Family Fun With Geography

We’re all familiar with old-fashioned spelling bees. In fact, most adults can still remember THE word that knocked them out of the contest back in the day. (For me, it was “restaurant” back in fifth grade.) But have you ever been in a geography bee or had fun with geography? I don’t recall participating in such an event, but in their early elementary years, my boys’ school participated in the National Geographic Bee.

They answered questions like these practice items listed on the National Geographic website.

As young students, my boys didn’t go deep, but the geography bee did spur them to crack open our dusty atlases and do a little online research. The competition demanded greater preparation at the regional and state levels, but my boys never make it that far. Still, it was a fun way to get them exploring topics that weren’t covered in class.

In an increasingly global marketplace, it’s crucial that our children have a deep understanding of the world around them. It’s odd that geography is often taught as little more than memorizing continents and states. Geography also entails understanding maps, borders, topography, climate and their populations (human and otherwise).

Geography is increasingly high-tech, relying on sophisticated geographic information systems, with sophisticated imaging, data collection and analysis (computer and math skills are key in the 21st century!) to understand and solve global problems.

Geo Whiz

If it’s too late for your child to participate in this year’s Geo quiz, it just means you have lot of time to prepare for next year’s competition. Or just explore these sites with your children from home, because the world is a really interesting place. It’s even more so when data is sliced and diced and layered onto interactive maps that invite you to examine population trends, ecological issues, the spread of diseases, distribution of wealth or a host of other factors. It’s fascinating!

Try these for starters:

Make it Personal

Try your family’s hand at geocaching, a modern treasure hunt that uses longitude and latitude to find hidden caches. Whether using an old-fashioned compass or a Global Positioning Satellite or an app to guide you, geocaching can help you get to know local terrain, burn a few calories and have fun while building geography skills.

Ditch the Apps for Maps

OK, so you didn’t walk two miles uphill to school while barefoot in the middle of winter like your parents allegedly did, but you can spin a yarn about what is was like to take your turn as family navigator during an old-fashioned road trip. Regale your children with tales of not only using a paper map but also getting the darn thing folded back into its original shape.

Has your child ever participated in a geography bee or had fun with geography?

Learning a Second Language Isn’t Easy

Both of my boys, 9 and 5, are now fluent in both Spanish and English, at least age-appropriately so, and there is one thing I keep hearing that has started to bother me. In fairness, I think I may have said it once or twice in the past myself, so please don’t think I’m getting all “high and mighty” about it.


We may say it in different ways and, of course, none of us means to be bothersome, but here is an example of how the conversation might go:


The scene: My boys and I are walking down the street together, and an acquaintance greets us on the street.

“Wow, your boys just spent an entire school year in Mexico! They must be fluent in Spanish?”

“Yes, yes, they are.”

“Well, it’s easier for them, isn’t it?”


(Insert awkward silence here.)


Yes, children under a certain age do have an amazing facility for language acquisition.

But no, the problem with the statement about being “easier” is that it’s one of those strange examples of when the actual words spoken are truer than what’s meant by them. As the conversation continues, as it always does, it becomes abundantly clear that what many folks mean by, “It’s easier for them,” is “It is easy for them,” and to that I take exception.


Learning a second language is many things, but for most of us, including kids, it’s not easy.

As for my boys, yes, they improved by leaps and bounds. Yes, they absorbed vocabulary and syntax like sponges. Yes, they appeared less self-conscious about making mistakes than many adolescents and adults do when they learn a new language.


Was it valuable? Was it enriching? Yes and yes! But was it easy?

They worked diligently to achieve what they did, every day, all day, day after day, and eventually even in their dreams at night. For months, they endured moments of awkwardness, misunderstanding, confusion and probably embarrassment, like any language learner does. Most days, they were tenacious, unrelenting, resilient and amazing. On a few, they were exhausted, resistant and frustrated. Both boys gave a herculean effort, and they triumphed.


Was it worth it?

There’s a quotation attributed to Nelson Mandela: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

My boys can now tell all their grandparents they love them in their grandparents’ own languages. They’ve sung in a Spanish choir and have probably increased their job prospects.


