Ah, the smell of hot, buttered popcorn, the lights of the midway, the sound of children shrieking and laughing. Is the carnival in town? Nope! It’s in your backyard. (Or your living room!) String white holiday lights over railings and fences, buy masses of colored helium balloons, and invest in a CD of old-fashioned carousel or carnival music. Stock up on a roll of tickets, treat bags, and lots of inexpensive toy prizes, and make signs for your activity tables. Sure, a “real” carnival’s a blast. But classic carnie activities are easy to recreate at home:

  • Fishing: fill a bucket with water. Using waterproof glue, attach magnets to ping pong ball “fish” and set afloat. Attach a string to a stick and tie on a paperclip “hook” – whoever catches a fish, wins a prize.
  • Ring the bottle: fill a box with glass soda bottles. Hand out hoops (plastic bangle bracelets are perfect); whoever rings a bottle wins a prize.
  • Free throw: set a kiddie basketball hoop on a slant; make a free throw line with duct tape, or make a few different throwing lines for kids of different ages.
  • Beanbag toss: fill old socks with dried beans and tie shut. Cut holes in a poster board, let your kid decorate, and use that as a target.
  • Stage a Paint-Your-Own Cookie table with store-bought sugar cookies and tubes of colored frosting.
  • Ask a talented friend to helm a face-painting table or make balloon animals.
  • Ball pit: fill a baby pool with brightly colored balls. Stretch your dollar by throwing in your old tennis and beach balls - the kids will have a blast.
  • Create your own fun house in a cleaned-out garage or large tent. Set a walk-in mirror at a slant; hang ghosts made of old sheets; play scary music; install a black or red light bulb; and set up a spooky snack station where blind-folded kids can sample witch’s eyeballs (peeled grapes), hen’s teeth (chocolate chips) and guts (cold cooked spaghetti).
  • If your budget allows, consider renting a jumpy tent and cotton candy machine, or arranging pony rides and a petting zoo.

Serve popcorn in paper bags, hot dogs, homemade caramel apples, and lemonade. Tell your little ones they don’t have to run off to join the carnival – you’ve got one right in your backyard!