Lower School Resources: Keeping Kids Engaged Over Winter Break

As we head into a two-week winter break, many parents are wondering what they can do to keep their children engaged, active, and happy socially and emotionally while also ensuring they get the rest they need. Our Lower School team has some great ideas to share. Here are some great tips and tricks from Ashley O’Toole, Lower School Counselor and Learning Specialist, Bridget Wallace, Junior Kindergarten Teacher and Early Childhood Curriculum Coordinator, Donna Waters, Fourth Grade Homeroom Teacher and Elementary Grades Curriculum Coordinator, and Amy Scheer, Head of the Lower School.

Get tips and tricks below, or listen to their whole session here:

Mary Institute and Saint Louis Country Day School · Lower School Parent Coffee: Ideas and Activities for Children in a Socially Distanced Winter

The session focused on four topics: academics, social development, emotional development, and physical development. O’Toole noted that winter break should be a break for everyone, especially students and in light of this, families should feel okay about prioritizing social-emotional and physical development over academics during their time off school.


Wallace confirmed that, and said, “Academics are such an important part of our lives, so here are some ideas of things you can continue doing.” Greg Stevens, our Coordinator of Instructional Technology in the Lower School, has vetted a number of games on RBS Kids, and our students are already familiar with many of them. There are games designed for children at all elementary levels, including JK, SK, and 1st grade, plus those for upper elementary students.

“One of the best things you can do is read with your child,” Wallace said. “Read to them and with them. Set aside a time every day for you to read to them or them to read to you.” Students can also practice their “popcorn” or sight words. Parents can make this practice into a game, where students can match upper and lower case, or practice writing and reading the words. “Journals are a great idea to have something extra to do, and they can be wherever you are, in the car, at the dinner table,” she said. “It’s a chance for your child to draw and write.” Journals let children expand what they know while allowing parents a glimpse into their world through their drawings.

Beasley students create books at school, and it’s easy to encourage them to do the same at home. Staple two pieces of paper together and let children create a story for you. Parents can encourage older students through the use of writing prompts. Children can either write out their story themselves, or dictate their story to their parents, who can then write it down.

Looking for new books to read? Many of our local libraries are offering curbside pick up, plus there are library apps like Libby and Overdrive that allow the checkout of books online. Often, all you need is a current library card. Our classroom teachers use Epic Books, and parents are encouraged to take advantage of that resource as well.

Beasley Art Teacher Mrs. Garner has a new YouTube channel: Happy Creating with Mrs. G., where she offers a lot of different and fun art activities.

Waters concurred on many of Wallace’s tips and tricks, as they are also relevant for older students. She understands what parents are facing today, and shared that she knows it’s stressful to face two weeks of a child at home without school to keep them busy and engaged, especially with the limitations of the pandemic. “Let them be bored; let them figure out what to do,” she said. “That’s part of growing up: learning how to fill their time when they don’t have anything to do.”

She encourages a daily reading practice for older students. Although graphic novels are fun and very popular with children, parents should encourage chapter books, or even picture books that can be read to younger siblings. Many picture books are written on a 4th and 5th grade level. She shared that her daughter is participating in a virtual book club with friends over winter break, which is a great way to encourage reading and engagement with peers. Waters also encouraged the use of Libby, Overdrive, and Hoopla to access books, and said that it’s okay for children to read their favorite books a second time.

The holiday season often means baking delicious treats, and this activity offers a fun way to incorporate newly-learned math concepts. Fourth graders just started fractions last week, so using them to bake gives them good practice time in a real-world setting and allows them to begin seeing all the natural places they’ll use math.

Social Development

What can parents do to keep kids active socially, given the limitations of the pandemic? Wallace said that even though it’s hard to get out and socialize, there are plenty of ways to build valuable socialization skills. Parents should think about chores their children can do around the house. For instance, even young children can set the table and put their toys and clothes away. These simple practices can help them as they grow and give them a sense of purpose, all while helping parents, too. She encouraged parents to set up some virtual playdates and shared that the JK classrooms have had a great experience doing this with our distance learners. Students have quickly adapted to playing with their friends virtually with Legos or in dramatic play. Sometimes they chat with each other, and sometimes they’re sitting quietly together, each reading a book, but no matter what, they are connecting.

Meals are a great way to build family connections, from planning to mindfully eating them together. Parents can talk about where different foods come from and can connect through playing games while eating. Wallace encouraged parents to google some dinnertime question starters for kids, as there are tons of great ideas available.

Families can also think about how to share joy and cheer with those in need or neighbors, by dropping off something at a doorstep or volunteering virtually. These are great times for kids to find a way to connect with family members and friends while building those important life skills.

