Winter Break: Should Kids Keep Their Brains Active?

There’s plenty of research about the importance of continuing learning over the summer to fight brain drain — but can the same be said about winter break? Here's what you need to know.

Winter break offers your kids much-needed downtime to recharge and refocus. But when I asked teachers if I should let my kids take time off from learning over the break, their response was "no."

That surprised me — especially because we were talking about the elementary grade level. As a parent, I always thought my children should relax on a well-deserved winter break — even though I never took one myself, except for a few days right around the holidays. As a graduate student and then professor, my break was filled with the next semester's prep or my own research and writing. Breaks just weren't on the table. And I didn't advocate a break for my college students, either. I knew studying over the break would have a positive return.

But I didn't know that this kind of constant work and engagement was good for younger kids, as well. And in some opinions, it's much more important for younger kids to stay engaged than older ones.

Younger Children Should Keep Learning

"Younger children haven't mastered the skills they're learning yet, so it's easier for them to lose them," said Barb, an elementary school teacher. She continued, "An older student can take a few weeks off from reading and math and jump back in with a skill set that's already been established."

Parents and teachers know that kids need breaks. Studies show that even short 15-minute breathers enhance learning when children return to the lesson at hand. Studies also suggest that breaks before tests can benefit students. But there's another branch of research that indicates students lose what equals to about a month of learning over summer breaks. This phenomenon is often called Summer Brain Drain.

"Winter break isn't as crucial as summer," said Barb. "But kids need consistency with their lessons. And it's better to do something casual than nothing at all. You want to keep a healthy balance between lessons and breaks."

"We don't take a break," said Heather, an elementary school teacher and a mother of two. "We pull out workbooks and find ways to stay focused on studying over the breaks," she noted. You don't want your kids to lose their stamina for learning and become disengaged by January.

"And there's so much that you can do with little ones," advocated Heather.

Make Learning An Ongoing Habit

The key is to make learning fun and interactive, but also habitual. Short breaks are fine, but learning doesn't need to come to a full stop. If you teach your children early on that learning isn't a chore, but rather a necessary joy, their foundation for learning will grow even stronger.

The best way to think about it is to create that healthy balance — short breaks interspersed with activities that have learning and enrichment at their core.

Educational Activities for Kids Over Break

Your kid's teachers probably aren't going to assign homework over the winter break, so it's up to you to create your own curriculum. Here are some fun and easy activities you can do with your child over the school recess to keep the learning going.

1. Take local excursions with an educational bent.

If you're near a major city, you probably have a natural history or science museum. Most of these will have hands-on activities or winter camps for young visitors. But don't forget about off-the-beaten-path, smaller museums that may be local to your area. These visits will enrich your kid's sense of the world, while still being an all-around fun time. You can even let your child choose your family's "Creative Expedition."

If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can check out some of Noodle’s educational travel suggestions:

Educational Family Road Trips

Visit These Educational Destinations Your Next Holiday Break

2. Grab some inexpensive workbooks.

Look at discount stores for inexpensive activity guides and workbooks. These are just the kind of thing that you can pull out on winter afternoons to keep your kids busy and engaged. It's the perfect activity to have them do before they turn to television or video games.

3. Base activities on their recent school assignments.

What's the last thing your child was working on in school before the break? Use this topic as an inspiration for an activity at home. Ask her to write a short presentation about the latest topic in her government class. Tell her she can quiz the family about it at dinner. Or if she's younger, she can practice writing the alphabet each day. Take a look at the last assignment your child brought back, and design your own specialized curriculum accordingly.

4. Make it a routine.

My kids love their advent calendars leading up to the holidays. Consider creating a calendar that marks off the days of winter break. Give each day a special learning activity. Your kids can do the daily "homework," and you can build in small rewards for each endeavor. If they're anything like my kids, they'll be racing to find out the day's plan. A calendar teaches them how to get into the habit of homework, and they can feel satisfied as they mark off their daily accomplishments.

5. Take a trip to the library.

If your children don't already have a library card, sign them up and help them choose a few books to read over the break. Don't ignore the non-fiction section. Young learners will love the library's selection of science books or biographies of famous historical figures, from Harriet Tubman to Houdini to their favorite astronaut or inventor.

6. Turn your regular errands into learning opportunities.

When you write your thank-you cards, have your children sit down and do it with you. Teach them one or two fancy new vocabulary words to add. Or have them help you with holiday cooking and shopping. These are probably your everyday activities, but your children can learn about the history behind your family recipe, the "science" of getting the sauce just right, and even important tips about finances during shopping trips. Just make sure you talk about these things.

7. Reading is the best pastime.

Even if your kids are old enough to read on their own, find the time to snuggle and read to them. "Always encourage reading," Heather advised. Younger children adore picture books, and the whole family can enjoy a classic poem or chapter book. Take turns reading a paragraph, or better yet, invite your children to bring her favorite passage or poem to share at dinner. You can even huddle up and listen to some of your favorite actors read audiobooks.

Sources:

Cooper, H. (2003, January 1). Summer Learning Loss: The Problem and Some Solutions. Retrieved December 18, 2014, from LD Online.

Gilden, D. (n.d.). The Impact of Taking Breaks on Learning and Memory. Retrieved December 18, 2014, from The University of Texas Austin.

Hutchins, M. (2014, December 18). Educators say continued learning is important during winter break. Retrieved December 20, 2014, from Herald Democrat.

Walker, T. (2014, June 30). How Finland Keeps Kids Focused Through Free Play. Retrieved December 19, 2014, from The Atlantic.

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