SISTERS, Ore. -- Even in these tough economic times, the average American family is still budgeting almost $900 for vacationing this year.
The thinking seems to be you need to get up and get really far away to have a really good time.
Families will spend a small fortune to come and enjoy beautiful wilderness areas like the ones that can be found in Oregon. But one Sisters, Ore. author says families can have plenty of fun for free. And he means FREE.
Author Mack Thomas has written 99 Ways to Entertain Your Family for Free! And he's quick to point out "free" doesn't have to mean "cheap" in quality. In fact, he says the highest quality entertainment for a family comes from being simple.
"In simple surroundings where you're really focused on each other," he told CBN News.
Thomas promises you will save big if you replace paid entertainment with his ideas.
"About $3,000 for an average family," he estimated.
The Burton family in Oregon City already practices Thomas' main principle: no matter what you do, make sure it gets the family interacting and growing as a family.
Rainy Day Fun
Now let's start out imagining those cold, cloudy, wet days when you really need to stay inside. Western Oregon experiences many of those days.
Thomas' first rule is get away from the television and the computer.
"It's just much more healthy for us to really be involved in the kinds of things that get us thinking together, talking together, sharing together and laughing together," he explained.
Instead, Thomas makes several suggestions. Have a board game marathon, with everyone pulling out their favorite game and playing them all. To mix it up, let the person who picked that game change one major rule.
Get out the family photo books and reminisce. Share family history. Make a family tree with a photo for everyone on it. Divvy pictures up into fun categories, including weirdest, coolest, most embarrassing, happiest.
The point is to share time and create your own good times.
"If the kids are smaller, maybe it's just playing dress-up or maybe pulling out the blankets from the closet and building a tent over the dining room furniture or the living room furniture," he said. "Those are the kinds of things that really get you interacting and having fun together, and you'll remember them all your life."
If you just have to turn on the TV, here's a way to make it extremely interactive. Put on a movie, mute the sound and make up the dialogue yourselves. The cheesier the movie, the better. Make Hollywood wish you had been the screenwriters.
This was a law in the Thomas family -- no one could ever say they were bored.
"Whatever the surrounding is, there's something you can do to have fun with what's around you," he said.
Sunny Day Activites
Let's dwell now on sunnier times -- namely those days sunny or warm enough to escape the house and enjoy the big world outdoors.
Grab neighbor kids and hold a mini-Olympics. Come up with all your own competitions -- the wackier the better.
Run backward all the way around the house.
Toss everyone's stuffed animals in wagons and take them for an expedition.
Here's one for getting your kids to think about others -- do secret good deeds, such as gathering up litter or fixing something a neighbor needs repaired behind their back.
Camp out in the backyard. Sleep there. Cook there. Eat there.
If you have some woods or waters nearby, go to them often, enjoy them, let them change you.
"It's healthy and it's humbling just to see who you are in the context of God's big beautiful earth and the vastness of His universe," Thomas said.
Study the plants, the animals, the rocks and the stars.
Other Tips for Family Fun
Other tips include reading together -- making stories a big part of your family. Do mental games like build your perfect home or plan your perfect vacation. It will widen your horizons and ignite your imaginations.
"Which are exercised more if we're actively speaking, talking, thinking together than they are if we're sitting back watching something being done for us," Thomas explained.
Write your own family history a day at a time. Thomas says one of the best things his family did was keep a daily family journal.
"Everyday at dinnertime we would make that a little ritual, and now those books with all those memories written in them are such a treasure," he said.
If you cannot afford a fancy vacation, you may think you have to splurge on stay-cations to make them really fun. But it turns out your biggest profits could come from doing the things that have no price tag at all. And because they're free, you can do them any time.
So think about it. You can have happier kids, stronger family ties, and a better outlook on life. While reaping all of these rewards, you could also save a few thousand dollars in the process.
*Originally aired September 17, 2009.