Learning, as a concept, has always had a bad rap among kids, conjuring up mental images of stern teachers and tedious assignments. But as children move through their school-aged years into their teens, their brains are rapidly developing new skills. The more constructive activities you can squeeze into their days, the better off they’ll be.
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While classroom time is important, encouraging them to partake in fun and games with mind-expanding components will help expand their horizons through independent exploration — and it’s easier than you think, says mother, counselor, and psychologist Karla Ivankovich, an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois – Springfield.
Here, she details the best fun educational games and activities for flourishing young minds. (And don’t worry. They’ll never know they’re “learning.”)
Elementary age: 6-11 years old
While younger children in their early school years are exploring their imaginations and beginning to think much more logically on a daily basis, their abstract thought processes are not fully informed. “Concrete and tangible concepts, games, and activities are important,” says Ivankovich.
Activities that improve both gross and fine motor skills are highly beneficial. “This age range will take pleasure in their ability to master tasks that involve any outdoor play, as well as arts and crafts projects,” Ivankovich says. “I tend to suggest craft kits that allow the child to express themselves through art. Choose theme-based craft kits that garner the child’s attention.”
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Explore the craft store
If your kid isn’t big on the store-bought kit, take it a step further and have them create their own. “This in itself is a benefit for expanding creativity,” says Ivankovich. “Take a field trip to the arts and crafts store with a Caboodle® or a tackle box in tow. Add in a variety of manipulatives that the children can mold, shape, string, color, or paint. After the tackle box is half full, spend some time outside collecting things like leaves, tree bark, small pebbles, and so forth.” Then, let your child’s imagination run wild before framing this work of art.
Schedule play dates
Ivankovich says that peer interaction should take major priority in these early developmental years, so schedule regular play dates with friends. To really boost creativity, you can have kids create an outdoor obstacle course. “Bring a jump rope, a large ball to bounce and kick, and involve the friends,” Ivankovich says.
Work with puzzles
Ivankovich’s favorite activity for ages 6 to 11? Puzzles. “Allow the child to choose the puzzle that best represents their interest,” she says. “Make sure that the puzzle is age-appropriate so the pieces are not too difficult to manipulate.”
For an older child, Ivankovich suggests making collages out of favorite photos or pictures from a magazine. “Then, after it dries, cut out pieces to make your own puzzle,” she says. “Remember, this stage of cognitive development, according to Piaget, focuses on how the mind works.” Let ‘em puzzle that out.
Who is Piaget? Good question! Jean Piaget studied the development of children’s understanding by observing, talking, and listening to them as they interacted with activities he created for them. His research has been extremely influential in educational theory!
Junior high & high school: 12-18 years old
In this age range, kids and teens have probably mastered logical thinking and will begin to color outside the lines with abstract concepts — especially those relative to math and science. “Older children like to experiment with a sense of self and their own style interests,” says Ivankovich. So, let them have some freedom to reign.
Encourage them to hone a skill
In this stage, Ivankovich says musical instruments and science-based games are great choices, allowing a passion to take hold and perhaps set them up for life. “Microscopes, chemistry sets, and rock tumblers can all be great fun,” she says. “Again, I tend to favor pre-made kits that give parent and child something to achieve together.”
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Make something cool & useful
Crafts can still be fun, but take it up a notch. “Start by cutting out pattern ideas from popular magazines, take a trip through a fabric warehouse, and buy enough fabric to make something of interest,” Ivankovich says. “Consider starting with the basics — curtains, swag for a room, a throw for a chair. The goal is to teach the child that they can explore the basis for their creativity and actually create such items.”
In this stage, children want to explore interests and see real-world application. By allowing them to take an idea from conception to reality, they expand their horizons through experiential learning.
Work on their hand-eye coordination
While you can let kids play video games from time to time (which will offer some hand-eye coordination benefits), you’re better off encouraging them to play organized sports.
“Gross motor movement is important at every stage, but especially as the child is growing up,” says Ivankovich. “If your child is not yet a team-sport person, consider solo sports such as martial arts, yoga, or tai chi.” Besides motor skills and the potential for peer development, they’ll also keep their hearts and bodies active and healthy.
Books, books, books
While books are essential at every age, getting older kids hooked can only benefit them as they move toward adult life. “This group is at an age where they are very idealistic, and have yet to solidify plans for the future — they’ll seek to be 20 different things,” Ivankovich says.
“Books can allow them the luxury of ‘trying on’ many different careers, paths, topics, and interests without overextending.” Plus, if they can truly develop a love for literature, they’ll never stop learning, never be bored, and never be alone with one colorful world after the next available to them.