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7 ways to make the most of winter break with older kids

“And Mom and Dad can hardly wait for school to start again” is a line from “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” and it can be true for a lot of parents.

Two weeks off school doesn’t seem like a long time, but after the holidays have come and gone, those days can stretch out pretty quickly.

New year, new skills

School may be out, but that doesn’t mean the learning has to stop. In fact, days without homework provide your kids with a great opportunity to learn something new or explore an existing interest. 

There are some camps for older kids, such as the improv camp for kids 11-18 at The Second City or art camp for kids up to age 12 at The Paintbrush. If one-time events are more your family’s speed, try a cooking class like the ones for tweens and teens at The Kids’ Table

If you have time, try teaching them something yourself, like a favorite family recipe or an easy dinner that they can make for the family now and when they’re on their own. They’ll thank you later.

Hit a museum and put your kids in charge this time

Even if you’ve been to a museum several times, chances are there’s something new to see, or an old favorite to revisit. Put your kids in charge of planning the visit to not only get a sense of what they’re most drawn to, but to also teach them some valuable skills like being able to read the map of the museum, scheduling and budgeting. You can find free days at museums here and advice on making the most of free days here.

The Art Institute hosts Holly Days Dec. 27-30, which features drop-in art making for all ages, and is always free for teens living in Chicago.

Ready to read? Have a family book club

One of the best ways to raise readers is to have your kids see you reading. Even better, read the same book as part of a family book club and then discuss it. It can be a great way to start meaningful conversations and get their perspective. Tweens and teens often find it easier to talk about fictional characters than their own lives and you asking about a character isn’t seen as intrusive. 

Make an event of it. With tweens, read “Slider” by Pete Hautman, which is partially about competitive pizza eating, and then talk about it over a pie at Giordano’s or Lou Malnati’s. For teens, consider reading “When Dimple Met Rishi” by Sandhya Menon, which explores Indian culture, and then head to Devon Ave. for delicious Indian food, or get take out. (Find more book suggestions for tweens here and teens here.)


Shutterbugs will love going on a photo walk

Tweens and teens often really enjoy photography (and Instagram). Have them grab their phones or real camera and hit the streets. 

Come up with a scavenger hunt for them around your neighborhood. Or bundle up to capture images of holidays lights at night (or late afternoon, given how early the sun sets!). Another option is heading to Millennium Park to get great shots of the Bean, the skating rink and Lurie Garden. Check out great Instagram-worthy spots here

The fresh air and change of scene can do wonders for a kid’s mood, but if outside isn’t an option, consider checking out the inside of the Chicago Cultural Center, the pedway underneath the Loop, or a museum for some photo inspiration.

Find a new show to binge watch together

With cold temperatures and minimal homework, winter break is a great time to curl up on the couch with your tweens and teens and binge watch a show together. Even if what they want to watch is not quite your cup of tea, sitting down and sharing something that they really like can go a long way toward building a strong connection.

Have a kid who loves fantasy? Check out “A Series of Unfortunate Events” on Netflix, with Neil Patrick Harris playing Count Olaf. Have kids who loves science? Watch “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Teens love “Riverdale,” and there are a lot of adults who are into it as well. Or check out “Gilmore Girls” if you haven’t yet. 

Put the pieces together 

A friend of mine swears by this for simple and inexpensive family fun with her teens. If you’re new to puzzles, start at one that’s around 500 pieces just so you don’t go crazy or take all year to assemble it. Put it in a public place that everyone walks past. Your kids may roll their eyes, but you’ll also be surprised at how often they stop to put a few pieces in. Pick a fun Chicago-centric puzzle like one of Wrigley Field, Navy Pier or the skyline. (We found a bunch on Zazzle.) When you’re done, take a trip to that place to celebrate! 

Let them have friends over

The holidays are a time for gathering, and tweens and teens enjoy the company of their friends as much as adults do. Encourage your kids to put their phones down and spend some time face to face instead of texting. It doesn’t have to be a big blow out or anything complicated — order some pizza and let them munch on that and some holidays treats. Leave out some board games and chances are they’ll start playing. It’s a great way to encourage kids to unplug, be social and develop some social skills. They’ll appreciate you welcoming their friends, and the friends’ parents will also likely appreciate the invite, too.

Find more ideas for making the most of winter break with kids of all ages here.

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