Summer with grandkids can be fun and educational

If you are spending part of your summer in the company of grandchildren, take the time off from school to honor your grandchild’s imagination and grow his or her creative thinking. As an “elder” of your “tribe,” you have the wisdom that comes from the long view. And the good news is that neuroscience now shows that many things we know from experience are indeed really important to growing young minds. Use these knowings to create meaningful, valuable and fun-filled activities this summer. Here are a few essentials:

Take play seriously.

Play is at the heart of creativity. When you play, you combine and recombine bits and pieces from old idea collections, maybe adding something new (anything from a hat to a stencil to a rowboat), spinning what-if’s and maybe-then’s. You move from your linear mind into your more intuitive body—and let your imagination have full reign. Play gives children a chance to rehearse, direct, invent, imitate, fantasize, try on, try out, experiment, rethink, rearrange, start over, express and explore—all very important for developing imaginative skills and fluency of ideas. Innovators consistently acknowledge the power of play in their own lives. So pretend. Role play with another person. Get hands-on and hands-in. Get a move on and play in the real world. It matters.

Focus on the senses.

We think in more than one way: we think in pictures, in sound, in movement. We think spatially, kinetically, texturally. We literally think with our whole bodies. Use the building blocks of these ways of thinking, the Sensory Alphabet (line, shape, rhythm color, space, light, movement, sound and texture), to inspire your activities with grandkids this summer. Ironically, it is educating the senses that provide the richest foundation for working creatively with the images, icons, and video that pour out of the screens of digital media. These are future-oriented skills children need more than ever.

Our book, The Missing Alphabet, A Parents’ Guide to Developing Creative Thinking in Kids has more than 65 pages of activities matched to the Sensory Alphabet. Consider making one of the nine the focus for a week during your summer of fun. Here’s a sample of a few ideas from the book with summertime written all over them:

·         Explore MOVEMENT at the zoo. Collect the individual movements of animals, reptiles and birds with line drawings or with a digital camera. Copy animal movements with your own body—big cats, flying birds, excited monkeys, huge elephants and so on. Back at home, invent an animal movement game (like Charades), using as many ways of moving as you can remember.

·         Explore SHAPE at the museum. Make sculpture the focus of your museum visit. Count how many different ways artists make human body shapes in their sculpture. Make a collection of photos or sketches as you look for shapes. Back at home, make sculpture inspired by your museum visit with different shape-making materials like boxes, clay, wood scraps, stuffed fabric shapes or cookie dough.

·         Explore SPACE around the neighborhood. Take a walk around the block and find all the interesting hiding spaces you can spot along your route. At home find your best hiding place, your favorite size of space, your pet’s favorites too. Make a collection of empty boxes for building, stacking, sorting. Design a playhouse from a refrigerator box or two.

Use “scratch” materials.

In this era of tablets and smart phones and an app for every appetite, it’s easy to forget that high-touch experiences are important for cognitive development — and essential for play, the touchstone of imagination. Be sure to include things like mud, clay, water, flour paste, cookie dough, things to take apart and put back together, blocks, costumes and masks, movement toys and sound instruments in your summer “things to do.”  Experiences in nature, even if that nature is just one of the city’s wild-space parks or walking trails, are also essential to a child’s development, and current research shows, important for us adults too.

Go with the grain.

While each person — no matter his or her age — has a constellation of Sensory Alphabet strengths, your grandchild probably has one or two that really stand out. These are the things that you notice in his or her artwork, in what your grandchild pays attention to, likes to play around with, and in the particulars of his or her collections and activities.  When you use these proclivities to help you plan summer fun, you’re more likely to find that your grandchild feels successful, retains more from the experiences, and has more fun.


The field called Creative Learning is developing too slowly in the educational world for every child to benefit now. While this can be a frustrating fact of life, you’ll know that the summertime adventures you invent along these lines are giving your grandchild a headstart on the kinds of innovative thinking skills the future will require.


Susan Marcus and Susie Monday, who wrote this article,

Hands-on activities are one of the ways grandchildren can enjoy and learn new things from grandparents. (Courtesy photo)
Hands-on activities are one of the ways grandchildren can enjoy and learn new things from grandparents. (Courtesy photo)

are co-authors along with Dr. Cynthia Herbert of The Missing Alphabet, A Parents’ Guide to Developing Creative Thinking in Kids.