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Posted at 9:15 AM ET, 12/23/2010

Winter holiday enrichment made easy

By Jay Mathews

When I think of the holidays, I envision seeing the latest films with my wife, gorging on sweets and contemplating the wonder of the schlocky ceramic village I have set up on top of the piano, the result of many visits to Christmas shops.

You’ll notice there aren’t any children in this scenario. Nobody steals my chocolates or smashes the Sweet Shop from the Snow Village series. That is because only adults live in my house. Grandson No. 2 arrives next month, but he and his brother are stuck in L.A. because their very pregnant mother can’t fly.

Local Living editor Liz Seymour, with two children at home, realized I was out of touch with her kind of winter vacation, so she more or less ordered me to gather expert advice on what parents can do during those daunting two weeks without school. Educators have fabulous ideas that I can put to use with my grandsons before long.

Here is how they broke down by age groups:

Pre-K and kindergarten: Denise Thiel and Rosie Blanks teach this cohort at Leckie Elementary School in Southwest Washington. They recommend a walk “along the Pathway of Peace on the Ellipse downtown for a great geography lesson. Each state, the District of Columbia and the five U.S. territories are represented by a decorated tree.”

For parents who don’t mind a mess, they suggest covering a baking sheet with shaving or whipped cream and using it as a writing surface. You call out a letter. The child writes it with a finger in the cream. You can even try whole words.

There is also the less-smeary ABC magazine game. Invite the child to look through magazines, cut out each letter of the alphabet and glue them on paper to make an ABC poster.

Elementary school: Linda Erdos, Arlington County schools spokeswoman, found the suggestions educators made to families during last winter’s big storms. They include organizing a spelling contest by gathering books, selecting words and reading the paragraphs they are in, then asking for the spelling. Kids get to test you, too.

Kara Colucci, assistant principal at Margaret Brent Elementary School in Stafford County, suggests students plan a meal using grocery fliers. “Have them add up the cost and then make the meal with parents, making sure to use at least one recipe so that measurement is included,” she says.

Middle school: Audrey Williams, a parent at the Columbia Academy private school in Columbia, says her sixth-grader likes museum visits, but two hours a day are also going to be reserved for reviewing study guides. He has midterms in January.

Fairfax County schools spokeswoman Mary Shaw had many suggestions involving visits to libraries, historic homes or nature centers. One I liked was turning a favorite book into a one-act play. I want to be Voldemort in the family production of “Harry Potter.”

High school: The educators I consulted had less to say about what to do with teenagers. They generally have already made plans that don’t keep them home much, except for the 14 hours a day they spend catching up on sleep.

But Tammy Hanna, assistant principal at A.G. Wright Middle School in Stafford County, had an idea that involved all age groups: She notes that families often travel by car during the holidays. Parents seek a quiet trip by making sure all the children have their favorite DVDs and other electronics. Forget that, Hanna says. Try “turning off the equipment and pulling out some things our children often view as old-fashioned. Instead of just reading a book alone, try getting multiple copies and have a reader’s theater of sorts with different family members reading selected parts with inflection and enthusiasm.”

I like that. It may take awhile for my grandsons to learn to read. (I am making sure their parents select the right school.) But I foresee a group reading of my favorite children’s book, “The Shrinking of Treehorn,” by Florence Parry Heide.

Happy holidays.

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education Web page.

By Jay Mathews  | December 23, 2010; 9:15 AM ET
Categories:  Local Living  | Tags:  A.G. Wright Middle School, Audrey Williams, Columbia Academy, Denise Thiel, Florence Parry Heide, Kara Colucci, Leckie Elementary School, Linda Erdos, Liz Seymour, Margarent Brent Elementary School, Mary Shaw, Pre-K and kindergarten, Rosie Blanks, The Shrinking of Treehorn,, elementary school, high school, middle school, winter holiday activities for kids  
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How about talking to your kids and providing some background information? For example, the other day we saw a Fred Astaire movie on television. As we watched, we told our daughter a little about Astaire and his movie career; when two characters showed up on an impromptu picket line wearing placards, we talked about the signs worn by Depression-era strikers and job seekers. It's easy for parents to provide snippets of background as the situation warrants. Another idea: How about reading the newspaper? It's difficult to find time during the school week, but easy during vacation. Our second-grader is enjoying sports stories in the New York Times, and I'm putting them in his reading log for academic credit. Other ideas include cooking and doing service projects together. Ideas such as these are good for kids of all ages, and they're easy to implement.

Posted by: barbarachina | December 23, 2010 12:06 PM | Report abuse

These ideas stink. They are like the dumb homework our kids get over break. What normal child wants to make an ABC poster out of a stack of old magazines? My kids sure don't.

