Games for Building Better Family Bonds

Your typical afternoon probably goes like this: Pick up kids from school; shuttle to soccer game, music class and dance lessons; head to the grocery store; then get back home in time to make dinner. And even though the time you spend with your kids is precious, you probably wouldn’t classify this minivan marathon as quality time.

But who’s to say that everyday experiences can’t turn into special moments? And what better way to infuse laughter and fun than with games that draw out every family member?

“Using this time for fun activities reinforces the idea that you can take pleasure in the mundane parts of life,” says Cynthia Copeland, author of Fun on the Run: 324 Instant Family Activities. “It also teaches kids to make the most of what’s available to them.”

Check out Copeland’s kid-friendly game ideas and create memorable moments in the car, at the market and the family dinner table. 

In the Car
Instead of popping in a DVD, use car time to get kids to observe their surroundings.

  • For short trips Crank up the radio. Pick a common word you’re likely to hear in songs, such as “love” or “time”. As your kids listen, they can announce when they hear the key words, keeping track of how many they hear. The one who racks up the most callouts by the time you reach your destination wins.
  • On a long ride Choose a highway-related category -- such as “semi-trucks,” “red cars,” “fast-food restaurant signs” or “billboards” -- but don’t reveal it to anyone. Next, count out loud each time you spot the object, letting your kids guess the category. The correct guesser takes over by coming up with a new category and starting the game again.

In the Grocery Store
If your kids aren’t old enough to help you find items on your list, these games will keep them entertained, learning and bonding with you.

  • For children old enough to count Engage her in a guessing or number game. Ask her to figure out which items in your cart add up to $10. Have her guess how many people will be in line, how many minutes it will take to get through the checkout or how much is the total amount of the bill. If your child can also read, turn the tables and let her quiz you! Have her read the nutrition label on a box of, say, cereal, and ask you how many grams of protein, fiber and sugar it contains. She’ll get a kick out of being the quizzer and telling you whether you’re right or wrong. (This also opens the door for you to slip in mini-lessons on nutrition.)
  • For toddlers A simple hiding game is enough to keep a little one’s attention. Pick out an item from your list, take it off the shelf and then together, find a place to hide it -- behind boxes or cans -- in another aisle. Throughout your shopping trip, remind your little guy about the secret place that only the two of you know about. If he can talk, ask him questions about it: What color is the box? When do we eat this kind of food? Check back periodically to see if the item is still hidden. Finally, place the item in your cart before you check out.

At the Dinner Table
Besides being fun, a game at mealtime gives you a little extra face time with your kids. “Entertainment is an incentive for them to stay at the table, and inevitably, it opens up the channels of conversation,” says Copeland. You needn’t spend the entire meal playing games; play one each night as a dinner icebreaker, and your kids are more likely to chat and share toward the end of the meal.

Here are a few games to try:

  • Word of mouth A version of the old favorite telephone, this game starts with someone mouthing a sentence to the person across the table about what they did today. That person must then say aloud what they think their table mate said. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, the person gets it wrong, but it doesn’t matter -- each guess usually ends in a good laugh, and you get to hear about some part of a family member’s day you might not have talked about otherwise,” she adds.
  • Creative round robin Copeland likes creative storytelling games because they allow imaginations to run wild and help sharpen your memory -- a bonus for kids and adults. To play, start a story with a general and true phrase, such as “I saw a dog today.” Then go around the table and have each family member contribute, repeating the previous sentences before they add on their own. Encourage everyone to be as silly as they like.
  • Would you rather Go around the table, and have each person ask another family member a question that starts with “Would you rather …?” The questions can be on any topic, serious or not. Even suggest different rounds, such as one that’s goofy (Would you rather have floppy clown feet or big Mickey Mouse ears?), one that’s more serious (Would you rather vacation by the beach or in the mountains?) or one that’s gross (Would you rather eat ants or monkey brains?). Encourage the responder to explain the logic behind the answer, and you’ll get rare insight.

After all, isn’t it better to at least discover why someone prefers monkey brains than only hearing that school was “fine”?

Photo: Corbis Images

How to be Grateful During the Holidays -- and All Year Long!

