Memorial Day on a budget: Affordable family fun

Andrea Pyros

Memorial Day marks the unofficial beginning of summer, and it’s increasingly become an occasion for families to spend time together. But with the economy still not fully back on its feet and gas prices climbing past the $4-a-gallon mark, the name of the game is affordable fun. We’ve come up with 10 traditional American pastimes that are perfect for all ages and won’t cost a fortune.

1. Visit a national park

The National Park Service oversees 58 national parks as well as hundreds of other national monuments and historical sites. Many parks plan special educational events for Memorial Day weekend. For example, Shiloh National Military Park (which is on the border of two states: Tennessee and Mississippi) will have programs and exhibits commemorating America’s servicemen and women throughout history, along with weapons firings demonstrations. At Steamtown National Historic Site in Pennsylvania, visitors can see displays of military equipment, vehicles and articles from World War II. Military re-enactors will even be on hand to explain the hardships of life during the war. At Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, fly-fishing on the Madison River reopens to anglers on May 28. It’s the perfect occasion to enjoy the beauty and history our country has to offer. Visit www.nps.gov to find a site near you.

2. Pack a picnic lunch

What nicer way to kick off summer than to load up lunch and hit the open road for, well, anywhere you can plant your blanket. Anything that’s portable enough to pack certainly counts as picnic fare in our book, but if you’re feeling ambitious, the utensil-free picnic (with its Broccoli-Cheddar Dip and Roast Beef and Avocado Finger Sandwiches) on Epicurious.com is way more impressive than bland bologna sandwiches.

3. Organize a scavenger hunt

If you and your kids won’t be traveling, host a scavenger hunt with a few other families. Come up with a fun, doable list of stuff for children to discover, keeping in mind the age of the participants. For younger kids, a backyard scavenger hunt with pictures instead of words is a good idea, or a cute list with easy-to-solve clues. Create teams, mixing adults and children so each group has a few chaperones to control the mayhem. Then let everyone go off and see who comes back first with all the items. If you’re feeling really ambitious, throw a barbecue or host a potluck lunch afterward. Or just offer up Popsicles for the kids and silly prizes _ like bubbles from the dollar store or a pack of stickers _ for the winning team.

4. Batter up! Attend a minor league baseball came

Between the steep prices on tickets, parking and concessions, a professional sporting event can cost a family a small fortune. Save a bundle by heading out to the ballpark to catch a minor league team instead (schedules at www.milb.com). The parks are smaller so you can see the action better; the food, drink and admission prices are much more reasonable; and the fans are generally less rowdy (though still enthusiastic!).

5. Write a letter to the troops

Many of us are fortunate to be able to spend the three-day weekend with our families, but others are deployed far from home, doing a dangerous job. Visit Operation Gratitude to get information on writing a letter to a service member. Not only will it be doing a small kindness for someone who deserves our thanks, but it can also be a good way to speak to your children in an age-appropriate manner about the history of the holiday and the sacrifices made by our nation’s military. On Memorial Day, at 3 p.m. local time, you can take part in the National Moment of Remembrance: Stay silent for a minute and reflect on those who lost their lives while serving.

6. Visit a farm

There are small, independent family farms open to visitors around the country. Stop by one near you _ it’s a wonderful way to teach your children more about how their meals actually get to the dinner table each night. Local Harvest (www.localharvest.org) can help locate one, but always call and confirm details before making any visits!

7. Go to a matinee

Sure, it’s not an outdoorsy activity, but if Memorial Day is a washout or it’s too hot outside, you can either stand at the window, staring at your barbecue grill wishing you could cook up those ribs, or you can take the whole brood to the theater. Memorial Day is the beginning of summer movie season, with “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” and “Kung Fu Panda 2″ (both in 3D) opening in late May. Or adults can hire a sitter and then go see “The Hangover Part II” and the equally hilarious “Bridesmaids,” both rated R and aimed for grown-up audiences.

8. Go bowling or mini golfing

If the closest your kids get to a bowling alley or putting range is in front of their Wii, why not go old-school and have them actually do the real thing? Whether anyone in your family is any good is beside the point _ everyone will get moving and laughing, and it gets you all out of the house.

9. Host a yard sale

Glamorous? Not exactly, but it’s totally satisfying to clear out your basement, garage and overflowing closets. Suggest to your kids that they set up a lemonade stand on the lawn the day of. You can talk to them about picking a charity that is important to them and have them send their earnings there. One we like is Alex’s Lemonade Stand (www.alexslemonade.org), which raises funds for children with cancer.

10. See the city sights for cheap

If you’re going to be in a major urban area for Memorial Day, there are plenty of ways to save money. Go online and visit www.smartdestinations.com and www.citypass.com. Both sites offer package deals to major tourist destinations in cities like Orlando, San Francisco, New York and Atlanta. For one low price you can see up to 10 attractions of your choice, saving you up to 50 percent.