Archive for Inside the House


Using New Words: Fun Family Literacy Activities

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If you want a quick reminder about down-time activities for kids that can pick up the energy and create good feeling, check out the suggestions on Andrea Patten’s “What Kids Need to Succeed” blog.

It’s an activity I created for the Way to Go! Family Learning Journal series—something simple and definitely not new, but something you might have forgotten about.

Basically, it’s a vocabulary enrichment, search-your-brain, activity: think of synonyms for common words and use them with your kids, encouraging them to do the same.

Simple. Easy. Undemanding. Straightforward. Trouble-free. Effortless. Uncomplicated. (I had help: I used my Word thesaurus to come up with those synonyms as I wrote this. But aren’t they enriching words!)

Try it. Have fun!

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Family Literacy Day Is Nov. 1: Four Fun Activities for Kids

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November 1 is Family Literacy Day. Cheers! What fun family activities for kids are you planning for that day?

It’s the Sunday after Halloween. Hmm… Are there ways to combine family literacy with Halloween?

Remember: Literacy is about more than simply decoding words, although decoding is the basic skill. Literacy is about understanding. Family literacy is all the activities in the home that provide kids with the foundational experiences upon which comprehending the written word is based.

So to my way of thinking, anything you do with kids that expands their understanding and knowledge of the world and how it works and of human experience, is a family literacy activity. Of course, reading is a rich avenue for expanding understanding, but it’s not the only one.

Here are four ideas for celebrating Family Literacy Day (and Halloween):

1) Have a Post-Halloween read-aloud picnic or party: Invite friends of all ages to pack favorite kid foods (and a LITTLE Trick-or-Treat candy) and bring a favorite short book, poem, or personal writing. Then everyone gets to stand up and read their choice, while others are munching.

2) Put a gently-used children’s book in someone’s Trick or Treat bag: Go through your bookshelves and see if there are any you want to give away. When you see the right-age child at your door, slip the book into his or her bag along with a treat.

3) On Nov 1, take a trip to a museum, historical spot, or place of interest—perhaps one that you’ve been putting off. Notice any Halloween decorations they may have put up. Expand your children’s background of knowledge about that place and what it represents. Read aloud together any brochures you find about that place or exhibit.

4) Do a neighborhood or town Halloween Decorations tour, either walking or driving: Talk about why ghosts and goblins are associated with Oct. 31? Why spiders? Are there old medieval stories to discover? Why are pumpkins such a big deal? Do a little research on the internet or in books—that’s certainly a family literacy activity.

Perhaps you have other suggestions for Family Literacy Day? Feel free to add them in the comments section here.

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Create a Literacy Rich Home-5: Kids’ Imaginative Play, Based on Books

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Gosh, Rose, age seven, loves to read! And best of all, she’s into imaginative play based on stories and books, and I know that develops reading comprehension.

Yesterday I spent part of the day with her and Calvin, who’s almost five. Rose led me into her room to show me something she’d set up in a corner.

There she pointed to a large colorful pillow wedged between the dresser and the wall. Two dolls were propped up on it, and in front of them was the footstool from the bathroom, serving as a table. On the table were cups and saucers, a teapot, a few plastic vegetables.

A doll's tea party, based on "A Little Princess"

“You know why I’m doing this, Grandma?”

“Tell me.”

Rose rushed to get a book. “Grandma, did you read this book to Mommy when she was little? I think it was hers.”

She held ancient, browned, mildewed hardcover copy of A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I honestly didn’t remember whether I’d read it to her mother or not. I told her I wasn’t sure.

“Well, in this book, the girl thinks that dolls come alive when people aren’t looking, but when people see them, they freeze. So I’m trying to find out,” she said. She clearly was skeptical that her dolls were alive, but at the same time, she wanted it to be true.

“When I look at them, they just sit there,” Calvin interjects. He’s shares the room with Rose, so he has lots of opportunities to test the dolls-are-alive theory. He’s quite sure they’re not.

“Well, I think it’s something worth checking out,” I say, noncommittally. We three glance at each other…we each know dolls aren’t alive, but it’s sure fun to play.

