Five Ways to Help Kids Thrive This Summer

A little something I wrote for our PTO newsletter. 

  1. Take a virtual vacation

Your child chooses several countries he’d like to visit and makes an itinerary. For the first stop on the virtual vacation, he reads about the climate, culture and customs of the country. Together prepare a typical meal from that country and then your child can share some of what he’s learned about the place and perhaps teach everyone a few words from the language. Enjoy a folktale, book or movie set in that locale. The next week, repeat with the second country on the itinerary and so on, until you’ve finished your international virtual vacation.

  1. Entertain the family

Don’t let your child just consume entertainment, suggest she create her own. She can make a movie, develop a board game or write a play to perform with friends or siblings. It may be fun to try her hand at making number puzzles or word games. Book making is another option. Brainstorm ways she can share her final product with others.

  1. Plant something

Kids learn about responsibility by taking care of living things. Suggest your child choose a vegetable or herb for planting if he would like to enjoy the fruits of his labor. If outdoor space is limited, fill a large container with soil and try planting a cherry tomato. Or grow some herbs on the window sill.

  1. Stay active

Summers are short, so make sure to provide ample time for outdoor fun. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend children get at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day. While some children naturally want to keep moving and easily get in an hour of exercise, others may need a little encouragement. Look for new activities to try and repeat favorites often, whether that be a nature walk, a bike ride or a certain sport or active game.

  1. Volunteer

Help your child gain life skills and compassion through helping others. Volunteering together helps your child understand the importance of giving back to his community. Whether you choose to pick up trash at a park, pack meals at Feed My Starving Children or collect supplies for an emergency shelter, volunteering helps stave off a sense of entitlement. Find local volunteer opportunities at an online site such as Hands on Twin Cities.

of careers and creative play

Over lunch today my three-year-old son was telling a story that was half fabrication. “You need to tell the truth, not make stuff up,” I told him.

“I made up Cinnamon Man,” he said. Okay, so he’s not developmentally ready to have this conversation. Or should I say it isn’t so easy to explain to a young child the difference between storytelling and making up something that is intended to mislead?

Besides, the distinction between fact and fiction is sort of fuzzy at this age, as we were all reminded again this evening.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” my husband asked our younger son.

“A lion!” our three-year-old responded with all sincerity. His big brother said he wants to be the president. No small ambitions around here.

Then our kindergartener pulled out a certificate he brought home today from our school district’s Office of College and Career Readiness. “Graduating class of 2026” it says, encouraging the children to think of themselves as “college and career bound.”

Career ready? We’re still working on it.

eight more days to celebrate poetry month

April is poetry month. This year I’ve been a little too preoccupied with work-related deadlines – and a tax-related deadline – to give it much thought. Until this week.

So, how does one celebrate poetry month, you ask? The main goal is to show your kids how fun it can be to play with words. Yesterday we sang several verses of Down by the Bay, making up our own rhymes for the verses. Today my five-year-old and I wrote a limerick together. It was silly and not very good, but it made him giggle. I’ll just tell you the words at the end of each line and you’ll probably get the main idea:

Rick, kick, time out, pout, stick

Tomorrow we’ll read Louder than a Clap of Thunder. Perhaps we’ll make it popcorn and poetry evening.

For more ideas, see last year’s post on ways to celebrate poetry month with your children.

What’s one of your favorite children’s poems?

those ads about teaching toddlers how to read? I never believed them until last week

I started out teaching our older son to read about three weeks ago, and have made quite the discovery. Our younger son is picking up decoding right along with his older brother. I wasn’t even trying to teach him, but he’s around during the lessons and he’s been absorbing quite a bit.

What is it they say about children’s brains? Like sponges.

I wasn’t even serious when I asked our two-and-half-year-old, “What sound does this make?” as I showed him the “G” block. But he said, “Guh!” I cheered for him and then tried out a few more letters. He also knew “C,” “P,” and “T.” “A” is hit or miss, but he’s better at “O.” (We’re just learning one sound per vowel at this point.)

So we’re on lesson 17 of 31 lessons and I’m adjusting slightly to include two pupils instead of just one. But I’m not pushing the understudy too hard.

teaching my son to read – week 1

“Of all the wondrous delights you may confer upon your child, few will match the enduring pleasure that literacy provides,” Sidney Ledson wrote in Teach Your Child to Read in Just Ten Minutes a Day. I recently picked up this book because my son has been asking me to teach him to read. He first asked me last September, but I was dragging my feet because it seems like a lot of effort. I’ve taught preliterate adults before and I know it isn’t exactly easy.

In the past, I’ve been swayed by both the whole language and the phonics perspectives, but Ledson makes a fairly compelling argument for phonics and provides an easy 32-step program based on sound-symbol correspondence. (We’re focusing on sounds and ignoring the names of the letters for now.)

Our five-year-old seems to be in need of a new challenge – something to distract him from superheroes – so the timing is right. Once he found out why I was reading Ledson’s book, there was no rest until I started teaching him. So we started on Sunday. Today I dug out our wooden blocks and reviewed yesterday’s lesson, the sounds for U and P. He can now read “up.” At least he could this morning. Ledson advises not teaching any more sounds until a child has mastered the ones that have already been introduced.  We’ll review those before bed time, and tomorrow I’ll check to see if he still remembers them before moving on to the next letter in the sequence, C.

