Summertime language activities for children and their families

image credit: Personal Creations, Flickr. CC license.

Summer doesn’t mean you have to take a break from stimulating speech and language skills with your children. There are still many opportunities to enrich communication skills. From trips to the zoo, waterpark or beach, to camping and other family vacations, you’ll have plenty to talk about. Here are some suggestions for incorporating language into your fun summer plans.

Schedule play dates with friends and classmates. Play dates foster peer interaction, play, functional communication, and social skills. Offer a few summer activities (bubbles, sand toys, swings) and encourage conversation/interaction. Later, ask open-ended questions about what happened, who was there, and other details.

Plan a day trip. Take a trip to the beach, park, museum, amusement park, or zoo. Providing your child with a variety of experiences gives them a broader vocabulary base and builds connections to stories and books they may read. While planning for the trip, talk about what you need to pack for the trip. After the trip, tell the story of what you did that day. Check online for nearby family-friendly activities and discounts.

Go for a walk. As you walk with your child, encourage conversation by asking open-ended questions (e.g., What do you like to do outside?). Make observations and comment on what you see around you (e.g., I see a blue bird flying in the sky), while encouraging your child to do the same. Or try an “I Spy” game to focus on inference skills by describing items and having your child guess what you see.

Make a snack together. Cooking and baking create natural opportunities to practice following directions. Together, check the ingredients list and create a shopping list. While shopping, discuss what you will buy, how many you need, and what you will make. Talk about the size (large or small), shape (long, round, square), and weight (heavy or light) of the packages and where you put them (in the cart, on, under, above the grocery cart). Then get to cooking! After the snack is made, have your child describe what they made. Take it a step further and see if your child can remember and retell all the steps in the process.

Read. Reading with your child is one of the best activities you can do to promote language and literacy skills. While reading, ask your child different “wh” questions related to the story (e.g., Why is he sad? What do you think is going to happen? Where are they?). Visit the local library to check out new books.

Host a scavenger hunt. Work with your child to write clues and create maps for participants to find the items. While writing the clues together, work on sentence formation and vocabulary development. To target a specific articulation sound, think of items that start or end with that sound. Completing the scavenger hunt targets critical thinking skills and following directions.

Camp in the backyard. Set up the tent with your child, tell campfire stories and make s’mores. Not only is this activity so much fun, but it targets narrative skills, imaginative play, and following directions.

Have a game night. Board games, charades, bingo and card games are very interactive and fun. Most games can have multiple players at a time so invite over the neighbor kids for some laughs! Games encourage turn taking, social skills, rule-following and understanding directions.

What are your favorite summertime activities, and how do you incorporate learning during while the children are not in school?

– Alexandra Barman, M.A., CF-SLP, Speech and Language Pathologist, Children’s Speech and Language Pathology Department, Beaumont Health

Our family’s “hoedown” reunion

One of my favorite summer traditions is a family reunion. But it’s not any reunion. My husband’s family hosts a yearly family reunion called the “Hoedown.” Although the name might suggest otherwise, there are actually very few cowboy hats and “yee-haws” present. Instead, the purpose of this weekend-long reunion is to spend quality time with family members from across the United States and create many memories together.

This year marks the 46th year for the hoedown! I personally have attended for only 10 years, but this  quickly became one of the summer traditions I look forward to every year. Family members from California, Georgia, Texas, New Jersey, South Carolina, Florida, and Ohio all travel to the 200-acre family property in Rose City, Michigan for a long weekend.

Every year incorporates different fun activities such as a kids’ fishing tournament, adult/kid obstacle course, strong man competition, cookie competition, bingo, and even a cardboard boat race. But the unending presence of family is what I really look forward to each summer.

On the welcoming day, there is a big breakfast followed by a float down on Rifle River; everyone brings their own vessels and gets on the water with drinks and music. Typically lasting a few hours, this is a nice way to catch up to see what’s new in everyone’s life. From there, everyone participates in the year’s highlighted activity and then breaks for lunch back at their own individual cabin, camper or tent. Afterwards, we all gather back together at a central pavilion for a big potluck family dinner where there is great food and even better company. After everyone’s belly is filled, the karaoke machine gets pulled out, and we catch up and belt out a few favorite tunes. Kids and dogs run wild and everyone lets their worries go in the up north breeze. As my own kids grow older, they look forward to seeing their cousins who live from far away and I hope treasure these times just as much as I do.