They tell funny jokes and laugh at the jokes of others in both languages. They don’t confuse the languages; they speak both as well as their peers, save for the most precocious. They are doing well in school and switch languages when appropriate. They can speak to 400 million more people than they could 12 months ago.


So if you want your kids to take on the task of learning a second language, tell them all the above. But there’s no point in telling them it’s easier for them while they are young, it won’t help when they are doing the hard work.

New Year’s Resolution

As we start looking to the New Year, many of us come up with resolutions to get 2014 off to a great start.  We sit down and start our lists: lose weight, work out, spend more time at home, and travel more.  The lists can go on and on.  This year, why not take this opportunity to sit down with your child and come together to make achievable academic goals.  Here are some ideas to help create and reach those academic goals together:

  1. Be a good role model:  Many times, as parents, we have little audiences who are taking notes from their greatest role model; their parents.  What a great way to show our children how to make and keep goals.  Model the process for them.  When things get tough, how do you keep going?  How do you succeed when faced with obstacles?  Take this time to teach your child how to set goals and find ways to keep them!
  2. Make good choices:  When sitting down to come up with academic resolutions, help your child to make good decisions.  When we as adults make resolutions, we need to make them reachable.  For example, I will lose 20 pounds in a week and go to the gym 2 times a day for 30 days.  These goals are more than likely unreachable.  In the same respect, help your child make clear, achievable, and measurable goals.  As you move forward, goals can always be adjusted!
  3. Help your child reach their goals:  This might look like making a quiet space available for studying and doing homework.  Another way would be to help set times to do homework.  By doing those things you can take guesswork out of the equation.  Finally, keep healthy snacks available for brain breaks.
  4. Give your child a reason to reach their goals:  It always helps to have an incentive to reach our goals.  That doesn’t have to cost money!  A reward could look like a favorite dinner meal or a family movie night.
  5. Finally, take time to connect as a family:  Share your experiences with resolutions.  Take the time to share how you find success.  And lastly, just have fun!

As we look to reach our academic goals this year, we here at Sylvan would love to help in any way we can!  As a partner in the New Year, let us work together to help your child reach their goals!!!

Top 10 Educational Gifts for Kids

Before you head out to buy a lot of Christmas toys this year, ask yourself — what happened to the toys from last year? Forgotten? Bottom of the toy box? Never taken out of the box? Interesting for only two days? These are common mom observations, and it can be a challenge to find meaningful Christmas gifts.


No surprise, I look for gifts that are fun and encourage learning, so here is my list of the top 10 educational gifts for kids this year:


1)      Building Blocks — For the younger set, there is no better toy for developing imagination and fine motor skills than wooden blocks in various shapes.

2)      Books — Remember your favorite book when you were the child’s age and give that to him. Give it a personal touch by signing the inside cover with a message that tells the child why it was special to you.

3)      Brain Builders — Find challenging workbooks and kits, such as Sylvan’s Kick Start or Sylvan’s grade level reading or math workbooks, to keep brains busy during the holiday break and make tough subjects fun for months after the holiday.

4)      Brain Games —

Blokus, for ages 5 to adult, is a great strategy game.

Word Winder, for ages 8 to adult, is a combination of Scrabble and Strategy created by puzzle guru David Hoyt.

Rush Hour is a classic stocking stuffer for kids ages 8 and up.

Tapple is a word skill builder for ages 6 to adult and moves quickly for kids who lose patience with slow board games.

5)      Marbles — The store, that is. I love everything they sell in that store! It has brain teasers for kids ages 3 – 100. Be prepared to lose yourself playing in the store. They also have online retail.

6)      Educational Video & App Games — Leap Frog and VTech both do a great job of matching fun, curriculum- and age-appropriate form factors for great learning toys.

7)      Building Sets for the Older Set — LEGO® building bricks, the Goldie Blox Spinning  Machine and a classic bird feeder construction set all give kids the satisfaction of creating their own piece of art.

8)      Sketch Pad and a Set of Pastels — Even the non artist child will be delighted and inspired to create a masterpiece.

9)      Gifts of Experience — Tickets to a museum or a play are both gifts of experience. (The Broadway in Chicago tickets that Santa brought my family years ago changed our lives!)

