Once upon a time, children amused themselves with their two hands, making mud pies outdoors, painting pictures inside, exploring, experimenting – and often getting dirty in the process. These days, those little hands are more likely to be occupied with a keyboard or a game controller, but that doesn’t mean children don’t still like to get messy now and again. These fun local enrichment programs encourage kids to use their hands to learn about the world around them, and no one will be worried if they spill a little mud, paint or goo in the process. Read on for plenty of fun ideas for kids, and be ready with the soap and water.
Lessons In the Dirt
The Garden School Foundation (www.gardenschoolfoundation.org) runs “garden classrooms” in more than 700 Los Angeles-area schools, where children from pre-kindergarten to sixth grade can learn where food comes from by growing and cooking it themselves. The nonprofit’s mission is to turn asphalt into ecosystems, giving children standards-based lessons and cooking classes. “It’s very rewarding to hear a student who has grown and harvested the ingredients for an apple-fennel sandwich say, ‘I’m going to have my mom make this again at home,’” says Executive Director Cassie Martinez. “The children don’t realize they are even learning.”
But lessons in the garden go beyond food. “One of my favorite experiences was when my classmates and I acted like prosecutors of the pincher bugs,” says Mona, a fifth grader at Wilshire Crest Elementary in L.A. “We had to find how the pincher bug was guilty in the strawberry patch.”
Parents also prize the program because it gets kids outdoors. “[The garden class] keeps the kids open-minded and more active, instead of just being in the closed room all day,” says Lidia, a mom of two students at Jackson Elementary in Altadena. “It gives them a little extra time to develop their brains and think about other things. There are a lot of things that we can do with plants. We just have to be a little creative.”
A Destination for Science
At Destination Science camps (www.destinationscience.org) kids ages 5-11 get the chance to explore, discover, experiment, design and create at 27 locations throughout L.A. County. “Hands-on science helps young minds to make sense of the world around them,” says Program Director Kathy Heraghty. Kids using a Slinky spring to mimic high-frequency and low-frequency sound waves, for instance, can see that the low-pitch wave travels a greater distance, while the higher-pitch wave loses energy and dies out more quickly. “This helps them understand that an ambulance siren goes wha, WHA, wha, WHA, so we can hear it from far away and up close,” Heraghty says.
The hands-on exercises help kids get compfortable with science vocabulary and concepts, often leading to a lifelong interest. “Many of our campers have gone on to become engineers, veterinarians, architects, biologists and computer programmers,” says Heraghty.
What do parents appreciate most about Destination Science? The mom of one 7-year-old camper loved the hands-on projects. “Lulu really enjoyed getting the stuff to bring home and show and share with us,” the mom says. “She was so proud to share what she had learned each day and is excited about space now.” Another parent was excited about the lessons her son learned during building projects. “In order to build the dinosaur, kids had to learn to follow directions, problem solve or assist a peer,” she says. “My son loved building circuits and flying the drone!”
Mad About Learning
Mad Science (www.losangeles.madscience.org) transforms laboratory science into fun, interactive learning experiences for kids in kindergarten to sixth grade with its mobile labs. The franchise offers after-school and in-class programs, birthday parties, camps, special events and preschool activities.
The goal is to get children excited about science by teaching them to conduct experiments, form hypotheses, solve problems and work together in teams in a fun, interactive way. Instructors work to encourage children’s natural curiosity and foster an appreciation and enthusiasm for science.
“We encourage children to follow many different career paths,” says Program Coordinator Susan McManus. “We want to them to realize there is science in almost everything, and that the world always needs more chemists, engineers, botanists, kinesiologists, astronauts, paleontologists, etc. We have also had many children realize that they would like to become teachers, or even Mad Scientists!”
And while the kids delight in being able to be a little silly, a little messy, and really creative while learning about new scientific concepts, parents and teachers just enjoy the students’ newfound appreciation for science and discovery.
“Mad Science is a well organized, entertaining and educational experience,” says Lisa Horner, a teacher at Lancaster West KinderCare. “My students enjoy the experiments and exploration they do in the workshop.”
Art and Beyond
At Summer Art Academy (www.summerartacademy.com) programs, kids can paint, cook, work with clay and find all sorts of fun ways to get their hands dirty.
Campers ages 7-16 who dream of becoming renowned chefs – or who just want to learn to rustle up a meal or a snack – will enjoy Cooking Camp.
The Teen Camp program, for ages 11-15, offers tweens and teens hands-on workshops designed to nurture passions and talents in the arts. The goal with this program is to push creativity to the next level, encourage lasting friendships and build confidence and self-esteem.
Art Camp, for ages 7-11, offers unique and engaging workshops from cooking to ceramics, magic to musical theater, fencing to woodworking. And Art Camp 101 brings a taste of all of these activities, with a bit of extra attention and structure, to ages 5-6. It’s a fun and dynamic summer camp experience that sparks creativity, engagement, exploration and individual expression.
Bringing Creativity Home
Encino-based Art on Wheels (818-981-4064) provides one-on-one and small-group instruction at students’ homes, allowing children to learn at their own pace with the freedom to create and explore art at the side of a professional teacher. Teaching strong drawing and shading techniques in a multitude of media helps demonstrate that art is a skill that one can acquire, just like playing a musical instrument or mastering math.
Founder and instructor Dorit Moss has been a professional artist for more than 30 years and exhibits her work in art shows, galleries and numerous private collections. “Our kids become confident in their abilities as artists,” says Moss. “They develop strong drawing and painting skills in a variety of mediums that they can use for the rest of their lives. Our students create a portfolio that will be used if they decide to apply for art schools or other private schools.”
During Art on Wheels lessons, the stress-free environment of a home helps students relax and have fun while learning to be proficient in art. They also enjoy spending time with fellow students and develop camaraderie with their teachers, who often become their mentors.
Whether your child is indulging a lifelong passion or seeking a career path, taking some time to play with paint, clay, dirt, food or gadgets and gears is sure to get his or her brain thinking in new directions. And that is the foundation for all sorts of learning.
Tina Smith is a freelance writer and North Hills mom of three.