– Stephanie Babcock is an IFS coordinator with the Parenting Program. She’s a proud mom of two.

Our favorite summer traditions

Our family’s favorite summer tradition is a trip to Red Oaks Waterpark in Madison Heights. It has a wave pool, three water slides, a lazy river, and a kid-friendly play area. (Bonus: Oakland County residents get discounted admission.) Our favorite time to go is during the Twilight hours from 4 – 7 p.m. Twilight admission is only $8 for Oakland County residents. We bring a picnic dinner and have lots of fun. I do recommend wearing water shoes as the bottom of the wave pool can be prickly on sensitive feet. Red Oaks also has a River Walk for adults on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, where you can walk against the current in the lazy river from 7:30 – 8:30 p.m. for $8. I haven’t tried it yet but I’m hoping to go this summer. – Emily Swan

Summer traditions … They’re the best and so many to choose from! My kids love traditions, big and small. Some of ours include a trip to northern Michigan with my parents, two sisters and their families. There are 16 of us total: eight adults and eight kids. The cousins just love to be together, playing in the water, running wild, and eating lots of ice cream. It is chaotic and wonderful. There is something special that happens when you get that vacation time away with family. I love planning meals, cooking and eating together, and my favorite is getting the early-morning and after-nap snuggles from my nieces and nephews (sweet bed head, the smell of fresh lakeside air and sunscreen). My immediate family of four also does a weekend in South Haven every summer. My husband and I met at WMU, so the west side of the state is special to us and we love sharing it with the kids. And lastly, before school starts back each year, we do a day at Rolling Hills Water Park in Ypsilanti with our neighbors; the moms even do the slides! So fun! – Kelly Ryan

When our kids were little, one of our favorite summer traditions included exploring the many amazing cities and lakes right here in Michigan. Whether we ventured north, south, east or west, it was all about discovering new and exciting sights that our beautiful state has to offer. Favorite activities involved swimming, biking, mini golf, volleyball and playing cards. Lazy days seemed to center around big scoops of ice cream, while a nighttime favorite included campfire gatherings and eating s’mores. The tradition continues once more! Last summer, we had a blast introducing our grandchildren to the beautiful beaches in the thumb area. – Deanna Robb

Our summer tradition when our kids were little was to visit Kelleys Island in Ohio. My husband’s great grandfather bought a cottage there around the turn of the century and it remains one of the oldest buildings on the island. Our kids loved it because the only rule was “no rules!” – Lori Polakowski

Summertime traditions with our family evolved over the years as the kids got older. But one tradition is we always seem to celebrate is the 4th of July together in our hometown. The big, all-day celebration starts with a parade, then a family fair and craft show, along with hot dog eating contests, and all-star baseball games at the city park. Then of course the big fireworks display tops off the night. It’s always great to have family and friends come over for the day. We have yard games going and the pool is open all day. There’s always lots of great food for grilling as everyone brings a dish. It’s a great tradition that we still enjoy as a family even as the kids have grown into adults! – Lucy Hill

No matter the summer vacation plans, we always make time for a visit to an amusement park! Each summer we visit Michigan’s Adventure or Cedar Point, and to be honest, most summers it’s both! Both are about a 3-hour drive for us, which is totally worth all the fun we have. Michigan’s Adventure has a fantastic water park, which is included with the price of admission and perfect for a midday cool down. Cedar Point has the absolute best roller coasters in the world, my favorite is Steel Vengeance. If you like to plan ahead, both parks offer deep discounts on admission throughout the year. I like to grab their Black Friday Deals! – Nichole Enerson

