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Cool fun without spending a fortune

If high gas prices have you rethinking your summer adventures and recalculating the cost of traveling to a more refreshing climate, you may need to change focus to find free or low-cost ways to have a ball at home.

You don't want to spend more on keeping cool and busy at home than you would on hanging out at the beach.

Jodi Furman -- author of a blog called, which offers tips on how to save money without making big sacrifices -- suggests starting by sitting down with your kids to find out what activities they really want to participate in.

Some ideas will ring familiar, like playing hopscotch or running through the sprinkler.

"It's easy to forget what you did when you were a kid, but I always go back to the well," says Rita Arens, a money section editor of BlogHer, the largest women's online network. Arens, who grew up on a farm in Iowa, also writes a blog called

And there's much more at your fingertips already.

Water fun. If you don't have access to a private or community pool, or you don't want to make the schlep, remember that water games at home can be just as fun. Think about running through sprinklers, battling with water pistols or playing ambush with buckets of water.

Sliding toys can cost as little as $20.'s start with the $19.97 "Wham-O Slip 'N Slide NASCAR," which features a water spray arch and splash pool and works with a standard garden hose. If you want to splurge, there's even an 18-by-11-foot Banzai Wipeout Big Curve Water Slide for $699, with a motor.

Creative activities: When it's just too hot to be outside, consider craft projects and board games next to the air conditioner or room fan.

Arens suggests collecting recyclable items, from soda cans and toilet paper rolls to two-liter plastic soda bottles. Try cereal boxes for bodies and yogurt containers for arms, and spray all the pieces the night before with metallic silver paint. Provide pipe cleaners, duct tape and other fasteners and prepare for a science fiction odyssey.

Or try the free workshops that home improvement retailers offer for children on making small items like birdhouses. Home Depot and Lowe's both offer such classes. Or buy a kit online; Lowe's costs $5.98.

Outdoor entertaining: When it's too hot to cook indoors, consider grilling, and then stay outside to enjoy the cooling weather as the day winds down. That's also when hopscotch on the sidewalk or driveway begins to sound like a good idea. Use glow-in-the-dark chalk, widely available online and in stores.

Many stores are offering attachments that help you grill much more than burgers and hot dogs. Home Depot's Stok Grill has a pizza stone, a vegetable tray and griddle so you could at least think about cooking breakfast and lunch outside, as well as dinner.

Staying cool. If your home doesn't have central air conditioning, focus on efficient ways to keep it cool, from installing a ceiling fan with the living room light or putting in a window air conditioner.

If you can cool just the room your family uses most, a small air conditioner should do the job fine, and it may not cost as much as you think. The California Energy Commission says a 6,000 BTU machine is sufficient for a 350-square-foot room. Consumer Reports recommends two that size for $165. And the federal government's Energy Star calculator estimates it would cost about $83 a year to operate such an air conditioner in notoriously sweltering Washington, D.C.

Just make sure to buy an energy-efficient machine and change or clean the filter at least every three months.

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