- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 4, 2000

The good news is that now all the children are home. Whether public-, private- or home-schooled, children are officially free of schedules, homework, tests and report cards for 2 1/2 months. For that entire time, we can "ungrit" our teeth and stop worrying about school violence and unhealthy peer pressure.

On the other hand, two months of sheer vegetation and no challenges can get old fast. So, why not sit down with your children and have a summer planning meeting?

Summer is a good time to develop skills and hobbies that don't fit easily into the normal school year. Your children might enjoy learning something new, such as playing a musical instrument. With steady effort, they could find themselves reading music and playing well by the end of the summer.

Or perhaps they could use some of the pent-up energy from the school year on some hands-on projects. Building a treehouse or some other "fun" structure would use skills such as measuring, calculating and logical thinking, while learning new ones such as sawing and nailing. Learning how to sew can be fun when the result is something of personal interest, such as a new look for the children's bedrooms or some fashionable clothes.

Cycling, swimming and all kinds of other sports can be learned or practiced throughout the summer. In these days of video games, physical fitness often is lost to the virtual substitutes. Those growing bodies need to be exercised, preferably out in the fresh air.

If your family is fortunate enough to be able to take vacation time together, consider some trips that will stretch the children's horizons. Visit the mountains, the seashore or a distant city. Explore a historical landmark. The adventurous may wish to don backpacks and hiking boots and do some family camping. Remember, any occasion is a chance to talk, discover, laugh and cope with surprises all of which are far more important than the activity itself.

Your child may decide to use some time to study a new field. This year, my daughter is studying to be a pilot through a video course. A friend gave her the tapes and the manual, and with luck, she will learn the basics of flight. Who knows what kind of interests will be sparked by such a summer project?

This year, we still will insist on the two-hours-of-reading rule, although our eldest is choosing to continue with academic studies during that time. Because they already are accustomed to planning a schedule for themselves, all of them have projects they intend to accomplish, just for their own enjoyment. One daughter will spend a lot of time at the piano and on her drawing. My son wants to convert the backyard shed into a place to invite friends for camping and boys' stuff.

The important element for parents is to guide their children into a balanced schedule, with lots of fun, action and quiet time included. No matter what choices they make, you can help them use knowledge they already have and seek out new information.

Even a trip to the beach can be an opportunity to teach about tides, currents, algae blooms, fish populations or the effects of the sun on the body. Building sand castles is a great way to learn about water tables and architecture. It takes only the smallest curiosity on a child's part for a fruitful discovery process to start.

One thing to remember: You, the parent, are the active ingredient in the home-learning process. Be ready to pounce on any opportunity for learning. For instance, when you're driving and the children are talking in the car, don't just ignore their chatter. Pay attention and ask questions.

Or be ready for them to ask you a question; those are the best chances of all. Yesterday, my son asked me, "Why can't cars run on hydrogen and oxygen fuel like the rockets? Wouldn't that be better for the environment?" That got us into a discussion about the force of reaction of the two elements, the volatility and the need for control of the speed.

Car trips also can be great times to teach family history or culture. For instance, when we travel, we sing the old Irish songs my parents taught me and the Japanese songs of my husband's culture. We do harmonies and rounds, and the children love to improvise.

Children always love family stories, especially if the story includes them. They love to hear about how they were born, or about some mess they made or special talents they showed. They also love stories about their parents' childhoods and about how their parents met and got married. When you tell the stories, be aware of the opportunity to give positive messages.

Don't be afraid to praise your spouse and children. When children feel your love for each other and for them, they feel safe and capable of doing great things in their lives.

In other words, learning is first and foremost a family thing. Believe me, children are automatically learning in the family but they may be learning things you're not trying to teach. To become a consciously teaching parent, you must become clear about your goals, and then you have to seek out the many moments in which children's curiosity and imaginations can be engaged.

Summer is a wonderful time for families to explore together. Try to make this summer the most challenging, memorable and fun vacation yet, and you'll reap the rewards in the coming school year.

Kate Tsubata, a home-schooling mother of three, is a free-lance writer living in Maryland.

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