Screen-free, Low-groan Activities for Older Kids

Picking blueberries at a nearby farm. Fun, productive, and delicious.

Entertaining little kiddos can be pretty easy. “Here’s a box.” “Ooh, look at the bubbles!” “You found a lady bug. What’s its name?” Older children are not so easily amused. I can only imagine my 11 year-old’s eyeroll if I suggested that she paint a rock or line up sticks in the driveway.

It’s tough to figure out the days. We are so over the early quarantine theme days. No more “learning to sew” or baking artisan bread time, at least for now. Educational online classes have lost their appeal. At this point, what we really need[ed] are non-screen, fairly easy things to do that don’t feel like more work. With my delightful almost-10 year-old niece visiting, I’ve been trying to figure out activities to entertain and engage two tweens.

Non-screen Activities That Even Tweens Enjoy

I brainstormed ideas that we could do together, in town, that would keep us reasonably separated from other people. For our outings, we arrive close to opening, wear masks if we’re inside, and are willing to leave if it’s too crowded. We’ve been hiking, biking, and playing tennis for the last few months so I left them off the list.

Cooking Novelty Foods

Early in the pandemic, we had an unsupervised food-coloring explosion incident so I’ve been a little reluctant to let the kids cook again. When they asked to make a box of Jell-O, I agreed. AHA! The girls followed the recipe and had a good time in the process. Two hours later, we sampled the jiggly pan and then laughed about how Jell-O used to be a potluck staple. Even though most of it went into the trash, it gave them something to do.

Walkie-Talkies in the Yard

I’m not exactly sure what the appeal is, but apparently when you give walkie-talkies to kids, outside time is a lot more fun. The tweens have spent a few mornings testing out the walkie-talkies, inside and out.

Donut Picnic

This is something I’ve done since my kids were little. We bring donuts to the park and eat breakfast there. Still a favorite and easy to do even when everything was shut down.

Picking Blueberries

A great pandemic tween activity since it’s outside, away from others, and the kids are big enough to actually help. It took us about 40 minutes to pick more than a gallon of blueberries. Bonus activities: planning out and then making delicious blueberry treats.

Going to the Farmer’s Market

We go almost every week. It’s a bit different now, but still an outing that we all enjoy (even the tween). There’s something about choosing or growing vegetables yourself that makes you want to eat them more — except turnips.

Bowling

Our local place does both a Monday special and a kids’ summer bowling program. We went right at 11. It wasn’t crowded, every other lane was kept empty, and the balls were already at each station. We really enjoyed getting to do something that wasn’t at our house.

Painting Pottery

I am not a crafting person and I’m pretty tired of trying to scrub paint off the dining table from crisis-schooling murals. Going to The Pottery Place on 1/2 price seating fee day provided painting fun that I didn’t have to clean up. We got there right at opening and had our own table and paint.

As you can see from the bowl I made, I’m not much of a painter.

Kayaking

We haven’t done this yet, but we’re all excited for our upcoming trip. There’s a few places nearby where you can rent boats for a reasonable price, either to paddle around one spot or to travel down the river and then take an open-air shuttle back to the car. It’s fun even to plan for our kayaking adventure.

Creating That “Summer Feel”

It’s been emotionally beneficial for us to try out activities that differed from our crisis-school isolation time. Adding to the list here, we intend to catch fireflies, make lemonade, and do many of our other regular summer things. Despite what the kids really want to do, they are not spending all day glued to their tablets.

Why We Need the Netflix Baby-Sitters Club Reboot (and Its Timeless Appeal)

As an avid (well, obsessed) BSC fan in my youth, I was excited when Netflix announced its reboot of The Baby-Sitters Club, scheduled for early July this year. Three months later, as I am drowning in the stress of working and parenting in a pandemic, paired with my school-aged kids needing something to do, the timing of this release has never been better.

From my days reading the original titles in the ’80s, Ann M. Martin’s concept has evolved into multiple series of over 200 books, a TV show (1990), soundtrack (1992), feature film (1995), video game (1996) and 7 graphic novels (2006 — ), with six more scheduled to be released over the next few years. Why do these characters continue to translate across platforms and generations?

To me, The Baby-Sitters Club was much more than just a series. I enjoyed other books, but only in Ann M. Martin’s world did I feel completely immersed. At one point, I even thought The Baby-Sitters Club actually existed. I dreamed about moving to Stoneybrook and joining Kristy and the gang, imagining which role I could take on in the club (snack-supplier? Poster maker?). My identification with these characters as I read, and reread (and reread) their stories helped me to escape my own reality, particularly when life became tough at home due to my parents’ divorce and subsequent remarriage.

