“Would you like spaghetti or peas?” my daughter asked. “Oh, peas, of course.” I responded. She put on her apron and started working in her play kitchen to get the plastic food ready. We were playing restaurant. And as she created a menu and set the table, I realized a lot of skills were being practiced even while we were “playing.” Learning can happen in a variety of ways and I began to think of educational activities that could feel like play to kids even during those times we are stuck at home.
Of course, reading a book or engaging with history are good options. But what if there were other ideas that could encourage learning for our children that didn’t feel like institutional education? There are schools of thought (forgive the pun) that believe a way to learn is to allow a “student’s curiosity to drive the path of learning” such as in unschooling. Or the concept of out-of-school learning. These ideas engage hidden passions or smarts that kids have by doing educational activities outside of the paper and pen curriculum. If we open up our concept of what learning can be, we might be surprised at the variety of options. Here are some fun, educational activities your kids might like to try.
Educational activities that explore
Preschool or elementary kids
Getting outside is a good idea, if possible. Enjoy fresh air and take a walk. If you are with a young child, can they point out any animals or plants they recognize? What about colors of the cars or houses? An older child might notice the weather. What type of formations are they seeing? Can they draw them for you? Maybe they can film themselves, like the reporters on the news and share current weather updates.
Or maybe the weather is cold, and it is time for a car ride. Simple games of finding letters on license plates or street signs can be engaging. Making up stories about what goes on inside the buildings or cars you pass can be entertaining activities while still educating the brain.
Older elementary or middle school children
Older elementary or middle school children might like to create target practice outside that they hit with nerf guns, balls or even pennies. The older they are, the harder the target should be. And Halloween isn’t the only time for a maze. Is there a room where they can make a maze out of cardboard or sheets hung up? Is there a treasure at the end they can place for any family members who make their way through? Or perhaps it is an obstacle course. What exercise should be at each station and who can do the most push-ups or go through it the fastest?
Or if this needs to be an indoor educational activity, tweens or teens can explore their past. Bring out photos or go online to search out genealogy. Another fun activity is to find the prices of things from the past. How much did bread cost during their parent’s time, their grandparent’s time and even their great-grandparent’s time? What was the fashion like? Another fun place of learning is talking to grandparents over the phone or internet. Perhaps grandparents can take them for a “walk” down memory lane.
If your teen has a desire to travel, have them plan a family vacation or the trip they want to take when they graduate. Include the budget and any limitations. Then they can present it like they are selling the idea to a board of directors. They should use PowerPoint or video presentations with exact locations, best time to travel, and things to see with pictures and websites. They can present the idea to the family once finished. (HINT: They may want to make some desserts from that country or location as their educational activity. It might sweeten the deal when presenting it to the family!)
Educational activities that build
Would a building activity be something that excites your child? Plastic tablecloths were a huge help when my kids wanted to create something new. One on the table, one on the floor and one for the dog? The point is to give them plenty of room to build and clean up is easy. It may not work the first time, but let them try again. And give them help with any wood cutting or power tool usage.
Preschool and elementary children
A younger child could build a milk carton birdhouse. Should they paint it? Are there other recycled items they could use to build a second story? What should it be called and where is the best place to put it? An older child could do research on what types of birds are in your area and what food they like. And don’t forget protection. Should they put any measures in place to protect the bird food from other animals?
Middle school kids
An older child or tween might like try making a bee hotel or bee farm. They could do research on the best materials and what bees are good for. What plants might attract bees or other pollinators? What can you plant and see grow? This could be a simple idea of putting soil and seeds in egg cartons to transfer outside once they are hardened. Or maybe buy a Venus fly trap. How does it eat? Why is it so different? Our family really liked a water garden. We grew microgreens and enjoyed a family fish with our aquaponics system. An educational ecosystem activity for the whole family.
If you have spent time in Awana, you know about pine car derbies. Kits are available for building cars. There are hints on YouTube about how to make it aerodynamic, creative designs and so much more. Or use toy cars but create the bridges and/or racecourse. Experiment with what makes something go faster. Or maybe it a mini crash course? How much impact can an egg or water balloon take before they break? Of course, it might also just be a stress relief to crash things and that is ok too — as long as this educational activity is parent-approved.
Tweens and teens
And sometimes taking apart an item is just as much fun as building. If you have an old appliance or item that is going to be thrown away or given to charity, maybe reuse it for inspection. Give some basic tools like a screwdriver and let your teen take it apart (making sure it is safe.) What’s inside? How does it work? I know our son loved to take things apart. They didn’t always come back together again, but the educational activity still engaged him.
