The mid-winter school break in February can be a childcare headache for parents working outside or inside the home. Whether your children don't have school for a day or a week, you’re probably looking for fun alternatives to your seeing children zoning out in front of the television or playing computer games all day.
Retired San Diego pre-school founder and teacher Jane Carney Schulze has experience entertaining children every day--in fact, she entertained my friends and me at the Yellow Submarine Preschool many years ago -- and here are some of her ideas:
If you work outside the home, you can use this list to create themed rotating play dates with your children's friends (two to four kids spend each day at a different house). Only one adult has to take the day off each day. That way the kids have fun, and working parents can avoid taking off the whole week.
If you're a stay-at-home parent, coordinate with other parents and use these ideas to create a neighborhood weeklong camp for your kids and their friends.
Visit another country. If you live in a diverse community where there is a Latin American, Asian, European, African or another community, consider a visit to another "country." You can do a little research on the Internet or at the library to learn more about that community, shop at neighborhood stores and eat lunch at a local restaurant. You could also come up with a simple cooking project for lunch or dinner.
If your children want to visit a country that isn't represented in your community, you can still research that country's customs, pick a simple recipe to cook with your children and rent a movie from or about that country.
Create some art. Visit an art museum and pick out some exhibits that interest younger people (many museums have one free day every week). If there isn't a museum nearby, take a walk in your neighborhood and collect "found" objects (nature objects, things found on a street), bring home and glue them on a heavy paper as art work. Talk about the objects and create a story about the picture.
Then you could follow up with art projects at home using easel paint, chalk on wet paper, clay, finger-paints or play dough. Let the kids help make the play dough with flour, salt and water and coloring. Or let the children lie down on butcher paper and trace their body, then let them fill in the details.
Be sure to have old shirts and newsprint on hand to protect your floors and clothing.
Let them entertain you! Organize a talent show, with singing, instruments, dancing or miming favorite recordings (think American Idol for young people). Shadow shows are fun with a light behind a sheet. Kids can create a script with homemade or available puppets (socks and buttons make great puppets).
Read a story and let the children choose a character to be and act it out. Depending on their ages, they could pick Dora the Explorer or Thomas the Tank Engine. Practicing is almost as much fun as the performance.
Cook. Make it your children's job to have dinner on the table that night. They can discuss their favorite dishes that morning so you can sort through what's easiest to make (you probably won't be surprised by their choices). If it's a simple pizza, a store bought crust or individual English muffins can be topped with cheese that must be shredded, pepperoni, veggies and pizza sauce. Talk about the process--cooking requires math through measuring, reading the recipe, talking about it and cooperation. Look at Rachael Ray's Yum-o! website for inspiration and recipes.
Have a dance party. You can rent musical classics like The Muppet Movie, The Wizard of Oz or the High School Musical flicks -- depending on what's age appropriate -- and have everyone sing and dance when the musical breaks into song or dance. Allow everyone to choose (including you!) or make sure to include something that each child wants. Make popcorn and have some sweet treats to make it "a night" at the movies.
Focus on a project. If homework has kept your child from building that battleship that takes several days, devote several mornings or afternoons in a row to that project and turn over a prominent place in the house for him or her to do it. It'll make your child feel special. Then pick a physical activity outside for the other part of the day.
If you always wanted your son or daughter to know how to make the cookies your mother baked you every Christmas, consider setting aside a couple mornings to bake your favorite ginger snaps or seven-layer bars. Take pictures or a video and send them with some cookies to their Grandma for a surprise treat.
If you really want your children to sort through their toys and organize a garage sale or charity donation, spend a couple hours each day focused on that (see our "Organizing Toys" story here.
Don't dismiss the video games. Consider spending a day having your children teach you what they like to do. It'll be their job to organize a day of Camp By Kids: "Computer Games 101," "How to Build the Best Lego Castle" or "Understanding Hannah Montana." Give your children one afternoon or day to teach you what's important to them.
Be flexible and prepared. If one idea isn't working out, offer up a couple more for the group to discuss or vote on. As backup, have a couple movies or music CDs if an outdoor activity is rained out. You can be stocked with the ingredients for chocolate chip cookies if the video game lesson results in a meltdown.
"They can also sit around in a circle and brain storm ideas," said Schulze. "Then let the group vote on the activity. It's amazing what may come out."
Brooklyn-based journalist Katia Hetter helps teens tell their stories at Youth Communication (http://www.youthcomm.org). She has also written for The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Babycenter.com, Newsday and U.S. News & World Report.