I suspect that new generations embrace the BSC for the same reasons I did from age 8–13. While the technology has definitely changed from Claudia’s landline, the foundational themes of this series continue to be relevant. Most tween and adolescent readers can relate to making new friends, learning to be independent, dealing with a bully, living with a chronic condition, taking care of kids, dating, losing a grandparent, divorce, moving away, adjusting to camp, and the many other issues addressed in these stories.

The varying perspectives of the BSC also help to explain its longevity. Each book features a different central character as the narrator rotates among the seven club members, offering a variety of traits, fashions, and interests. As a reader, each character’s perspective interested me for different reasons. I was most like Kristy personality-wise, found Stacey’s diabetes and Mallory’s big family to be intriguing, envied both Claudia’s artsy style and Dawn’s natural ways, wanted to learn sign language like Jessi, and admired Mary-Anne’s journey toward independence. With so many characters, it’s easy to identify with one, even across generations.

Netflix couldn’t have planned for better timing. My 40-something age-group desperately needs a taste of comforting nostalgia that can be shared with our kids right now. Thankfully, they are well-acquainted with the BSC characters, thanks to the graphic novels — a genius marketing crossover that refreshed the series. As with Fuller House, it will be nice to step into another familiar narrative that I can view with my girls, allowing us to escape into (what appears to be) a 1990ish-type relatively carefree teen TV world. Unlike our current reality, the BSC is always predictable and optimistic — a perfect show for a pandemic. Plus, I still dream about its existence, especially as I work from home without childcare.

Adapting “Little Women”

Read the classic Little Women or the contemporary graphic novel, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy (an exceptionally good adaptation).

Now watch one of the film adaptations:

Compare the book or graphic novel to one of the film adaptations. How did the book characters come to life on-screen? What elements of the story were preserved? What was changed? How was the story modernized in the graphic novel? Which format did you like best?

Learning Through Historical Fiction: Books for Kids and Teens About Epidemics

Reading historical fiction can teach you a lot about experiences people may have had during outbreaks of the past. In this genre, authors weave facts into their fictional stories and characters. I recommend reading these works of historical fiction and then conducting your own research on the epidemic and disease featured.

A notable example is Laurie Halse Anderson’s Fever 1793, aimed at readers ages 10-14.

She uses documents from the real yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia to tell the story of 14 year-old Mattie Cook. This book is an exciting read and so well-done that it is often used as a teaching tool. Here are study guides that go along with the book.

Joyce Rockwood’s young adult novel To Spoil the Sun explores the devastating impact of smallpox on a Cherokee tribe in the 16th century. More of the story is fictionalized in that it isn’t set in a specific outbreak, but provides a perspective that has rarely appeared elsewhere.

Smallpox Strikes! by Norma Jean Lutz (ages 8-12) and describes the real-life inoculation controversy in the 1721 Boston epidemic. A boy must choose between following his family’s wishes and protecting the town against smallpox through the practice of inoculation (intentionally infecting yourself with disease in hopes that you’ll get a milder case).

For younger readers, book #26 Balto of the Blue Dawn of the Magic Treehouse series (very) loosely tells the story of the sled dogs that saved the children of Nome, Alaska from diphtheria in 1925. Compare Jack and Annie’s tale to the real story as told here.

Here are other historical fiction works about disease:

What makes for a good work of historical fiction? How do authors use facts to create interesting fictional narratives?

Think about the current pandemic. How could these experiences be told in what will someday be historical fiction? Where would you set your story? What factual details would be important to include?

So you didn’t like The Sound of Music: Examining Generational Shifts in Viewing Preferences

As a kid, I remember my dad often hyping up a movie that he had seen years before. “I laughed so hard,” he told us repeatedly as we prepared to watch the 1965 western comedy Cat Ballou. My sister and I barely chuckled in the entirety of the 97 minute film. Yesterday, my girls had a similar experience with The Sound of Music. While they enjoyed the familiar music, they found the movie “too long,” “too romantic” and overall, “boring.”

20th Century Fox. Public Domain.

What shapes our viewing experience? First, let’s look at pop culture products that have made it through the test of time (in other words, contemporary audiences still “get” them). Watch this clip from Charlie Chaplin’s 1928 silent film The Circus:

What happened in the scene? How did Charlie Chaplin respond? Can we relate to his reactions? Why?

Many older films and TV shows aren’t quite as easy to understand. Some just haven’t aged well, meaning that what was considered funny, relevant, or appropriate when the film/show came out, is not now. Culture and technology changes so what seemed new, exciting, and acceptable at the time doesn’t always work for future audiences and may be offensive.

What about movies that parents love but their kids do not? Why do we have these differences in our consumption experience? One reason may be changes in how stories are told. Films used to slowly build a narrative, using plenty of dialogue to fill in each moment in the story. Although the kid and singing scenes in The Sound of Music move along, the adult exchanges are pretty slowly-paced and over-dramatized.