Art is one of my favorite things to do with kids. I love seeing what they create. When they are very young, let them feel the art. Create pudding art, where they can make pictures and lick their fingers! Or if you need it to be cleaner, water art is a good choice. Get a big paintbrush and let them paint with water on the sidewalk or piece of cardboard. See what they can create before it dries up. Men’s aftershave is also a fun thing to use and cleans up well. Let them squirt out the lotion and then write the alphabet, numbers or simple words in it.
Tweens and teens
Finally, for the older kids, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Have them find a picture they really like — can they recreate it? Sometimes, making a grid on a copy of the original and a corresponding grid on your work space allows a copy to be made box by box. Or maybe they want to create their own comic? There are books on the internet or library that could explain the details of making a comic. Will they use painted backgrounds, hand drawn art or create something on the computer? Will they recreate a story from the Bible or tell their own?
Go through recipes and find ones that interest your family. Younger kids could set up a restaurant and put together easy finger foods. Maybe they make their own menu with pictures and labeled food? What is the cost for each item? You can use play money to introduce this as a simple concept or go all the way to determining what they have to charge to make a profit. This can be something several age groups can work on together. This educational activity is like the lemonade stand of old. And, if they are very industrious, this can be an offering to family or church members as a gift or for sale. Fruit bouquets, all-natural snacks or holiday items are something they could make money off of.
And if food isn’t the goal, how about some good slime or your own modeling clay? There are lots of recipes on Pinterest. Look up essential oils and how they can be used to make homemade shampoo, home cleaner or lotions. This could be a good place to find out more about human psychology. What scents or colors do people react to? Should they do a blind test to find out what others prefer? What are the learnings?
Tweens and Teens
Go through cookbooks or look online for favorite recipes. Do grandparents have any fun recipes they want to pass on? Maybe they can cook together in person or virtually. Is there an international dish they would like to try? What store might you have to go to, to get the unusual ingredients? Maybe listen to music or a movie from that country while cooking the food. Education by immersion into the culture.
Older kids can make a meal for the family or look on the web for a hack to their favorite restaurant recipe. This is great for measurements and conversions. If you don’t happen to have all of the ingredients is there a substitute they can find? And who should be invited to enjoy the food when it is done? Should it be for family, friends and/or neighbors? Will they call, create a fancy invitation or send a virtual image?
Educational activities with make-believe
Preschool and elementary age children
For younger children, help them create a theater where they can use simple sock puppets and create their own show. Will they sing a song or act out a scene they know from the Bible? As kids, we built our own theater from a large box. I clearly remember the draw bridge, a simple flap cut out that could be pulled closed by string on the inside. We spent so much time decorating that cardboard theater that I don’t know if we did an actual show, but it was a prized possession. Or can the kids use some of your old clothes to dress up in? Or are there some old t-shirts that could be colored and cut? A new fashion could be created.
Older elementary or middle school kids
Do your child enjoy having the spotlight on them? Do they have a talent they are working on such as playing instrument or gymnastics? Perhaps they can use that talent to create a show for the whole family. If friends or family are close, invite them to the show. Let your child put everything together. Do they want to write out a program, how about an intermission or concessions? Can a string of lights or a flashlight add to the ambience? I remember my best friend, Stephanie, and I would spend hours perfecting our roller-skating show (set to music we liked) and then share it with family. It was a great way to practice, get physical exercise and practice performing in front of a friendly crowd.
An older child may want to make a movie on a smartphone, or write their own book. Once they are done, they can share it with the whole family.
Opportunities for being kind
Finally, when stuck at home it might be a good time to think about ways to bless others. One of the best ways to experience joy is when we are kind to others. Perhaps your children want to create a card that could be mailed, or a virtual card. Send one to the grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, pastors, Sunday School workers or any other person in their life. Maybe this is the time to make cookies and bring them to the neighbors? Gifts and appreciation actually help us feel better.
Should they create their own holiday where they celebrate someone? Or celebrate one of those unusual holidays with others, like joke day or donut day. Or share a favorite Bible verse with a craft bracelet. It’s a great time to encourage someone else who is feeling lonely or worried.
Remember, the best educational activities your kids can have is where they learn what it means to be part of your family. If you are working from home, make sure to take time to focus on them. Laugh and enjoy each other. Be silly. Enjoy their creations, whether they’re simple or amazing. This season won’t last forever. Make the most of it and enjoy the journey.
© 2020 by Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. First published on FocusOnTheFamily.com in March.