Winter break means a well-deserved reprieve from homework and daily obligations. "Just as we adults cherish our vacation days, students need a break from their routines to recharge," says elementary school expert Lawrence L. Smith, Ph.D., acting associate dean for the teachers college at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. Still, before you know it, the holidays will be over and it will be back to the bus stop. To prepare for a smooth re-entry and a successful second semester, don't let school skills like reading, writing, and math slide completely during winter vacation. "We want kids to read, do some writing and some math," says Smith. But not to worry: "All of these can be done in fun ways from shopping to cooking to playing games." Try these family-friendly activities:
Read for pleasure. Whether your child is in the mood for holiday stories like The Night Before Christmas or the newest installment from his favorite series, winter break provides the perfect opportunity to stash schoolbooks and read for fun. Encourage relatives to give books as holiday gifts or gather in front of the fire (big kids too!) to take turns reading from classic tales. After reading, ask questions such as, "What was your favorite part? What part didn't you like?" Smith suggests.
Cook up an easy lesson. Invite your child into the kitchen to help you whip up a special dish — from Christmas cookies to potato pancakes. "Having a child help you with a recipe involves reading and measuring," says Smith. All of those half tablespoon and quarter-cup measurements are great practice with fractions.
Write thank-you notes. Penning notes of appreciation to gift-givers teaches gratitude and helps polish writing and spelling skills. Not sure what to say? Check out our thank-you note template (PDF) for wording. One final tip: A mug of hot cocoa can make this task feel more festive!
Make the most of car rides. Turn the drive to or from a holiday get-together into an opportunity to practice letters and numbers. You can look for license plates from different states, try to find the alphabet on the license plates, or even count the number of red (or white or green) cars you see. Try making this game even more meaningful by having your child graph the results and draw a conclusion about his observations.
Maintain reasonable bedtimes. With no school to get up for in the morning, it can be tempting to let kids become night owls. A few days before school starts up again, ease back into the regular bedtime schedule so your child can start the year bright-eyed.
Ask for grocery list assistance. Have your child help choose what to buy, decide how much you need, check your supplies to see what you've already got, write or draw pictures on the list, and sort coupons. Try posing math-related problems: For example, say you need two eggs for one recipe and three for another. Ask her to determine if you currently have enough in the fridge, or need to add eggs to your list.
Let kids help with online shopping. Need a last-minute gift for Grandma or Uncle Joe? Log onto your favorite shopping sites and let your child help you select presents. "This helps children work on their computer and research skills, which are very important in school," says Smith.
Have a family game night. Chances are many of your family's favorite board and card games reinforce skills such as counting, reading, and drawing. Gather the group to play games you usually don't have time for on school nights.