It happens to everyone. At some point, we get bored.
Kids especially can feel monotony amid even the most glorious of summer breaks. And the end-of-year holidays, with weather turning crisp and grownups’ schedules getting busy, can leave young minds feeling like there’s nothing interesting to do.
When interest ebbs, how can parents help children spark new fascination with the world around them? And maybe spend a little less time glued to their screens.
We turned to some experts from the University of Houston College of Education’s Curriculum and Instruction Department. Anne Katz, clinical associate professor, and Carrie S. Cutler, clinical associate professor, have suggestions ranging from nature explorations to playwriting to algebra. (“Yes, math can be intriguing,” Cutler promises.)
“Family vacations, summer camps and visits to museums and zoos are wonderful,” Katz said. “But their price doesn’t fit into all household budgets. With a little inspiration, a family can share activities that cost little or nothing yet have the power to keep children’s minds in motion.”
Katz, a reading specialist who focuses on language literacy and learning, leans to the creative side. Take literature, for example.
“When you read a book with your child – maybe one from home, borrowed from the Little Free Library or a public library – explore it together. When you can, involve siblings or friends in discussions of the characters, plot and setting. Turn to online research to find out about the place the story happens, understand its point in history, even learn the science behind the weather the characters experience,” she said. “You can also research the author or illustrator online, watch videos of them reading their story or exploring their craft to learn more about where they found their inspiration.”
For a special challenge, open discussion about alternate story endings. Katz suggests asking: “Imagine you were the author. What different endings might you have considered as you were creating the story?” For extra fun, grab a cape, a hat or a sock – ”whatever you have at your house,” Katz said – and join in acting out scenes in the book.
For Cutler, a mathematics specialist, endless fascination can be found in numbers, equations and related puzzles. (“I teach math teachers how to teach math,” is how she describes her life’s work.)
On YouTube, Cutler and her young son Knox show how very young students can slide beads on a number bond bracelet to illustrate all the different ways to divide a chosen number – in this case, six. In mathematics terms, it’s illustrating the composition and decomposition of numbers, and “it helps us compute,” Cutler explains.
Knox and his mom build all their number bond bracelets out of large beads and twisty pipe cleaners.
Cutler’s YouTube channel presents more math fun. Her book, “Math Positive Mindsets, Growing a Child’s Mind Without Losing Yours,” offers deeper insights.
For puzzles of a different sort, Katz recommends “I Am From” poetry ideas, a concept developed by author and teacher George Ella Lyon. By filling in blanks – with locations, family traits, memories, ancestors, etc. – children end with a poem unique to their own experiences.
“More than that, they feel how poetry, and writing in general, can touch the soul. ‘I Am From’ is not an end point. It is a tool for children to get acquainted with the art of using words to express feelings and experiences. And it’s fun,” Katz said.
Nature walks are another opportunity. Katz suggests looking for plants that children read about or see in movies. Also, study clouds and weather or nighttime stars and discuss how they change from one outing to another.
Perhaps what the children see can add background to a quick play they create. A ballgame or a newspaper sports report can inspire fun plots and dialog, too.
Meanwhile at the busy Cutler household – seven sons, one daughter – there is a tradition they call Brothers Days, time set aside when the older siblings mentor younger ones in an activity. It may be as simple as individualized book recommendations during a pop-in to the public library.
You may be wondering: Yes, Sybil, the outnumbered sister, joins in calling the get-togethers Brothers Days. She is far away now at Purdue University, pursuing a Ph.D. in family studies. Her area of focus? Sibling relationships. (Really – we couldn’t make that up.)
Both Cutler and Katz suggest families consider free-admission days scheduled at many museums. Some are timed with free family events.
Most zoos, museums and other educational facilities offer yearlong family memberships that lower the monetary barrier of visits. “We are never without a family membership to the science museum,” Cutler said.
Also to be cherished are family gatherings, including trips that give children a chance to hear about their family’s heritage and its ties to history.
“Maybe you will learn about ancestors or neighbors who immigrated from other countries or someone who watched the local community change through the decades. Perhaps cherished family recipes can be revived for new family gatherings. Those connections make textbook history come alive. There is joy in getting to know their own family, or exploring the community with their friends,” Katz said.
No matter what trail your family stories follow or where your household’s current interests lead, there are activities that can stretch the imaginations of young thinkers. They can enrich the minds of their curious parents, too.