Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Children's Holiday activities: 30 simple ways to stimulate learning

Australian school children have just commenced summer holidays. This is a time when parents can find children challenging. It is probably even more challenging for northern hemisphere parents who have children locked inside during cold winter weather. It is so easy for children to become bored in the holidays when their daily routines are suddenly changed. I've written a variety of posts on 'Stimulating Language and Literacy Learning' last year (here & here) and wrote a post similar to this one to coincide with the northern hemisphere summer (in July). My assumption is that you will be responsible for one or more children for a period of at least a couple of weeks. I'll offer some general hints then simply list 30 ideas that I think will work with most kids.

A few basics hints:
  • Have a strategy for the holidays - map out a timetable (post it on the wall) and try to plan a few significant events and think through the general structure of each day.
  • If you have younger children still at home, being joined by school kids on holidays, try to think about how you will cope with all their interests and think about varying daily routines a little.
  • Pace yourself - don't use all your best ideas in the first few days (you'll wear them and yourself out and you'll struggle to keep up the variation later).
  • Expect bad weather - think about some ideas that will work in rainy weather as well. It's called the "Law of Holidays" - expect lots of wet weather and a day or two of sick kids.
Here are 30 simple ideas

Books with a difference

1. Pick some special books they haven't seen - try to borrow or buy at least 2 books for each child that you think they'll enjoy. For young children these will end up being read and re-read many times. You don't have to buy them, visit a library or buy them cheaply at the local opportunity shop (most have lots of books). See my post on book exchanges, op shops and web exchange sites here.

2. Books as a creative stimulus - While the shear joy of the book is usually enough, sometimes books can stimulate many wonderful creative activities. For example:
  • After reading Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things are" go outside and dramatise it. Let one child be Max and let others take turns at being the wild things. Make a boat out of bits of wood, or even have a go at making one out of a large cardboard box (or several).
  • After reading Jeannie Baker's book "Where the Forest Meets the Sea" (a book about the Daintree Rainforest in which all the pictures are collage) encourage them to make a collage out of natural materials (and maybe some wool, straws etc to supplement) in response to Baker's pictures. Or read a second book and have them use collage in response.
  • After reading Graeme Base's "The Waterhole" get them to paint the waterhole (they can draw the animals, cut them out and paste them around the waterhole).
3. Books in cars - Some children don't like reading in cars (and some get car sick) so why not try a read aloud book (book with a CD). It will help to make a long trip shorter. I'll repeat my post on this topic in the next week or so (the original post is here).

4. Dramatisation - Dramatisation is an excellent way to respond to a book. If you have a dress-up box all the better. Let your children either re-tell the story through dramatisation or improvise. Get involved to help set the pattern for turn taking etc. I play a mean wolf, and an even better Grandma!


5. Free writing - Encourage all children (even as young as 1 year-old) to 'write'. Give them some paper and ask them to write. Write with them. You can make up some lined books with a cover and suggest that that they tell a story in words and pictures. Even 3-4 year-olds will give the words a go. See my previous post on writing (here).

6. Diaries and journals - Introduce older children to diaries or holiday journals.

7. A holiday blog - Tech savvy mums and dads might encourage their children to write online. Why not set up a family blog that can be read by friends and relatives (even if only for two weeks). You could use this as part of a trip away, or just use it at home. Older children could set up the blog themselves and all family members could contribute. Let them have access to a digital camera and a scanner and the sky is the limit.

8. Start a family joke or riddle book - give them some jokes as models ("Knock, knock", "Why did the centipede cross the road"....)

9. Email or letter exchange - Encourage your children to write letters, send postcards or send emails to relatives and friends.


In a two-week holiday I'd aim to plan 3-4 outings. Some outings cost nothing; others do come at a price. Here are a few ideas:

10. Zoos or wildlife parks - If you're in the city the zoo takes a lot of beating. It's expensive one-off, but a Zoo Friends' program (e.g. Taronga Park Zoo, Sydney) will enable you to go whenever you like for about the cost of 3 family trips. If you live in Sydney a cheaper option (but a good one) is Featherdale Wildlife Park at Blacktown and the kids will get VERY close to the animals (and will be able to feed them) in a small and friendly park with lots of free parking. Again in Sydney there is our wonderful Aquarium (book online it's cheaper).