As my kids have gotten older and busier, it’s gotten harder to get everyone together. But one thing we still do every summer is take a trip to Cedar Point. We are amusement park junkies; we will go anywhere within driving distance to ride the latest coaster, but Cedar Point is our home turf. Everyone has their favorite ride that we make sure to hit. Because we have season passes and visit often, we never wait in long lines since we know we can ride another time. My youngest and I always look forward to the new stage show (Cedar Point has the best in-park entertainment outside of Disney!), and the rest of the family humors us and goes with us as well. Every trip to Cedar Point includes french fries at the back of the park at the Happy Friar. Don’t forget that you can get free courtesy water at every concession stand, which is especially important on hot days. Finally, the trip home will always include a stop at the Dairy Depot on Route 2. After all, it’s not a summer tradition if there’s not ice cream involved! – Nicole Capozello

I am not a tent camper but a few summers ago, my family discovered yurts at a county park. Since then, we’ve gone every year. My son takes his fishing gear and could spend hours at the dock trying to catch something. There are kayaks to rent, arts and crafts, hiking trails, and entertainment. We take our bikes and some board games, too. We love making a campfire, cooking foil dinners and having s’mores. There’s a tractor/wagon ride that goes all through the camp and we look to see which critters we’ll see on the ride. Another highlight is when we see the mounted Oakland County sheriff deputies. It’s a relaxing weekend away for sure! – Becky Bibbs

Two of our favorite summer traditions are family reunions and camping trips. We typically combine the two for a “family hoedown” every year in July and camp for a long weekend to spend time with family from across the United States. The weekend typically includes a fishing tournament on the property’s lake, bingo, treasure hunt, swimming, campfires, and a float down the river. It is such a fun time! – Stephanie Babcock

Did someone say ice cream?

July 1 marked the beginning of National Ice Cream month. In metro Detroit, we’re lucky to have a vast number of places to get ice cream, frozen yogurt, gelato and frozen custard. To help you celebrate all month long, here are our staff’s favorite ice cream shops.

  • Birmingham area: The Dairy Mat on Woodward is like a small hometown DQ.  My kids always liked sprinkles! – Lori Polakowski
  • Birmingham area: Who says you need to wait until it’s warm out for ice cream?  Dairy Deluxe is always the first place to open up for the season, usually February 1! The menu is huge and they have options you can’t get anywhere else. I love the “Crazy for Cookies” sundae (vanilla ice cream, hot fudge and three homemade chocolate chip cookies) and my son likes the cherry Pop Tarts flurry. They have a good Sanders bumpy cake sundae, too. – Becky Bibbs
  • Clarkston area: We love going to Cook’s Farm Dairy in Ortonville! My husband grew up next to the farm and their ice cream is the absolute best! It’s also fun to wander around seeing the farm animals, especially the new calves! – Nichole Enerson
  • Grosse Pointe area: Alinosi’s ice cream, originally located in the neighborhood where I grew up in Detroit, and the place to get it is at the Chocolate Bar Café on Mack Avenue. Alinosi’s ice cream is sooo rich and the hot fudge is to die for. The place is decorated with pictures from the old store, which are like a scrapbook of my childhood. As a kid, I loved the clown and circus sundaes (that one had animal crackers marching around the edge), and in my adolescence, it was strawberry ice cream with strawberry sauce.  Now, I love an old-fashioned hot fudge sundae. My mom used to ask my dad to bring her a double scoop cone (in the middle of the winter because in the summer we walked there): pineapple orange on the bottom and chocolate on the top.  She said it had to be in that order so the chocolate dripped down onto the other flavor.  When my youngest didn’t remember the name “Alinosi’s,” she said, “Ali-what-now?” That’s been its name ever since. – Nicole Capozello
  • Marine City area: Our favorite place isThe Sweet Tooth of Marine City. It’s an entire candy store featuring a 30 lb. gummy bear, old fashioned candy, bulk candy where you can buy by the pound, hand-dipped chocolate items (like chocolate covered pretzels), chocolate covered popcorn, chocolate chips, etc. They also have Michigan-flavored ice creams such as “Michigan Pothole” and more. We like to get ice cream and then walk the streets downtown or sit by the pier and watch the ferry go by! – Stephanie Babcock
  • Novi area: Guernsey Farms Dairy is a family dairy; the incredible ice cream is made on-site and is incredible. In addition to the scoop shop, you can buy their milk and chocolate products, and there is a full-service family restaurant there. There are so many delicious flavors, but our family favorites are: Crème de Novi (their take on mint chocolate chip), Fudge Whip (French vanilla ice cream with the famous Guernsey milk chocolate fudge topping swirled throughout), and Black Cherry (my husband says it’s the best he has ever had!). Outside, there are a few benches and rocks to sit on, a huge oak tree for shade, and a “famous” big rock which is the go-to for pictures for all the families who love it there! – Kelly Ryan
  • Royal Oak area: My favorite ice cream place to go is Oberweis Ice Cream and Dairy Store. Usually on a Sunday after washing and cleaning my convertible, I enjoy a cruise down Woodward and stopping in at Oberweis for a hot fudge sundae (always vanilla, no nuts, but love the whip cream and cherry on top). I’m always with my husband or son and we hang outside and watch the cars cruising down Woodward and enjoy our ice cream. It’s the best! – Lucy Hill
  • Royal Oak area: You can’t list good ice cream places and not mention Ray’s Ice Cream, a classic ice cream shop that’s been around since 1958! They make their ice cream right on-site, employ local high school kids, and you know they have good eats because there’s always a huge line when it’s a beautiful day. My favorite flavor is the Black Raspberry Chip, but they rotate flavors seasonally, so I look forward to when Peach is back on the menu. If you’re super hungry or willing to share with a friend, try the banana split; it’s enormous! – Becky Bibbs
  • Around the United States: It’s part of a chain, but Culver’s is my favorite place for a frozen treat. Their custard is rich and delicious. I like to get vanilla custard with salted caramel and cookie dough. Bonus: A kid’s meal comes with a free scoop of frozen custard. They have a daily special flavor if you’re feeling adventurous. – Emily Swan