Don’t you love seeing kids involved in imaginative play based on a book? It’s one of the reading strategies that actually develops background knowledge, and that’s crucial to reading comprehension.

After I left the room, I thought of questions I could have asked that might have “PLUSed” or enhanced the experience for her: “I bet you’d like to play with Sara (the Little Princess) for a couple days. What do you think you’d do together?” or “It would be fun to live back then. But I think I’d missing having a car to drive. Is there anything you think you’d miss?”

Next time I see that kind of play, I’ll try to seize the moment more effectively. But still I know it was a rich, inspiring experience for her to create that tea table and scene.

The truth is that in order to play that way, a child has to read a book, or listen to it, paying close attention to the details and description. Then the child has to be resourceful to figure out how to replicate an experience from the story. For instance, Rose had to figure out what she could use from her room and toy box to create a doll’s tea party.

Then think of all the historical detail and context that a child has to take in and process in order to do play like she or he is in another period or country.

And in many ways, when children are playing out a story they are re-writing it; they are getting experience with creating character and even story structure. That sort of play develops empathy and understanding. And it’s certainly theater.

Unfortunately, I know there are children who don’t know how to engage in imaginative play based on books (or movies/TV). It’s tragic that they miss out of some of the sweetest experiences of childhood.

So let’s thank our lucky stars when we see kids really playing imaginatively. Let’s grant them time and space and encourage them in any way we can. For such activity develops brains and hearts, and it contributes hugely to school and life success.

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Create a Literacy Rich Home–4: Writing–Show Kids How to Make a List

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Even before kids start learning to read or write, one of the useful literacy activities you can do is to let them see you making lists: to do lists, appointment/schedule lists, grocery lists, names of people to invite lists…all kinds of lists.

Then it’s especially fun to see what kind of lists they make once they learn to write and read on their own!

Rose is excited about her upcoming November birthday, even though it’s only September. She is seven still, just beginning second grade, and she LOVES reading and writing.

Yesterday she handed me her wish list for her birthday. She wasn’t pushy or demanding or coy in doing this; she just wanted me to know what she was thinking she’d like to have and do. I like that kind of straightforward communication.

Here’s a picture of her list:

A seven-year-old's birthday wish list

A seven-year-old's birthday wish list

In case the writing in the photo is too small for you to see, I’ve typed out what it says, keeping her spelling and capitalization. I didn’t say anything about her errors when she presented it to me because “inventive” spelling at this age is normal and fine, the experts say. She’ll learn conventional spelling at school over the next few grades (and beyond!). Here’s her list:

trafic jam game
littleest petshop clubhouse house
Pogo stick
doll house
Amarican girl eneything
Books/boxcar children seris
Juni B. Jones seris

So why is making lists a great thing to do for literacy and to develop writing skills?

There are many reasons: It shows kids how useful writing things down is (it helps you remember). It teaches organization and thinking skills like categorizing or grouping. It teaches kids a way to get things out of their heads so they can use their brain space for other things. It’s a way to communicate easily with others (“Babysitter, my list of important telephone numbers of posted on the refrigerator.” It’s a way to have an idea now and then go back to it later.

In Plus It! How to Easily Turn Everyday Activities into Learning Adventures for Kids there’s a suggestion (p. 68) making a list of household tasks or chores with your kids as a strategy that helps turn housework drudgery into something resembling fun.

And there are lots of other reasons to make lists, too. Please feel free to comment below about your personal experience with lists or with helping kids make them.

I think it’s one of those family activities that definitely contributes to both family fun and family literacy. And it’s so simple to do.

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Create a Literacy Rich Home–3: Think Aloud When Reading Aloud

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Reading aloud to children is one of the very best things a parent or care-giver can do to prepare them for success in school. Sometimes people read aloud in a mechanical just-keep-turning-the-pages way. But you can also really PLUS a reading experience by using a technique called Think Aloud. I’ll bet both you and the children will have more fun when you use it.

What Think Aloud means is that you just stop briefly while you’re reading to tell your thoughts and feelings about what you read, or to ask about the child’s reactions. It might be as simple as saying, “Wow, I didn’t know that!” or “Eek, I wonder what they’ll use to put out the fire. What do you think…” before you turn the storybook page.