Got gratitude? Of course! There’s nothing like gathering with loved ones around a bountiful holiday table to make us count our blessings. But giving thanks shouldn’t be something we practice once a year; it should be a vital part of our everyday life. Studies show that gratitude can actually improve your health by strengthening your immune system and making you more resilient in the face of crisis.

Researchers at the University of California, Davis, found that adults who have a grateful disposition are less stressed and more energetic and optimistic than those who do not. Being grateful is good for kids too: Children who practice grateful thinking have more positive attitudes toward school and their families, according to researchers at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

So how can you cultivate a grateful disposition every day? “Make a conscious choice to be to more grateful,” says Philip Friedman, author of The Forgiveness Solution: The Whole-body Rx for Finding True Happiness, Abundant Love and Inner Peace and a licensed clinical psychologist in Plymouth Meeting, Penn.

Here’s a four-step plan to help you (and your family) develop an attitude of gratitude all year ’round.

1. Start a family gratitude routine.
It’s easy to jump on the complain-train when things are going south, and it’s tough to find the good in a less-than-perfect day. But counting the positives will pay off, so start a new family tradition, suggests Erika Oliver, author of Happy Crap: Unleash the Power of Positive Assumptions and positive approach coach in Kalamazoo, Mich. Every evening, have everyone in the family share three good things about their day -- and do it before you start griping about work or traffic jams.

You’ll soon see that there are plenty of large and small blessings to choose from: You finally connected with a hard-to-reach client, your 8-year-old aced her spelling test, your husband ran into a college pal on his morning commute. Says Dr. Friedman: “If you practice gratitude every day, after a while it becomes second nature.”

2. Find the sunny side of your stresses.
Build your gratitude skills by looking on the positive side of your daily frustrations. Instead of thinking, “I hate all these work deadlines,” tell yourself, “I’m exhausted from work, but I’m blessed to have an interesting job that pays well.” Rather than sighing because you have to rush from a kids’ playdate to a holiday party, say, “It can be stressful having such a full schedule, but we’re so lucky to have all these good friends!”

Consciously shifting your mindset will make it easier over time to be a thankful person. Best of all, it’s contagious. When you maintain a positive attitude, you’ll attract upbeat people and experiences.

3. Be thankful for things that haven’t yet happened.

It’s great to show gratitude for the blessings you have today. Now go one step further by picturing all the good things that still lie ahead, suggests Friedman.

Once a week, close your eyes and imagine that you’re standing on a carpet of gratitude. Then imagine that you’re walking down the carpet past all the wonderful experiences that await you: a dream job, your wedding day, the birth of your child, a trip to Paris. By thanking the universe for blessings in advance, you’ll develop a sense of gratitude even when things don’t seem to be going your way.

4. Go public.
Don’t keep your thanks to yourself! Post a gratitude statement as your status update on Facebook or Twitter every week. Examples: “I’m grateful my son got the teacher he wanted for 4th grade. He can’t wait to go to school in the morning!” or “Just enjoyed some yummy risotto. I’m so happy my husband is a great cook!” As Friedman notes, “Your Facebook friends will like and comment on your status, reinforcing your gratitude attitude.”

Photo Credit: @iStockphoto.com/sjlocke

How to Have More Energy

Between work and family, household responsibilities and a social life, your days are packed. How do you have time to find the energy for it all? The next time you’re in need of a pick-me-up, try one of these quick and easy energy boosters. They’ll add some oomph to your attitude in less time than it takes to brew a pot of coffee.

1. Power up at breakfast.
“Starting your morning with the right fuel can increase alertness and concentration,” says Heather Mangieri, a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant in Pittsburgh. And no, a bagel or donut doesn’t cut it -- refined carbs may deliver a spike of energy, but a crash quickly follows.

Instead, make breakfast a combination of complex carbohydrates, protein and healthy, unsaturated fat. Think whole-grain cereal with low-fat milk, topped with fruit and almonds, or two scrambled eggs with veggies and a slice of whole-wheat toast. The nutrients take longer to digest, giving you sustained energy until lunch.

