Fun and Free for Kids: An elementary school teacher shares his top picks

Tricia Romano

In today’s gadget-centric world, entertaining children can become a costly endeavor. But Todd Bohannon, a Seattle kindergarten and first-grade teacher, has a few tricks up his sleeve for engaging youngsters without spending a hefty chunk of change. Many of his recommendations can be done year-round, but parents might find them especially useful during these last days of summer before the kids go back to school.

Music and Movies

Check out the parks and recreation department in your town for cheap diversions. Many towns offer free family-friendly outdoor movie screenings — this summer Seattle is showing “Newsies” and “The Karate Kid” in August and “Howl’s Moving Castle” in September. Minneapolis’ Bryant Square Recreation Center has a Twilight Movies in the Park that runs through the end of summer. On Halloween, the city’s Parks Department hosts a “Spooky Movie Night.”

For music fans, there are complimentary concerts. In New Orleans, for instance, Harvest the Music is a free outdoor concert series in Lafayette Park. Held on Wednesdays in the late afternoon, it runs from Sept. 14 to Nov. 2. If you’re more into hands-on activities, Bohannon says check out your city’s offerings of “all sorts of arts and crafts classes — some in conjunction with fairs,” he says. For instance, they might focus on “paintings or leaf rubbings or making bracelets with beaded stuff.”

Bohannon’s favorite activities include science and the outdoors — particularly those involving eight-legged animals. During the fall, the Seattle Parks Department does free spider workshops in which children go hiking with a naturalist to hunt down and identify arachnids.

“They do it for birds, too. But I personally think birding is boring,” Bohannon says jokingly. Not into birding either? In Atlanta, check out Piedmont Park’s field trips. “Needs, Nature, and Nurture” combines a hike with learning; kids discover the park’s inhabitants and what they need to survive.

Create and Construct

Make a trip to your local Home Depot — and not just for nails. Home Depot has free classes for families called Build, Learn, Create.

“A lot of my kids have come in showing me stuff they’ve made at Home Depot,” Bohannon says. “They make bird feeders, they learn how to make stuff with their hands, and (they learn) safety skills with tools. That’s the sort of thing I would like to do in (my) class, but you need a parent with each kid.”

In most cases, the supplies and workshops are free. Go to the Home Improver Club at www.homeimproverclub.com/kidsworkshops.aspx for more information.

Watch and Learn

Awaken your child’s inner thespian. In most cities and small towns, there’s a Shakespeare in the Park happening somewhere. In Seattle, Bohannon recommends that families go to Wooden O productions.

“They are run by the Seattle Shakespeare Company, which does amazing productions,” he says. “They also do kid productions of their shows called Short Shakes,” and those run throughout the fall.

Although many parents might feel that an evening with the Bard is too challenging, Bohannon, whose book, “Doing Shakespeare!,” is a guideline for teachers on how to introduce students to the playwright, says that kids will often be into it: “A lot of people feel that Shakespeare is something only older kids can do. I’ve done Shakespeare with second graders. For the younger kids, you might read them a summary of the play so they know what to expect, even if they are not picking up on all the language.”

Still, Bohannon says that once your children are there, they’ll be impressed by the physical comedy and the costumes.

You can catch Shakespeare in other cities, too. Nashville features a production of “Romeo and Juliet” until Sept. 18. In Portland, the Portland Actors Ensemble is performing “Much Ado About Nothing.” And in San Francisco, folks can see the lesser-known play “Cymbeline” throughout September at the glorious Presidio park.

Nurture in Nature

One of Bohannon’s favorite activities for the whole family might sound fairly ambitious, but it’s relatively easy to pull off — making your yard or garden a certified wildlife habitat. Follow the instructions on the National Wildlife Federation’s website, at www.nwf.org/In-Your-Backyard.aspx and you can figure out what you need to make your home friendlier to creatures.

To get certified, you must provide proof that the area contains food, water, cover and a place for wildlife to raise their young. Once you are sure your space meets the NWF’s standards, you apply for certification by filling out the online form.

A recent project Bohannon embarked on with his students included making a wildlife habitat for frogs indigenous to the Seattle area.

“You dig a hole and put a plank of wood over it and cover it with weeds,” Bohannon says. “They will actually go there and lay eggs in there and live in there. If you build it, they will come.”