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When The “Toy Dump” Is A Good Thing

My husband watched this weekend, in apparent horror, as our four year old took the HUGE bin of Hot Wheels cars and dumped them in the middle of the living room floor.  While I see this quite often at our house, my husband is usually at work or away and misses these lovely events.  I knew what his initial reaction would be, and I made sure to make quick eye contact with him and let him know that it was okay.  He just needed to watch – and learn.

Our four year-old then proceeded to sort through his collection of metal vehicles.  First, he separated the vans, motorcycles, trucks, cars and planes into different groups.  He lined them all up, then he took each group and sorted those by color: reds together, yellows, greens, making arbitrary decisions on those with several colors.  All the cars were lined up, facing my husband, grouped and sorted.  Then, my son dashed off to find his brother and play a little soccer outside.

While we need to work on the “clean up” phase of playing (obviously), what my husband and I just witnessed was a wonderful display of our son’s developmental skills.  Sorting is an essential pre-reading and pre-math skill.  Being able to classify objects into groups based on shape, size, color, or even ability (it rolls, it flies, it bounces…) leads to distinguishing between subtle characteristics of letters, such as “O” and “Q” or “b” and “d”.  Classification is an essential higher-order thinking skill and should be encouraged with young children.

Sorting and classification is not just relegated to toys; trail mix can be sorted.  Bath toys can be sorted.  Have your child sort silverware when helping to empty the dishwasher.  Sort cups according to size.  Sort canned goods in the pantry according to type and size.  Sort rocks or sticks based on whatever characteristic your child can find.

And, if you find a way to incorporate cleaning up into this, please let me know…my nine year-old is STILL working on that one…

Fifteen Minutes

When kids hear the word “summer”, their heads are filled with visions of swimming, trips, lazy mornings in jammies and playtime – all the time.  The last thing on their minds is anything school-related.  But, summertime can be a great time to keep up those academic skills as well.  And, all it takes is fifteen minutes.

In our house, we set a timer each morning for fifteen minutes, and during that time period, we find something school-related to do.  For our first week home, we kept a journal of our caterpillars and eventual butterflies that we hatched.  We spent fifteen minutes each morning, reading and learning about their development, recording observations in a spiral notebook and drawing sketches of what we saw.  It was an amazing science lesson while still making it fun for the kids (by the way, I did it with them – why should just the kids get to have fun and draw pictures every day?).

Some mornings, we take out my son’s old math workbook from school and find a page or two to complete in order to keep our math skills up.  We alternate math work with our piano practice.  Piano during the school year is a 30 minute-a-day schedule for us; in the summer, I cut my son back to fifteen minutes, every other day.  It gives him a break from the regular routine while still giving him the opportunity to keep his skills sharp. 

Other academic activities could be incorporated this way: reading (my son is an avid reader, so I don’t have to prod him each day to read, but a timer and fifteen minutes would work well for many kids), writing (writing letters, filling out a shopping list for Mom, making a birthday list), measurement, and even art can all benefit from a bit of practice over the summer.

By the time my son’s timer goes off, breakfast is ready and our day begins.  Fifteen minutes a day is all it takes.  And, that fifteen minutes flies by!

Don’t Let Summer Stop The Learning!

Our last day of school is quickly approaching here, and my 2nd grader is definitely in tune to that.  Each day, he tells us how many more school days he has left, and then he proceeds to name all the fun things he’s going to do over the summer, from sleepovers to trips to the grandparents’ house to swimming and playing with the neighbors.  He also knows that many of the things he does in school now will be carried over to the summer.

While taking a break from formal learning environments can do everyone a world of good, it is equally important to maintain those skills learned during school in order to be prepared for the following year.  Personally, I’m a scheduler and a planner, and thankfully, so is my child.  We have a schedule of sorts that we set up for the summer (not set in stone – we must allow for those great trips to Grandpa’s house!) that is generally pain-free and can be fun for all of us.

No matter what age your child, spend some time this summer refreshing those learned skills and taking time to get to know the academic side of your child.  Here is a sampling of what we’ll be doing this summer:

READING:  My son and I hit the half-price bookstore a few weeks ago and chose books we wanted to read for the summer.  We have eight titles total that we plan on reading together and discussing.  I ended up buying duplicate copies of three of them so that we can each have our own book, and the rest I will hunt down at the public library when we are ready to read them.  The point is to READ, and READ CONSISTENTLY.  I’m not as strict on his book choices during the summer, although we do decide on titles together.  My son is a morning person, so we will dedicate about 15 – 30 minutes each morning before breakfast to reading time.  Then, over breakfast, we can discuss what he’s read for the day.  It is a great way to connect with my child, learn more about his reading preferences, and give him some much-needed practice in reading and comprehension.

MATH: The easiest math for us to work on during the summer is money.  This is about the time of the year that we re-evaluate my son’s allowance and make any changes that are needed.  My son is a part of that process.  We set up a budget for the summer, breaking down his weekly allowance into savings, church offering, and any special purchases he would like to make during the summer (a new video game or a special toy he really wants).  We set up a chart to track his money, and he is responsible for completing his chart each week. 

