Why do TV networks save their best shows for winter? Because when the weather turns colder and the days grow shorter, channel surfing is the easiest escape for restless families bouncing off the walls (and one another). Instead of fighting for the remote control, here are three fun and inventive family activities you can do with your kids when the skies get darker earlier but their bedtime stays the same.
Illustrate Your Family Tree
Winter holidays are all about family gatherings, which means your children might meet relative they don’t see the rest of the year. Teach them about the importance of ancestors by creating a life-size family tree.
Get started: Tape a big piece of poster board or butcher paper to a wall at your child’s eye level. Starting at the bottom, draw the outline of a tree trunk while leaving room for the branches at the top. Have your child write his name in the trunk’s center, then help him add the names of family members like mom, dad, siblings, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Encourage him to personalize each family member’s name with photos, drawings of things they like, or memorable activities your child has shared with them. Keep a wedding album or photo scrapbook handy to help little kids match names to faces , and give older kids who are curious about your family’s origins an atlas to show them where your ancestors came from.
Go further: You and your child can learn more about distant relatives at familysearch.org.
Difficulty level: Easy
What you’ll need: Poster board or butcher paper, crayons or markers, family photos, tape, photo albums and/or reference books, like an atlas
Time commitment: 60 to 90 minutes
Make Your Own Star Map
Spark a lifelong fascination with the night sky by introducing your child to bright, easy-to-recognize constellations like Orion the hunter or Perseus (or, if you’re up early, the Big Dipper, which can be seen in the morning).
Get started: Glue or tape a sheet of black construction paper to a piece of thick cardboard to make it more durable. Use a pencil to trace a constellation, then draw a circle where each star is located, making the brightest stars the biggest (about the size of a penny), and dimmer starts the smallest (about the size of a pea). Use glow-in-the-dark paint or pens to trace the outline of a constellation and to fill in each star circle. Once the paint is dry and it’s dark outside, use the glow-in-the-dark star map to find your constellation in the night sky.
Go further: Double-check your child’s work-and identify other constellations nearby-with a stargazing app like The Night Sky ($.99, apple.com/itunes). Hold your phone or tablet up to the sky, and the names of the constellations in your field of view will appear on the screen.
Difficulty level: Moderate
What you’ll need: Tape or glue, black construction paper, cardboard, pencil, glow-in-the-dark paint or ink
Time commitment: 30 minutes
Send Secret Messages
That piece of white paper may look blank to you, but your child knows it says, “Meet me in the basement to play Legos in five minutes.” Show your child how to write, send , and decode messages like a secret agent, using household items you likely have on hand.
Get started: Make your invisible ink by combining 1/4 cup of baking soda and 1/4 cup of tap water in a bowl, stirring until the baking soda dissolves completely. Have your child dip a cotton swab or small paintbrush in the “ink” then use it to write a secret message on a sheet of white paper. Once the ink has dried completely (help your child use a hair dryer to speed up the process), your child can brush the paper with grape juice concentrate to make the invisible message reappear. (The message is revealed through the chemical reaction that happens when the grape juice interacts with the baking soda.)
Go further: For more fun, set up a message-writing station and a decoding station, with one or more child at each. Very little kids can act as couriers to carry the secret messages between the stations, and older kids can make messages even harder to crack by disguising the words with a code (like A=1, B=2, C=3, and so on).
Difficulty level: Easy
What you’ll need: Baking soda, water, mixing bowl, cotton swabs, or a small paintbrush, white paper, grape juice concentrate
Time commitment: 45 minutes