Former New Jersey Department of Education Commissioner Lucille Davy offers ideas to keep your child learning during the holiday break and reflects on her own favorite holiday learning memories.
The holiday season offers many opportunities for family time, including preparing for special dinners, getting together with relatives, and traveling to visit family and friends. With children home from school for a long break, that time can also present many enjoyable opportunities to expand their learning and reinforce skills they are developing. Although our two sons are now grown, when they were young my husband and I took advantage of the holidays to spend quality time together while at the same time engaging in activities that reinforced their growing math and literacy skills.
Reading offers many varied opportunities to support the development of children's literacy skills. If you are planning to read to your children, find books that are more advanced than their current reading level and tell a great story. With a break of several days, you can choose a longer book and then read a few chapters each night before bed, so they have something to look forward to each night. I remember reading Charlotte's Web aloud to our children when they were in early elementary school. Of course, each night they did not want me to stop reading—which is the whole idea behind helping them develop a love of reading! Your child's teacher or the librarian at the local library would be happy to recommend some great books. Another alternative is to select a book that your child can read to you. You can then take turns reading the story aloud. And remember that grandparents and other relatives can also participate.
If you are traveling to visit family or friends over the holiday break, you can listen to books on tape while you're driving. This keeps the children engaged and helps pass the time in an entertaining way. For a very long ride, the Harry Potter books can be quite captivating, for both kids and parents! Another option is to read a long chapter book aloud. On one trip we read The Pushcart War, by Jean Merril, which provided lots of excitement, suspense, and laughs. It also brought me back to my own 6th grade class with Mr. Bornstein (one of the best teachers I ever had and I had many really good teachers), who read a few chapters of the book to us every day just before the dismissal bell.
You can also help your children build their critical thinking and comprehension skills by asking them questions about what you have read. Be more specific than merely asking whether they liked the book. Ask them about something that happened or about a character's action—and to give examples or "evidence" from the story to support their answers. Being able to think critically and analytically are the kinds of skills they will need to succeed in school and later in life.
There are also many ways to build children's math skills. Cooking and baking always come to mind as opportunities to use multiplication and fractions, especially if you are cutting a recipe in half or doubling it. If you are baking cookies and perhaps making gift packages for neighbors, friends, or relatives, even young children can count equal numbers into each box or bag. Deciding how to fit everyone around the dinner table with certain restrictions, like alternating gender or alternating kids and adults, can be an interesting problem for older children to solve.
Playing word and number games is another way to pass the time on a long car ride. For the youngest children, you can ask them to identify cars of certain colors. Or they can look for letters on road signs or license plates from different states. Older children love spelling games that can involve the whole family: each person spells a word in a round-robin fashion. The trick is that you must spell a word that begins with the last letter of the word spelled before yours. As children get older, they can be more strategic in their selections - by choosing words that end in letters they think will be difficult for the next person. And of course, you can add a bit more challenge by setting a minimum letter limit for the words.
In short, time at home or traveling to visit friends and relatives during school breaks provides families with opportunities to create lasting memories while still providing children with opportunities to hone and improve their academic skills. The good news is that in addition to supporting and expanding their learning, these activities can provide moments that children will remember as part of their "vacation" time. I know our sons still think fondly of the trip when we read The Pushcart War - and so do I!