You’ve baked muffins, walked the neighborhood, had Zoom parties and play dates, soaked in the kiddie pool, started virtual summer camp and driven around to every outdoor spot where you could keep your social distance. Somehow, there are still hours left in the day – and maybe a few days left until school starts – and everyone is bored.
Here are eight new things your family can learn, and do, together. These activities work equally well for kids and adults, and won’t break the bank.
The game of kings
I’ve heard more than one adult say that they wished they knew how to play chess. If you didn’t learn as a kid, you and the kids can learn together. “Chess is a kind of game that anyone at any age can start playing,” says Mick Bighamian, founder and director of the Los Angeles Chess Club. “Many world chess champions and chess prodigies started at age 4 or 5.”
The club offers weekly online tournaments for players in kindergarten to 12th grade, plus group and private classes. Bighamian says that chess teaches important life lessons such as discipline, concentration, logical thinking and prioritization, and that parents often learn along with their kids. “Time permitting, this is the most ideal way to let the child fully enjoy learning this game,” he says. While a private tutor is the easiest way to learn, Bighamian also recommends free sites, including www.chess.com and ChessKid.
Another fun learning tool is The Chess Teacher from Lakeshore. This specially designed chess set has easy-to-follow diagrams printed on the base of each piece, so learners can master the names of the pieces and how they move. Designed for ages 6-11, the set, which comes with a board and a guide, costs $16.99.
A little magic
Who hasn’t wished for magical powers? Magician Justin Flom, father of two (one of whom he sawed in half in a popular Facebook video), is willing to share some of his secrets with lessons on the Yippee TV streaming platform ($7.99/month). Tune in to the 10 episodes of “Making Magic at Home” to learn how to eat a dollar bill, how to make a deck of cards disappear and a fun illusion to inspire you to shoot for the moon.
My favorite things about the show are:
- The episodes are short. You can watch the whole season in under 40 minutes.
- The tricks are performed using inexpensive items you likely already have at home.
- Flom explains each trick thoroughly, but without talking down to kids.
- The emphasis is on fun.
“When you first start, you’re not very good, so having fun and laughing is really important,” says Flom, who learned magic from his dad, Scott. “The more serious tricks have props that you need to be careful with or no one will have any fun. Have fun! Be careful! And practice, practice, practice.” If you want to take your magical fun offline, you can check out Flom’s book “Everyday Magic for Kids” and his Everyday Magic Kit. You can get both for under $30.
An international vocabulary
There are so many reasons to learn a new language: You can talk to more people, order food in other countries, maybe even land an international job. And while quarantine might not last long enough for you to become fluent, you’ll certainly have time to add to your vocabulary – and have fun in the process.
Bonus: It’s something you and the kids can do together, says Amy Rush Conroy, L.A. mom of three and founder of the Habla Blah Blah language-learning system. “Plus, when you forget something, your child may be able to help you out, which is a very fun role reversal for them!” The Habla Blah Blah albums are packed with songs designed to create earworms that build vocabulary in the target language. You can listen (and sing along) at home or in the car, starting with the album in your mother tongue. When the earworm is planted, switch to the same songs in the target language. “Your brain will start to make an association with the foreign words based on rhythm, tone and familiarity even before reading through the lyric translations,” Conroy says.
Try a variety of language tools, such as the DuoLingo and Babbel apps, as they all complement each other. And try to bring your target language into everyday life. The Conroy family watches sports and movies, and plays games, in Spanish. “Play is the best way to learn anything,” Conroy says, “so make sure it’s fun.”
A lifesaving skill
If you’ve got 30 minutes, you could become part of “CPR Summer.” With its usual in-person classes canceled due to the pandemic, The American Heart Association is working to help families learn at home.
For under $40, you can pick up the CPR Anytime – Adult/Child or the CPR Anytime – Infant kit. Each kit comes with the appropriate size manikin, plus a DVD and instruction manual in English and Spanish designed to teach hands-only CPR, rescue breathing and choking relief. If you’re called on to use your new skills, there’s a 70%-80% chance it will be on someone you love, according to American Heart Association Community CPR Manager Mike Deitch, as most of these types of emergencies happen at home. And kids can begin learning as early as middle school – or even earlier. “I had a third grader save his mom’s life in San Diego last year,” Deitch says. “That was pretty amazing.”
Pull out your kit once a year to keep your skills sharp, or check out other resources through the American Heart Association. “It’s a good family activity, a confidence builder, and makes you feel connected to the community,” says Deitch, “so it has a lot of good positives to it.”
To be here, now
With so much up in the air right now, consider learning a skill that could help ground you. “One of the multitudes of reasons that the pandemic is so difficult for most of us humans is because it has presented us with enormous uncertainty,” says Sukey Novogratz, co-author with Elizabeth Novogratz of “Just Sit,” my favorite meditation book. “For those fortunate enough to have not experienced the more devastating effects of the virus (health or financial), it’s an opportunity to look at this moment as a gift because it’s forcing us to look at our relationship with uncertainty, and meditation gives us a front row seat. It allows us to get curious, to slow down and observe. The more we observe, the less power uncertainty has over us.”
“Just Sit” is a gentle, practical book packed with information about the myriad benefits of meditation – from relieving anxiety to improving focus and sleep – plus a straightforward plan for developing a meditation habit. “Like working out, you have to consciously choose to meditate every day,” Novogratz says. “That said, making that choice becomes easier over time (mostly because you can feel the difference when you don’t do it).”
