I hate memorizing facts, but I can recite pi to about 14 decimal places. What's my secret? When I was a kid, I had a cool poster on my wall that showed the digits swirling around in a spiral. Every night I memorized another digit as I fell asleep, just for fun.
I've never been big on making my kids memorize facts either -- that's what Google is for -- but I did buy them cool placemats featuring different topics: states, presidents, planets, the periodic table, the multiplication table and on and on. Learning the names of the planets and their moons isn't hard when it's staring up at you next to the mashed potatoes.
The plastic wipe-off placemats aren't expensive and come in a wide variety. You can also make your own (or have your kids make them) and seal them with clear Contact paper. Give each child a different subject and let them quiz each other on their placemat's topic.
My friend Laura Grace Weldon, author of Free Range Learning: How Homeschooling Changes Everything, came up with this one. She hung a large, laminated world map in her kitchen. Next to it, she hung a dry-erase marker on a string, so her kids can scribble on it.
They mark cities they've visited, write notes about places in the news, and invite friends to circle their hometowns. But they also like to underline unusual place names, draw arrows to the locales they hope to see some day, and even decorate the map by turning islands into cartoon animals.
Laura believes it's the marker that makes all the difference -- the doodles give her kids a chance to amuse and communicate with the rest of the family.
If you're like me, you have to start humming the alphabet song to remember if "r" comes before "t." And kids who grew up watching "I'm Just a Bill" on Schoolhouse Rock will never forget how laws are made. Setting information to music is an old trick that really works, so use it with your kids.
Aside from the above-mentioned mnemonic songs, other tunes that have been borrowed for teaching purposes include The Elements by Tom Lehrer, which contains every substance then known on the Periodic Table, and Billy Joel's song We Didn't Start the Fire, which lists important names from the 1950s. You can find more gems among the Music Education Lesson Plans collected by About.com Guide Espie Estrella.
My family loves audiobooks. They let us catch up on our "reading" and keep us entertained on long trips at the same time. And it's easier than you think to find a books that both adults and kids will enjoy. Audiobooks can vary in quality depending on who's reading them, but there are a lot of excellent titles out there.
When my boys were younger, we did very well with old classics such as The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. More recently, we all got wrapped up in the Leviathan YA series of steampunk adventure novels by Scott Westerfeld (read by the amazing Alan Cumming). On shorter jaunts, the public radio series Selected Shorts introduced us to many wonderful short stories, both classic and contemporary.
Nonfiction audiobooks, even adult titles, are another great choice, but be careful what topic you pick. We had a great time listening to Peter Benchley, best known for the novel Jaws, read his own nonfiction book Shark Trouble, full of fascinating information on sharks and their real role in our planet's ecosystem -- but it probably wasn't the best selection for our trip to the beach!
This is a tip I picked up years ago from another homeschooling mom -- if there's some topic you want your kids to explore, leave a book about it lying around where they can find it on their own. No one in my family can sit still for more than a minute without rooting around for something to read, so this one's a natural for us.
But it can work for reluctant readers, too, if you choose the right material. Almanacs for kids filled with factoids about geography, science or sports are perfect reader-bait. Or get a bunch of nice coffee table-sized books full of beautiful pictures on your child's favorite subject that are sure to be noticed.
Remember, this technique works best when the kids think the book was left there by accident. Don't let them know you're carefully planting them in strategic spots!
Bonus tip: You can also try this idea for things like art materials or science kits. Every now and then, pull out something the kids haven't seen before or haven't used in a while and leave it lying around where you wouldn't mind them using it on their own. Who knows, it could be just the spark they need to start their next big project!