Winter break offers your kids much-needed downtime to recharge and refocus. But when I asked teachers if I should let my kids take time off from learning over the break, their response was "no."
That surprised me — especially because we were talking about the elementary grade level. As a parent, I always thought my children should relax on a well-deserved winter break — even though I never took one myself, except for a few days right around the holidays. As a graduate student and then professor, my break was filled with the next semester's prep or my own research and writing. Breaks just weren't on the table. And I didn't advocate a break for my college students, either. I knew studying over the break would have a positive return.
But I didn't know that this kind of constant work and engagement was good for younger kids, as well. And in some opinions, it's much more important for younger kids to stay engaged than older ones.
Younger Children Should Keep Learning
"Younger children haven't mastered the skills they're learning yet, so it's easier for them to lose them," said Barb, an elementary school teacher. She continued, "An older student can take a few weeks off from reading and math and jump back in with a skill set that's already been established."
Parents and teachers know that kids need breaks. Studies show that even short 15-minute breathers enhance learning when children return to the lesson at hand. Studies also suggest that breaks before tests can benefit students. But there's another branch of research that indicates students lose what equals to about a month of learning over summer breaks. This phenomenon is often called Summer Brain Drain.
"Winter break isn't as crucial as summer," said Barb. "But kids need consistency with their lessons. And it's better to do something casual than nothing at all. You want to keep a healthy balance between lessons and breaks."
"We don't take a break," said Heather, an elementary school teacher and a mother of two. "We pull out workbooks and find ways to stay focused on studying over the breaks," she noted. You don't want your kids to lose their stamina for learning and become disengaged by January.
"And there's so much that you can do with little ones," advocated Heather.
Make Learning An Ongoing Habit
The key is to make learning fun and interactive, but also habitual. Short breaks are fine, but learning doesn't need to come to a full stop. If you teach your children early on that learning isn't a chore, but rather a necessary joy, their foundation for learning will grow even stronger.
The best way to think about it is to create that healthy balance — short breaks interspersed with activities that have learning and enrichment at their core.
Educational Activities for Kids Over Break
Your kid's teachers probably aren't going to assign homework over the winter break, so it's up to you to create your own curriculum. Here are some fun and easy activities you can do with your child over the school recess to keep the learning going.
1. Take local excursions with an educational bent.
If you're near a major city, you probably have a natural history or science museum. Most of these will have hands-on activities or winter camps for young visitors. But don't forget about off-the-beaten-path, smaller museums that may be local to your area. These visits will enrich your kid's sense of the world, while still being an all-around fun time. You can even let your child choose your family's "Creative Expedition."
If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can check out some of Noodle’s educational travel suggestions:
Educational Family Road Trips
Visit These Educational Destinations Your Next Holiday Break
2. Grab some inexpensive workbooks.
Look at discount stores for inexpensive activity guides and workbooks. These are just the kind of thing that you can pull out on winter afternoons to keep your kids busy and engaged. It's the perfect activity to have them do before they turn to television or video games.
3. Base activities on their recent school assignments.
What's the last thing your child was working on in school before the break? Use this topic as an inspiration for an activity at home. Ask her to write a short presentation about the latest topic in her government class. Tell her she can quiz the family about it at dinner. Or if she's younger, she can practice writing the alphabet each day. Take a look at the last assignment your child brought back, and design your own specialized curriculum accordingly.
4. Make it a routine.
My kids love their advent calendars leading up to the holidays. Consider creating a calendar that marks off the days of winter break. Give each day a special learning activity. Your kids can do the daily "homework," and you can build in small rewards for each endeavor. If they're anything like my kids, they'll be racing to find out the day's plan. A calendar teaches them how to get into the habit of homework, and they can feel satisfied as they mark off their daily accomplishments.
5. Take a trip to the library.
If your children don't already have a library card, sign them up and help them choose a few books to read over the break. Don't ignore the non-fiction section. Young learners will love the library's selection of science books or biographies of famous historical figures, from Harriet Tubman to Houdini to their favorite astronaut or inventor.