11. Visit a museum or art gallery - In Sydney we have many including the Australian Museum in College Street, the Power House and the Museum of Sydney. The Australian Museum has a wonderful dinosaur exhibition. The Maritime Museum is worth a visit.

12. Visit an historic site - There are free sites and some that charge. In Sydney it's free to visit La Perouse including Captain Cook's landing place. But you can pay reasonable admission prices to go to places like Elizabeth Farm, Old Government House (Parramattta) and the Hyde Park Barracks (one of my favourites).

NOTE: If you're not in Sydney this is no excuse; most towns of 10,000+ people have significant places to visit. For example, Bathurst (NSW) has the Australian Mineral and Fossil Museum in Bathurst (NSW) is a stunning museum that will get any child interested in rocks! As well it has the Bathurst Sheep & Cattle Drome. Sovereign Hill is a replica of an early Australian gold rush town and its in regional Ballarat (Vic). You can visit Timber Town, that re-creates an early Australian mill town in the 1800s, at Wauchope (near Port Macquarie) on the NSW mid-north coastal region.

13. Walks - In most places you will find national parks, botanic gardens or physical features and locations worth visiting. Remember that boys in particular love open spaces. Give them an oval and they'll run around for hours rumbling, throwing balls and chasing other people. If you want something more structured and planned and you live on the coast, why not explore some beaches (you don't have to swim in winter). In Sydney John Wells has documented all 150 of Sydney's beaches complete with public transport advice and things to do - this is a classic non-commercial website. You can have fun even in winter. Rug up and collect shells, rocks and just fossick.


14. The cinema - On wet days movies are perfect. In Australia Tuesday is usually half price at many theatres so this is the perfect time to go. As usual there many new release movies - 'Where the Wild Things are' is just out on the big screen (although don't take this as recommendation to view it).

15. Plan a home movie night - get a good DVD, spread out blankets and pillows on the floor, dim the lights, make some popcorn or make some pizza. There are so many good children's movies to choose from, some of which relate to well-known books. This is a good way to get your children to read the book, particularly if it is a challenging read. In Australia 'Ice Age 3' is out on DVD.


If you're imaginative you can come up with your own ideas. If you're not, and want a good website try Kids Craft Weekly (which is outstanding).

16. Planned craft could include - simple beadwork, noodle craft, mask making, making plaster moulds (and painting them), anything for young children that requires paper tearing, gluing, glitter, stickers.

17. Simple activity books - Discount shops like Reject Shops, Teks, Go-Lo etc often have stacks of colouring in books, dot-to-dot, alphabet, pre-reading etc. Not really all craft, but they combine some colouring with word play etc (don't do too much of this).

18. Unstructured creative craft needs materials - Stock up when you go to the supermarket with simple materials like paper plates (good for masks), brown paper bags, sticky tape, glue, cotton balls, tooth picks, paper cupcake holders, straws (cutting up and threading), noodles (for threading).

19. Reverse Garbage - The Reverse Garbage is a not-for-profit co-operative that sells industrial discards, off-cuts and over-runs to the public for creative uses. They have been operating in Marrickville for 31 years (this one is for Sydney people only, but there may be equivalents in other places). Take the kids as an excursion, let them choose some stuff then take it home to use.

Creative Play

I've written a number of previous posts on play (here) but planning for play is important. While you can say to your children go outside and 'play', doing some simple planning at times will lead to more stimulating play times.

20. Dress-up box - If you don't have one take the kids to the Op shop to start one. You might even pick up some gems like old helmets, hats, belts (you can cut them down), handbags etc.

21. Water play - This is hard in winter, but maybe you could make bath-time special for littlies with extra bubbles, different stuff to take in it. In warmer weather give them a bucket of water and some things to scoop, sieve etc - BUT ONLY UNDER SUPERVISION, kids can drown in a few inches of water, even in a bucket.

22. Play dough - Carmen's can't fail recipe is 1 tablespoon of oil, 1 cup of plain flour, 0.5 cup of cooking salt, 2 tablespoons Cream of Tartar, 1 cup of water, colouring. Mix together and put in a saucepan on medium heat until it binds together, stirring all the time. Fold together by hand. If you keep it in a sealed plastic bag it will last for ages in or outside the fridge.