Perhaps by the end of April we’ll have mastered the first 100 words. Stay tuned.

the science of character


I picked up How Children Succeed: Grit Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough because I thought it was a book about parenting. And though it does provide some useful information for parents, it also has a lot to say about formal education in our country. Some of the information in the book applies equally well to parents and teachers – and policy makers, for that matter.

The author points out that people tend to associate childhood success with intelligence, as measured on standardized tests, but he argues that what matters more are character traits such as grit, self-control, zest, conscientiousness, gratitude, optimism and curiosity. Current research suggests these character traits are rooted in brain chemistry and are molded by the environment in which a child grows.

One segment of the book describes the ways that some parents do (and do not) prepare their children to face the world on their own. The author discusses the challenges for children growing up in poverty but also for those growing up in affluence, with its “potentially detrimental effect on students’ character development.” Parents are cautioned to avoid inadvertently shielding their children from experiences that can lead to character growth.

It all sounds so good in theory. But then we get to real life, and my first instinct is to want to protect my boys. Like today when my five-year-old reported that last evening in choir Ben and Paige directed some unkind (and rather adult-sounding) words toward him. This wasn’t a first offense, either. It suddenly took some effort to avoid getting upset, recognize this as a potentially character-building experience  and process it with my son with that aim in mind.

That love your enemies stuff? It’s hard at any age.

preschool? no, thank you

For years I’ve been feeling a certain pressure to put our older son into preschool. A few moms make me feel like I’m depriving my boy of something important. “He needs the social interaction,” they suggest. Other moms practically admit they have signed their child up for preschool so they get a break. (I think I’ve found other solutions to these “problems,” including a weekly play group.)

As I see it, our boy has plenty of years of formal education ahead of him, so why not let him enjoy the freedom to pursue his own interests at his own pace? I’ve recently learned a great term for my view: play-based learning. It involves extended bouts of uninterrupted play, and it’s a handy term to toss it out there whenever I’m in a conversation that’s starting to seem accusatory. “I do the preschool,” I tell them. “It’s play-based learning.”

And since my preschooler is now five years old (as of this week) we’re going to add field trips to our repertoire. I’ve found another mom of a preschooler to join us – so it even involves some social interaction. This week we got a tour of our local fire station, but I don’t have a plan yet for next month. What are some other good field trip ideas for preschoolers? Please share your suggestions. I’ll be sure to report on which ones we try.

the beauty of a (mostly) wordless book


My sons and I first “read” this book last week. We studied the pictures and came up with what we thought was a suitable interpretation for the watercolor illustrations, most of which are not accompanied by any words.

This morning the boys were reviewing the book with their daddy, who interpreted a few of the pictures somewhat differently. A fair amount of discussion ensued, with both father and son supporting their views from the text. Then, the younger one wanted to keep turning back to one certain page asking, “What happened?” He needed to hear that part of the story again and again.

A wordless book offers lots of opportunities to talk about the “text,” to extend the conversation and to introduce new concepts and vocabulary.

Have you got a favorite wordless book?

help your preschooler develop narrative skills

The ability to tell a story well is a foundational pre-reading skill. Here are a few fun ways to help your child develop in this area.

Provide children with costumes, puppets, stuffed toys, action figures or flannel boards for story making. A library we frequent has a wonderful collection of puppets and toys children can use to create their own stories or act out stories they have read. Sometimes we make our own puppets for creative play.

Before reading a book, look at the cover and ask your child what the book will be about. Preview the pictures throughout as well.

While reading, stop at key points and ask, “What do you think is going to happen next?” before turning the page.

Ask your child to retell the story after you have finished reading it. Often this is a good question to ask with favorite books, or at least with books you’ve read several times.

Create a chain story. Several members of the family can play along, if possible, but it even works with two people. Each turn, a person  adds one sentence to the story. Make it as silly as you like.

What other story telling games work well with preschoolers?

enroll your child in a summer reading program

Some of my earliest memories of summer reading are associated with the book mobile. My siblings and I used to ride our bikes about five miles to Sobieski, where the book mobile stopped, and fill our backpacks up with books. (I’m not sure I always finished mine before we had to take them back. I think my sister Clair always did.)

Now my goal is to share the joys of summer reading with my boys. So we’ve signed them up for a summer reading program. Such programs offer a great way to encourage children to discover new things, travel to exotic places, or  enjoy the beauty of language through books. I’ve looked at a few summer reading program options:

Half Price Books – Feed Your Brain

Who: children age 14 and under

What: Read for at least 300 minutes in a month to earn a $5 coupon.

Barnes and Noble – Imagination’s Destination

Who: children in grades 1-6

What: Read eight books and keep a reading journal. Take the completed journal to a store to get a coupon for a free book.

Pottery Barn Kids – Summer Reading Challenge

Who: children under 10 years of age

What: Read all the books on their book list and then visit the store to receive a free book.

Scholastic Summer Challenge

Who: school age children and teens

What: Log minutes reading and win prizes online.

Sylvan Book Adventure

Who: children in grades K-8

What: Select books, read them, take online quizzes and win cool prizes.

After looking at these options, we settled on our library program, which offers a child the choice of one book to keep for each 10 hours of reading completed.

The best thing about a reading program – any reading program – is that it keeps us reading all summer. (Doesn’t it seem that there are fewer distractions in the winter?)  It is my hope that this routine helps foster a life-long enjoyment of reading. Perhaps if we regularly read to our children, one day they’ll choose to take advantage of the extra time summer affords for sinking into the luxury of a good book.

What summer reading plan do you recommend? Why?