Everyone gets a welcome break from the routine of school during winter vacation, but that’s no excuse for letting your children’s minds turn to mush.

Vacation is a great time to make a homemade treat that requires math skills, learn how to make a difference in the lives of those less fortunate, create a keepsake or visit a children’s museum.

Creative Gifts You Can Make at Home

‘Tis the season when children make their holiday wish lists and check them twice. An important part of the season is experiencing the joy of giving as well as receiving. What better way to teach that lesson than by helping your child make his own gift? With these gift projects, he’ll be practicing his math and writing skills, too.

Thumbprint Cookies

Children love making these classic cookies. Sticking their thumbs into warm cookie dough and then filling their thumbprints with sweet fillings is almost as thrilling as sharing (or eating) the finished product! If you use a variety of fillings, such as ruby red strawberry jam, sapphire berry preserve, bronze pumpkin pie filling or golden lemon curd, these cookies will make an impressive collection for a gift box. In shaping and squishing the dough and assembling the “jewel” encrusted cookies, your child will practice the valuable math and reading skills of measuring ingredients, and following step-by-step instructions.

Preheat the oven to 375°F.


  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup softened butter
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 1/4 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon double-acting baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • a variety of fillings: strawberry jam, blueberry preserves, pumpkin pie filling and/or lemon curd


  • Smash the sugar and butter together with a fork
  • Beat in the vanilla, eggs, flour, baking powder and salt
  • Roll the dough into a ball
  • Chill the dough for 1/2 hour
  • Pinch off pieces of dough and roll into 1-inch balls
  • Place the dough balls on a lightly greased and floured cookie sheet
  • Bake for 5 minutes
  • Remove the cookies from the oven, let cool briefly, then make a thumbprint in each one
  • Put the cookies back in the oven and continue baking until done, about 8 minutes
  • When the cookies are cool, fill the pits with a bit of jelly, jam, pumpkin pie filling or lemon curd.

Hot Chocolate in a Jar

When your child makes this gift, he’ll be using math and writing skills to measure the hot chocolate, measure and cut a fabric scrap, and write a personal holiday message.

Materials needed:

  • Small glass jar (baby food size)
  • 1 serving of hot cocoa mix
  • About 1/4 cup of small marshmallows
  • 4-inch or larger fabric scrap (depending on the size of your jar)
  • 18″ length of ribbon
  • Glue
  • Hershey Kiss candy
  • Small wrapped candy cane
  • Holiday card

Directions: Clean the jar and dry it well. Measure a one-cup serving of the hot cocoa mix into the jar. Fill the jar to the top with small marshmallows. Count them to see how many you used. Cut the fabric scrap into a circle. Center the fabric circle on top of the jar lid. Tie the ribbon around the edge. Glue the Hershey kiss on top of the fabric cover. Glue the candy cane to the side of the jar. Write a personal note and draw a candy cane or other holiday symbol on the card. Include simple directions like the following: “Here’s a little gift to warm you up on a cold afternoon. Simply pour this jar of cocoa mix into a mug filled with 6 to 8 oz. of hot water. Top with marshmallows and drop in the Hershey Kiss. Stir with the candy cane and enjoy!

Family Photo Book

Here’s a very personal gift that is fun to assemble. You might gather photos related to a special family gathering or holiday theme. What better present for special friends or relatives to remind them of shared memories?

Materials needed:

  • 2 pieces of cardboard or 4-ply rag board (sold at craft or art supply stores) for covers
  • Scissors or craft knife
  • A hole punch
  • Several pieces of 2-ply rag board for inside pages
  • Several sheets of colored paper
  • Glue stick
  • 1 or 2 pieces of 8-1/2-by-11-inch white paper
  • Assorted photos
  • Ribbon

Directions: Decide what size to make the book and measure two pieces of cardboard or 4-ply rag board for the front and back of the book. (A good size to accommodate one photo per page is 5 by 6 1/2 inches.) Cut covers with a craft knife or scissors. Evenly space two holes, using the hole punch, on one edge of the cardboard. Use the 2-ply rag board for the inside pages. Cut these the same size as the outside cover or make them a little smaller. Cut smaller rectangles of colored paper to use as borders for the photos. Glue the colored paper on the rag board and then glue the photos on the colored paper. With the hole punch, make two holes in each page that line up with the holes on the cover. Write captions for the photos on strips of white paper and glue on to the rag board pages. Be sure to identify the people in the photos and put the date on the front or back cover. Thread the ribbon through the holes and make a bow to tie the book together.

Shift the Focus to Helping Others Less Fortunate

The holiday season is the perfect time to teach children about charity. During the winter months, parents can easily find volunteer opportunities for their children, from working in a local food bank to serving meals at a homeless shelter. Or, you and your child might decide to organize your own blanket or sock drive for the homeless. By encouraging your child to give of her time in this way you will be helping her to learn tolerance and empathy for people outside her usual sphere.

Hands-On Museums That Promise Fun While Learning

If you are searching for a fun and educational outing during vacation, check out one of the more than 200 children’s museums found in cities across the United States. Child magazine conducted a survey to identify the 10 children’s museums that do the best job of combining fun and learning. At the top of their list were the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, the Children’s Museum of Houston and the Children’s Museum of Boston. These museums are known for hands-on activities ranging from working with dinosaur fossils to designing a roller coaster. Many of these museums offer special holiday programs.

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Updated: April 2, 2015