10)   Academic Confidence —Gift cards for academic programs to ensure kids are excelling in school and confident in their ability to learn are gifts that pay the greatest dividends.


There are a lot of lists of top 10 educational gifts for kids, but make sure you avoid toys where “no child is required.” If the gift is all electronic and has no interaction, the average child will tire of the toy within two days. And remember, with all of the games, toys and experiences, the best gift is one that allows you to spend time with your child.


If you had to pick the No. 1 educational gift for kids, what would it be?


Happy Holidays!

A Holiday Craft Science Project

In Mexico, Santa doesn’t bring gifts at Christmas. But don’t feel too sad for the kids, because Santa has his helpers, the Three Kings, and they do bring gifts on Jan. 6. Kids put their shoes out on the evening of Jan. 5, and gifts appear next to their shoes in the morning. Of course, these are the same three kings who followed the star and came bearing gifts on that very first Christmas.


Thinking about the three kings following that star got me to consider all the different ways the star is represented during the Christmas season. First, it was the inspiration for the original piñatas. These were seven-pointed stars, and my family still uses them for the traditional Posadas celebrated during the nine days leading up to Christmas.


Of course, in addition to these other stars, there’s that star on the tip-top of the Christmas tree too. We can’t forget that one.


All these stars got me thinking that a holiday craft project for the kids featuring a star would be great for them to do over winter break. It connects all our family’ Christmas traditions, including the Posadas, the Christmas tree and Three Kings Day.


So I went looking for a project, and what I found was all these great videos about making origami Christmas stars, which excited me because of the extra learning bonus origami delivers.


It’s easy to write off origami as just a hobby for passing time or, at most, a stress reliever. But that would be missing both the serious scientific applications and the mathematical insights it can produce. If you’d like more on this, I found a great article about how origami is being used for all kinds of scientific applications and how an ex-Cal Tech physicist from the NASA jet propulsion laboratory used his considerable knowledge of origami to come up with some cool solutions to some real problems.


As for the origami star videos, there are many on YouTube, but here are a few in case you want to try one with your kids. These are more appropriate for older kids, but you should be able to find simpler projects for younger kids on the YouTube sidebar for these videos:


1. I like this first one because the creator shows both how to make the star and how to fold it back up to put away for storage for next year.


2. I like this second one because it’s beautiful and is thoroughly explained by the young artist. It’s in two parts —part 1 and part 2.


3. This one is billed as a falling star, but I think it would adapt pretty well as a Christmas star. I like this video because, while pretty complicated, the demonstration is well done. I turned down the volume on my computer to mute the musical soundtrack, though.


So there you have it, the Christmas star, Three Kings Day, Posadas, Christmas tree stars, and origami all tied together with a bit of cool science thrown in for good measure.


What holiday craft projects do you do with your children?

The Gift of Experience

I swear I’m not a holiday Grinch. I enjoy the warm “fuzzies” that come from giving the perfect gift to a loved one, but I’m tired of the stuff — the piles and messes that clutter my house. My boys may be hoping for cool new clothes or additions to their favorite collections, but this year I want to focus on gifts of experience. In the end, stuff is just stuff, no matter how shiny or trendy it may appear fresh out of the box. Granted, when it comes to kids (and even some adults), it can be hard to get them to see the true value of a gift of experience, rather than things they can wear or show off to their friends.

It’s not just a holiday thing. We’ve long focused on the value of experiences. When my boys were young, we stressed that trips to the zoo, theater or museum were treats, leaving the kids to use gift money or chore money to buy souvenirs on our frequent visits.

On a holiday trip to Puerto Rico a few years ago, we took the boys on a kayaking trip to see the bioluminescent algae — something only visible in a handful of spots on Earth. It was a magical experience. The touristy, gold-plated figurine that my younger son bought broke shortly after we returned home, and the souvenir stuffed animal is making friends with dust bunnies under his bed, but he’s certain to remember our boat trip for years to come.

My boys have come to accept our way of doing things. Maybe someday they’ll actually appreciate it. Right now, they just think we’re stingy and mean.

Gifts of experience create more than memories. For middle and high school students who are exploring their world with increasing independence, the right experiences can open doors. At that stage of life, they are ripe for discovering that thing — that passion that might shape their future career or lead to a lifelong hobby.