6. Turn your regular errands into learning opportunities.
When you write your thank-you cards, have your children sit down and do it with you. Teach them one or two fancy new vocabulary words to add. Or have them help you with holiday cooking and shopping. These are probably your everyday activities, but your children can learn about the history behind your family recipe, the "science" of getting the sauce just right, and even important tips about finances during shopping trips. Just make sure you talk about these things.
7. Reading is the best pastime.
Even if your kids are old enough to read on their own, find the time to snuggle and read to them. "Always encourage reading," Heather advised. Younger children adore picture books, and the whole family can enjoy a classic poem or chapter book. Take turns reading a paragraph, or better yet, invite your children to bring her favorite passage or poem to share at dinner. You can even huddle up and listen to some of your favorite actors read audiobooks.
Cooper, H. (2003, January 1). Summer Learning Loss: The Problem and Some Solutions. Retrieved December 18, 2014, from LD Online.
Gilden, D. (n.d.). The Impact of Taking Breaks on Learning and Memory. Retrieved December 18, 2014, from The University of Texas Austin.
Hutchins, M. (2014, December 18). Educators say continued learning is important during winter break. Retrieved December 20, 2014, from Herald Democrat.
Walker, T. (2014, June 30). How Finland Keeps Kids Focused Through Free Play. Retrieved December 19, 2014, from The Atlantic.
The final stretch before winter break is one of hardest parts of the year. Students are both exhausted and ramped up, and teachers are just trying to survive until they can catch up on sleep.
But that doesn’t mean that you have to resort to popping in a holiday video and hiding in the closet. Here are six quick and fun activities that will also sneak some learning in at the same time.
1. Hold a riddle competition.
Keep a list of riddles handy. Put students into small groups and give a prize to the first group that solves the riddle by working cooperatively. Give extra bonus points for the team that works the best together. (Two bonus points on the next quiz or a free homework pass is usually enough to motivate all students.)
2. Play a quick round of fictionary.
This game is a great way to trick students into learning new vocabulary. Choose a difficult word, one that students will likely not already know. Then get four student volunteers. One student will have the correct definition, while the other three will make up their own. The class will vote on which one they believe to be the right one. Points for the student who gets the most votes—and a new vocabulary word for the rest of the class.
3. Assign a 5-minute creative writing prompt.
Keep a list offun creative writing prompts and get students writing for five or ten minutes. Though this is an obvious choice for ELA classes, it could work for other subjects as well—just find prompts that are thematically related to other lessons that you are teaching. It doesn’t need to be graded. It’s just a good way to keep creativity going all the way until break.
4. Play two truths and a lie.
This game is another simple choice, but it’s always a favorite. Students tell three quick stories where two are true and one is a lie. Then, the class votes on which one they think is the real one. It’s a great tool to teach the elements of storytelling as students try to add just enough detail to make their lies convincing.
5. Play a podcast and engage students in a discussion on its themes.
This is another one that takes a little preparation, but if you ever listen to podcasts, you know that there are plenty of compelling and instructional pieces out there.This seemingly light story, told by a professional comedian, is only 7 minutes long. But it highlights the way that cellphones and technology disconnect us from the outside world. Students could write a quick response to a writing prompt on the podcast, and they won’t even know that they were doing work.
6. Hold an internet scavenger hunt.
If students in your school are allowed to use personal devices for learning purposes, this is another fun game that gets them learning and working cooperatively. You’ll need to prepare a list of questions ahead of time, but make them simple facts that won’t likely be disputed like “How many poems did Emily Dickinson publish in her lifetime” or “What is the circumference of the Earth in miles?” This is fun, and a great learning opportunity for all.
I know these last few days can be exhausting, and students are often tapped out. But this doesn’t mean this time has to be a lost cause. With a little preparation, you can trick your students into learning and having fun.
Christina Lovdal Gil is a teacher who specializes in writing. She blogs about her tips for empowering students to think for themselves at GilTeach.com. You can also see some of her work on her Teachers Pay Teachers site.