Create a holiday book together

boys with gingerbread houses

It’s hard to believe that once again the holidays are sneaking up on us and will be knocking at our doors before we know it. Last year I posted a book list for children of different ages from newborn through 18 months. If you’re looking for children’s books to give as gifts, please take a look at that article.

Like many of you, my husband and I took pictures of the special times together with our children during the holidays. We took pictures of selecting our tree and decorating it, baking cookies, visiting Santa at the mall, and the list goes on and on, culminating with the arduous task of taking down our tree. We did little with those pictures until the following Christmas, when we would look back at them and reflect on the special times we had together and the people in our lives that made our holiday so special.

Then one year I decided to capture all of our special times together and make our own book. Each time we did something for the holidays with our children, I captured those special moments with a photograph. Throughout the holiday season, we collected several dozen pictures. When the holidays were over, we looked through our pictures and chose our favorites, then put text with the pictures. I used my kids’ words and ideas. We even added a page with our puppy’s paw print.

That book became our coffee table book that year and the children looked at every day. It also seemed to be the book that houseguests gravitated to; they commented on it and asked questions. It was truly our family’s favorite holiday book. It was the last decoration put into the holiday bins, so it was the first item pulled out each year.

In January after the holidays are over, we often find time to do things that we weren’t able to do in December. Preparing for Christmas and Hanukkah is time consuming, so January is the perfect time to reflect, look at photos and make a special book together.

So this holiday season, capture those memories and enjoy them for years to come. There are several companies and apps that can help you accomplish this, including Shutterfly and Snapfish. Your book can be as simple or as elaborate as you’d like it to be.

Head over to Tom’s Guide for several ideas and updates on how to do this. The site also ranks the various photo book services. One service in particular, Mixbook, offers a step-by-step direction guide to first time book makers. However, look at the reviews on the website to find the place that works for you. Tom’s Guide also ranks the companies that are available for you to create a book that your children will love.

Happy reading!

– Lori Irwin, M.Ed., is a Parenting Program volunteer. She’s a former teacher of children with severe disabilities in reading, a consultant with a leading educational book publisher, and a mother of two adult children.

My favorite day in November

Christmas decorations in mall

For most people, Thanksgiving is about family, food and tradition. That’s true for my family too, to some extent. But for us that’s even more the case for the day after Thanksgiving. Black Friday is the day that I celebrate my mom and pass on some of things that were important to her to my kids. We embrace her traditions, and we have started some of our own.

Mom passed away almost 22 years ago. We lost her 14 months before my oldest child was born, so my kids never got to meet her. They do know her though as I’ve made sure that she is still a part of their lives.