Build a Skill

  • You can’t go wrong with a cooking class. Your child will eat for the rest of his life, right? Never mind becoming a chef, knowing how to make a delectable dish or two might help your child woo that special someone.
  • Spending a day at a rally driving school was one of the most fun experiences of my adult life. Sending your recently licensed teen to a special driving school where they can practice skid control and emergency breaking might be a lot of fun for him, and it might help you earn a discount on his auto insurance as well.
  • Follow your child’s lead and choose a class, camp or outing based on her interests. Think photography, rock climbing, sports camp, space camp or computer camp.

Launch a Career

For kids who are beginning to explore careers, consider a behind-the-scenes tour at a favorite museum or zoo, a tour of the local television station, or whatever aligns with the job of their choice. If such a tour does not exist, perhaps you can arrange a job shadow day with someone in their chosen career field.

When I was a teen, my parents arranged for me to spend a day with our dog’s veterinarian. It made me realize that I didn’t want to be a vet. Eliminating potential careers can help lead to the right one.

Help a Community

Teens can get so caught up in their own worlds that they lack an understanding of the world around them. They get caught up in comparing themselves to their peers rather than focusing on their own fortune. Travel blogger Jen Miner has taken “volunteer vacations” with her family that combine interesting travel with volunteer work in communities abroad. She shares tips on selecting the right opportunity for your family.

A gift of experience might be hard to wrap or place under the tree, but it’s something your child will never forget. Do you think your child would enjoy a gift of experience?

Family Time Ideas for Thanksgiving

This is the time of year we get to be surrounded by family and loved ones, so take the opportunity to get to know each other better, and really show how thankful you are to have one another. Below are ways to share time with your family and friends this holiday season.

Make time for your family traditions and add more to the list this year!

If you’re anxious about visiting with family, these tips will help you enjoy your time with family.

Make some fun crafts with the kids, and display them around the house for holiday guests to enjoy.

There’s nothing like a good board game to get everyone laughing and in a fun-loving mood!

We hope you have a great Thanksgiving!

Hilarious Tales of Thanksgiving Disasters

Have you ever encountered a few snags in your holiday celebrations? If so, you’re not alone! Mistakes are bound to happen during the holiday chaos. Relax this year and laugh at yourself if you hit a few bumps in the road.

From sick kids who ruin appetites to meeting “his” mother for the first time, this article from Ladies Home Journal has a variety of funny Thanksgiving disasters!

Have you ever dropped the turkey on the floor, washed and then served it? Shhh, it’s OK, we won’t tell!

HuffPost gathered some of the best Thanksgiving fails from their readers!

Watch these videos and try not to laugh too hard at those running from harmless turkeys!

Tell us one of your “disaster stories” in the comments below!

Thanksgiving DIY Turkey

November is here and that means big meals, family gatherings and the kids are home from school. Here is a simple Thanksgiving DIY Turkey that they can do while you have your hands full with making sure everything else is ready for the holiday.

The great part is, many of this you might have laying around the house, left over from your Labor Day cookout.  Just follow the steps below to start creating your Thanksgiving Turkey.

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • 1 Apple
  • 5 tooth picks
  • A handful of small marshmallows (about 14)
  • 1 magic marker
  • Construction paper (a sheet of red, white, yellow and orange is best)
  • Tape and glue
  • Scissors

Family Fun_All_Thanksgiving DIY Turkey_Craft Supplies

Step 1 – Making the Body

Place your apple flat on the table and have them pick the side they like the most. Set aside the 5 toothpicks and lay them out on the table.

Family Fun_All_Thanksgiving DIY Turkey_Turkey Body

Step 2 – Creating the tail fan

Use your handful of mini-marshmallows and add 4 marshmallows to the toothpick in the middle, this will make up the center feather. Then add 3 marshmallows to each toothpick surrounding the toothpick in the middle. Next, add 2 marshmallows to each toothpick on the end. The attach them to the back in a fan like fashion.

