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Tips to keep students’ minds active over break

Cold winter weather can inject daily dose science practice. These cold clear winter nights can be especially grefor stargazing. Children

Cold winter weather can inject a daily dose of science practice. These cold and clear winter nights can be especially great for stargazing. Children can attempt to locate Polaris, the North Star, in the night sky. Stargazing can also demonstrate the earth’s rotation. Note the position of a star in relation to an immobile landmark and return in one hour to see how the star’s position has changed. | Suzanne Baker ~ Sun-Times Media

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Idea links

For more ideas about how to keep children’s minds active and busy over break, please see the following resources.

Resources for students and parents:

Scholastic ( is an online website with different resources for kids, parents, teachers and administrators, including age appropriate reading lists, tips for parents about how to encourage learning at home and tools and strategies for parents and teachers.

Resources for students:

Book Creator is an app for the iPad that allows users to create their own iBooks.

Illinois Department of Natural Resources ( has started to develop lessons aligned to the NGSS. It also has general information about mammals ( that might interest children.

Math Playground ( is an online website with math problems, word problems, worksheets and logic games for elementary and middle school students.

National Geographic Kids ( is an online website with fun games and activities that children can do over the holiday break, including ideas for different crafts, recipes and science experiments.

Resources for parents:

The Illinois PTA has “The Parents’ Guide for Success,” which contains accessible information about what students learn in English language arts and mathematics at each grade level, as well as tips for how parents can facilitate further learning at home. The parent guides are available in both English and Spanish at

The Council of the Great City Schools has created “Parents Roadmaps” in English and Spanish that break down what students learn in English language arts and mathematics by grade level. They can be accessed at

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Updated: January 27, 2014 6:14AM

Just because students are on winter break does not mean that learning needs to stop.

Families can incorporate a number of ways to keep children’s minds active and foster learning outside of the classroom.

The break “allows children to sharpen the skills they have learned in school thus far,” said State Superintendent of Education Christopher Koch.

“At the same time, there are a number of teachable moments in holiday activities that can further learning and ensure that children don’t miss a beat when they return to school in January. Learning should always be fun, especially during this time of year.”

Students can easily brush up on their reading, math, and science skills while partaking in fun activities that embrace both winter and the holiday spirit.


“Read,” stressed Allison Strupeck, director of communication services for Carpentersville-based School District 300.

Parents should encourage children to read every day over break for at least 30 minutes. For younger children, read to them for at least 15 minutes every day and then have them read for equally as long. Children will be more inclined to read if it is a family endeavor, so set aside daily quiet reading time for the entire family.

Another way to foster reading over break is to take a family trip to the local library. If children do not already have their own library cards, sign them up for one and encourage them to check out both fiction and non-fiction books.

Informational books on topics such as snow and the water cycle, penguins, the Iditarod sled dog race, and Chanukah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa might be especially engaging for children at this time of year. Biographies or newspaper articles about famous winter Olympians from Illinois (such as gold medalist speed skaters Bonnie Blair of Champaign and Shani Davis of Chicago and gold medalist figure skater Evan Lysacek of Naperville) could pique children’s interest this winter as well.

Selecting audio-books also can put a fun spin on reading, according to Scott Schaffer, technology education and engineering teacher at Gregory Middle School in Naperville.

“Audio-books are a great way to engage both a youth’s imagination as well as help them work on their literary skills. By hearing, and sometimes following along with, a written story, they get to partake in high quality, highly edited literary content that can help with a number of things, from grammar, sentence structure, and even English language skills,” Schaffer said.

Sandy Knight, a teacher at Crone Middle School in Naperville, recommends the “Skeleton Creek” series by Patrick Karman, where the main characters go back and forth between the written word and video. The student reads a chapter written in the first person by the boy character. The other main character is a girl who prefers to take a video of herself talking to her friend and she e-mails her video response. The end of the chapter offers a webs link and a secret code for the reader to be able to see her video responses. The series is geared for students in fourth through eighth grades.

“Reluctant readers find this very enticing, and I think it is a nice balance of screen time with an actual book,” Knight said.

Math and science

The holiday break is a great opportunity for children to take what they have learned in the classroom and apply their mathematics and science skills to the real world.

It’s easy to work with decimals, fractions and percents, according to Susan Sauer, a fourth-grade teacher at Spring Brook Elementary in Naperville. “I would have (kids) help with cookie-making if possible to figure out how much sugar or flour was used in all the batches of cookies,” she said.

Kids also can get involved in dinner planning by calculating the cost of making dinner (using newspaper ads) and then maybe figuring out what percentage of the total bill was meat or produce.

For younger children, have them sort their presents from smallest to biggest or choose their own way to sort items and have a grown-up try and guess how they sorted them. Kids can count and sort cookies, candy or holiday decorations around the house.

Schaffer said educational kits are great because they promote 20th century skills, such as problem solving, technological literacy and complex systems.

“There are a ton of educational kits, such as solderless circuitry, models, miniatures, and other kinesthetic projects commonly available at hobby shops and science surplus stores that are fun to build, for adults as well as youths,” he said.

The inevitable cold winter weather can inject a daily dose of science practice for younger elementary school students. These cold and clear winter nights can be especially great for stargazing. Children can attempt to locate Polaris, the North Star, in the night sky. Stargazing also can demonstrate the earth’s rotation. Note the position of a star in relation to an immobile landmark and return in one hour to see how the star’s position has changed.

Children also can practice reading a thermometer and keep a log of each day’s temperatures. They can calculate the difference in temperatures between days and make educated predictions about the next day’s temperature. Working with thermometers also presents an opportunity to discuss the difference between degrees Celsius and degrees Fahrenheit and the freezing point of water in each scale. More advanced students can practice converting temperatures from one scale to the other (to convert from Fahrenheit to Celsius, subtract 32, then multiply by 5, then divide by 9).

Social studies

Often times, connecting with family members can be a learning opportunity in disguise.

Pam Reilly, the recently named Illinois Teacher of the Year who hails from Woodbury Elementary in Sandwich, suggests visiting with grandparents or other older relatives to receive a mini history lesson — without students even realizing it.

“Ask relatives how Christmas has changed or stayed the same since they were small children,” Reilly recommended.

Children can then compare and contrast their relatives’ experiences to their own. If relatives have immigrated to the United States from other countries, then students can learn about holiday celebrations from around the world and expand their knowledge of and appreciation for other cultures.

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