Endless opportunities to keep children’s minds active during winter break

Ideas and tips for families to foster continued learning and skills practice at home

SPRINGFIELD, IL – As the holidays approach, nearly two million Illinois public school students will take a much-deserved break from school to recharge at home with their families. Just because students are out of school, however, does not mean that learning needs to stop. There are a number of ways to keep children’s minds active and foster learning outside of the classroom.

“The upcoming break allows children to sharpen the skills they have learned in school thus far,” said State Superintendent of Education Christopher A. Koch. “At the same time, there are a number of teachable moments in holiday activities that can further learning and ensure that children don’t miss a beat when they return to school in January. Learning should always be fun, especially during this time of year.”

Students can easily brush up on their reading, math, and science skills while partaking in fun activities that embrace both winter and the holiday spirit.

Reading and English Language Arts

A great way to foster reading over break is to take a family trip to the local library. If children do not already have their own library cards, sign them up for one and encourage them to check out both fictional and non-fictional books. Informational books on topics such as snow and the water cycle, penguins, the Iditarod sled dog race, and Chanukah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa might be especially engaging for children at this time of year. Biographies or newspaper articles about famous winter Olympians from Illinois (e.g., gold medalist speed skaters Bonnie Blair of Champaign and Shani Davis of Chicago and gold medalist figure skater Evan Lysacek of Naperville) could peak children’s interest this winter as well.

Parents should encourage children to read every day over break for at least 30 minutes. For younger children, read to them for at least 15 minutes every day and have them read to you for equally as long. Children will be more inclined to read if it is a family endeavor, so set aside daily quiet reading time for the entire family.

Often times, connecting with family members can be a learning opportunity in disguise. Pam Reilly, the recently named Illinois Teacher of the Year, suggests visiting with grandparents or other older relatives to receive a mini history lesson—without students even realizing it. “Ask relatives how Christmas has changed or stayed the same since they were small children,” Reilly recommends. Children can then compare and contrast their relatives’ experiences to their own. If relatives have immigrated to the United States from other countries, then students can learn about holiday celebrations from around the world and expand their knowledge of and appreciation for other cultures.

Mathematics and Science

The holiday break is a great opportunity for children to take what they have learned in the classroom and apply their math and science skills to the real world.

For children in kindergarten and first grade, “number talks” and “number stories” are a simple way to practice math daily. Encourage young children to create stories where they practice addition and subtraction.  For example, “Chris has eight candy canes. He gives three away to his sister, so now Chris has five candy canes.”

For children in third grade and above, Heather Brown, a mathematics content specialist, recommends baking as a means of incorporating fractions into holiday activities. “With the holidays, talk to students about doubling a recipe, or if you don’t have enough of something, halving the recipe and seeing what the new measurements would be,” says Brown of the Illinois Center for School Improvement. Reading a recipe in a cookbook or from the back of a box allows children to see how math and reading work together in the real world.

For middle school children, Brown suggests using holiday shopping for gifts as good practice in using percentages. If items are on sale, have children determine their new prices based on the percentage by which they are discounted.

Children can put their measuring skills to the test as they wrap gifts. Reilly encourages parents to challenge their children to measure gifts and determine how much wrapping paper is needed for each without wasting any paper.

The inevitable cold winter weather can inject a daily dose of science practice for younger elementary school students. These cold and clear winter nights can be especially great for stargazing. Children can attempt to locate Polaris, the North Star, in the night sky. Stargazing can also demonstrate the earth’s rotation. Note the position of a star in relation to an immobile landmark and return in one hour to see how the star’s position has changed.

Children can also practice reading a thermometer and keep a log of each day’s temperatures. They can calculate the difference in temperatures between days and make educated predictions about the next day’s temperature. Working with thermometers also presents an opportunity to discuss the difference between degrees Celsius and degrees Fahrenheit and the freezing point of water in each scale. More advanced students can practice converting temperatures from one scale to the other (to convert from Fahrenheit to Celsius, subtract 32, then multiply by 5, then divide by 9).

Marking the occasion of the winter solstice (December 21st) is yet another way to sprinkle in some science concepts over the holiday break. Celebrate the shortest day of the year with children by playing outdoors while it is still light out. Explain to children how the winter solstice marks the official first day of winter in the Northern Hemisphere and how it is the day during which the sun rises and sets at its southernmost point in the horizon. The winter solstice is a nice segue into conversations about the summer solstice, the vernal and autumnal equinoxes and the seasons in general.

If children are drawn to wildlife,  they might enjoy identifying animal tracks in the snow. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) has activity sheets on mammals and other species native to the state (see link at end). The IDNR is also in the process of developing lessons aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), some of which can be found on its website. The NGSS are updated science and engineering standards for grades K through 12. The State Board of Education voted to begin the process of adopting the NGSS in September 2013 and will undergo a second read of the standards in January 2014.

For more ideas about how to keep children’s minds active and busy over break, please see the following resources.

Resources for Students and Parents:

Scholastic (http://www.scholastic.com/) is an online website with different resources for kids, parents, teachers and administrators, including age appropriate reading lists, tips for parents about how to encourage learning at home and tools and strategies for parents and teachers.

Resources for Students:

Book Creator is an app for the iPad that allows users to create their own iBooks.

Illinois Department of Natural Resources (http://dnr.state.il.us/education/standards.htm) has started to develop lessons aligned to the NGSS. It also has general information about mammals (http://dnr.state.il.us/education/mammals/index.htm) that might interest children.

Math Playground (http://www.mathplayground.com/) is an online website with math problems, word problems, worksheets and logic games for elementary and middle school students.

National Geographic Kids (http://kids.nationalgeographic.com/kids/activities/) is an online website with fun games and activities that children can do over the holiday break, including ideas for different crafts, recipes and science experiments.

Resources for Parents:

The Illinois PTA has “The Parents’ Guide for Success,” which contains accessible information about what students learn in English language arts and mathematics at each grade level, as well as tips for how parents can facilitate further learning at home. The parent guides are available in both English and Spanish at http://www.illinoispta.org/ccss.html.

The Council of the Great City Schools has created “Parents Roadmaps” in English and Spanish that break down what students learn in English language arts and mathematics by grade level. They can be accessed at http://cgcs.org/domain/36.

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