There are endless things to do with play dough. Try to move beyond just cutting out shapes (which kids still love). Encourage them to make a house, a farmyard, a bed, and an aquarium. Use some plastic animals with the play dough or small plastic people. If you don't mind tossing the play dough out you can let them use sticks, plants etc to make simple dioramas. Kids will create complex stories as they manipulate the play dough.

Above: Jacob (5), Rebecca (3) and Elsie 18 months playing with play dough

23. Bubbles - You can't go wrong with bubbles.

24. Balloons - Blow them up, let them go, kick them around, let out the air to make noises (boys love it!), try some helion balloons and let them go, etc.

25. Build a cubby house - No not with wood, just use a table, some chairs, wardrobes (hitch the blankets into the top of the doors, some pegs and sheets and blankets. By draping them over other objects you should be able to create a special space (about 2x2 metres is enough for three small kids). Try to get at least 1.5 metres of height. Have the kids 'help' and then get them to collect some special things to have in the cubby. Use a toy box for a table, some cushions to sit on. I always let my grandchildren have my cheap transistor radio from my shed (lots of fun). Girls might like a tea set; boys will collect animals and toys, both will like books. If you're up to it, climb in as well and read some stories. They'll like the edges tucked in to cut out light so you might need a torch. I've seen a cubby of this kind amuse kids for half a day. Then of course for the adventurous you can share some snack food as well.

Above: Jacob in a 'house' that he made (with help) from a box we saved

Indoor and back yard fun

26. Treasure hunts - Write the clues on paper using words and pictures depending on ages and make the treasure worthwhile (chocolate, a coupon for an ice cream in the kitchen etc).

27. Board games (see my previous post here)

28. Cooking - Kids love cooking with their mothers or fathers. Do simple stuff; my daughter Nicole has talked about this a number of times on her blog 168 Hours.

29. Household chores - I know that Nicole has blogged on this too; Jake and Rebecca just loved washing the outside windows. Give them a bucket, sponges, scraper etc and they'll have fun. They'll enjoy gardening as well (give them a confined and simple task) if you do it with them.

30. Scavenger hunts - There are endless ideas for this activity and it is great in the park or in a yard. For a great variation try an insect scavenger hunt (one of my grandchildren's favourite activities). You'll be surprised just how many you can find. You'll to be careful turning rocks over and digging around, but even in Australia it's low risk if you supervise. Place a pile of bricks in a damp place and then let the kids help you to uncover them a few days later - watch the critters scurry.

Some good kids websites (just a sample)

Kids websites will also provide hours of focused fun activities for children. Here are a few examples:

Postman Pat
Clifford the big red dog
Animal homes (games etc)
The Playground ABC Kids
Thomas and Friends
Kids Discovery (older kids) - play games; build your own volcano etc
Google Earth (older kids can explore their world)

I hope the ideas in both posts offer a few new ideas, or maybe just reminders of things you have forgotten. With all the ideas the aim has been to:
  • Stimulate creativity
  • Encourage exploration and discovery
  • Use their hands as well as their minds
  • Encourage interaction between you and your children
  • Foster literacy development
  • Increase their knowledge
  • Keep them interested


Unknown said...

Hi Trevor - what a great article. My name is Tina Peterson and I'm an Usborne Books consultant in Omaha, NE (USA). I have several homeschooling families, lots of parents (in general) and my customers will love it. I'm going to forward it on to them.

I was wondering if you would mind if used your article on my blog? I would be happy to add your blog address and other information too.

Thanks so much and Happy Holidays!

Tina Peterson
The Book Lady

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Tina,

Thanks for your comment. I'm happy to have you use the post as long as you acknowledge it's authorship and source and don't change it (and yes a link to the blog would be good).

Nice to hear from you, I like the Usborne materials, in fact I acknowledge an Usborne resource in my next post which will go up next week.

Best wishes,


Clarence Pier Southsea said...

Great suggestions and article, thank you. Here at Clarence Pier we offer terrific amusements and attractions for all the family to enjoy - we look forward to welcoming you this summer!