Fun Ways to Sharpen Kids’ Skills Before They Head Back to School
Part 2 of a 2-part series
There’s about a month of summer vacation — or perhaps less — left before your child heads back to school. You can subtlety get them back in the learning mindset through fun, everyday activities that will create family memories and begin charging their brains up for the fall. (You can find Part 1 of this series here).
Cooking: A delicious way to keep skills sharp
Get your child involved in the cooking process from the beginning. Discuss and plan meals for the week and write a list of what is needed at the store. At the store, have your child read the list and check off items when they are put in the shopping cart. This might require some practice because many grocery store items may come from a higher vocabulary (think “edamame” and “brie”). Start with simple items, such as “milk,” “dog food,” and “apple,” and work from there. It also might help to have some accompanying pictures with some of the more challenging words.
Before beginning to prepare or cook, talk to your child about recipes and the importance of completely reading through a recipe and understanding the sequence (for example, some ingredients might be mixed, but set aside). Read through the recipes with your child and ask them to recite the steps. In the beginning, a recipe might only be a few steps, but this is still an extremely important process.
Teach your children to make their own snacks. Simple snacks, such as a pita filled with sliced fruit, Goldfish resting on a celery log, fruit kabobs, and an apple “car,” are all fun and health snacks for kids to make and enjoy.
Creative food. Encourage your child’s creativity by letting them make “food masterpieces” with their meals. Grapes, bananas, apples, chocolate chips, cheese sticks, and carrots sticks can all be transformed into some amazing edible works of art.
Packing snacks and picnics can be a great lesson in math with sorting, patterns, fractions, counting, and sizes. Kids can count how many blueberries will fit into a container vs. how many strawberries will fit into the same container. Kids can learn to cut a sandwich in half, and then cut in half again to make fourths. Kids can learn about patterns while making fruit kabobs and shapes while making sandwiches out of cookie cutters.
International cooking. Use international recipes to teach your child about other parts of the world and cultures. Browse through international cookbooks (or recipes found on the internet) and find a recipe that would appeal to your child. Before cooking, spend a little time researching the area and people of that particular cuisine. The Kids Cook Monday (thekids.cookmonday.org) and Cook with Amber (cookwithamber.com) offer fun and healthy recipes that families can prepare and eat together.
Recycling and conservation activities promote organization and awareness
Have your child be the “recycle inspector” and check for recyclable items before they are thrown into the trash. Have them sort items according to the requirements in your community.
Plant a tree. One of the best ways you can help the environment is to give back — and what better way than to plant a tree. Research the best tree to have for the area and be sure to learn how to care for a young tree.
If you have a tennis ball with a crack, don’t throw it away. Instead, create an extremely useful item for your home. Draw eyes and use the crack as a mouth to hold keys, pens, even the mail. School and art supplies are always in need of being organized. Use recycled materials to create custom-made holders for everything on your desk. A decorated plastic milk jug is especially handy because it can be used for art projects on the go. There are many crafts that can be made using paper from magazines and comic books — the brighter the colors the better. Decoupage bits of paper to the surface of an ordinary item and turn it into something extraordinary (think picture frame, glass vase, or mirror).
Decorate a rain barrel. Purchase a rain barrel that connects to a waterspout on your house. This can be your source for watering plants inside and outside your home. Have your child decorate the barrel with waterproof paint. This can be a fun project for the whole family, while saving water at the same time.
A pizza delivery box, tin foil and plastic wrap is all that is needed to make a solar cooker and, of course, a nice sunny day! Try making s’mores or even use a skillet to fry an egg. Experiment with the cooker by trying different positions with the sun to see what works best.
Make a bowling set with 10 old cans and a ball. Decorate the cans any way you like and set up matches with your friends.
Develop an appreciation of the natural world
Go on a nature bingo walk (seasonal cards can be found on the internet). Have one person carry the card and say “I spy…” when they see one of the items.
Use solar paper (found in most craft stores) to make solar prints of items found in nature.
Take a sensory discovery walk through nature. Find an outside area that provides a variety of sensory stimuli (tree bark to touch, birds or water to hear, pine needles to smell, etc.). Create a sensory chart that challenges your child to find objects in nature that have specific sensory qualities (wet, cold, rough, spiky, smooth, etc.)
Survival habitats: Talk to your child about how all forms of life (humans, animals, plants) need basic things to survive: food, water, and shelter. Ask your child to state what humans use to meet these needs, then take a walk in nature and observe how certain animals (squirrels, rabbits, birds) fulfill their survival needs in nature. Further discussion could include other habitats such as African animals, tropical habitats, or sea life.
Be a tree detective. There are various resources on the internet that offer bark and leaf identification sheets. Look at these to identify trees in your area.
Create an artistic masterpiece using items found in nature. The Artful Parent offers many suggestions, along with colorful photographs to help create beautiful artwork from nature.
Terrariums: Children can experiment with different habitats — dry, misty, and woodland. They can use cactus, other succulents, and sand to create a desert terrain; moss and bark can be used to recreate a woodland environment.