Whatever happened to the idea of kids having fun over the holidays? Why must every day be an extension of school?

Jay, next time, ask parents for ideas about what kids can do over the break. Since when are teachers the experts on family life?

Posted by: FedUpMom1 | December 23, 2010 12:35 PM | Report abuse

Good idea, FedUpMom1. I will do that.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 23, 2010 1:30 PM | Report abuse

And thanks to barbarachina, whose good ideas buttress FedUpMom1's point.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 23, 2010 1:31 PM | Report abuse

This column made me laugh! My ninth grader will spend the break working on projects for science fair, English and health. Then yesterday he was given a sizable AP packet for Honors History, due the next class after the break. We don't need any ideas for more work, thank you very much!

Posted by: awrosenthl | December 23, 2010 2:19 PM | Report abuse

A couple of educational activities during the winter vacation such as visiting a museum sound like a good idea to me. However, if a child has doing well during the school year so far, I think he/she deserves a break. I particularly dislike the idea of forcing a sixth-grader to study 2 hours a day during the break.

Posted by: Wmcfam | December 23, 2010 2:31 PM | Report abuse


It is the Christmas Holiday.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all.

Posted by: demathis | December 23, 2010 3:41 PM | Report abuse

don't listen to the critics Jay. Any teacher will tell you that kids come back having forgotten 20 percent of what they knew before the break. The point is that they should always be learning and encouraged to read and create.

High school students can go to local college campuses with parents, athletes can start to prepare for Winter and Spring sports, theatre and drama students have auditions coming back from break, AP students need to reinforce lessons with review materials. This still leaves plenty of time for movies, friends, video games and computers. it is a great time to rack up community service hours with local churches and food banks, maybe even have an intelligent conversation with a parent or grandparent?

Posted by: Hrod1 | December 23, 2010 4:49 PM | Report abuse

Hrod1, if kids forget 20% of what they knew over a week-and-a-half break, they never really knew it in the first place.

You talk about high school students, but Jay's activities begin with pre-school. That's 4 year old kids! Can't they just have fun over the holidays?

Let kids have a break. They'll come back to school fresher. The lack of vacation is just one more source of burnout.

As for the 9th grader with the homework packets, do you have a fireplace ...?

Posted by: FedUpMom1 | December 23, 2010 11:23 PM | Report abuse


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Posted by: ppshopping011 | December 24, 2010 8:54 AM | Report abuse

FedUpMom1 - great answer! If anyone hasn't seen the movie Race to Nowhere, you should. As far as homework load, why do we think it's reasonable for kids get up at 5:45 am, to go to school seven hours a day, commute a half-hour each way on a bus, work three or more hours at home, do community service (National Honors Society requires volunteering 10 hours a quarter), do an activity or two or hold down a job that will look good for college, take an SAT prep course... What the heck are we training these kids to be - workaholics?
We went out of town to a family event in Nov. and my son did SIX hours of work in the hotel that weekend (thanks to wi-fi). If my husband took that amount of work from his office with him on a family weekend away, I would have been furious!

Posted by: awrosenthl | December 24, 2010 8:59 AM | Report abuse

awrosenthl, you sound like you're ready for my blog, the Coalition for Kid-Friendly Schools. You can google it! I mentioned you in the most recent post ...

Posted by: FedUpMom1 | December 24, 2010 12:21 PM | Report abuse

Because my mother taught on a "cadet" certificate and was finishing her bachelor's degree, she only had a few weeks in the year when she wasn't teaching and/or studying; Christmas break was one of them. Thus, that week was a whirlwind of preparing for the holidays and catching up on the heavy housework and the DIY projects that had been let go during the year (one holiday week we re-upholstered a very worn living-room couch), and she tried to make time for movies, hiking in the woods, etc. In the evenings, when she relaxed and read the paper or a book she had received for Christmas, I went to my room to do the schoolwork that had been assigned over the holidays or the term paper that was due when school resumed. (Yes, it had been assigned earlier. I had been working steadily on it but had no time to complete it early.) And when school started, I began studying for semester exams. If I got a book for Christmas, sometimes I didn't get to read it until after exams were over.

How many adults have assignments to complete over a holiday--assignments that are not left over or emergency duties but work specifically assigned to be done over a vacation? And then educators say parents should find more lessons for students.

(I agree with FedUpMom--if they forget the work over vacation they never really learned it. After all, youngsters who go skiing one Christmas don't have to start learning all over again the next Christmas, even if they haven't been near a slope during the year.)

Posted by: sideswiththekids | December 29, 2010 10:43 AM | Report abuse

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