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Five Ways to Use Family-Fun Activities to Teach Kids

Put a smarter spin on summer fun this year with a backyard BBQ cookout, road trip, stargazing, garage sales and a nature hike

Vacation jaunts close to home are prime classrooms. Take these four family activities: Classic and casual, they're actually rife with little lessons that, with a bit of context from mom or dad, can ignite kids' noggins, linking school concepts to real life. "Summer enrichment" and "battling brain drain" will be the furthest things from their minds – but that's precisely the point (and result).

1. Brainy BBQ

A cookout delivers eats and education. Math peppers the prep. How many will the burger and potato salad recipes serve? How many guests? List in hand, visit a butcher or farmers market, where kids meet the direct source. Talk about the food chain (what'd that cow chow?) and local farming (what fruits and veggies grow in Michigan?). As for meal making, it's true home ec., from measuring ingredients to following directions. Science sneaks in, too. Talk about heat transfer and energy while popping grub on the grill. What will cook faster: fat meat patties or skinny asparagus? Why?

2. Stargazing scholar

The night sky is a discovery petri dish. Start with the obvious: the moon. Why does it look larger than the sun? What's it made of? How did people visit it? Talk about the solar system and our spot in it. Groups of stars are learning wormholes, too. Point out that an "asterism" (like The Little Dipper) isn't a constellation (there are 88, and they're regions of the sky). In advance, look up a star (Polaris) or planet (Mars) and hunt for it. See light pollution by observing in both city and rural areas. Kids really curious? Visit a planetarium, use an astronomy app or visit clubs' public telescope events for a better view (visit AstroMichigan to find a southeast Michigan club near you).

3. Nature know-it-all

From forest trails to a simple day in the park or yard, ecology is everywhere. Take a hike in southeast Michigan. What ecosystems do you spy – a pond, forest, grassland – and what critters inhabit them? Tracks and droppings can provide clues. See a squirrel nibbling? Or a butterfly on a flower? Have kids ponder how animals, plants and "decomposers" like worms all interact. What impact do people have on this world? While out in nature, give kids free reign with a camera, too, encouraging close-up pix. Later, pick a few, look for signs and try to ID a tree or bird. Bonus: Point out the sun as nature's compass, challenging kids to determine "north" based on its position.

4. Whiz kids on wheels

Leverage those road trips. Look for license plates, jotting down their states. As kids tally, organize, practice penmanship and add up, they get wise to geography, too, like Michigan's neighbor states. Augment that with a map, pointing out cardinal directions. Got a smartphone? Watch for city, state or landmark signs and Google to learn more. While fueling up, older kids can try some calculations (there's 200 miles left, you get 35 miles a gallon, gas is $3.78 a gallon – what'll it cost?). Kids mastering their alphabet can hunt out the window for stuff that starts with an "A," "B" and so on. Too easy? Go backwards, for fun.

5. Garage-sale genius

Homefront shopping packs more than deals. Hosting a garage sale? Think marketing and writing: Kids can help make posters or choose words to best "sell" the sale in a little classified ad (take 'em to city hall if you need a permit, too, for a look at government in action). Sorting stuff to sell helps kids prioritize and create categories. Peek at toys, too, to see where they're made (a bit of commerce) – and if they're recyclable (often not, underscoring a need to "reuse" stuff to lessen impact on landfills). Shopping? Have kids set a budget and see how far their bucks stretch. Comparing prices and bartering flex those math muscles, too.

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