Having Fun with the Summer Slide (Part II)

It’s been two whole months since I did this post (Part I) about having fun with the summer slide. I had originally meant to do a couple of them by and by, but summer just rushed past and now I suddenly realize we’re already at the fag end of the holiday season. Though schools in our area re-open after August 31, my kids are happily having an extended vacation of sorts; their grandparents are visiting in the next fortnight, hence their home/school classes will actually begin after mid-September.

We’ve been making it a point to read every day this summer, the whole family. Evenings are more often than not spent curled up on the couch or bean bag with a book. I personally love those quiet times together.

Now when the summers are about to end, here are some ways to get your kids up and about, ready for schooling, unschooling and homeschooling. Needless to say, there’s fun involved too!

Experiment. Fail. Learn. Repeat.

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Explore” by SchoolPRPro is licensed under CC by 2.0

Science experiments are not meant for the school chemistry lab alone. Neither are they only meant for middle or high school kids. Irrespective of how old your kids are, there is bound to be a variety of science experiments like these you can easily carry out at home, the DIY way. Allow bread mold to grow on a slice of bread and explain what mold is all about. Use food coloring and bleach to carry out the ‘appear-disappear’ act for kids. Make it rain with ice cubes and some hot water in the interiors of your home within a jar. Or even write a spooky secret message using invisible ink (read: lemon juice). The possibilities are endless; and so are the learning and fun parts. For some really good ideas, you could go through this post too.

Kid-Friendly Cooking

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Cooking With Kids” by congerdesign is licensed under CC by 2.0

“Cooking with kids is not just about ingredients, recipes and cooking. It’s about harnessing imagination, empowerment and creativity,” says Guy Fieri, the renowned American restaurateur, author, TV personality and game show host. And about creating a BIG mess, if I may add (from personal experience). Here’s why it is all worth it.

First and foremost, cooking becomes fun if the family does it together (followed by the cleaning up which is also done together). Right from something as simple as cracking an egg open to meticulously decorating a bunch of cupcakes fresh out of the oven, there is no denying the fact that these skills will hold your kids in good stead later on in their lives. Finding their way about in the kitchen can only be learnt at home; no amount of schooling can teach them that. What’s more, it can be a good way to brush up on the basic math skills of younger kids as well, say fractions or multiplication tables (for instance: how many cookies on a tray, if there are 6 rows of 6 cookies each?).

Sigh. As I get the next meal ready, I can already see a pile of reading worksheets peeking out at me cheekily from the bottom-most drawer in the next room. An indication perhaps that summer is over and soon enough, like it or not, we’ll have to firmly pull up our socks. Alas!

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The Importance of Fitness for Kids

Fitness is not about being better than someone else… It’s about being better than you used to be.

Fitness is not a one-off phenomenon. One fine day you decide to get out of bed early and go running – kudos to your enthusiasm. But the fact of the matter is – did you manage to get up and about the second day? And the third? And the day after that? If yes, hats off. If no, you’ll more likely than not end up with sore knees and calves, groaning your way to the couch. There goes your resolution kaput.

In our family, my husband has always been the active one. He can’t wait for the morning alarm to go off so that he can happily begin his daily exercise on the jogging track, earphones plugged in, oblivious to his surroundings. I’ve been trying to pull myself out of bed the same time as he does lately, and I can proudly say that I’ve managed to do so successfully for one whole week. Yay! Running (or perhaps just walking swiftly) is next on my to-do list.

The other day I was wondering: We as adults tend to try and be conscious about what and when we eat, how much exercise we get, so on and so forth. What about our kids? Do they also need a regular exercise routine that keeps them on their toes? Or is it too early to bring a regular form of physical workout into their daily lives?

Couch Potatoes

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Girl” by andrewicus is licensed under CC by 2.0

Thinking back to our childhood, most of the games we played together had some amount of physical movement involved. Having no video games or mobile phones, we ran a lot, tumbled in mud, rolled off hillsides (yes, I actually remember cutting myself in several places when I landed in a prickly bush of brambles once) and cycled away to glory. Cut to today. More often than not, your kids will probably spend their evenings glued to a screen of some sort, happily whiling away a beautiful sunny day feeding their virtual pets online, or laughing maniacally at some ridiculous animated creatures on the tablet and laptop. Physical exercise? Zero. The traditional definition of a couch potato is: ‘a person who takes little or no exercise and watches a lot of television’. Add to it ‘spends a lot of time on the computer/laptop/tablet/mobile phone’ and you have the modern day versions of couch potatoes, aka our children.