On the other hand, our post modern films and TV shows are more fast-paced and fragmented, assuming that audiences can fill in the pieces or that they don’t matter. Fewer lines of dialogue convey about the same thing. What is a film you didn’t like that your parents do? Why do you think that is?

Generation gaps happen the other way as well. You definitely enjoy books, music, games, shows, and movies that your parents either don’t understand or don’t understand why you like them. Here’s an example from our house:

I am not a fan of the books or movies, yet my kids love them because they can relate to the characters and have grown up reading graphic novels.

How about in your house? What do you like that your parents don’t? Why do you like the product? Ask your parents why they don’t like it. What explains the difference in opinion?

What movies from your childhood will you want to share with your future children?

My Favorite Things: Exploring the Story of the Sound of Music

The Sound of Music is based on a real Austrian singing family. Maria von Trapp wrote The Story of the Trapp Family, published in 1949, which was turned into a Broadway play. Its iconic film adaptation, starring Julie Andrews, came out in 1965.

How much of the story was changed for the film? Let’s research true story of the von Trapps, first in this Smithsonian article. Look at this interview with Maria von Trapp herself (who passed away in 1987):

What was the focus of the interview? What did you learn about the von Trapp family?

Movie time
Analyze the 1965 Sound of Music, exploring how the adaptation brought von Trapp’s story to the big screen. How does the opening song set the tone for the movie? What do you think of the main characters, particularly the depiction of Maria? How is Captain von Trapp portrayed? Identify some of the overarching themes of this movie. What does it say about childrearing and childhood during World War II? About sacrifice? How does the music bolster these messages?

“Christopher Plummer and Julie Andrews on location in Salzburg during the filming of The Sound of Music, 1964″
20th Century Fox / Public domain

Compare the real story to the film. What details remained the same for the film? What was changed? How did these changes impact the narrative? If you were to do an adaptation of Maria’s story, what would you have done differently? Think overall how real-life events and biographies shift when they become fictional movies.

Bonus
Watch the Carrie Underwood live version of The Sound of Music. What worked well in this adaptation? What could have been better? Why didn’t this version reach the same level of success as the 1965 film?

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: History of Technology Timeline

In 1676, Sir Isaac Newton wrote, “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” describing how his inventions (and those of others) existed because they built upon existing ideas and achievements. With this quote, he himself was improving upon an existing reference, paraphrasing from John of Salisbury’s 1159 Latin text Metalogicon.

Our current technology didn’t just emerge. Instead, technological developments evolve from prior technological developments. Media have played and continue to play vital roles in this innovation. Mass communication (or the ability to mass produce media content) isn’t just about providing books and newspapers. The ability to record ideas in a form that can be distributed profoundly affected all facets of life. With books, for the first time, people could build on others’ ideas then progress forward. You didn’t need to be within earshot to learn from another person. Many different people, often from different places, contribute to the success of an invention.
Let’s take the history of the car for example.


Depiction of 1908 Ford Model T Touring car, from Ford’s full-page advertisement of the first Model T in the Oct. 1, 1908 issue of Life magazine, volume 52, page 365.

The Ford Motor Company didn’t just magically create a working car in 1908. They relied and improved upon existing car designs, created by Karl Benz in 1885 and Charles and Frank Duryea in 1893. These designers depended on earlier inventions and conceptualizations to make their automobiles work: the internal combustion engine, the carriage design and parts of a car. Oh, and the concept itself–that a vehicle could be self-propelled (conceived and invented by Leonard da Vinci in 1478).

Leonardo da Vinci / Public domain

Moving forward in time, this video conveys the many people involved from bringing the first cars to our modern day automobiles:

For each of these inventions, people could read about what had been done and then improve upon the existing designs.

History of Technology Timeline Activity
1. Choose something that we use in everyday life (an appliance, item of clothing, your phone or other entertainment technology, or anything that you are curious about).
2. Research the roots of that item. Identify all the different “players” that contributed–those who invented earlier models (even if they didn’t work) or pieces of the technology.
3. Using a large piece of paper, create a timeline that shows the evolution. For the car, we would start with da Vinci and map it out to today’s car. You could also depict this progression through a drawing or photo collage.

We take for granted the technology that we have. It’s important to remember that Newton was right. We must stand on the shoulders of giants to move forward.

The Space Race: Who was forgotten in the story?

As the book and movie Hidden Figures showed us, media coverage of the Space Race left out many important people. While space museums have added more exhibits featuring women, including women of color, most of these women were given little attention in their historical moment compared to the (white, male) astronauts and others who contributed to the first rocket launches. Check out this article.

For this activity, research one of the following great NASA women. What was her story? How did she come to work for NASA? What was her contribution to space exploration? Did media of the past (newspapers and television) tell her story in her moment? If so, how was she portrayed? If not, why do you think she was left out? Has her story been told since?

