With summer approaching and the weather warming up, it's the ideal time to head outdoors and let imaginations flourish. Follow Alice in Wonderland outside for a magical meeting of the Better Homes and Gardens Reading Club. Alice and other fictional characters who have adventures in nature can be the inspiration for reading and activities about the great outdoors. Kids can keep their reading skills sharp during leisurely summer days.
"Every child should be encouraged to read through the summer, so when school starts they aren't playing catch-up," says Janet Carlson, a children's librarian at the John C. Hart Memorial Library in Shrub Oak, New York. The key is to keep it fun. To get started, check out these outdoor-theme books and activity ideas that will keep kids excited about reading. Pack a reading club picnic basket, find a shaded spot, and set out on a reading adventure.
Just being outside makes early readers more creative and inquisitive. "So much of children's play is about the outdoors because it sparks their curiosity and imagination," Carlson says. Outdoor sights and sounds might pull your child's attention away from her book -- and that's okay. "If you're reading a book to your child and an ant comes crawling by, that's an opportunity to talk about how ants live underground and add some science to your reading time," Carlson says.
Vivid colors will also hold attentions. Pick a favorite artist for inspiration to show kids how colors and nature are used in art. These activities are based on Vincent's Colors (published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art), which pairs Vincent Van Gogh's art with excerpts from letters he wrote to his brother about the pieces.
After reading Vincent's Colors, children will want to create their own masterpieces. Hand out sidewalk chalk and hold a drawing contest. Encourage swirls and plenty of colors.
Pack foods to represent colors: apples, bananas, blueberries, celery, grapes, and oranges. Take peanut butter (brown) and raisins (black). For ants on a log, spread peanut butter on celery; dot with raisins. Make a ladybug with half an apple and raisins attached with peanut butter. Use a toothpick to attach a grape for the head.
Make a list of colors and send kids scampering to find them during a scavenger hunt. When they spot something red, take a photo and label it "red." Put the pictures in an album and name it for the child: For example, "Gracie's Colors."
Use Dutch Letter pastries and Dutch Spice cookies to teach that Van Gogh was born in the Netherlands. As kids nibble on treats, explain that the pastries and cookies are traditional treats from Van Gogh's country. Point out the Netherlands on a map, or talk about how far it is from the United States. It's more than 3,000 miles from New York City to Amsterdam. Kids will be dazzled by the distance.
Take inspiration from the Mad Hatter for this game of make-believe. Gather a variety of hats, such as baseball caps, fishing hats, and straw hats. Also include plastic versions of tiaras, crowns, and firefighters' helmets found at party supply stores. Let each child pick a different type of hat. Tell the kids they must pretend to be a baseball player if they have the baseball cap, a princess if they have the tiara, and so on. Then let the kids make up a story and act it out. Yell "Switch!" in the middle of their story; everyone trades hats and acts out their new characters.
Alice and the Queen of Hearts face off in a game of croquet with flamingos and hedgehogs. At your reading spot, host a friendlier match. Attach playing cards to the top of wire croquet wickets with tape so the card hangs in the gap. Players must hit the cards as the croquet balls pass through the wickets.
Cut tags out of paper and attach them to lunchbags, gelatins, or bottles of juice. Write "Drink Me" or "Eat Me" on the tags. After partaking, the kids pretend to grow and shrink as Alice did when she ate the cake.
Birthdays come just once a year, but un-birthdays can be celebrated any day in the topsy-turvy world of the Mad Hatter. For a picnic-friendly version of his tea party, serve frosted cupcakes and candies -- jellybeans, sprinkles, and gummies. After they decorate cupcakes with the assortment of candies, let kids unleash their loudest outdoor voices to sing "Happy Un-Birthday to You."
For generations, Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland has sparked imaginations and opens minds to endless possibilities. Let quotes such as "So many out-of-the-way things had happened lately that Alice had begun to think that very few things indeed were really impossible" inspire creative activities for your reading club.
Kids in this age group enjoy the challenge and excitement of epic novels and series, such as The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis. Books in this category also spark discussion about character values and choices. Asking questions such as "What would you have done in this situation?" is sure to engage everyone in your reading club gathering. The following activities help readers apply concepts from the book to their own lives.
When the children in Lewis's series enter the land of Narnia, they discover magical talking animals. Have each child choose an animal; let him look around the outdoor reading spot for inspiration. Pack construction paper, glue, tape, scissors, and other crafts supplies to make a face mask of that animal. As the kids work, they can share which characteristics of their chosen animal that they admire.
Journal of Make-Believe and Real
Fantasy and reality are major concepts in Lewis's series. Mark one section of a notebook "Fantasy" and another section "Reality." Encourage kids to journal or draw about how fantasy and reality relate to their daily lives. Ask questions to get them started, such as "What do you daydream about?" or "What are some goals you want to make a reality?" Kids can use their journals long after the reading club meeting ends.
Symbols of Self
In the Narnia series, Peter is given a shield with a coat of arms. Kids can design their own coats of arms to represent themselves or their families. Talk about the ideas certain colors and images represent. For example, white is usually associated with peacefulness, and a lion represents courage. Ask kids to choose characteristics they're proud of, and brainstorm ways to put those into symbols.
Dreams are an underlying theme in Lewis's series. When the children are in Narnia, they can only remember their home of England as if it's just a dream, and many scenes in Narnia are dreamlike. Ask kids to share different dreams they've had: the funniest, the scariest, or the strangest, for example. Start a fun discussion about where dreams come from -- when we're thinking about something before we fall asleep, is that what we dream about? Have you ever woken up and thought a dream was real? Tie the discussion back to the series and ask the group "Why did the children feel like England was just a dream when they were in Narnia?"
Map Your Life
The characters experience adventures in many locations in Narnia. Ask children to think about the many locations in their lives. Have them attach stickers to a map of their town to mark important locations, such as school, the soccer field, a friend's house, the movie theater, or the beach.
Early Readers (3 to 5)
- Tiger, Tiger (Putnam Juvenile) by Dee Lillegard -- Young Pocu finds a magical feather, then creates a tiger with it.
- The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Philomel) by Eric Carle -- A caterpillar eats his way through the week. At the end, he becomes a butterfly.
Young Readers (6 to 11)
- The Giant Rat of Sumatra (HarperTrophy) by Sid Fleischman -- A young boy helps a pirate conceal a treasure.
- The Goose Girl (Bloomsbury USA Children's Books) by Shannon Hale -- Exciting adventures follow a medieval princess from her home to a neighboring kingdom.
- The Last Badge (Hyperion) by George McClements -- Samuel sets out on a grand adventure to find a rare creature.
- The Secret Garden (HarperTrophy) by Frances Hodgson Burnett -- Orphaned and sent to live with her uncle, Mary discovers a locked garden and befriends her isolated cousin.
- Secret Place (Clarion Books) by Eve Bunting -- In an urban area, a young boy discovers a small piece of nature that is undisturbed.
Adolescent Readers (12 and older)
- Hatchet (Simon Pulse) by Gary Paulsen -- After a small plane crashes, a passenger uses a hatchet and his intuition to survive in the Canadian wilderness.
- Piratica (Hodder Children's Books) by Tanith Lee -- A girl tries to become a pirate queen like her deceased mother, not realizing that her mom was actually just an actress.
- Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World (Crown Books for Young Readers) by Jennifer Armstrong -- The true story of a crew shipwrecked in Antarctica in 1914. Every crew member survived, even after 19 months on the ice.
Originally published in Better Homes and Gardens magazine, June 2006.