Kids Need To Move

It’s as simple as that. Move as in, not move their eyes across a computer screen. But get out there away from gadgets of any kind and seek out their peers to move with them. We need to make our kids realize that moving about frequently is a fun thing – it could be playing a simple game of tag, jumping about on one leg for hopscotch, racing to the nearest park with their friends or just cycling to the neighborhood grocery store to run a few errands. It just struck me; we adults complain of a whole lot of diseases we are afflicted with today – obesity, hypertension, fatigue and the like. And this was when we had a supposedly ‘active’ childhood. I shudder to think what our couch potato kids have in store for them in the future, with their totally ‘inactive’ childhood. We as parents need to change that and their perspective towards fitness to make things work in their favor in the long run.

We Need To Move With Them

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Girl” by Skitterphoto is licensed under CC by 2.0

That’s what I’ve decided as the easiest way to get them (and myself) up and about (this article proved to be a big source of motivation). We’ll go swimming together regularly as a family. We could cycle to the park every weekend for a picnic together. Their dad would simply jump at the opportunity of playing a game of baseball with them. Why not spend quality time together and have fun at it while keeping fit? For a person like me, it would do a world of good – a genuine reason to pick myself up and move with them out there. For the kids, it’s just inculcating (hopefully) a habit that will hold them in good stead for a lifetime.

And yes, what I need to remember more than anything else is – peanut butter is not the glue holding my body together!

Having Fun with the Summer Slide (Part I)

‘A term that suggests a playful amusement park attraction but actually describes a grim reality. The phenomenon was studied extensively by Johns Hopkins University researchers… [in 2007 and their] longitudinal study tracked Baltimore students from 1st grade through age 22… The researchers concluded that two-thirds of the 9th grade reading achievement gap can be explained by [lack of] access to summer learning opportunities during elementary school.’

This is how the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) defines ‘summer slide’, the tendency for students to lose some of the achievement gains they made during the previous school year.

Though we are a homeschooling family and learn all year round without the concept of any particularly long vacation of sorts, things do tend to get a bit different come summers. We go a bit slower than usual from the drawn-up curriculum, spending our time more on other ‘non-studying’ activities than classes, worksheets and ‘homework’ (yes, my kids still get homework from their homeschooling mom-cum-teacher, which they have to submit for correction the following day). Hence, homeschoolers like us also experience a summer slide, albeit perhaps a milder version as compared to those who attend school regularly.

I’ve decided to do a series of posts that talk about how we can keep our kids gainfully occupied this summer. Some of the ideas are tried-and-tested, others I found interesting while I came across them sometime in the past, which seemed suitable for the coming weeks. These can work for all kids – schooled, unschooled, homeschooled and the rest. Read on, and please feel free to add or subtract or suggest your own ideas.

On Your Mark, Get Set… Read!

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Kids” by henriquesaf is licensed under CC by 2.0

For kids who love reading (like mine), this one is simple. For parents of kids who don’t, this one will need a patient approach to get them into the habit. Try reading games like these which are interactive and helpful for beginners. If your little ones are old enough to read but simply not interested in curling up on the couch with a book, try something more fun. Join a neighborhood library. Ours organizes read-aloud story sessions for young kids. What’s more, kids do spend more time than usual with books if they have a whole shelf of them to choose from. Or else, read in places along with your child where you wouldn’t generally. Like the beach, or the park, or on a picnic. Make it all about the picnic (say) rather than the act of reading. Another exciting alternative is to read story books which have been made into cartoons or films. I remember reading The Emperor’s New Clothes and The Elves and The Shoemaker with mother back as a child and then following it up watching its video on the television. Reading time should be equivalent to family time.

Summer Camps… Where Strangers Become Friends

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Holiday” by lentemamaatje is licensed under CC by 2.0

“Summers are a particularly good opportunity to take into account our children’s interests and likes. Building activities around what our children enjoy or want to explore is essential to creating positive summer learning experiences,” says Mr. Boulay from the National Summer Learning Association (NSLA).

I’ve never been to summer camp myself but my husband has and vouches for their worth. Camps could be about anything your kids are interested in – skating, swimming, reading, photography, dance, baking, art… the possibilities are endless. In one word, a summer camp is akin to action; kids will be physically active, meeting new people, forming bonds and friendships, getting to know how to work as a team. There’s always something going on at a camp; even sitting around laughing and being silly all day long with your peer group is a learning experience for young minds. Read more here about how camps are a good idea both for your kids as well as for you.

No interesting summer camps in the immediate neighborhood? Not a problem. Discuss with your neighborhood parents and take the kids out on a day trip every weekend. It could be a zoo, an amusement park or just a giant playground where they can run around and play catch. A carefree day well-spent with like-minded kids of their own age will do them a world of good.

