Q: We're sticking close to home during holiday break. What family activities can we plan to keep my elementary-age kids and their cousins constructively and inexpensively occupied, i.e., off the couch and out of malls?
A: Great idea, Mom. Family time is something your kids probably won't put on their Christmas lists, but research shows that "one thing kids -- even teens -- really want is more time with parents," says youth counselor Marissa Gehley, the founder of California-based consulting group KNOW (Kids Need Our Wisdom).
With that in mind, try these memory-making activities with your family:
-- Celebrate traditions. Do you have traditions that you want your kids to pass on to future generations? If so, take pictures and post them to a photo-sharing service; you can also create a holiday handbook, video, blog or scrapbook. Include recipes, songs, games, readings and other things that make your holidays special. As the kids get older, they won't put out cookies for Santa, but they can still enjoy the magic of holidays past.
-- Archive family stories. Add to the family tree with memories, anecdotes and photos from grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles. Websites such as StoryWorth.com make it easy for everyone to contribute to the archive.
"The immigration debate caused my young sons to ask why people want to build a wall with Mexico, so over Thanksgiving we talked about our own family's immigrant history," says Houston mother Luisa Sanchez. "We started to record my parents' and grandparents' recollections and preserve their photos. We described their accomplishments. The kids loved it. It helped them understand their heritage as citizens in a country created by immigrants."
-- Do for others. When families volunteer together, children learn the intrinsic value of giving. "More than ever, it's important for families to reach out and care for their communities," says Shirley Harden, a retired educator who volunteers with her grandchildren.
Four guidelines can enrich this experience, says Harden.
For starters, "find volunteer opportunities kids can relate to," she explains. "While you may want to sing for seniors, kids may find it more rewarding to collect blankets and food for an animal shelter."
Second, make sure children are welcome and can do the work.
"Don't show up at a busy soup kitchen with kids in tow unless you've checked ahead of time," Harden says.
Third, discuss in advance what you'll be doing and how your work will help others.
Fourth, "talk about the experience when you get home to give children a chance to reflect on why their efforts mattered," says Harden.
To find appropriate places to volunteer or organizations in need of volunteers, call your local United Way or social services agency. You can also contact churches, synagogues or mosques.
-- Plan a family field trip. Take advantage of early bird or after-5 p.m. prices at local museums, zoos and science centers, suggests Harden.
"With lower gas prices, drive around local neighborhoods to enjoy the holiday decorations," she says. "Top it off with pizza at a local eatery. Make a point to share observations when you get home. This type of family talk deepens channels of communication you'll want to keep open as your children grow older."
(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.)