One day when we especially do this is Black Friday. My Mom loved shopping. She was a master of it. In some ways it was her faith – so much so that when Somerset North opened, she called it “the cathedral.” Where shoppers go to worship. Clearly then Black Friday was a favorite day of hers.

Understand that this was before Black Friday leaked into Thanksgiving (she would not have approved). My mom would get up at the crack of dawn (she usually did that anyway) to be there when the stores opened to take advantage of all the great deals. She taught me to appreciate the value of a good sale, and it was something we did together. The year we lost her, she was too sick to shop on Black Friday, but she made a list and sent me off with my best friend to practice what she had preached. From that Black Friday forward, I’ve continued to shop with my best friend and we started taking my daughter when she was old enough. That kid is now 20 and she is her grandmother’s girl – a shopping superstar practicing her faith on the biggest shopping day of the year.

When we finish shopping, it’s time for breakfast. Yes, I said breakfast. Mom used to say that you had to get done early before the “amateurs” came out. That is when we indulge in a tradition all our own:  Cinnabon. Some years my husband would wake our kids up and bring them to meet me at the mall, but now we pick up a pack of the calorie-laden treats and bring them home to our non-shoppers. Those of us who have been raking in the deals since dawn need a boost, and the others will need their energy for what comes next: decorating!

Another of my mother’s favorite things in the world was Christmas. I think that may be because of the child-like wonder with which Mom always viewed the world. With a sparkle in her eye, even in her 50s, she delighted in the joy the world had to offer. But never so much as at Christmas.

The official start of the Christmas season at my house is Black Friday. Christmas music isn’t allowed on the radio before that day, but starting that Friday we embrace the joyous Noel. We put up seven (yes, seven) Christmas trees, yards of garland, thousands of twinkling lights, and some of my other favorite decorations. My mom’s “Christmas in the City” collection goes on the mantle. We talk about how her favorite pieces were the cathedral and Hollydale’s Department Store. Then there’s my crèche – the one my Mom and Dad got (the very last one!) for me on the day after Christmas, 27 years ago for half-off because I fell in love with its peaceful simplicity. And the only ornament I place on our living room tree: the little green and white angel who represents my mom watching over my family.

After all that hard work, we need some sustenance. And that brings me to my final favorite of my mom’s for the day: good food. Mom was an amazing cook. Every day was a feast and holidays were even more glorious. But she never really ate much at Thanksgiving dinner. I didn’t understand that until I took over the family meal when I got married. After spending all day making all that food – I guess neither of us really wanted to eat it. That wore off by the next day, however. Is there anything better than Thanksgiving leftovers?! Our special tradition for the day after Thanksgiving is my Mom’s creation: Mush-Mush. Yes, I know how it sounds, but trust me, it’s delicious. Mom would take the leftover mashed potatoes and leftover broccoli and mash it together in a frying pan with a ton of butter. Frying it up until it was golden brown; it was and still is my favorite thing to eat from the Thanksgiving feast. Now my husband is the one who makes Mush-Mush as he honors the woman who never used the term “in-law” when she called him her son.

It’s almost Black Friday now. As I type this, I’m smiling and my eyes are a little shiny with unshed tears. I love that I have a day that has such strong happy memories of my beautiful Mom. Ones that I can share with the grandchildren she would have spoiled rotten, but who still feel her love. I hope that your holidays are filled with beautiful memories, and traditions – new and old!

– Nicole Capozello, Parenting Program staff

Nine reasons to cook with your children

little girl in kitchen with pot, spoon and chef hat

With the cool, crisp air of fall, now is the perfect time to take to the kitchen with your child. The bursting flavors of fall are unlike any other. Apples, cider, pumpkins, and spice are seasonal flavors we crave, making this a great time of the year to help the most finicky of eaters try new foods and develop his/her palate. Taking time to cook with your child may be the most valuable time that you spend together.

1. Cooking is an essential life skill.

When children learn to cook at an early age, they see how individual ingredients are mixed together and transformed into a delicious dish enjoyed or shared with the family. Cooking teaches children that it is a process involving planning, shopping, prepping, the actual cooking, and clean up. This also gives parents and children the opportunity to shop together for the freshest ingredients to enjoy healthy foods.

