Last summer, Nan Sabella of Grosse Pointe Farms took her sons – James, age 12 and Joey, 8 – on a trip to Cedar Point.
The boys were given enough money to buy a ticket and spend on snacks or souvenirs. It was up to the kids how they spent the remaining money. So they stepped to the front of the line, purchased their tickets and snagged a couple of maps to guide the family through the Ohio amusement park.
They learned a few valuable lessons during that fun outing. Cash in hand, James and Joey used math to deduct the value of the ticket from that amount and figure out how much to spend on other amenities during the day. The brothers learned to use maps to navigate the park and, of course, find their favorite rides (the Magnum and Millennium Force), all while having a blast and creating memories.
"Summer is our time to decide what we want to learn," says Sabella, who is also a teacher at Parcells Middle School in Grosse Pointe Woods and was chosen as a 2013 Metro Parent Top Teacher. "All year in school, the curriculum decides for us."
This summer, take advantage of everyday moments, from summer trips to impromptu backyard fun, to open your kids' eyes to lessons will that impact their development.
Whether it's a trip to the grocery store or a local museum, teachable opportunities are everywhere. All parents have to do is plan.
"The last two weeks of school, we start our bucket list," Sabella says. "The kids can put anything their hearts desire on it."
And they have. Trips to China and Space Camp were among the contenders, which also included water balloon fights and picnics.
"We do a lot of budgeting over the summer when times are tough and money is tight," Sabella says. So, once their list is complete, she and her husband sit down to decide what experiences fit into their budget.
"We give (the kids) all of these options and they really have a say in what we do then," Sabella says. This year, the family is planning a trip to Cape Cod, and Sabella says they are excited to do a whale watch. She's already asked her sons what kind of whales they are going to see, and they've been researching the area and species they'll encounter.
Believe it not, something as simple and fun as a water balloon fight teaches kids fine motor skills – and that's just the start.
By filling and tying balloons, kids exercise hand muscles. Setting up a plan of attack and working together to execute it helps with planning and teamwork. And, of course, playing fair teaches kids about sportsmanship.
Or play an old-school board game, Sabella suggests. "They are still one of the best ways to involve family. When you have a larger family, it teaches them to deal with all sorts of personalities" – a great skill for the business world. When kids start working, they'll already have natural people-skill practice.
Grocery shopping and cooking are great experiences for kids, too.
"So many of us leave them home to grocery shop now, because we want to get in and out of there quickly," Sabella says. Take the kids with you – and don't just hand them an electronic device to play with while you're shopping. Let them browse different fruits and vegetables. "A lot of times, kids will try new foods if they see it," Sabella says.
And then, when it's time to hit the kitchen, let kids in on the fun. "Every cooking experience is a science experiment," Sabella says. It teaches kids about measurements, ingredients and nutrition.
Directions are another great teachable moment, Sabella says. Take a trip to IKEA in Canton to buy a buildable item. Let the kids read directions and help you put it together. They'll learn about tools and problem solving.
"We walk through the woods, and I've tried to draw their attention to different things," adds Jennifer Czajkowski, executive director of learning and interpretation at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Czajkowski has two sons, ages 15 and 18, and she's used moments like this to teach them about the world around them. The boys had a book about signs of spring – so, whether a particular kind of bird or tree, she'd have them identify Michigan's natural beauty.
"I think what's really important is to enjoy the day – if you're at the orchard, the zoo, the art museum. Enjoy the day as you normally would," Sabella says. Be careful not to pack in too much. However, you can prep the kids. "Say, 'Hey, we're going to go to the DIA. What can you find out about it?" Sabella says.
Let your children search for information. And remember, it's all about what you do afterwards to remind them of the things they saw. "Try your own art experience based on one of the artists there," Sabella says. Or, next dentist visit, ask kids about a piece of art on display in the office. What piece of work does it remind them of from the museum?
The DIA is just one of the many family destinations that can be fun and educational. It boasts loads of enrichment for little ones, including Eye Spy. The program, which began in 2007, gives kids a chance to engage with different works of art in the galleries. They are designed for kids in pre-kindergarten to age 9 to use, along with parents.
"Basically, in almost every other gallery at the DIA, there's a placard on the wall, and it invites kids to play the Eye Spy game," says Czajkowski. Kids encounter a poem or rhyme with a clue on the outside, lifting a flap to expose a visual clue from the piece of art. They have to look around the gallery to find it.
"It's a good thing for kids – (especially) young kids – to do in the galleries with their parents," Czajkowski says. And things kids see translate to a variety of school subjects, from foreign language to history. Diego Rivera's Detroit Industry Murals can be used to discuss industrial history, while Picasso could be a topic during Spanish class, she says.
The DIA's website features a guide with 10 things to do with kids. Eye Spy is No. 1, but other activities include lighting up symbols on an ancient Mayan chocolate jar in the Native American Galleries or seeing a life-sized video of masks in action in the African Galleries.
This list helps kids navigate the museum, and Czajkowski suggests letting them lead the way during your next visit – but help facilitate the experience. "Ask a few key questions about what they are seeing," she says, especially if they stop in front of a piece of art that has seemed to spark interest or enthusiasm.
Another sweet idea is a trip to the Morley Candy Factory in Clinton Township for free "Stop & Shop" tours (advance registration required). Sabella suggests printing info from the factory's website beforehand. It gets kids excited about the experience – and may even spur questions while they are on the tour.
"These teachable moments are a chance for you to still engage with your child's learning," says Jordan Blough-Orr, parent-voice advisor and social media consultant at the Lansing-based Early Childhood Investment Corporation and mom to a 3-year-old son.
There will come a point where you may not be able to help with your kids' math assignments. But if you give them a budget at Cedar Point and they have to use math to add up items they want to buy, you've helped set groundwork through a real-life experience.
"This is a moment when you have a chance to teach your child something that is relevant to them in that second," Blough-Orr says.
If your child has $15 left after his ticket and souvenir purchase but wants to eat lunch and play a few games, it's up to him to figure out how much money he can allot for each.
"I'm going to buy this now, but what if I'm hungry later?" Blough-Orr says. This really gets them thinking. "It's cause and effect, where it's directly impacting your child positively or negatively." Yet both Blough-Orr and Sabella caution parents not to overwhelm kids with educational moments this summer.
"It has to be enjoyable, and it's really the memories," Sabella says. "The learning is going to take place and be memorable when they're having fun." Adds Blough-Orr, "It's also just a genuine interaction with your child."