I was reading a classic book, Firemouse (written and magnificently illustrated by Nina Barbaresi) to my four-year-old grandson yesterday. We were into our third reading, at least, when I stopped and made a few “think aloud” comments. He joined right in, pointing out details I’d missed, because I was paying attention to the words and he was eating up the illustrations. What bonding that creates with a kid. And we laughed out loud at Suspender’s comment, “Little fur-wads!” even the third time through.

Please read more about how to Think Aloud when you’re reading aloud at this link.

The website What Kids Need to Succeed is going to regularly carry brief articles about how you can help children become better readers and learners. They’re all great, easy-to-do activities. (I know that because I wrote them and have given permission to What Kids Need to Succeed to use them.)

Good teachers use the Think Aloud technique often. So you can help prepare your children for school success by getting them comfortable with talking and thinking about stories and books.

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Kids in the Kitchen

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I was with a 7-year-old girl and a 4-year-old boy in a kitchen yesterday evening. We couldn’t think of what to make for supper so we resorted to a variation of brecker—breakfast for supper.

Here’s how they participated, with GREAT enthusiasm:

Cleared off the table of paper scraps from a project in process—7 yr old

Set the table (plates, silverware, napkins, glasses)—both

Beat the eggs for scrambled eggs—4 yr old

Peeled carrots (alternating use of the peeler, with instruction for safe use). These actually were eaten raw before we sat down—both

Put serving dishes on the table—both

Salted and peppered the sliced tomatoes—4-year-old

Cleared plates and silverware to the counter after eating—both

Washed dishes and silverware in the sink, standing on a stool from bathroom—7 yr old, with apron

Rinsed dishes on the other side of sink—4 yr old

Got dessert (sorbet) out of freezer. We sat outside on the house step to eat it.

Kids need to learn so much about using the kitchen, and it doesn’t come naturally. Believe it or not, I recently taught a 69-year-old woman (who’d grown up with servants in a foreign country) how to safely wash a knife. She never knew that if you double over and slide the sponge or dishrag down the dull side you won’t get cut.

Don’t you think we should start teaching kids—both boys and girls—kitchen procedures as early as it is safe? I find kids get great satisfaction from having such responsibility and experience, provided it’s supervised by a caring adult.


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Idea: A Toy Library

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I just learned of a new-to-me idea. It’s especially great for people living in small spaces, people on a budget, people who like variety, and people who have kids that grow up fast: it’s a toy library!

An Austin, TX mother writes about it in her first blog entry. Check out for details. (This blogger-mother is the daughter of an old friend whom I haven’t seen in about 38 years! We just reconnected via Facebook.)

For a Toy Library to work, there need to be a central location—perhaps a food coop or community center or day care facility or church would be appropriate. In the Austin case, according to austinfrugalmom, it’s called “Family Place Library.” For a small annual donation, parents/members check out toys for two weeks at a time. I’ll bet there’s even provision for longer-term renewals, if some child becomes especially attached to a particular plaything. And I’ll bet people are expected to return the toys clean and refreshed/repaired if necessary.

It seems to me one of the best things about this is that when kids tire of toys, one simply returns them for someone else to enjoy, which leaves space for new things to come in.

Brilliant. Practical. Green. Fun. Certainly worth a try in other communities.

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Create a Literacy Rich Home–2: Imagination

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Wow. I’m reading a book about dreams and imagination and loving what I’m learning*.

There are spectacular opportunities for parents to support the intellectual and emotional growth of kids when they encourage expressions of imagination!

Why haven’t I read or studied about this in depth before? It feels like I’ve missed a whole world of possibilities, or I’m a Jill-come-lately.

Why is imagination important? Because it (and the unconscious) is a never-ceasing fountain of creativity, solutions, information, and much, much more.

It’s where great ideas, inventions, and actions start. Certainly it can help children learn to read and comprehend better when someone at home is interested in and talks about the imagination.