2. Cooking helps build and maintain relationships.

First, taking the time to cook with your child means plenty of time to engage in conversation about his day and what’s on her mind. Second, you can show the value of teamwork behind a delicious recipe. Give your child a spoon to mix the ingredients while you chop the vegetables. Building and maintaining relationships can happen at any age and what a better place than in the kitchen together.

3. Cooking together increases reading skills.

Children spend most of their reading time either being read to or reading fiction books. Reading a cookbook or recipe provides a valuable skill in learning to follow step-by-step directions. I suggest reading through the recipe together first, allowing your child to ask questions and make sure he understands the process. This will also show you the level of assistance she may need as you move through the cooking process together.

4. Cooking strengthens math skills.

I can’t think of a more natural place to bolster math skills than in the kitchen. Real-life opportunities are provided in counting, addition, temperature, and especially understanding and applying fraction skills. This is the a perfect time to learn that a fraction is part of a whole! Through my years in education, I saw that children who spend time in the kitchen may be more proficient in math in the classroom.

5. Cooking improves language skills.

Cooking introduces new vocabulary words. Whether you are reading the recipe to your child or if he’s reading it independently, the recipe can introduce real-life vocabulary in a real-life experience. Homonyms—words that are spelled differently, sound alike and have different meanings—are a perfect example. I found the following list of cooking homonyms at

  • Pear, pair, pare
  • Mousse, moose
  • Steak, stake
  • Cereal, serial
  • Whey, way
  • Meat, meet
  • Leek, leak
  • Thyme, time
  • Peaks, peeks
  • Flour, flower
  • Lean, lean (a true homonym)
  • Pea, pee
  • Grate, great
  • Two, too, to
  • Fowl, foul
  • Piece, peace

This list shows that it’s easy to understand how children must be provided opportunities and learn the words to be proficient in the kitchen. Children’s language skills grow exponentially when given opportunities to cook with you.

6. Cooking together fosters healthy eating.

Children given the opportunity to cook have a sense of ownership and pride with the finished product. This makes a great time to introduce new and healthy food choices. Research shows that healthy eating habits developed at an early age will last a lifetime.

7. Cooking teaches children about the world.

When cooking, you use ingredients from around your state, our country and the world. Visiting a local farmers market or orchard shows children first-hand that many fresh food products are available locally. Living in southeastern Michigan, we used to travel to Traverse City in the summer to attend the Cherry Festival, where my children learned that many products available in our state are sent around the globe for others to enjoy. If you are making a dish with rice, talk with your child about where the rice is from and how far it had to come to get to your local market.

8. Cooking together creates memories and helps keep family traditions alive.

In our family, nothing is more important than keeping our family kitchen traditions alive. I learned them from my mother and grandmother and I’ve shared them with my children. Inviting your child into the kitchen while talking about the past creates memories of people and time spent together. In addition, following well-loved recipes from family members is fun for children, as well as the anticipation of a holiday and the foods that we associate with it.

9. Cooking with children increases their confidence.

Many people who don’t know their way around the kitchen proclaim to be poor cooks. Providing cooking experiences for children at an early age and continuing this together into the teen years may alleviate that, providing the confidence to prepare food for themselves and others as they grow. When others provide positive feedback on what we cook, we are likely going to cook more and try new things. When people we cook for give the “thumbs up,” children feel proud and look forward for the opportunity to cook again.

You may be wondering, “When is a good time to start cooking with my child?” I say the earlier the better. Read the recipe to your child and model the action you’d like him to do. Avoid giving  a knife or sharp object to cut ingredients to your child until you know that she can handle it safely. Please keep young children away from heat sources, such as stove burners or ovens, until you know they can handle them safely as well.

As a parent, you know that your child may ask you to read a book to him multiple times. The same is true with cooking. If she has success with a recipe, she may want to make it several times. That is OK. Like reading a book, once your child feels that he has mastered it, you will move on to a new recipe.

Cookbook suggestions

– Lori Irwin, M.Ed., is a Parenting Program volunteer. She’s a former teacher of children with severe disabilities in reading, a consultant with a leading educational book publisher, and a mother of two adult children.