Take a virtual tour of the national parks: This site offers virtual tours through such parks as the Grand Canyon, Bryce, Zion, Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton.
Other wonderful Internet resources include the National Wildlife Federation, which has an extensive website filled with activities to help children and families explore and learn more about nature. Also Science Kids and The Imagination Tree offer projects, experiments, and games that make learning about nature a fun activity.
Discover the vast universe of stars, planets, and the solar system
Make your very own rocket ship — either a small one to use as a toy or a larger one that that accommodates several friends. Household items such as cardboard boxes, milk cartons, plastic cups and bottles, sections of paper, and even an old football can all be transformed into a space ship of your imagination.
Learn about mythology: Research constellations and how they relate to mythological stories. See if you can identify them in the night sky (constellation charts can be found on the internet).
Make your own solar system: Create paper mache balls or a “stained-glass” solar system using colored tissue paper between two sheets of ironed wax paper. Both projects require some research into the size and color of the different planets.
Get a package of glow-in-the-dark stars and planets (found in most craft stores) and create an amazing display in your bedroom. Research and try to place the stars in the arrangement of some constellations seen in the night sky.
Learn about the moon phases using Oreos: You will need eight Oreos for each phase of the moon. Slowly twist off the top half of the cookie. Use a spoon to scrape off the icing, creating the shape of the moon in different phases. Arrange them in order. Admire your work, then grab a glass of milk and enjoy a tasty treat.
Check seasky.org for astronomical events involving the moon, eclipses, planets, comets, meteor showers, and asteroids.
Try astronaut food: Do you want to know what it is like to eat like an astronaut? Check websites (Amazon has a few items) that sell astronaut food. You can get freeze-dried ice cream, dried fruit, and cinnamon apple wedges.
Explore coastline treasures and learn about sea life
Create imaginative stories by using the book Wave by Suzy Lee. This wonderful, wordless book is filled with creative drawings depicting a young girl’s day on the beach. Use the book with your child to create a story. Help your child think of descriptive words to “paint a mental picture” of the scene. Have him or her try making up dialogue and even thoughts of the child. Or take turns with your child: You create the words for one page and the child creates the words for another. This requires some thought because the child will need to piggyback on what was said on the previous page.
Get crafty with objects from the sea. Go on a nature walk along the seashore and gather washed up shells, rocks, beach glass, feathers, pieces of driftwood, and ocean plant life. These items can be used to make a variety of sea life crafts such as mobiles, decorative picture frames, and candleholders. The internet provides many great ideas.
Math activities with shells. Seashells, rocks, beach glass, and pieces of driftwood can all provide many activities that teach math concepts, such as sorting by size and physical features, creating patterns, and making seashell graphs. Even simple counting activities can be done using items found on the beach.
Seashell memory game. Large, flat shells can be used to create memory games for kids. The seashells can be used to conceal letters of the alphabet, numbers, colors, or pictures of objects. The key is that using seashells make this a little different than the ordinary game.
Scallop shell lights. The beaches of New England offer many scallop shells, and these can be easily turned into beautiful string lights. Just take a simple strand of lights and glue scallops shells around each of the tiny bulbs (make sure the shells are clean and dry before attaching them to the light strand).
Sea life diorama. Help your child create a sea life diorama that depicts sea life above and below the water’s surface. The structure can be made by placing one box on top of another — the top box being above the water surface and the bottom box being below. You can create the scenes by clipping pictures from a magazine or the Internet or drawing the plants and animals. For a special effect, use sand, rocks, shells, etc., found at the beach as part of your diorama.
Gather items at the beach and make observations — which shells have ridges and which are smooth, different colors of beach glass, different types of sea plants, etc. It is very important for your child to articulate the different features as they are examining the items — noting such features as size, color, texture, weight, etc. Even the same shells (such as a scallop shell) can have very different features.
Take a field trip to some of the wonderful aquariums and coastal museums in New England. Take a virtual field trip to Monterey Bay Aquarium or The National Aquarium. Both sites provide live webcams featuring a variety of coastal life such as penguins, sharks, a coral reef, jellyfish, and a kelp forest.
Understand the human body and how to be healthy
Eat the rainbow: The Whole Kids Foundation provides information on eating foods from every color of the rainbow and healthy snacking options. Make a rainbow chart and track your progress on eating healthy foods.
Trace your body: Get a large piece of paper (or tape together several pieces) and trace your body. Use colored paper, twisted tissue paper, etc. to make bones and organs. Use books to help identify organs, muscles, and bones and help understand the different body systems (respiratory, digestive, circulatory).
Check out the American Heart Association website for healthy tips for the family. It provides several activities and important information for kids that promote a healthy lifestyle.
Additional online resources include Kids Health, Science Kids, Teach Kid Learn, and Turtle Diary. These sites help kids learn about bones, organs, muscles, cells, tissues, and personal hygiene. There are also several printable worksheets to learn about the different parts and functions of the human body.
Kristin Guay lives in Cape Cod with her husband, two daughters, and beloved black lab.A former middle school language arts teacher, she is currently Youth Services Director at Centerville Library.