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Back-to-school time is about much more than buying some new notebooks and snapping cute photos of kids to show off to your friends. Kids (and parents!) may be working through back-to-school jitters as they enter a new school environment, start up a challenging routine, or get back into the mindset of learning and paying attention in a formal group setting.
Whether your kids have already started a new school year or you’re gearing up for one — and whether they’re starting preschool or are about to finish up high school — kids need support as they go through this crucial time of growth, change, and learning.
Here are some ways to make the back-to-school transition smoother for your family. Try these 30 family-oriented activities and exercises to set yourselves up for a successful September — and not just in the academic or extracurricular sense.
Make a calendar
Filling in a calendar together with school days, holidays, extracurricular activities, and more can help mentally prepare kids and parents for each upcoming month and teach important organizational and planning skills. Plus, if you get creative with color-coding or drawing icons for different types of activities, it can be a fun, soothing project for all.
From one school year to the next, there are usually some big differences (such as new teachers, classes, room/building, or expectations) that can make kids nervous at any age. To help ease their worries during that transition, make two lists with kids that detail what will be new, and also what will be the same, about this school year. Try to make the “same” list at least as long as the “different” list, so that they’re not overwhelmed in anticipating all the changes.
ABCs and 123s
Get kids back into the mindset of practicing numbers and letters — without having to break out the workbooks. Try an ABC scavenger hunt or a nature counting game so you can keep enjoying time outdoors.
Reading together boosts literacy and provides fodder for important discussions. Next time you head to the library or bookstore, pick up some books about back-to-school adventures or standing up for others to help start conversations with your kiddo about school routines and important social skills to work on.
The question of what to have for breakfast on busy school days can add so much stress to your weekly routine. So come up with a realistic plan alongside your kids — this could be a weekly menu that you all agree on, and/or a scheme for getting breakfast ready faster (think overnight oats or pre-made muffins that you can prepare together ahead of time, then eat on the go). While you’re at it, try adding some brain-boosting foods to your mornings.
Puzzle it out
Activities like puzzles and mazes can boost kids’ concentration and problem solving skills, which they’ll certainly need for school work. Just make sure to find puzzles that are appropriate for your child’s age and skill level, so that they won’t get so frustrated that they don’t even try.
For either the week ahead or the semester ahead, encourage kids to make a list of things they’re looking forward to, things they’re dreading or worried about, and things they’re feeling neutral about. Then you can help them plan some strategies for dealing with what’s to come. Adults can do the same exercise related to work or other obligations, so that kids get the message that it’s normal to have these anticipations throughout life.
In a lot of classrooms (and even sports teams), kids have designated “jobs” to help them practice taking responsibility, be involved in the setup, and see themselves as part of a team. You can start this team-oriented dynamic at home by having certain family members be in charge of setting the table, drying dishes, or sorting laundry.
Board games and card games, besides being a fun way to spend time together as a family, can boost important social and mental skills for school, like taking turns, waiting and thinking quietly before your turn, and coping with not always being the winner.
Calm those back-to-school jitters — and personalize a backpack, jacket, or lunch bag — with a DIY craft project. You can make your own colorful zipper pulls with beads, lanyard, or other materials.
If kids are at an age where they’ll be doing online research for school projects, help them learn more about credible sources and how to apply critical thinking skills to what they see online. Check out these five questions from Common Sense Education, and try an online media literacy game like Fake It To Make It or Bad News.
It can be tricky for kids to transition to a new routine. Even if they’ve been at the same school for years, summer can throw off their schedules and expectations. So, whether their school year hasn’t started yet, or they’re already a month in, a review of the morning routine and what needs to be done can be useful for families. It might lead to some imaginative role play with dolls, a timed race, or a discussion of how to streamline the process.
Help kids get in the mode of practicing their flexible thinking and problem solving skills by setting up an Imagine Box. It’s easy: just give them a box full of random household items (think: old socks, empty food containers, junk mail, twist ties, etc.) and see what they can make with it.
If your kids still get textbooks from school, make covering them up into a fun project. You can use the old-school brown paper bag method and then decorate with materials of your choice, or find a different way to cover books. Or, get crafty with tech and make a tablet case.
Back in time
Show kids your old yearbooks or school photos, if you can dig them up. Tell stories about the clubs, sports, or classes you were involved in — and of course, the back-to-school styles you rocked!
