By Jay Mathews
Thursday, March 10, 2011; T17
I'm moving back to California this summer. (You will be relieved or annoyed to learn I am not leaving The Post.) This will be my last spring, at least as I define the term.
I grew up in the Golden State, the balmy sea breezes of Long Beach in the south and later the sun-splashed hillsides of San Mateo in the north. There was more rain in the winter, but otherwise I didn't notice seasons.
When I transferred to a college in Massachusetts, I felt for the first time the full, disagreeable weight of winter: icy sidewalks and dorky earmuffs. Then it was gone. I rejoiced. The arms and shoulders of female students were suddenly bare. I took off my boots and put on my tennis shoes.
Spring break became special, as it is for many families in the Washington area. How should parents use it to bond with their children? Educators gave me eight ideas for doing spring break right.
1Watch a plant as it grows
Deanna Wheeler, a science teacher at J.C. Parks Elementary School in Charles County, said she prefers a botanical approach to spring that is best for elementary school children but might also intrigue an otherwise bored teenager. "Pick one plant, tree branch, shrub or flower that is beginning to grow," she said. "Observe it each day. Record its changes throughout the week with drawings, paintings, photos or measurements." This fits nicely with the idea of Judy Heard, instructional services manager at Fairfax County schools, to have your children help you start a garden or put planters on your patio.
2Read a book, then see the movie
This appeals to sedentary parents like me. Find a good book that was made into a good movie. Read it and then watch it with your children. Three local educators endorsed this: media specialists Catharine M. Chenoweth at Gaithersburg High School and Tim Brennan of Northwood High School, both in Montgomery County, and Arlington County public schools library and media services supervisor Charlie Makela. A Google search for "books to film" produces suggestions as varied as "Fantastic Mr. Fox," "Alice in Wonderland" and "Shutter Island." Oh, wait. Forget that last one. It's R-rated.
For some adventurous families, this might be as familiar as hiding eggs at Easter, but it was new to me. Susan Fontyn, a media specialist at Richie Park Elementary School in Rockville, suggested it. This treasure hunt-like activity was invented on the moors of southwestern England in the mid-19th century, but here is how the modern version works: Hobbyists hide waterproof plastic boxes in enjoyable settings, such as a park, then give clues online to find it. You take a notebook, a rubber stamp that represents you in some way and a stamp pad. When you find the box, you stamp the notebook inside it and use the stamp inside the box to mark your book. There are many boxes in this area. All you need to know to get started is at www.letterboxing.org.
4Relive the Civil War
Rich Parker, a media specialist at Laytonsville Elementary School in Gaithersburg, has a list of battle sites his students might learn from in the 150th anniversary year of America's bloodiest war. He suggests Balls Bluff and Manassas Battlefield in Virginia, Antietam in Maryland and Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. The harrowing consequences of the fighting are illuminated, he said, at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick. You can also learn more about the war at www.washingtonpost.com/civilwar.
5Create an exercise calendar
Mary Jo Ward, a physical education teacher at Riverview Elementary School in Spotsylvania, Va., gives her students a schedule for April. The daily events are not hard: for example, jog in place during a song on the radio April 9, find out which family member can do the most sit-ups April 19. Whoever in her classes turns in a calendar showing they did at least four activities a week gets to pick a prize from a school treasure box. During break, each family member can participate, and the one with the best marks gets to pick the Civil War site they visit on the Saturday at the end of the break.
6Take an urban hike
This suggestion from Jill Martin Elkins, a media specialist at Sligo Creek Elementary School in Silver Spring, reawakened my dream of someday walking the length of Massachusetts Avenue in Northwest Washington and figuring out which of those embassies I drive by is which. "Find a nice long street with a variety of businesses and parks," Elkins said. West Broad Street in Falls Church would work, as would King Street in Alexandria. "As you walk along," she said, "have the kids take pictures of interesting things you see." Younger kids could draw pictures. High-schoolers could do a video with commentary.
7Follow a map
This might be a challenge even for high-schoolers. Do they use maps anymore? My children's cars are usually littered with MapQuest pages. So embrace the past and ask your children to help you plot a course with a highlighter on a real-life map from AAA to an attractive place you have never visited, such as an ice cream shop in College Park. Susan Bakhru, a media specialist at Argyle Magnet Middle School in Silver Spring, suggests you have your child follow the trip on a map while you drive.
8Let your kids do what they want
"Kids need a break for a reason," said Stanford University School of Education senior lecturer Denise Pope. "When everything is scheduled every minute of the day, there is almost no time for free, unstructured child-driven play." Those are the moments "when kids create, relate, reflect, problem-solve and stretch their muscles mentally and physically," she said. I think if the activity your children want to pursue won't lead to a spell in the hospital or juvenile hall, let them do it. You can accompany them, of course. This is a bonding moment. But you follow them.
3Tell us What are your best educational spring break ideas? Let us know in the comments of this column at washingtonpost.com/education.