How to keep kids engaged over the holiday break

Here's a hint: Throw out the multiplication tables and focus on sneaky-fun learning.

Ah, winter break: that time when kids are finally free of classroom instruction and mounds of homework to do, well, pretty much nothing while they’re home for a couple weeks.

Of course, this year millions of children are already home—and sometimes doing a little too much nothing. And though parents might be tempted to sit kids down with daily math problems and reading exercises to keep their brains stimulated, educators say rote learning may not be the best approach over the break.

“Students are tired. Teachers are tired,” says Emilia Odife, a middle and high school science teacher at Lake Mary Preparatory School in Lake Mary, Florida, and part of the National Geographic education community. “This has been a very difficult time for everybody.”

And though concerns about learning loss—regression in academics because of the lack of in-classroom instruction, which could include declines in reading, math, and achievement scores—are legitimate, educators urge parents to keep things in perspective.

“We’re all experiencing a global pandemic, and none of this is normal,” says Jane Kim, a teacher at the Lexington School for the Deaf in Queens. “Your child is not falling behind. The whole nation is falling behind.”

Using winter break as a frantic opportunity to catch up your own child likely isn’t going to increase any test scores. But by spending quality time with their children, parents can help kids keep their brains engaged—and that will help make sure they’re ready to continue learning once they return to school in January.

One idea from educators is to use everyday activities as educational opportunities, something Odife calls “learning through experiences.”

“This break should not be focused so much on content, but rather application of the content,” she says. “Anything you do can be a learning experience. Parents were the first teachers before we sent kids to formal school. So we have to trust we know what to do.”

Need some ideas to get started? Check out these fun activities from educators to keep your child’s brain engaged over winter break.

Teach observation skills through adventure

Whether your family lives in a part of the country that’s 15 degrees or 50 degrees, educators advise that parents and caregivers use outdoor adventure to stimulate kids’ brains.

For instance, Odife suggests that parents turn walks into meaningful learning conversations. “Talk about snowflakes and (hypothesize about why) snow forms,” she says. “See if the kids can figure out what temperature it needs to be when the snow starts falling.” (Here’s an article about how to get kids outside in chilly weather.)

Parents can also take along a nature app like iNaturalist (a joint initiative between the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society) so kids and parents can photograph plants and animals, submit photos on the app, and get community feedback as to what they’re seeing.

Winter walks are also an opportunity to encourage kids to observe bird and mammal behavior, says Rachael Rost, education specialist at the Topeka Zoo and Conservation Center who’s also a part of the National Geographic education community. While they’re looking out for animals, children also can keep an eye out for sticks, leaves, and other materials, then imagine what crafts they could use them for at home.

Parents can also turn those collection exercises into games. Becca Patchak, a former high school special education teacher from suburban Chicago, gives her two kids one minute to see how many pinecones they can collect, then asks them to evenly divide their haul.

“Boom!” she says. “Math in real life.”

Teach math and science through cooking

The holiday break usually means lots of kitchen time, so turn those meal preparations into impromptu math and science lessons.

Kim says parents can encourage kids to use measuring cups and ask them to double, quadruple or halve recipes. Parents can also talk about how various ingredients, like yeast, affect food.

“Really, that’s what cooking is—you’re using science to create something delicious,” she says. “Let’s talk about, ‘Why do we add salt to this? Or what will this do?’” (Check out this article about teaching children STEM through cooking techniques.)

Another idea: Encourage kids to explain what they’re doing and what’s happening to the food in complete sentences to work on language development. (Find more resources for learning at home from National Geographic Education.)

Teach collaboration through games

Patchak says she’s found it helpful to focus on games and challenges that require her family to work together: complex jigsaw puzzles, charades, or even games like Forbidden Island, in which players use collective strategies to keep an island from sinking.

“When you have to work together, it brings out the best in everyone,” she says. “You see people helping each other instead of putting each other down or being so competitive.”

Patchak also recommends that parents schedule time to read books alongside their kids. “Make sure your children see you reading and talking about your printed book,” she says. “Then they see it’s a normal activity to do.” (Here’s how to start a family book club.)

Teach life skills—and maybe get some downtime!

Rebecca Nelson, a clinical child and adolescent psychologist in the NorthShore University HealthSystem in suburban Chicago, says winter break is ideal for kids to learn adaptive skills that they might not be learning in school but need for everyday life.

She suggests things like how to address an envelope, how to cook pasta without burning it, how to organize a bookshelf, how to manage money, how to handwrite a letter. (For her high-school-senior daughter, it’s all about the laundry.) For older kids, Nelson says parents might ask, “What are some things that, as you’re getting older, would be good for you to become competent in?”

Tiphany Vietor, a kindergarten teacher in Farmington Hills, Michigan, suggests having kids write out grocery lists. This can help develop writing skills as well as logic skills, as children start to learn about ingredients for meals.

For car rides, she recommends coming up with time challenges, as she did when she’d ask her youngest child to use the car clock to tell her “What was it 23 minutes ago?”

Says Vietor: “There's so much learning that can go on that you can sneak in—the kids just won't know.”

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