After all, aren’t summers all about going crazy and making the best memories possible together, slide and all?

How to Go Crafty this Thanksgiving

I like to call ours a crafty family of sorts. I won’t say we’re particularly good at it, but we try getting all messy and coming up with handmade crafts and painted stuff to put around the rooms whenever we get the chance. What with Thanksgiving right around the corner, it won’t be very difficult dragging the kids away from their favorite cartoon shows and dragon games in order to do up the house or bake some goodies for the occasion. Since the past few days, I have been on the lookout for fun crafts the kids could enjoy their hands at during the holidays. Here are a couple of ideas I came across which seem ideal for the festive season.

Hand-print Turkey Leaf Mats

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Image courtesy: Parenting

As a kid, I remember drawing the outlines of our hands on a large piece of cardboard, filling in color with crayons and marking an eye and a beak on the thumb part of the drawing to make a turkey which could be hung anywhere around the house. Don’t they say ‘old is gold’? This one is a tried-and-tested idea which can never go wrong. Let’s tweak it a little to make it more exciting. Ask your child to carry out the above procedure and then cut out the ‘turkey’, leaving around 2 inches empty space all along the borders. Now, use some big leaves pressed and preserved between the pages of a book to glue them around the edges of your turkey, just leaving the thumb part (where the head is supposed to be) to denote the feathers. If you don’t have preserved leaves, pluck some today and store them away in an old notebook – Thanksgiving is still a couple of days away!

This way, you can get ready some bright and colorful Turkey table mats for the much-awaited Thanksgiving feast.

Edible Fruit Turkey

Cut out a piece of cardboard the size of a bookmark and make two corners on one side of it curved around the edges using a pair of scissors. Stick on or draw eyes and a beak at the curved edges end.  Now take an apple or a pumpkin and cut about half an inch from the bottom. Now place the cut part upside down as a stand and prop the fruit on top of it. Add about 6-8 toothpicks (depending on the size of the fruit) at the back of it like the hands of a clock from 9 o’clock to 3 o’clock. Add another toothpick at the front to pierce in the cardboard face. Add orange slices on each of the toothpicks in the clock positions and, lo and behold, you have a perfectly healthy, edible turkey sitting expectantly on your dining table!

Here are some more food craft ideas which are pretty easy to whip up.

Hand-painted Pine Cones

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Pine Cones” by bergblau is licensed under CC by 2.0

Young kids love nothing better than getting paint all over their fingers and toes, hair and clothes. My rule at home is: Get yourself as dirty as you want to, provided you do it outside the house. Hand painting pine cones is something which falls precisely in that category of activities which are allowed only outdoors. This can be done with both closed as well as open pine cones. As a first step, use an old toothbrush with hard bristles to remove any dust or dirt settled on the surface of the cones. Hand your kids an angled paint brush each and let them choose their favorite shade of acrylic color to paint the pine-cones. The cones that are slightly open would look better on your mantelpiece if only the tips of their scales are colored a particular shade. This is something which can stay on as a decorative accessory for many, many years to come.

If you can lay your hands on some pine cones, well and good; however, if there aren’t any pine cones in your area, most of the art and craft stores do sell them.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

Halloween Safety Tips for Kids

Halloween is fun alright, but amidst all the noise and excitement, one must remember to teach their kids how to keep safe while trick-or-treating, even if, say, it’s just in the near neighborhood. Tips for the same have been in the news lately and hence I decided to share some of the points which seemed very valid to me as a parent, here.

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Cat” by GraphicMama-team is licensed under CC by 2.0

Children should be taught to:

  • Cross over from one street to another only at corners.
  • Note the traffic signals before crossing a road at a crosswalk.
  • Be careful of parked cars suddenly backing out of driveways without notice.
  • Stick to the pre-planned route for trick-or-treating so that the parents are constantly in the know of their whereabouts.
  • Always be in a group of friends or people they know well.

Meanwhile, it’s the responsibility of us parents to make sure that:

  • The kids, if very young, are able to recollect the contact number and address of their parents in case they get lost.
  • Not talk to absolute strangers or follow their instructions, howsoever friendly or trivial they may seem.
  • Their costumes are fire-proof and preferably not flowing so that they don’t get stuck on objects along the way.

Keeping these things in mind, you can be rest assured and eat, drink as well as be as scary as you wish!

Gaming: The Real World vs The Virtual World

At this moment, chances are high that you’ll probably be scouting around lanes and by-lanes in your neighborhood, playground or shopping mall, with your nose glued to your smartphone. Your goal: To capture as many Pokemon (short for ‘pocket monster’) as you can. Welcome to the world of Pokemon Go – which has taken the whole gamut of the gaming world by storm.