2. Sniff a stimulating scent.

Keep a bottle of citrus or peppermint essential oil in your desk drawer and take a whiff whenever you need a pick-me-up. Or pop a peppermint or lemon drop candy or a stick of mint gum. Citrus aromas (such as grapefruit and lemon) and peppermint have been shown to trigger increased activity in areas of the brain associated with alertness, according to a study in the International Journal of Neuroscience. After smelling the fragrances, participants also performed math problems faster and felt less anxious.

3. Wear bright colors or decorate with them.

Looking at bright hues stimulates the brain and makes you feel more alert, according to the journal Color Research and Application. Red may be particularly helpful, especially if you need energy to focus on a complicated project, says Norbert Schwarz, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. In a study, people who looked at red shapes on a computer screen answered questions more accurately than those gazing at blue ones. Why? Red hues can signal caution, which may make you more detail-oriented.

4. Turn on the radio.

Music is a near-instant way to put more pep in your step. Researchers at London’s Brunel University found that when study participants listened to upbeat songs while jogging, they exercised 15 percent longer and reported feeling happier than those who worked out in silence. Fast-paced music may subconsciously push us to step up our efforts, but you don’t have to be on a treadmill to reap the benefits. Cue up a dance-worthy playlist next time you have a marathon errand-running session or need to zip through your to-do list.

5. Organize your space.

A kitchen full of dirty dishes or papers strewn around your office could contribute to your lethargy. “When you clear out or give order to your surroundings, you feel more in control, letting you focus more energy on other things,” says Regina Leeds, author of One Year to an Organized Life. Tidying up a small area can also give you a sense of accomplishment, which helps feed your motivation to tackle other tasks on your to-do list, she says.

No matter what your to-do list or day holds, these tricks can help boost your energy and ward off that midday -- or morning or evening -- slump.

Photo: Corbis Images

Are You a Safe Driver?

Think you’re an ace on the road? Not so fast. Even if you’ve never gotten so much as a parking ticket, you may have forgotten some traffic rules -- and that could put you at risk for an accident.

Consider this: A 2011 study from GMAC Insurance found that 18 percent of American drivers (nearly one in five motorists) couldn’t pass a written drivers test if they took it today. Here are the most common -- and dangerous -- mistakes drivers make, plus tips on tuning up your driving smarts.

You multi-task while driving.
Inattentive driving is something of a national epidemic, thanks to rampant cell phone use behind the wheel. And there’s no denying its danger: Distracted driving is said to be the cause of up to 25 percent of crashes nationwide.

So when you rev up your car, power down your phone and iPad. “It’s not the time to read email or update your Facebook status,” says William Van Tassel, Ph.D., manager of Driver Training Operations for AAA in Orlando, Florida.

You don’t look far enough ahead on the road -- or far enough to the side.
Yes, you should look at the back of the vehicle in front of you to respond quickly if necessary. But you also need to look at what’s going in front of that vehicle -- and regularly scan both the rear-view and side mirrors to find out what’s happening all around you. If vehicles are blocking a portion of your vision, assume something is there to be safe.

You follow other cars too closely.
It’s crucial to have a cushion of space all around your vehicle in case you need to move quickly out of harm’s way. But only 25 percent of drivers in the GMAC study knew what a safe driving distance was.

“Stay three to four seconds behind the vehicle ahead of you, and one car-size space to the side,” Van Tassel advises. Reducing your speed a little bit will give you more room and help you avoid fender-benders.

You go straight in the left-turn lane.Some drivers disregard the arrows and use turn lanes to speed up and pass traffic at intersections. For safety’s sake, stay in the center or right lanes if you’re not turning. “Other drivers coming at you want to use that space to turn left, and if you’re there, it could result in a head-on collision,” Van Tassel says.

You slow down or stop when entering a highway.
It’s easier to merge with other motorists if you’re driving up to their speed as you enter the expressway. You also risk getting hit from behind if you slow down, because the drivers behind you won’t expect it.

You drive too fast in bad weather.
In fog, rain, ice storms or snow, forget the speed limit signs and slow down to improve your visibility and traction.

“A simple adjustment in speed will give you time to respond to anything that suddenly pops up in front of you,” Van Tassel says. “The traction your tires have on a wet road is about 30 percent less than on a dry road. Reduce your speed by 30 percent to maintain the same level of safety.”

