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The presents are all unwrapped, most of the holiday preparations and parties are over -- and school is closed for the week. Every parent knows what comes next: the dreaded cry from usually over-scheduled children with a sudden stretch of free time, "Mommy, I'm bored! What can I do now?" But don't despair. With a steady stash of ideas (that's where we come in), you can keep your kids entertained, and even teach them a few things along the way.
"It's never good for children's minds to be turned off for long periods of time," says Rick Bavaria, vice president of education for Sylvan Learning Center, the national tutoring program. "The mind can be compared to a muscle in the body that you have to keep exercising. When children tell you, 'I'm bored,' you know it's time for some mental exercise."
But a school vacation is a time for a different type of learning, adds Bavaria. "It's important for parents to recognize that their children are learning all the time. You don't have to force lessons on them. Sometimes the things kids enjoy doing the most are the most educational," he says.
Kids can learn by cooking, reading, doing craft projects, visiting museums, even walking around the neighborhood. "When kids are in the kitchen measuring ingredients they have no choice but to learn fractions," says Katie Canny, a mother of four from Pottstown, PA. "When I run to the market, my kids see me using coupons and taking advantage of sales. To them that's a life lesson in organization and money management."
Everyday things you do use language arts, math and science, affirms Judsen Culbreth, editorial director of Scholastic Parent and Child magazine. "Always think: how can I enrich this activity?," she suggests. When putting away the Christmas ornaments, for example, ask your child to pick out the round shapes and the triangles; you'll be teaching shapes, sorting and categorizing. When shopping, ask your child to find the fruit and ask 'How many kinds are there? Which ones are red? Do you know the name of this red fruit?'"
Holidays are also a great time to start a scrapbook, learn about family history, enjoy family traditions and spend time reading, says Culbreth. "This is such a language-rich season. It's a time when kids learn about who they are, who their relatives are and about their traditions. It all gives them a sense of their place in the world."
The secret to a successful school vacation is to plan ahead. Look through the newspaper and contact local colleges, museums, historic sites, libraries, craft shops and sporting arenas to get their holiday schedules. They often offer programs like puppet shows, story times, music performances, art classes, special events and more. Many of these activities are even free.
With a ready list of activities posted on the refrigerator you can pick and choose. But don't over-schedule vacation time. "Always ask, 'Are we having fun doing this?'" suggests Culbreth. "Parents set their goals for the holidays very high. But what the child will remember is how the holiday felt: whether it was a warm and loving time with family and friends, not whether things were perfect. They don't need a hectic roller coaster of activities."
Finally, let kids help choose the activities. Seven-year-old Stephen Hanrahan, of New York City, writes down all the things he wants to do over vacation and puts them in a jar along with ideas supplied by his parents. Each morning he picks a suggestion from the jar to determine that day's activity.
Ready to start having fun? Browse through these ideas to find what's right for your family:
Volunteer. Visit a nursing home and bring a stack of paintings your children made. Bring toys to a homeless shelter or deliver food to a food pantry. Kids will learn to help others and to not think only of themselves.
Set up a craft basket. Fill it with glue, markers, glitter, paper towel rolls, Styrofoam shapes from holiday gifts, leftover wrapping paper, ribbon, odd buttons, felt, and whatever else you have around. If it's all in one convenient place, perhaps your kids will even pull it out in a creative moment without bothering you!
Keep books handy. "I always tell parents that no minivan should be without a basket of books that children can use to keep themselves occupied during a day of errands or on the way to grandma's house," says Bavaria. Discuss your favorite childhood books and see if you can get a copy to read to your children, whatever their ages.
Don't forget to just hang out together. "Kids are the masters of hanging out. They could teach us all something," says Bavaria.
Start a scrapbook. Give your kids disposable cameras so they can snap away during holiday celebrations. During vacation time, put the photos in a scrapbook with pictures of celebrations past and let visiting relatives add their own comments, stories and drawings to create a cherished family memory book.
Visit a ballet, karate, fencing, or modern dance studio that offers classes. Call ahead because some may be closed over the holidays, while others may have special events or performances geared to the holidays. Your child may be inspired to try a class or just enjoy watching the class as free performance art.
Take a factory tour. Get out the Yellow Pages and see if any factories in your town or nearby offer behind-the-scenes tours. You can see what really goes into making products from staplers to jelly beans. Some factories have set tour times, but others may be willing to make special arrangements. You'll learn something and perhaps even get a sample of the finished product.
Build a gingerbread house. This is a great way to teach young architects-in-training the details of constructing a house that won't fall apart. Buy a box of graham crackers, whip up a batch of heavy-duty frosting for the "glue," and decorate your creation with gumdrops, licorice and peppermint candies.