Family Fun_All_Thanksgiving DIY Turkey_Marshmallow Toothpicks 2 Family Fun_All_Thanksgiving DIY Turkey_Marshmallow Turkey Fan

Step 3 –  Drawing the Head and Face

For the head and neck, trace your thumb. Make an upside down heart for the wattle (or the gobble gobble as some kids refer to it), and draw the beak however you see fit. Don’t forget the eye’s, which can be as simple as two circles with dots in the middle.

Family Fun_All_Thanksgiving DIY Turkey_Turkey Paper Face

Carefully cut out the shapes and glue the eyes, beak and wattle to the head and neck.

Family Fun_All_Thanksgiving DIY Turkey_Paper Turkey Face Cut Out

Step 4 – Attaching the Face

After you are finished assembling the face, flip the head shape over and place a toothpick in the center of the paper. Make sure you allow at least a 1/4 of the tooth pick to hang out of the bottom. Then secure the toothpick to the back – either glue or tape will do the trick! If using glue, wait to dry before attaching to the body.

Family Fun_All_Thanksgiving DIY Turkey_Turkey Head Toothhpick

Once the glue has dried, insert the toothpick into the top of the apple in front of the marshmallow tail fan.

Family Fun_All_Thanksgiving DIY Turkey_Marshmallow Turkey Fan

Step 5 – The Finishing Touch

To add a little something extra to the craft, take your leftover construction paper and cut out a rectangle to make a holiday sign. Insert two toothpicks through it and then stick the toothpicks into the front of the apple, under your turkey’s head.

Family Fun_All_Thanksgiving DIY Turkey_Happy Thanksgiving Sign

And Voila! You’ve turned an apple and a few marshmallows into an awesome Thanksgiving Turkey!

Family Fun_All_Thanksgiving DIY Turkey

Mom’s Holiday Survival Guide

While I was taking a stroll through Costco the other day, I realized that “that time of year” is coming. Yes, the time of year when we start to think about decorations, gifts, family and food … the holiday season. I know in our home it can be a wonderful time of year (just like the song), but for some, including myself, it can also be stressful and a taxing time of year.


Hopefully, my “Mom’s Holiday Survival Guide” will make the holiday season a bit less stressful this year.


  • Get a large calendar and place it in a common area in your home where everyone can see it. We all know that with the holidays come gatherings, parties and holiday activities. Mark your activities on this calendar as a reminder and to stay organized. If you are the lucky individual who has to plan the events, write them down and book your events well in advance. This way, booking for the events or facilities will not be forgotten.
  • Make a meal plan for all your events and shop accordingly. If/when you have company over, know that food will be consumed. Whether it’s an evening with appetizers or a full turkey dinner with ALL the fixings, you need to know what you are making. Knowing what you are serving and making a shopping list to accommodate will help you avoid unexpected surprises.  Also, remember this is not a time to try new fancy dishes because you have no idea how they will turn out. Go with what you know to avoid a possible dinner catastrophe.
  • One trick is to spread your spending throughout the year. With so many traditions there are many gifts to give, and gift giving can sometimes be expensive. There is nothing wrong with starting your shopping in the spring. If you see a sale, keep the holiday season in mind.
  • Mix it up and start some new traditions. Sometimes there is lots of stress in trying to keep up with traditions and doing what you have always done. Do something different by doing some charity work, trying new foods (with your immediate family) for supper or playing a fun new game.
  • You have to take care of yourself so you can help others. As with any other time of year you need to remember to take care of yourself. Take time out for yourself and do something you like to do. After all, you will be catering to everyone else for the next couple of weeks.
  • Get the whole family involved. Decorating can be stressful, but it doesn’t have to be. Take the time to make this fun. Make it a fun family activity, put some festive music on, get some hot apple cider simmering and have a blast decorating and reminiscing about past holidays. 
  • Label everything properly. Keep this tip in mind when the holiday season is over and the decorations need to be housed until next seasonYou will thank me for this next year.
  • There is a greater reason for the season. Lastly, remember the reason you are doing everything. Whether you are celebrating Christmas as our family does or just enjoying the holidays with family and friends, keep the greater reason in mind when you are toiling and working for your Christmas season.


With this survival guide, I hope the holiday season is a little less stressful this year for all the moms out there! What are your tips for other moms trying to make the holiday season less stressful?