Kids of all ages may have gotten used to tuning into their favorite videos anytime they’re bored. But in school, that doesn’t really fly. So next time you’re in a waiting room, standing in line, waiting for the oven timer to go off, or stuck in the car or on public transit, don’t just hand kids a device. Try one of these waiting games that’s guaranteed to stimulate their brain and teach crucial school skills like taking turns.
Learn the 5 Ds
Along with school, unfortunately, can come bullying. But you can empower kids by teaching them specific strategies to stop bullies and harassment, and stand up for others. Here are the 5 Ds they can put into action to be a positive force in their school community.
Kids of any age may need to get back in the habit of controlling their impulses and following directions. You can practice self-control with a fun and easy game like Freeze Dance.
Learn to speak up
Many kids are afraid to speak up in class or ask teachers for help, or simply don’t know the appropriate way to do so in the classroom. If this is the case, talk about strategies for coping with anxiety, help your child practice phrases for respectfully disagreeing, and come up with a self-advocacy plan. Read the book Raise Your Hand, and take the Raise Your Hand pledge or complete other related activities from the Girl Scouts.
Many schools are becoming increasingly diverse. Your child may be in school with students whose language, religion, culture, name, or background is unfamiliar to your family. Commit to learning more together by looking at maps, listening to songs or videos in various languages, and researching your questions rather than making assumptions about people based on how they look or sound. That way, kids will have an open mind toward making new friends and expanding their worldview.
Each school year, kids should be capable of doing more for themselves — but you may have to work on a gradual letting-go process. For example, a preschooler might be learning to zip up their own jacket, but it’ll be slow: so first have them practice after school when there’s less of a time crunch, and then transition to letting them try it themselves for a certain length of time in the morning. You can use a similar process with an older elementary or middle school student who is learning to type their own emails to their teacher, for example.
Going back to school can stir up a lot of mixed feelings in kids (and parents!) and it’s important to remember to talk about those feelings. Print out a feelings chart to give the whole family a visual reminder of the many ways it’s okay to feel throughout the day and week. Or even better, have kids make their own feelings chart — and let it prompt a conversation about what types of emotions they can anticipate in themselves and others.
Whether your child receives services or not, it’s important to talk to them about some of the learning differences and different abilities that other students may be experiencing in the classroom so that they can work with others with empathy and respect. To start, here are some tips for talking to your child about ADD/ADHD, autism, and invisible disabilities.
Creating a fun playlist of songs with back-to-school themes like friendship, learning, and perseverance can help get the whole family in the mood for school. Add classic tracks like “We’re Going to Be Friends” by the White Stripes and newer family-friendly faves like “Hop to School” by Jazzy Ash.
We all know that when we ask kids the standard “How was school?” question, we often get little to no response. Instead, try this set of 5 back-to-school questions to get kids talking and reflecting.
Is getting to and from school a source of stress or complaint in your family? Gain some perspective by learning about some of the fascinating ways that kids get to school around the world. If you’re really into it and have extra time, check out the documentary series The Most Dangerous Ways to School (available on Amazon, Apple TV, or YouTube).
Chances are, your kids are learning a ton and trying new things every school year. But are you? Commit to one new learning experience this year, whether it’s mastering the rules of a classic card game you never picked up, taking an online language course (check your local library for possible access), or trying a new kind of exercise class at the rec center. You’ll be a role model for lifelong learning, plus you’ll have more empathy for kids’ struggles with school and extracurricular activities.
After a weekend outing or walk around the neighborhood, have kids write down or tell you some of the things they saw, heard, touched, smelled, and (perhaps) tasted. This will help them hone their vocabulary, literacy, and communication skills — and also prepare them with some interesting stories to tell when their teacher or friends inevitably ask “What did you do over the summer?” or “What did you do over the weekend?”
Stress is bound to come up this school year. Work with kids to make a box full of calming items — think soft and squishy toys, soothing scents, coloring pages, bubble wrap, sensory bottles, fidget toys, a handful of Legos, etc. Then when someone’s feeling stressed or overwhelmed, you can point them toward the calming box (and maybe join them in one of the activities, if they want company) before you have a conversation about what’s bothering them.
There are so many fun shows and movies that take place in school — remember the Magic School Bus? Watching together can help start conversations about school with kids of any age. When you’re ready for some family screen time, choose from these age-sorted lists by Common Sense Media: back-to-school TV and back-to-school movies.