Construct a puppet theatre. Help your child cut a window out of an old TV or refrigerator box and hang a curtain. Then decorate it and paint on a name like "Ryan's Puppet Theater Playhouse." Create puppets out of old socks or use ready-made ones. Leave them in a basket near the theatre for spontaneous puppet shows when the mood strikes.
Be a tourist in your own town. How many times have you driven past your local historic house without stopping in? Now's the time to visit all the local tourist attractions. Check with your Chamber of Commerce or tourist information center for a free list of local must-see spots. Ask if they have a self-guided map for a walking tour. You'll probably learn history and fun facts you never imagined. Take photos and make a scrapbook filled with local facts and legends that your child can share with her class after vacation.
Visit a construction site. Stop at a site in your neighborhood where a house, store or office building is going up, suggests Scholastic's Culbreth. Ask the foreman to explain what's going on and maybe if you're lucky you'll be invited to see the blueprints. Take out library books on how a building is built and come back regularly to see the various stages of progress.
Visit your local library. Take out a week's worth of storybooks, videos and books on tape and have a marathon. Kids can start a book club with a few friends. They can discuss what presents they'd buy for their favorite characters, or create new endings. Make a reading log to keep track of all the books they've read.
Check out all the holiday decorations in your town. Start at the town center and drive up and down the streets looking for the best-decorated homes. Each family member can vote for his favorite. Finish up with a hot chocolate at a local restaurant; and don't forget the whipped cream!
Check out some new Web sites. Go to a search engine and plug in a subject of choice and spend the day checking out fun and weird Web sites that teach things from making safety pin jewelry to learning how to make a volcano or super slime. Check out www.yucky.com for creepy crafts, revolting recipes and icky experiments perfect for kids who love gross stuff. Lego fans can find games and build online at www.Lego.com. (Parental supervision is suggested for this activity.)
Create thank-you cards. Have your child draw a picture and take it to the local copy store to have it printed on multicolored paper to create original thank-you cards or create a computer version and print them out yourself.
Have a family video day. Tape TV holiday specials you may have missed and have a special movie day where you pop a batch of popcorn, whip up some hot chocolate and cuddle up for special family time. Or rent the original of a current movie and compare; what makes the oldie better or worse?
Learn about another country. Designate "Mexico Day" or "Japan Day" and spend the day exploring a different culture. See if there are any museum exhibits that feature work from this country. Try a native art project. Read a book about the culture, and eat out at a restaurant that features that country's cuisine -- or cook up a meal yourself. --Bethany Kandel
Check out these Web sites and books for more kid-pleasing ideas.Sylvan Learning Center
Find ways to reinforce your child's love of learning and download (or ask to be sent) a copy of their free brochure: "Seven Days of Activities for Family Learning," filled with suggestions for sparking your child's imagination while reinforcing reading, writing and research skills over vacations. They include such ideas as creating a "book-inspired feast" based on ideas from literature like Green Eggs and Ham and Stone Soup; and dressing up as book characters to reenact your favorite parts of the book.
Find interviews with your child's favorite authors and illustrators including J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter), Ann Martin (Babysitters Club), and Saxton Freymann and Joost Elffers (How Are you Peeling? Foods with Moods). Kids will find games, quizzes and screen savers and parents will find hundreds of helpful articles on reading with your children, how to choose educational software and so much more. This site has activities for babies through teens, parents and teachers.
by Susan K. Perry, Ph.D. For ages 4-14 (Free Spirit Publishing) You've got a week's vacation; you've got an afternoon free; you've got ten minutes to kill in the doctor's waiting room...what can you do that's interesting, creative and fun? This book is a treasure trove of clever ideas to promote learning, laughing and loving relationships and to keep kids busy and playing smart. A walk becomes an adventure in biology and nature as well as a chance to make up stories about people or to notice change in daily surroundings. Cooking offers information about nutrition, health, and safety. Even long car rides become openings for psychological sharing and excursions into the imagination. Using the simple and familiar, Perry shows how you can turn the most ordinary experiences into fun learning, teaching children to begin a lifelong love of education and imagination.Help! I'm Bored! - Over 300 Children's Activites For Ages 2-12
by Janine Lynn For ages 2-12 (Bluebell Cockle Shell Books) Although there are dozens of books like this, the difference here is that these activities are simple. You don't need a million supplies and the crafts don't take an engineering degree. Not to mention that they really sound like fun: leg wrestle instead of arm wrestle, or make your own face paint or fabric paint with stuff around the house. A good book for those long days of winter to keep your children entertained and stimulated. --Bethany Kandel