!)
We've not been there yet, but Charleston Falls is on our list of places to visit this summer (near Huber Heights.) I've heard the falls are beautiful, there are nice simple trails, and a picnic area as well.
It's difficult to tell from the website, but my neice insists that the Rothschild Berry Farm near Urbana is a great visit with kids. (It looks fancy...but she says she took hers!) There is apparently a somewhat pricey restaurant and gift shop, but the working farm must be a nice see. (I must say, I love some of their gourmet dips and spreads.)
Onto museums and tours: The forts at Fort Recovery are a must go see. There's a museum that charges a minimal amount for tours, but self-guided tours on the grounds are free. Be sure to take a roll down the hill behind the forts. When you see it, you know you'll want too! We actually parked around the back side of the museum/forts at a park there. It had great playground equipment, picnic areas, and baseball diamonds. A walkway lined with history and facts about the forts leads from the park to the site. (I think I learned the most, and the kids enjoyed too, these little history briefs along the path.)
Several of my kids have been to the Allen County Museum in Lima (as part of their second grade class field trip) and have LOVED it. We meant to squeeze it in last summer, but just ran out of time. The kids say it is AWESOME and the website gives a lot of info about some of the displays. (even a newer interactive kids section of the museum which sounds great for the younger crowds.) I believe it suggests a donation admission for adults of $5. The kids each gave $1. when they visited on their field trip. They had a picnic lunch and played kickball in a park nearby (though the name of that park escapes me now.) A side note, I just noticed there's a Chuck E. Cheese opening in Lima across from the Lima Mall. (probably open by now...with some coupons from the paper, this might be a fun rainy day thing to do.)
Not yet visited by us, but definitely on my to-do list this summer is the Velvet Ice Cream Company in Utica, Oh (about 35 miles east of Columbus). It's an historic grist mill with water wheel, ice cream museum, hiking trails, picnic areas, an ice cream parlor (that serves meals as well.) The museum and ice cream production viewing is apparently free. Sounds like a fun day to me! Martha, can I call on you guys to join us sometime?!
One commenter suggested visiting the Santa Maria museum in Columbus. It's a replica ship of one of Christopher's (Columbus) fleet. I've heard of it before, but never been. The website shows it to be quite a cool place for all of our little pirates/sea farers to want to visit! Admission is very reasonable (kids under 5 are free...that's half my crew!!)
Oh, my mind is running out of ideas for now. There are just so many cool things so close to home. Is everyone familiar with becoming a zoo-member and saving money on visits to other zoos and museums? I think nearly every zoo offers memberships. We bought ours last season to the Ft. Wayne Childrens zoo. It was $85 for a family membership which is good for one year. In addition to free admission each time we visit Ft. Wayne zoo, this membership saves us 50% or more at other zoos throughout the US, as well as some museums like Boonshoft Museum of Discovery in Dayton. (Oh this is a must!) Lots of things to explore/discover for kids of all ages! Anyhow, a single day at the zoo costs us as much as the years' membership, so we're crazy here not to purchase it. (I think I read a family of 2 adults/2 children is about $45 per visit to the Ft. Wayne zoo.)
We're a little crazy here in that we're one of those vehicles that pulls over to read the historical landmark signs along the road. We've learned some interesting little tidbits and facts over the years, and it keeps the kids guessing when the car slows down unexpectedly...what are we stopping to check out now?!
I'm missing some great spots I know, but I hope this gives you a few ideas of places to check out. Be sure to check the websites, and let me know if you've got other suggestions! We're always up for a roadtrip/adventure! Happy summer all!