The exercises in the book work equally well for children and adults – or not. “Children are much better at meditation and mindfulness exercises than adults are because they are easily engrossed,” says Novogratz. “They bring play and curiosity in a way that adults can learn from.” And having a “meditation buddy” of any age is great. “Kids resist much less than adults, so it might actually help you to show up and sit if your child is doing it with you.”
A stitch in time
Keep everyone’s hands busy – and their eyes off their phones – by taking up knitting or crochet. A wonderful local collective called the L.A. County Yarn Crawl had to cancel this year’s annual event, which was planned for March. But the crawl website is a great way to connect with local yarn shops – most of which are currently doing online ordering and/or curbside pickup. Many put together special beginner project packages, or help customers choose projects that will work for those new to the craft.
The Altered Stitch in Valley Village, for instance, has beginner sets. “We work with each person to pick out a set of needles and a skein of yarn,” says co-owner Dawn Stanacore, adding that they offer help online and by phone. For kids, she recommends the book “Teaching Through Stories – Jane and Jeremy Learn to Knit,” by Elizabeth Seward, an instructor they have worked with.
“One of the great things about needle arts such as knit and crochet is the wide variety of patterns and projects available, suitable for any age and/or skill set,” says Phebie Lozano, owner of Phebie’s NeedleArt in Claremont. Lozano says that she has seen kids as young as 6 master basic yarn skills, with the beginner range considered to be ages 6-9.
“My mom taught me so many things about crafting – knitting, crochet, sewing, beading, embroidery – and I have taught my children,” says Annette Corsino-Blair, co-owner with husband Bruce of The Knitting Tree in Inglewood. “It helps to have fun and show my vulnerability and willingness to learn new things!”
Gather DTLA has been offering curated packages. “People can fill out a questionnaire to let us know their interests and level of knowledge, whether beginner or advanced, their budget, colors they love or dislike and anything else they want us to know,” says owner Tifanee Taylor. “We put together something just for them! Someone who is a beginner just needs to specify that, and we’ll cater to their needs.” Discover these and many more local shops through the L.A. Yarn Crawl website.
To uke it up
Looking for instant instrument gratification? Consider the ukulele. “It takes about 5 minutes (or less) to learn how to hold the ukulele and play your first chord,” says Aldrine Guerrero, a ukulele player from Kauai and an instructor at Ukulele Underground. “The ukulele is a great family instrument because of how easy it is to start playing.”
The Ukulele Underground website boasts a massive library of tutorial videos ranging from absolute beginner lessons to college-like courses. “For beginners, we have videos that can show you how to hold and play the instrument from the moment you take your ukulele out of its box,” Guerrero says. A series of tutorials called “Songs Made Easy” offers step-by-step instructions on chords and chord changes, with Guerrero playing through the song at the end and inviting viewers to play along. “If that’s not enough, I will personally help you out with any trouble or questions you may have with the ukulele,” he says. “I do this through our private lessons.” UU memberships, which allow up to two 15-minute private lessons per month via Skype and Zoom, cost around $20 per month, but the site also has a massive library of free learn-to-play videos.
Guerrero points out that, though people as young as 3 or 4 can start learning to play, the ukulele is not a toy. “The truth is that the ukulele is a very serious instrument that can be used to approach any musical genre, ranging from classical and jazz to rock and metal music,” he says. A starter instrument can cost $50 to $200, and Guerrero says it’s most important to find one that stays in tune. His favorite thing about the instrument, though, is the ukulele community. “There’s just a certain amount of love that comes naturally with the instrument,” he says, “and I think that’s reflected on how friendly and caring the community is.”
To fly – a paper plane
There’s just something joyous about watching a paper airplane fly. Help your child learn to fold one, and lots of possibilities open up. Tri Dang’s mother taught him to fold his first plane at age 6. “I still remember it was the Classic Dart, and I was amazed how a sheet of my notebook paper could turn into an awesome plane,” he says. “Making paper airplanes has become my passion since then.”
Today, Dang is a professional paper airplane and origami designer whose TriKdanG YouTube page has 258,000 subscribers and is packed with free plane-folding and origami tutorials. He’s also just published a book, “Modern Paper Airplanes: Make Origami Paper Planes That Fly!”
One of Dang’s favorite planes for kids to learn to fold is the boomerang plane, which can fly away and then return to the flier. His YouTube channel has videos for folding the Cyclone and King Eagle planes, which Dang says are easy boomerang planes for beginners to fold. His book features a collection of 12 different planes designed by Dang, from easy to advanced, including boomerang and long-distance planes. He recommends it for ages 6 and up.
One of the most parent-friendly things about paper plane folding is that the startup costs are so low. Dang says regular printer paper or U.S. letter-size paper is the best type to use. With just a few sheets (new or recycled), your kids can learn to make their own toys. The whole family can have folding and flying contests (Dang’s greatest distance plane, The Spirit Dragon, can fly more than 150 feet).
Whether you choose to fly planes, knit blankets, strum, om, hola, checkmate, CPR or wave your magic wand, learn something new. It’ll help keep your kids from getting bored, and give you a more interesting answer to the question, “What have you guys been up to lately?”
Christina Elston is Editor of L.A. Parent.