The holiday break is just around the corner, and you and your kids might have very different ideas of how to spend the time off from school. Though it’s absolutely critical for students to rest their bodies and minds — seriously, let them sleep! — it’s also important to make sure they aren’t completely disengaged.

Learning loss isn’t as much of a concern during the winter break compared to the longer summer holiday, but ignoring academics the whole time will still set them back and make the return to school more difficult.

Though the break might seem like a lot of time at the outset, the days can go by quickly. 

Find out what they’re interested in, and then you can come up with some activity centered around that.

Jania Otey, homeschool parent and founder of Kids & Culture Camp

“The way you find the balance is by setting aside a certain amount of time each day or a couple times throughout the week,” says Jania Otey, a homeschool parent and founder of the D.C.-based Kids & Culture Camp, “where your child is going to be engaged in some type of academic or enrichment activity.”

At the beginning of break or a few days before, ask your children what they want to learn or accomplish during the time off. This helps you “find out what they’re interested in, and then you can come up with some activity centered around that,” Otey says.

We asked parents and teachers for tips to find the balance between letting their kids rest and keeping their brains active during the break, as well as how to prepare for the return to school.

Let them catch up on sleep

Kids are tired. Their brains and bodies need to rest. Aside from needing the break, it’s harder for them to perform in school when they’re tired, so they need this time to recharge. 

Between homework and extracurriculars, most students don’t get enough sleep. Kids ages 6-12 should be sleeping 9-12 hours per 24 hours, and teens ages 13-18 should be getting 8-10 hours of sleep, according to the CDC.

“Let them sleep in,” says Monise Seward, a middle school math teacher in Metro Indianapolis.

Detox from screens

On average, kids ages 8-12 in the U.S. spend between 4-6 hours per day using screens, according to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychology. That’s a lot! No one’s going to quit cold turkey, but come up with a reasonable schedule for screen time during the break. 

“Let their little brains rest,” Seward says. “They’re always looking for something that’s going to be more engaging than the last thing.”

Find out what else they like to do, or find non-screen activities to do as a family. Seward has Connect 4 and Mancala in her classroom, which are both incredibly popular with students — she had to put up a list of who got to play next.

Play board games that require application of skills and concepts learned during traditional school time.

Jania Otey, homeschool parent and founder of Kids & Culture Camp

“Play board games that require application of skills and concepts learned during traditional school time,” Otey says, adding Cashflow is a good game to teach financial literacy. “Break out Monopoly.”

You can also print out coloring pages or order some coloring books. Listen to music, podcasts, or audiobooks to keep your brain occupied. Visit the library and create a book basket. Knowing the curated stack is there will help encourage kids to read or want you to read aloud to them.

For older kids, have them journal every day about what they’re doing. Not only will it keep up their writing, thinking, and penmanship, but it will make a what-I-did-during-break assignment much easier.

Maintain some routines during the day

Going from a fully structured day to two weeks of open-ended time can be overwhelming for some kids, especially those with ADHD or anxiety. And we know that anxiety increases during the holiday season, with 60% of all Americans saying they feel more anxious during this time of year. While you don’t need to plan out their whole day, it can be helpful to keep some semblance of routine in place. 

For one, “get up and eat something in the morning,” Seward says — even if they go right back to bed after.

Staying on top of chores — taking out the trash, collecting the mail, walking the dog — will also help keep the regular beats of the day intact. Though it can be tempting to relax in front of the TV or scroll apps, it’s important to keep active, too. It doesn’t mean running a full gym class; they can take a walk outside or help shovel snow.

“Incorporate those general life skills throughout the day,” Otey says.

Bring their studies into the real world

Certain subjects don’t resonate with students because they don’t see how it pertains to them. During the holidays, an easy way to help them connect and keep their brains engaged is to bring these lessons into the real world and make them personal.

As you spend time with family, help your kids prepare a set of questions to ask family members about their background and interests, as well as their family history. Whether it’s video, audio, or handwritten notes, this can be turned into a family tree or family history. Older kids can also use this as a jumping-off point to further research family genealogy. 

Bring these lessons into the real world and make them personal.

Bring your kids to the grocery store. In the produce section, ask them to calculate how much your item will cost based on its weight and price per pound. Or take them to the mall and look at the discounts. Have them calculate the new price based on the percent off it is.

If you have travel plans, have your kids map out where you’re going, and even research and add in historical sites that are along the way or in the area. They can also help look into museums and other places of interest.

Involve them in the cooking. “Your children can get in there with you,” Otey says. “Teach them how to make different dishes.” Following recipes helps with both reading comprehension and science, and allowing them to measure out and mix ingredients helps reinforce math and science skills that might not otherwise be sticking.

Prep for the return to school a few days in advance

No one wants to think about the end of break before it even begins, but it’s important to prep your kids to return to the classroom. The Wednesday or Thursday before classes resume, start getting back into the swing of going to bed and waking up early.

“Get their bodies ready to start waking up early again,” Seward says.

And check in with them about the return to school.

“Talk to them ahead of time, like it’s going to be time to go back to school in about three days,” Otey says. “Double check to make sure you have all your assignments done, or a packet of work, or something was sent home during the break.”

And help them start corralling all of their school supplies. Get everything together and in their backpack, and even set it by the door so it’s all ready to go. And make sure those Chromebooks are charged up!

Set goals for the new year

Take some time with your kids during the break to talk about goals they have for 2023 — both academic and personal. It’s something we often talk about with our peers or colleagues, but use it as a way to get a better sense of your kids’ interests and an idea of how you can support them in all aspects of life over the next year.

“Make it fun,” Otey says. “Not just academic goals, but some things that they will want to do for fun, some extracurricular activities they may want to participate in.”

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Maya Pottiger is a data journalist for Word in Black. She was previously a data journalist for the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland, where she earned both her BA and Master of Journalism. Her work has been featured...