Q: My kids' cousins, ages 6 to 11, will visit over the holidays, and I don't want them all glued to video games. We need some educational and inexpensive -- but fun -- things to do. Do you have any suggestions?
A: The following activities won't feel like school; they will make a batch of good memories and offer a lot of learning:
-- Plan family field trips. "Every corner of our nation has a few special spots kids love -- it might be a museum, a science center, historic area, or a natural area -- that are part of our heritage and worth knowing well," says Naples, N.Y., educator Greta Love.
"In our area, kids love places like the Corning Glass Museum, where they see glass made, the Rochester Museum and Science Center, or natural areas, such as the High Tor preserve to see bald eagles."
Noted Florida ornithologist Elizabeth Hailman says her grandkids love the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, which encompasses more than 220 square miles of the Everglades.
"Visitors walking on dikes can see many water birds, some land birds and alligators," she says.
Family field trips represent informal learning at its best, says Jamie Stuve, president of the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse and Museum in Jupiter, Fla. Kids who visit the iconic 1860 lighthouse get to know a site that has been inhabited for 5,000 years.
"They don't realize they're learning geography, history, anthropology, ecology ... The list goes on," Stuve says. "When they take this information back to their classrooms, it makes them more powerful readers and writers."
Field trips don't need to break the bank. Many government-run natural areas are free or charge by the car. Check online for free or "on sale" days for children at local museums and science centers.
-- Celebrate your family history, says Maryland educator Shirley Harden. With cousins visiting, it's a good time to "decorate the family tree. Have kids interview older family members to preserve traditions, anecdotes, recipes and cherished memories.
"Kids love to hear ancestor stories. It's important to remember that Great Aunt Mia immigrated to the U.S as a young woman with a handful of family recipes and started a successful restaurant. Publish a digital or paper archive to give to family members near and far as a New Year's gift."
-- Teach the joy of giving. Volunteering as a family develops a positive service habit that stays long into adulthood, says Karen Bantuveris, founder and CEO of VolunteerSpot, a resource that helps people coordinate volunteer opportunities.
Follow these guidelines: Choose volunteer activities kids can relate to, such as collecting blankets and food for a local animal shelter or raising money for a food pantry. Discuss why your effort will make a difference. Help kids see the impact of their work by delivering the blankets to the animal shelter or giving a check representing funds collected to the food pantry. Make sure children are welcome and can do the work. (This often rules out soup kitchens.)
Talk about your family's service experience, says Bantuveris. "Discuss what you did, why you did it, how it felt and what you learned. Build on your kids' enthusiasm and right then choose your next service project together."
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)