Here are ideas of ways parents can give kids an advantage in feeling comfortable using the imagination. There are many more, of course. And every one of these activities can be expanded in myriad ways, if we use our imaginations(!).

1) Talk about dreams that show up during night sleep. You can simply ask children, “Do you remember any dreams you had last night?” Then allow them to tell what they remember, if anything.

When you ask this fairly often, you may start getting interesting replies. There’s no need to do anything with the dreams; just listening may be enough to communicate that dreams can have value and information.

2) Explain about visual symbols—how a picture has a message—from the most basic, like a red hand in pedestrian signal box at a traffic light means don’t walk, to the circle with a line through over a picture of a dog which means dogs not allowed here, to more subtle symbols.

You can ask, “What do you think that picture on that box or ad is saying?” A child’s answer might be very different from yours; let that be okay; you can both share ideas.

3) Comment on things in your child’s artwork. “The boy in the picture you drew looks like he’s jumping up high. I wonder what he’s feeling.” Or, “That butterfly has so many colors, I expect it is happy.” Children may tell you something entirely different from what you thought.

4) Talk about what nursery rhymes or poems or stories might mean. Is “Humpty Dumpty” about things that happen that can’t be changed, so we just feel sad and then accept them? Is “Cinderella” about how things can feel unfair, but then in time they can change? What about fairy tales? Harry Potter stories? What do they show us?

Do you have other suggestions for parents of ways to encourage imagination? Please put them in the comments section, so we can get a

*The book I’m reading is Robert A. Johnson’s, Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth, Harper & Row, 1986.

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Create a Literacy Rich Home–1

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(5/19/09 Note: This is a first draft of what I hope will be a longer article.)

In a literacy-rich household, both WORDS and the big WORLD itself are enjoyed by everyone.

Grown-ups and kids in a literacy-rich home know that life is about learning, thinking, sharing, and expanding their skills and interests. For the truth is, literacy is about books AND a whole lot more.

Here are five things to emphasize if you want to create that kind of home-life:
1)    Talking and listening
2)    Reading and watching
3)    Writing and drawing
4)    Creating and investigating
5)    Enjoying and appreciating

This blog entry is about #1.

TALKING and LISTENING—Here’s my best advice:

Talk to kids from birth on. Chatter up a storm.  (For example, even with a tiny baby, you can endlessly say things like, “You are a beautiful and healthy baby. I’m really enjoying watching you grow, and change, and learn!”)

Talk about processes, the order in which to do something, and how things work. (For example, for an infant, you can say, “Your body is working just the way it is supposed to. We take food in—you drink your bottle—and then our bodies take what they need to help us grow—and what’s not needed is pushed out as poop! Good work, body!”)

Name the feelings. When an emotion comes up, say the word for it. (Again, even with a very young child, try, “You sound like you’re angry that something’s hurting inside. I’m going to see what I can do to help you feel more comfortable.”)

Share your observations, even of the little things. (For example, “I just noticed what beautiful colors that rose has. It’s got bright yellow, then gold, and a little bit of white.”)

Use big words (and provide simple explanations if you get a “Huh?”).

Express positive attitudes, like these:
We can learn from every experience, especially mistakes. I love you regardless. Let’s say what we’re grateful for. Let’s use our time wisely. Let’s plan ahead. It’s important to take good care of yourself.

Answer questions. They mean your child is learning to learn. What a great thing to support, even if it takes a little extra time. If you don’t know an answer, that’s fine. See if you and the child together can get an answer.

Play with words and sounds.
Make up rhymes and raps. Say tongue twisters.

Tell stories. About your childhood. About your day. Great stories from books. About animals.

Listen with interest: (“I want to hear what you have to say.” “Tell me more…”)

Listen with questions: (“Why do you think…” is a good one to ask.)

Listen with follow-up:
(“I was thinking about what you said yesterday…”)

Listen and check if you understood:
(“What I heard you say was… Is that what you meant?”

Listen with an open heart: (Sometimes kids don’t need an answer, they just want to state what’s true for them. You don’t have to agree or advise. Just listen.)

Dear reader, what other advice would you add to this list?

Categories : Inside the House
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