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Playful learning

School's out - at least for most kids - but that doesn't mean the learning needs to stop. Summer activities offer a variety of opportunities to give kids a boost with just about anything - art, music, history, science, geography, math or technology.

"Children learn when families do things together," says Carole Collins, public information specialist with the Consumer Information Center. That can mean taking a trip, playing games at home, visiting a museum or going to a ballgame.It's a thought seconded by William Russell, educator and author of a book called "Family Learning."

Pay attention to your children's interests, he says, and use those interests to encourage learning in a variety of ways. "Children's minds are like little pieces of Velcro," he says. They will catch on to the things that interest them and you just have to keep tossing a lot in, in hopes that it will stick.

So, here are some ideas on how to take advantage of some playful learning this summer:


Visits to museums give families a special opportunity to spend time with children in a learning environment, notes a new publication from the Department of Education called "Museums & Learning: A Guide For Family Visits."

For children, says the booklet, "the wonder of seeing the real things in a museum often allows them to make the connection between the things they see and already know to what they are learning every day at home and in school."

What is it that makes museums so valuable? For one thing, by their nature, museums are collections of objects. And objects can be a useful learning tool, says the publication, teaching such skills as:

- Comparing and contrasting: learn-ing to recognize similarities and differences.

- Identifying and classifying: recognizing and grouping things that belong together.

- Describing: Giving verbal or written descriptions of the object viewed.

- Summarizing: Learning to pre-sent information that has been gathered in a shortened or condensed form.

The broad category of museums includes not only natural history, art and science museums, but also such places as botanical gardens, nature centers, planetariums, aquariums, restored areas and historic homes. And almost any community or area has places such as these that can encourage learning in a fun atmosphere. To make the most of your museum visit, however, you need to plan, prepare and follow through before, during and after the visit.


- Talk about what you will see in the museum. Try to find out what excites youngsters most.

- Relate what will be at the museum to what they have studied in school.

- Review personal safety and behavior rules. Have a safety plan in case you get separated, and talk about acceptable rules of behavior. Does the museum allow touching, for example?


- Be flexible and follow your children's lead. Let them enjoy the exhibits at their own pace.

- Try to relate exhibits to other parts of their lives. For example, a knight's suit or armor is similar to a catcher's mask or bicycle helmet and shin guards.

- Ask questions and talk about what you see. A good name for this is . . . What does this remind you of? What do you think would happen if . . . How are these two objects the same? How does this make you feel? Imagine that . . .

- Play museum games. Many museums have work sheets and checklists for kids to fill out. If not, make up your own. Or buy some post cards at the gift shop and then find those items. Or, ask your children to find paintings or displays that have their favorite colors, shapes or objects. Or something very old, soft, shiny or slippery. Try to figure out how and why. How did they build that tepee? Or, why would those animals live in the ground?

- Be sure to child-size your visit. Young children learn best in 10- to 15-minute segments and can be overwhelmed by too much at once. Thirty minutes to an hour may be the limit. Come back another time to see the rest.


- Continue to talk about what you saw and how it relates to life.

- Encourage children to set up a home museum built around a favorite theme or collection of their own.

- Check TV listings or look for videos about subjects at the museum.

- Encourage children to tell friends and relatives about the visit.


Summer's a natural for geography activities. Whether it's building a make-believe city in the sand box, drawing maps to locate treasure in the back yard or taking a trip to another city or state, there are lots of ways to help children understand space and place.

"Studying geography enables us to better see and understand our own home and culture and our relationship to other cultures and environments," says Sharon Robinson, assistant secretary for educational research and improvement in the Department of Education. "When you talk to your children about world events or vacation plans and you turn to an atlas or map, you teach them a great deal. Not only do you help them learn how to use maps, but you help them, over time, to form their own mental maps of the world. They can better organize and understand information about other people and events."

The Department of Education suggests some summer activities to help kids learn about geography:

- Show children north, south, east and west by using your home as a reference. Once they have their bearings, you can hide an object and give them directions to its location: two steps north, three steps west, etc.

- Go on a walk and collect natural materials such as flowers and leaves for an art project. Then draw a map of the locations where you found those objects.

- Point out different kinds of maps - such as a state highway map, a city or town map, a bus route map or a shop-ping mall map. Discuss their differ-ent uses.

- Encourage your children to make their own maps, using various scales and legends. They can draw fanciful maps of places or journeys they have read about or real maps of places in their neighborhood.

- Keep a map or globe by the television or kitchen table and use it to locate places talked about in news programs or in the newspaper.

- Walk around your neighborhood and look at what makes it unique. Point out how it is similar to other places you have been and how it is different. Talk about what animals and plants live there. Look at buildings and discuss their uses. Are there features designed for specific weath-er conditions? Do shapes tell how the building was used in the past?

- Read books or watch videos set in faraway places. Find these places on a map and talk about your children's mental images of these places.

- Play the license plate game. How many states can you identify? You don't have to be in a car to play; look at plates of cars in a parking lot. Encourage kids to keep a list and then color on a map the states of plates they've found. Can you find them all during the summer?

- Have children talk with older relatives about what the world was like when they were young. Kids can ask questions about transportation, heating, refrigeration, clothes, foods and schools. Look at old pictures. How have things changed?


If your kids are interested in sports, there are a lot of ways to use that interest to teach other things as well, says William Russell.

"Do you know how much you can learn just by reading a box score together?" he asks. He and his daughter spent an evening recently doing just that, he says. By talking about batting averages and winning percentages, you're giving a good lesson in math. Studies have shown, he says, that students who follow batting averages do better at learning percentages and other mathematical con-cepts.

But you can also use your favorite sports to study geography: Where do teams come from? Where do they trav-el? Can you plot their routes on a map?

And language skills: Watch interviews with athletes. Talk about words and phrases that are related only to sports. Make a list. Look up words that are not familiar. Listen carefully to athletes and count the "you knows" and "likes" and other fillers that some might use.

Research the history of your favorite team. Where else has it played? How has the sport changed? History lessons, too, can come from an interest in sports.

And so can physics. "I know a physics teacher who used the Winter Olympics to teach about friction and gravity and other things," says Rus-sell.

One important concept that can come from sports - whether watching or playing, says Russell, is character. Let your children see, he says, "that it matters to you how professional and collegiate athletes behave both on and off the field. Let them know that when they participate in any contest, what matters most is not how well they do but what they do and who they are."

- Parents can get a copy of Department of Education publications "Museums & Learning" and "Helping Your Child Learn Geography" by sending $1 to Playful Learning, Consumer Information Center, Pueblo, CO 81009.