Waters encourages families to talk about the positive things that have come out of the pandemic. She said one child shared in class, “I have dinner every night with my entire family now!” Children are noticing that they get to spend more time with parents and siblings these days. She shared one of her own family traditions, where she asks her children, “What were your happies/sads today?” at the dinner table. Sometimes they can’t think of a “sad,” so she then asks if a classmate had anything sad happen. This practice builds empathy, and children become aware of how other people are reacting and feelings. She stressed again that it’s important to let children figure out what to do when they don’t have anything to do. “They are developing that skill right now and if we over-schedule them they will always be looking to other people to entertain them,” she said.

Both teachers discussed how the use of technology has changed during the pandemic, mostly in the name of relaxing restrictions to encourage connection. Allowing children to connect with friends by playing video games, for example, is a great diversion, so long as different parameters are set (such as no playing with people they don’t know).

Older children can help with chores as well, such as planning meals. And going for regular family walks and nature hikes, even in the cold, are a great way to spend time together.

Emotional Development

Social development is so intertwined with emotional development, so how do parents sustain emotional wellbeing over the winter break? Wallace said, “We are all feeling a lot of big emotions right now, and your child is no different.” She encourages parents to ask questions and really listen to the responses. Instead of dismissing whatever they might be feeling, have a good conversation about it. Admit that you have those feelings, too, and empathize by saying, “I wish there was a better way.” Help them understand their feelings by reading some books that give them ways to name and process their feelings. And remember to remind them that feelings are okay, all of them (even anger!). Whether stressful, happy, or hopeful, helping them identify their feelings is a fantastic way to encourage emotional development.

Families could consider setting up “no tech” nights, where everyone puts away their phones, tablets, and computers, or a game night, s’mores night, or going for a walk at a certain time every day. “Go out no matter the weather,” said Wallace. Bundle up and enjoy hot chocolate when you get back inside.

It’s important to validate your child’s emotions, helping them think about what their emotions are signalling, and how they can take charge of their emotions. They can acknowledge, “I’m feeling a little bored, what can I do?” or think about “What do I love? Reading, writing, finding a sport to play.” Sometimes we need to do something physical to make sense of our emotions, said Wallace.

Waters said that older kids often think they have a good understanding of what’s going on in the world, but their perception is distorted. They may hear a bit of news or a friend may inadvertently share misinformation. “Listen to what they’re sharing and correct misperceptions,” she said. “Tell them they don’t have to take care of what is troubling them. Adults will take care of it; let adults do the worrying.”

She suggests that families build blanket forts and play games. “It’s okay to turn your living room into a big blanket fort and watch movies,” she said, laughing. “No one is coming over anyway!”

Validating their emotions is essential for children, she said. Explain that something they might feel great about, someone else might not, and that’s okay. Third and fourth grade is when children start to realize that people think differently than they do, and they’re learning how to respect others’ feelings even when they’re different.

Physical Development

Even during winter break, kids’ bodies keep growing and the need for daily movement and exercise remains a priority. How can parents keep their kids motivated to move and work on muscle coordination?

“Think about how good you feel as an adult after you go for a walk or run,” Wallace said. “Your kids need to move. Physical activity helps with brain development and making connections, which transfers to academic learning.” It’s all connected.

Encourage your children to play outside. It might be cold but we can bundle up to jump rope, or play hopscotch or ball. Or play inside: set up an obstacle course, move the furniture and let them have some space for “big body play.” It’s a good time to be outside in nature, to see how the seasons have changed, and there are a lot of great parks for walks and hikes around St. Louis, or you can enjoy a walk in your neighborhood.

Wallace shared that every winter, she sets up an activity calendar for the dates her family is off for break. Every day has a different activity or something fun for her children to look forward to. Sometimes it’s as simple as playing Uno or making brownies, other times it’s a fun outing like visiting the zoo or getting a special treat for lunch. “It’s something to look forward to for them and for you,” she said. Be sure to add some physical activities. The rest of the day can be downtime.

Older kids can help create obstacle courses and activities, or show younger siblings activities, said Waters. They also enjoy online workouts and virtual dance parties with their friends. There are a series of online workouts based on “This or That” or “Would You Rather” questions. Participants select one of the two choices, and the video shows the exercise corresponding to each answer.

Walks and playing games together works for older kids, too. And if your children still have access to the wonderful PE activity videos from the spring, those are worth a revisit.

The bottom line is that winter break can be more than just a break from school. It’s an opportunity for families to connect with each other and create fun memories in the process. Enjoy the break, and happy new year!