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Simple Things (Really Simple) To Keep Kids Busy, From Age Six to After Fourteen

by Julia Sneden

Last time we looked at things to do with the very young. Here are some ideas to engage slightly older children. The same principles pertain: keep a healthy ratio between passive (as in watching videos or TV) and active activities (ones in which the child must use more than his receptive senses; things that involve his body as well as his mind).

I am no enemy of TV, if it is kept in its place, but it should be only a small part of a childs day. There is much that can be learned by watching short periods of appropriate (appropriate) television. However, when it replaces family interaction or healthy exercise of mind and body, it is lethal. When as a teacher I had to report to parents that a childs attention span seemed very short, I was often asked: Then why can he sit absolutely still for an hour and a half to watch a video? The answer is, alas, that videos, TV, and movies feed a short attention span. The ever-changing, split second images; the swift action; the mood-changing music, constantly shift a childs attention for her. Nothing stays front-and-center for more than a few moments. Worse yet, these vehicles provide passive entertainment that satisfies emotional and intellectual needs with little or no effort from the child.  

There are plenty of other things to do when your grandchildren, children of friends or nieces and nephews visit. The general principles and list of things to have on hand (see Part One of this article) stay pretty much the same, except that for older children, Id suggest being sure you have playing cards, board games like Parcheesi, checkers, chess, and backgammon, and some sports equipment on hand. 

But the most important thing you need is a willingness to spend time with the child.  If this means giving over an afternoon to teaching backgammon, so be it. Dont look at that as a drag, but as a way to gain a new playmate for yourself. It wont be long before your child/pupil becomes a worthy opponent.

Often during parent conferences, I was asked: What can we do to help our child in math (or reading skills) during the summer? My answer was always the same: pay attention to him; give her your time. Aside from food and shelter and love, time is the greatest gift a parent can give a child. Taking time to play games of an age-appropriate kind will teach more math skills than any number of workbooks would. Card games, board games, dominoes, puzzles, etc. will pay off down the line. And reading to a child or with a child is vital. If a child learns to associate reading with love and attention from an adult, the desire to learn to read will grow automatically. But dont stop reading aloud just because a child can now read alone.

For Six and Up

* Life skills that are appropriate for what I call middle-aged children are: 

  •  Sewing: Try cutting a piece of plastic needlework canvas into a small (3x4 rectangle). Give the child a large plastic needle and some yarn. Let the design be theirs. Or trace the initial of his first name onto paper, making the lines about a half-inch wide. Cut it out (or let the child do it) and paste it on the plastic canvas. Let the child fill in around it with a bright color of yarn, using a simple over-and-under stitch, or a vertical out/in/over-one stitch. Then peel off the letter, and let the child sew in the space with a different color of yarn.
  • Teach an older child how to thread a needle and knot the thread, and how to sew on a button.
  • Table setting: Set fork, spoon and knife on a piece of paper. Let the child trace around them (and a glass and/or butter plate and a napkin and anything else you can think of). Let him use this guide as he sets the table for family dinner. Be sure to explain which way the sharp edge of the knife should be turned.
  • Gardening: If the child is going to be with you for an extended period, let her start some seeds, and when they are up, transplant them with you. You can send snapshots of their progress during the summer, after the child has gone home:
  • (1) Engage the child in weeding, digging, watering. Talk about the cyclical nature of gardening. In autumn, show him where the seeds of zinnias and marigolds are (at the base of the petals). Let him harvest some seeds for next springs planting. Roast pumpkin or sunflower seeds. Build a birdhouse or feeder.

    (2) Enlist the childs aid to rake or sweep. This neednt be a big chore (attention spans are still short at this age), but if the two of you are raking together, you should be able to get a good bit done in a short time.

  •  Cooking: Making cookies is always fun. Stay with the process throughout, and pick something simple. If the cookies are to be decorated, plan another activity (a quiet one) while theyre cooling. Better yet, wait a day and make the decorating tomorrows project. Delaying gratification can be a good lesson in itself (but nibble an undecorated cookie together just to be sure theyre good).
    • Help the child make Jell-O or pudding for the familys dessert.
      • Teach the child how to crack an egg, or to make scrambled eggs.
      • Bake a cake together. Remember how much fun it was to lick the bowl?

         * Sing every silly song you know. Ask what music the child likes, and listen, really listen to it. Dont be afraid to say so if the lyrics shock you. The child may not understand why, but theres a talking point.
         * Teach your grandchild how to play hopscotch the way you remember it. (New versions may be different). Teach your grandchild how to play marbles.
         * Spray a piece of construction paper (colored construction paper is best) with water. Give the child some brightly-colored chalk to make a picture on the damp paper. 

        Ten to Fourteen

         * Drag out your family photos and tall tales. Preteens love to hear about when their parents were young. 

         * If the kids are interested, teach them some of the dances you did when you were a kid. I know a whole family that loves to Shag together.

         * Let the kids do dishes the old fashioned way, one night. Stay in the kitchen with them, and show them how you start with glassware, proceed to silver, plates, and finally pots and pans. Help them dry and put away. Now you can turn over to them the business of emptying the dishwasher each day, and theyll think theyre getting off easy!

        * Teens love to be taken seriously. Approach a 14 or 15-year-old with: Youll be learning to drive soon. Lets learn how to change a tire (or change the oil or shift gears). Let them help you wash the car. Explain how to readjust the exterior mirrors after youve washed them, and why its important to do so. Let the child sit in the drivers seat and adjust your rearview mirror. Explain that to back a car, it helps to look over your right shoulder. While she is still the passenger, encourage her to observe the driver: at what point does one start the turn signal? Turn the wheels? Begin to brake at a red light? Even if she has to re-learn all these things in Drivers Ed classes, she will be grateful for your interest and help with this exciting step to maturity. 

        * By the same token, you can teach more life skills by bringing up the fact that soon theyll be going off to school, or starting a job, and will need to know how to do many things for themselves. If they dont know how to iron a shirt, show them (and this applies to boys as well as girls, you may be sure!).

        * Offer to show them how to sew on a button. My oldest son loved to show off this skill to his girlfriends.

        * If they have a favorite food that you cook (and the preparation isnt too difficult), offer them a copy of the recipe. Make the dish with them. If they like cooking, let them fix supper one night, and have the grownups do the cleanup!

        * Leave the heavy stuff (like financial advice or sexual advice) to their parents or, if they want to discuss the dicey stuff with you, be sure you share with their parents what your responses were. You dont have to betray the kids confidences, but you do have to maintain communication with those people in between who are, after all, your grown children, and the people ultimately responsible for these budding teenagers. 

        After Age 14

        Wing it. By this age, the kids have formed strong interests and tastes, and youll need to let them call the shots. If youre lucky, theyll want to include you in some of their activities, and may even be receptive to your suggestions of things to do. If youre not lucky, well, just remember that you managed to live through the teenage years of your own children, and that this phase, too, shall pass. You might consider doing something special with or for your son or daughter instead. After all, theyre the parents of a teenager, and they probably need some TLC.


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