A Playing Smart Activity
Who among us hasn’t felt bored by the thought of taking the kids to the same old park, playground, or zoo? Now's the time to seek out adventure beyond the obvious. It doesn’t take money or extensive planning –- only a creative mindset. What I’m suggesting is going someplace ordinary and looking at the familiar in a new way.
Wherever you go, let your child’s curiosity shape the experience. Some children want to look over everything quickly, then zero in on something they find particularly interesting. With younger children, especially, it’s often best to limit yourselves to thoroughly exploring only a part of any attraction.
Forget about making each outing self-consciously educational. You don’t need to follow up an expedition with a detailed discussion – in fact, doing so risks making your child feel like he’s "on the spot." Instead, let him take the learning initiative by asking you questions. He may even ask for a return visit. Like many adults, children often get a deeper understanding of something from noticing details that they overlooked the first time. Remember, your own interest will ignite your child’s enthusiasm.
Where to Go and What to Do
Visit an animal shelter or your local branch of the Humane Society. The employees and volunteers will likely be eager to explain their jobs and introduce the animals. Call ahead for public hours or to ask whether a personal tour can be arranged.
Attend an auction. Check the phone book and the classified ads in your newspaper for times and locations. Arrive early so you and your child can rummage through the treasures. Auctioneers really do talk fast, so prepare your child. You might also warn your child to keep her hands down, unless you’ve decided in advance to bid on an item.
Seek out a couple of estate, garage or yard sales. Often these provide interesting glimpses into people’s lives. Talk about the reasons why various items are being sold. See if you and your child can figure out why the sale is being held at this particular time.
Attend a coin show or browse around a coin shop. Your child may see things like pounds of gold or 2,000-year-old coins. She might want to start checking your loose change for rarities.
Do routine things at unusual times to give your child a fresh perspective on the everyday, such as visiting the beach in the rain or arriving very early at a supermarket when the produce is being unloaded.
Attend a dog or cat show. Find out how the animals are judged. Your child might like to make up a few categories of his own, such as "Dog Most Likely to Attract Fleas" or "Cat Most Likely to Get Stuck in a Tree."
Visit a beekeeper, jeweler, glass blower, potter or other artisan. Phone ahead and ask if the person can show you and your child around briefly and demonstrate some of the things he or she does.
Arrange for a tour of a radio or TV studio. Before you go, have your child watch or listen to a program whose set or performers you might see. Check out procedures for getting tickets to be part of a studio audience.
Whet your child’s interest in activities such as judo, yoga, karate, tai chi, drama or dance by watching a class. Visit a class even if your child doesn’t think she’d want to participate (she may change her mind).
Investigate your community’s special resources. If you live near a dam, for example, you might be able to take a tour during which you literally walk under tons of water. Other excursions might include tours of a water filtration center, fish hatchery, milk-bottling plant, bakery or chocolate factory.
Keep on the alert for opportunities to see and do things you ordinarily wouldn’t. Take a close-up look at the searchlight in the parking lot of the new shopping center. Watch workers tear down a neighborhood carnival. Stop to see a bridge being cleaned or a billboard going up. Follow hot-air balloons as they float overhead.
Take a walk along a familiar route and ask your child to look for things she’s never noticed before, from the way potted plants are arranged on someone’s front porch to cracks in the street that remind you of a cracked eggshell. Your child can also point out signs of the current season, such as birds singing, flowers budding, cloudless skies, etc.
Especially for Older Kids
Explore the periodicals room of a large local library. There you can view microfilms of old newspapers and, for a small charge, make copies of pages to take home. Go prepared to look up specific items, such as the front page of a paper on the day your child was born or on the day President Lincoln was shot.
Visit an antique shop or show. Allow your child to look around at her own pace. (For this, as with every adventure with your child, be prepared to spend time differently than you would if you were on your own.)
Visit a real estate office or the "open house" of a home for sale. Pick up an information sheet. Ask your child to make up a similar – but more imaginative – sheet for your own home. For instance, under "Additional Features," he might write, "seven secret hiding places."
Tour a factory, automobile assembly plant, police or fire department, newspaper office or courtroom in session. Call to make reservations and find out if there are any age restrictions. Nearby communities may offer what your own does not. (Whenever you go anywhere, ask if your child can go behind the scenes: to see an airplane cockpit, a theater dressing room or a hospital operating room.)
Visit a military base when public tours are offered. Watch for notice of any special events: Air Force bases, for example, often have free air shows.
Walk around the oldest part of your town or neighborhood. See what you and your child can learn about the history of the place by noticing dates on sidewalks and buildings. You might do this in the form of a scavenger hunt: seek out a gargoyle, a column, an arch, a porch, a bay window or a stained-glass window.
Resources for Anytime Adventures
Minds in Motion: Using Museums to Expand Creative Thinking, by Alan Gartenhaus, Caddo Gap Press, 1997. An original collection of exciting ideas to help you help your kids get the most out of science, art and history museums.
Offbeat Museums: The Collections and Curators of America’s Most Unusual Museums, by Saul Rubin, Santa Monica Press, 1997. Includes photos, descriptions and directions.
Trails, Tails, & Tidepools in Pails: Over 100 Fun and Easy Nature Activities for Families and Teachers to Share with Babies and Young Children, from the Children’s Nature Institute, 1999. For families to use with children ages 1 to 8. Features fun and simple activities, many adaptable for use in your own neighborhood.
For more fun learning activities, go to the Playing Smart Archive.
Susan K. Perry, Ph.D., is the author of "Playing Smart: The Family Guide to
Enriching, Offbeat Learning Activities for Ages 4-14" (Free Spirit
Publishing, 2001), from which her columns are adapted. Check out Susan¹s Web