  • Dr. Thora Halstead
  • Dorothy Vaughan
  • Katherine Johnson
  • Dr. Christine Darden
  • Eleanor Francis Helin
  • Dr. Sally Ride
  • Dr. Shannon W. Lucid
  • Dr. Rhea Seddon
  • Dr. Kathryn D. Sullivan
  • Dr. Judy Resnik
  • Dr. Anna L. Fisher 
  • Nancy Grace Roman
  • Margaret Hamilton
  • Mae Jemison

Now think about Hidden Figures and other ways that some of these stories have been captured and preserved in collective memory. For example, this LEGO set:

Stock photo

What is one shortcoming of this LEGO set? What else needs to be done to highlight these contributions? Why is it important to remember important female NASA pioneers and people of color who have been left out in the mainstream historical narratives?

For further reading, check out these books:

Learning from Tragedy: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory

Kheel Center / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

We take for granted the legislation and safety protocol that keep us safe at home, school, and work. Yet, these laws had to be proposed and passed to standardize safety protocols. Until 1898, for example, trains weren’t required to have automatic brakes. Think about that for a moment.

Unfortunately, many safety laws came about because of devastating workplace accidents. One of the worst in history was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which occurred on this day 109 years ago. Watch this video from the History Channel. PBS American Experience series also has an episode on this topic, available here. (Note that it is more detailed and graphic than the clip below).

Read this detailed history of the tragedy. Answer these questions:
1. Who was employed at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory?
2. What were the working conditions like?
3. How did the fire begin?
4. Why did so many people perish? How could their deaths have been prevented?

The fire spurred demands for improved working conditions. Newspapers covered the protests, trial, and movement toward laws about workers’ compensation and factory regulations. Editorial cartoons on the topic helped garner support for change. Look at this editorial cartoon and then Cornell University’s collection.

Kheel Center / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

What messages are conveyed? How could these cartoons persuade readers to believe that change is necessary?

Many other horrific workplace accidents have happened because of a lack of safety measures. Although it is grim to think about, these tragedies led to reform and legislation that greatly shaped working conditions for future generations. Why do you think laws had to be passed to reduce workplace dangers? What laws pertain to safety that are in place today? Research the history of the Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration (OSHA) to learn about contemporary regulations.

The Podcast of the Past: Create Your Own Old-Timey Radio Show!

More than 900,000 podcast shows are currently running, a number that continues to climb. Why are they so popular, especially among younger consumers? Just as important, how did they come to be?

It’s interesting to think that this seemingly new phenomenon is actually one of our older forms of entertainment. Just like podcasts, radio shows of the 1920s-1940s appealed to an array of listeners and spanned genres. In fact, many of our TV genres came from radio. People listened to sports broadcasts, news, cooking shows, competitions, and variety spots, backed by live musicians. Fictional programs were also common, with westerns, mysteries, soap operas, comedies, and kids’ shows. Listen to the first radio episode of the Adventures of Superman:

This 1938 short film shows the making of a radio western:

As you can see here, sound effects were an important part of radio production. You might also remember this scene from the 1982 film version of Annie:

This article provides a good overview of the process of creating sound effects, not with a computer, but with common household objects.

Listen to the introduction to The Adventure of Sam Spade (1948):

Note how the advertiser is mentioned several times within the introduction. Now listen to the set up. How does the music set the tone? How do the characters set up the story? Can you picture the characters? How do they establish the scene without visuals? What sound effects do you hear?

Creating your own radio show
First, figure out what kind of show would you like to make. A western, like the first video? Variety show? A mystery? Once you’ve determined the genre, start planning out your specifics. How many people or characters will you have? Describe the people involved and the setting for your show. Remember, you don’t need costumes or sets, but you should be able to paint a picture for your audience using descriptive language.

Plan out the story. If it’s a variety show, who will host? What will your acts be? For fiction, who is the main character? Other characters? Villain? What will happen in your story? When? Have a script or clear plan for your show and create a fitting title.

Next, think of the extras. Which parts of your show could use sound effects? Identify the sound and then the household object you could use (ask your parents first). For example, rice poured into a bowl can sound like rain. Find shoes with hard bottoms to exaggerate footsteps. Gather your items and plan out when they will be used.

Finally, figure out a fake sponsor of your show–any product will do, but it’s even better if it ties into the theme and/or audience of your show. Listen to the incorporation of Ovaltine into this original 1936 Little Orphan Annie broadcast. Use a similar pairing for your show.

Once you’ve planned out your show and its sponsorship, rehearse your show several times through before you perform or film it. Everyone involved should know what to do and when, including the sound effects.

When you are ready, either perform your show live or have someone film it (share on Facebook, if you’d like). Have fun! You could even do a podcast in which you reflect on the experience.