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Pokemongo” by AnaBanana413 is licensed under CC by 2.0

For the uninitiated, here is what the Pokemon Go fever is all about. This is a game which uses the GPS and mapping capabilities in your smartphone to find endearing little pocket monsters lurking on the streets and other places around you. Why catch them? Well, to train them for battles of course. You get to incubate eggs by walking a particular distance (walking as in physically walking in the real world, not virtually), you are given the option to visit special ‘gyms’ to train and condition your Pokemon to be combat ready and the more Pokemon you catch, the further you progress in the game as a Pokemon trainer.

Welcome to the brand new world of gaming as we know it, where virtual games and the real world come together. Here are a couple of reasons why even those who are usually detractors of the gaming world are vouching for the game:

  • It gets even the erstwhile couch potatoes moving. One needs to ‘travel across the land, searching far and wide’ — in short, it acts as a catalyst to get people to walk around instead of staying indoors playing their favorite game on the tablet.
  • It leads you to discover new places around you and meet new people with similar interests, providing opportunities for heightened social interaction, which otherwise would not have been the case.
  • It is a game which is played universally both by children as well as their parents (read: adults). The same technology tension that is usually thought to divide different generations plays a positive role here in bringing parents and children to spend quality time together, bonding over the same game.

However, there are certain downsides of it as well. For instance, there was news recently that a man crashed into a tree while driving since he was staring into his phone looking for Pokemon while at the wheel. Another road accident occurred where a person suddenly slammed on the brakes to his vehicle in the middle of the road because a rare Pokemon appeared on the screen of his phone, and as a result the car behind bashed into him. What’s more, since the game uses location services, it is a possibility that unknown folks may be tracking your whereabouts while you play; not a very pleasant prospect at all.

All in all, this location-based augmented reality mobile game is entertaining and fun, especially because it provides a fresh new interface between the real world and the virtual world. However, even as these lines of this popular Pokemon jingle hold true while you play the game: “Never know what’s ‘round the bend, We go up a hill, Then down again…”; the following lines of the same song need not always hold true in the real world: “And when there’s trouble we’ll get through, We always have and we always do!”  So, allow your child to play the game by all means, but just keeping a watchful eye through it all is advisable.

Why Homeschooling Works for Our Family

There was a time when I felt I was a part of the minority, having chosen not to send my kids to a traditional school to learn. But recently, I read this article containing research facts on homeschooling which claims that ‘Home education – an age old traditional education practice that a decade ago appeared to be cutting-edge and alternative is now bordering on mainstream in the United States’.

I’ve been asked by many parent friends on different occasions why I chose to homeschool (or unschool, as I like to put it at times) both my kids from such a young age. Here are a couple of reasons why:

  • I wasn’t comfortable with the fact that they need to learn something in a particular subject, just in order to pass a test. I was of the view that I would like my children to take learning as something they love doing, at their own pace.
  • I wasn’t comfortable with the thought of my kids sitting down with their homework at a designated time each day, willingly or unwillingly poring over their books. I wanted to be able to gauge my kids’ interests and capabilities, and thereby design their own curriculum as I wished to. Learning shouldn’t be all about books and homework; it should be about learning naturally – be it taking a walk in the farm, planting flowers or learning how dough rises by getting your hands messy.
  • I wasn’t comfortable with the prospect of one single school curriculum catering to varying kids of a particular age. Some kids are good at math, some are exceptional in painting. Would it be right to judge both of them on a single common scale of math, or painting? No. With homeschooling, I could get the independence of individualizing each of my kids’ learning.

Homeschooling is a choice we’ve made for our family and till date, we’re very happy and satisfied with our decision. I admit there was a time right at the very beginning when I had this sudden doubt over my capabilities: Would I be able to do justice to this role of being a mom and a teacher? Would my kids turn out to be successful and at par or even better than those children who attend public schools? Wouldn’t their social skills suffer if they didn’t go out and mingle all day with other kids their age?

Today, it’s been over five years since we embarked upon this journey. And I can proudly say that all my fears and doubts have been happily laid to rest.

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Child” by picjumbo is licensed under CC by 2.0

At our place, four days a week are dedicated to planned lessons as in relatively scheduled learning activities and the remaining three days we are free to do our own thing as a family. Mornings generally begin with a prayer to the Lord above, followed by a leisurely breakfast and then we sit ourselves down in our playroom (which is a study-cum-reading-cum-painting-cum-playroom). We usually start with the basics of Math; on certain days I begin by explaining a new concept followed by sums on the same. Each of my two kids has his and her own learning time. If I am explaining concepts of addition and subtraction to the little one, I’ll make sure the elder one is busy solving a math problem worksheet of the concepts explained the previous day, and vice versa. Math generally goes on for an hour or so and then we take a ‘power break’ as we like to call it, when we take turns reading a story book together out loud.