Photo: Corbis Images

Family Room Clutter Busters

Your family room or living room is the one place your whole clan comes together to hang out. And, as such, it’s probably the default dumping ground for everyone’s stuff. If your family is like most families, that means clutter and disorganization.

But you can transform this room from the messiest area in your home to the organized, relaxing family haven you desire. Here’s how: 

1. Get rid of what doesn’t belong.
Think about the function of the room, says Lorie Marrero, author of The Clutter Diet and founder of the Web site ClutterDiet.com. How do you use the space? Most people use family rooms to watch TV and movies, listen to music, read, talk, play games and play with toys.

Start by going through each item with that in mind. Keep what fits and move out what doesn’t. That means board games, magazines and DVDs are in; backpacks, a briefcase, mail, keys, cold medicine and other miscellaneous items are out.

2. Sort your stuff.
Focusing on the stuff that you decided to keep, sort everything by how often you use each item, advises Marrero.

Things your family uses daily or almost every day (magazines, remotes, toys, etc.) should be easily accessible. Items you use a few times a month (playing cards, scrapbooks) can go out of the way in a cabinet or drawer. Gather anything you rarely need (holiday decorations, your grandmother’s tablecloth, old report cards) into storage bins and send them off to the garage, closet, attic or basement.

3. Ditch DVD and CD cases.
One of the quickest ways for a room to look and feel neater is to transfer discs to CD wallets or binders and get rid of the cases by either recycling them or donating them to charity. This way, you convert many shelves of storage or display space to just a few inches, and your CDs remain accessible. In fact, it’s even easier to find the CD you need.  “Because you flip through binders like a book, it’s easier to find specific discs,” says Marrero.

4. Clear the coffee table.
Because of its prominent spot in the room, the coffee table can amass clutter and make an otherwise tidy room feel disorganized. Here are some ideas on how to deal with the messy inhabitants:

  • Move magazines. Magazines and catalogs can easily pile up. Place them in a basket in a corner, instead. It serves as a natural “limiting container,” says Marrero. “When the basket is full, it’s a visual reminder to clean it out.”
  • Rein in remote controls. A universal remote is an extra expense, but what you spend to turn four remotes into one, you’ll earn back in sanity. Also, give it a designated home: Attach the soft side of Velcro to the back of the remote and stick the rough piece to the side of the sofa or another easy-to-reach, hidden spot.

5. Tidy up toys.
Some people think that all toys can be thrown into one place, but if you want to stay organized, that might not be the best strategy. “One big toy box encourages kids to dump the whole thing out,” warns Marrero. And then what do you have?  Clutter city! Instead, store toys in small containers by type -- one bin for dolls, one for blocks, one for games, and so on. And skip lids if possible. “Using open bins means that kids can just throw things in, making cleanup easier for everyone,” says Marrero.

6. Corral your cords.
A mess of exposed electrical cords is just that -- a mess. Fish cords through the back of furniture and use Velcro cable ties or even garbage-bag twist ties to bundle them. “That way, they don’t become a giant octopus,” says Marrero. Attach label stickers on the ends so you can unplug one electronic without the guessing game.

7. Stay clutter-free.
Once the room is organized, keep it that way!

  • Stop collecting stuff. “Try to prevent things from coming into the room in the first place,” says Marrero. Unsubscribe from magazines you rarely read, and buy music or movies online instead of getting them in discs. And, before you buy anything new, ask yourself, “Where am I going to store this?”
  • Think beyond the family room. If items like backpacks and mail keep showing up, give them a permanent home elsewhere. Create what Marrero calls a “destination station.” Hang hooks by the door for keys, put a basket in the hall for mail and give purses, backpacks and shoes space in your mud room or hall closet.
  • Straighten up on the spot. “Organizing is about decision making,” says Marrero. It’s easy to put an item somewhere “just for now.” But doing so instantly creates clutter. The rule: Put items away as soon as you finish with them, and find suitable homes for new things right away.
  • Enlist your family’s help. Talk about maintaining the order, then post a checklist reminding your kids that they have to put away toys, homework and other stuff before they can watch TV. Or set a policy that everyone spends five minutes before bed to get organized -- folding blankets, putting back the remote, picking up socks and so on.