Another fun math activity my son does each year involves road trips to the grandparents’ houses.  We spend several days at each grandparents’ home during the summer.  My son is the navigator for the trip.  We equip him with a state road map, markers, and a ruler.  Together, we calculate how many miles total we will be driving, then we break our trip down into increments with rest stops.  We look for interesting places to stop along the way and work those into our itenerary.  He keeps a written log of our trip as well as the map, and it makes the trip far more interesting to him than simply sitting in the back seat!

SCIENCE: From cooking to water play, involving your child in some fun activities is a great way to bring science into the home.  Have your child help prepare a special meal or dessert, and find out what different ingredients do in the recipe (such as baking soda versus baking powder!).  When playing in the sprinkler, slip n slide or wading pool, give your child a variety of containers to explore volume and fractions.  Science is all around!

WRITING: Our son is responsible for writing one letter a week during the summer (although with the rising cost of postage, we may resort to email this year!).  His audience may be a grandparent, a cousin, a friend or even a former teacher.  We simply want our child to practice his writing skills, and composing letters is a great way to do it.  My son also loves to make “books”.  I simply staple paper together into a book format and he gets busy creating a story for himself, his brother, or even for a friend.  Our younger son will also be composing his own mail this year, too.  He is very excited about it!  Our older son helps create our shopping list at the store as well.  Any kind of writing a child can do is great practice.

By taking a look at the things you typically do during the summer months, it is quite easy to see where academics can be woven into the framework of the day without losing the actual fun.  Take a moment to find ways to actively and enthusiastically engage your child in learning this summer.  The payoff will be amazing when school starts again in the fall!

Thinking Inside The Box

Summertime is just around the corner, and my second grader will be a newly-appointed third grader.  Summer, for us, means swimming, sleepovers, and a bit of educational “stuff” to keep us on our toes.

One of my favorite activities to do with my boys is so simple, it is amazing that I don’t try it year-round.  For the summer, I set up several “themed” boxes.  These boxes are self-contained learning centers that can travel with us, be stored on a shelf or in a closet, and cost virtually nothing for me to set up.  We love to pull out a box on a rainy day or when we’re not feeling our best.  And, when my little guy is napping, we usually find time for the boxes then as well!  I typically use plastic lidded bins, but shoe boxes would work as well.  The idea is to find things to use in a different way that will be fun and enjoyable while still promoting my child’s educational needs during the long break. 

I will normally have about 4 or 5 boxes set up for the summer.  Some of them will be used over and over, and sometimes I find that I need to “tweak” the contents of a thematic box or change the entire concept of the box entirely.  Here are some of my favorites that are easy and fun to use.  But don’t stop with what’s here – add your own ideas and create an entirely new box to try with your children!

Science in a Box – Last year, we had seeds left over from our gardening, pots, materials to make plant markers, jars, crayons, dirt and all sorts of botanical things.  We not only planted seeds, but once our seedlings came up, we tried growing them in different environments: in a closet, without water, without soil.  It was interesting to track the plants’ growth (or lack thereof) during those few weeks!  We kept a log of our findings, and my son would draw pictures of the plants each day.  This year, we are putting household items such as vinegar and baking soda, cooking oil and bottled water, food coloring, old playdough, construction paper, and markers.  My son is really interested in volcanoes, so we will be doing the old baking soda-vinegar eruption experiment in our playdough volcano at some point!

Family Newsletter – If there is one thing my son loves to do, it is write.  So, I’m cutting him loose on my laptop this summer, armed with items and ideas in his box.  In our writing box this year will be paper, stamps, envelopes, a list of addresses, pictures, stickers and markers.  He is going to use my laptop to compose a family newsletter to mail to all of our relatives.  He has already started on a couple of stories, and we will set it up in a newspaper-style format.  However, he loves to draw as well, so we’re reserving space for a comic strip he’ll be making.  This is a box he will definitely use several times this summer to keep everyone up to date on our family “happenings”!

Letter games – This is definitely a rainy day box!  In this one, I keep our magnetic refrigerator letters, a magnetic writing board, our game of Boggle.  We use this one to play word games.  Our favorite is to spell out a really long word in magnetic letters, such as “summertime” or “playground”, then rearrange the letters to make smaller words.  Oftentimes, I will put old magazines or junk mail in the box as well, and then he composes a letter to a family member by cutting out the words he wants to use.

Photography box – Pack this box with a disposable camera, a notepad and pencil, sturdy paper and a marker.  This one is perfect for a vacation or just for a jaunt around your hometown.  Have your child take pictures of things he or she finds that are of interest, and make a note in the notepad of what each picture is.  Once the film is developed, have your child create a picture book of their excursion!

Math in a box – The possibilities are endless with this book.  Pack it with a deck of cards, paper, pencil, a couple of dice, perhaps a spinner and a few coins.  Have your child create their own board game.  The cards can be used to determine the number of places to move.  Or, use the cards to create number sentences, such as 8 + 2 = 10.  Have them rearrange the cards to make a subtraction sentence.  If your child is working on multiplication, then try multiplying the two cards together!

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