This story-reading activity is usually one of the best times of our day. The kids love it, I love it and I’ve noticed that they are at their chirpiest best while reading. I’ve noticed how my elder one is getting better at reading out sentences without halting in between; three months ago she would have to stop a couple of times in between a single simple sentence to figure out words but now there’s a world of a difference. The best part is she’s learning without realizing the fact that she’s doing so! My younger one is still busy trying to string out correct spellings of words and we play interactive reading games like these together which are simple yet fun. I’m positive it’ll eventually help him build up his vocabulary and help him get more excited about reading.

By now, it’s time for a light lunch. I usually make sure the kids give me a hand while I go about getting the meal ready. Be it tossing up a salad in a large bowl or setting the table, measuring the volume of water that would go into a spaghetti recipe or practicing basic multiplication by counting the rows of cookies which have come fresh out of the oven, they happily do all this and more.

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Little Girl Reading” by jill111 is licensed under CC by 2.0

The supervised instruction period ends with lunch. Post a short siesta, it’s nothing about studies per se any more. About twice a week we make it a point to visit the neighborhood local library which has a dedicated kids’ section and my daughter loves to pick out a book or two for bedtime reading (seeing her hooked onto Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five series gives me unparalleled satisfaction; I was inseparable from the said author’s books for a major part of my childhood). Sometimes we spend time reading together in the library itself. The librarian is kind enough to allow my son to carry along his coloring book and crayons while daughter and mom quietly immerse themselves in their books. On the way home, we usually stop at a pond where my son loves to feed bread crumbs to the ducks and the daughter has managed to make friendly acquaintances with the gang of kids who play hide and seek in the evenings at the adjoining park. That is ‘me-time’ for me; I sit back, take in my surroundings and relax.

On Monday and Thursday afternoons, a neighborhood mom holds basic baking classes for children at her own place, which both my kids love to attend. My daughter behaves all grown-up when she proudly instructs me on how to better my baking skills at home! And just recently, my son baked a chocolate muffin ‘all by himself’ and was so thrilled that he didn’t take a bite of it and insisted all of us taste it time and again in order to tell him how magnificent it was!

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Coloring” by kaboompics is licensed under CC by 2.0

Sundays are meant for family church visits in the mornings, followed by a crafting club class for the kids, as a result of which the children’s room walls are all plastered with handprints and mountains and waterfalls and glitter and stars and stuff. In the evenings, we have family movie time at home where we all take turns to pick a movie of our choice each weekend. My son recently picked the How to Train Your Dragon film and was thrilled when he learnt that there are dragon games based on the movie too with his favorite characters in it (and I was thrilled because the dragon games had a scientific tilt to them – he was learning science while racing his dragons through mountains and valleys and had no clue!).

We parents have formed a close-knit homeschooling group too and meet once every fortnight, to share notes and have fun. It is pretty fascinating how one gets to learn so much from like-minded parents out there who are in the same boat trying to figure out the same things as you in their homeschooling journey. Makes one feel pretty confident that yes, one is on the right track and the kids are doing well.

I recently came across this quote from Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller’s mentor and friend; she couldn’t have made a more explicitly correct statement than this:

“I am beginning to suspect all elaborate and special systems of education. They seem to me to be built upon the supposition that every child is a kind of idiot who must be taught to think. Whereas if the child is left to himself, he will think more and better, if less “showily”. Let him come and go freely, let him touch real things and combine his expressions for himself… Teaching fills the mind with artificial associations that must be got rid of before the child can develop independent ideas out of actual experiences.”

Agreed, a little guidance along the way, a little push in the right direction is essential. Unschooling gives one the liberty to gauge one’s child’s interest and bent of mind, do away with a uniform pre-planned year-long curriculum and set the course for just the right mix of a more wholesome form of learning, replete with DIY science experiments that can be performed at home, craft activities that can be done together as a family, picnics to a nearby zoological park or farm to learn more about nature and lots more.

Would your child be able to enjoy and have the time of his life doing all that he loves and learn alongside, had he been a part of the traditional form of schooling? The answer would be a resounding NO. As Albert Einstein very rightly put it: “I never teach my pupils. I only provide the conditions in which they can learn.”

Through my homeschooling efforts, I try to do the same. And the sense of contentment I get as a mom and a teacher when I see them blossom on a daily basis in front of my eyes, cannot be explained in words.