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'Am I a Bad Mother if My Kid Can't Speak Mandarin?'

Photo by Vesna Andjic/Getty Images

For the most part, I like to step aside and be a happy observer as my children play. I don’t believe in overplanning or overscheduling when it comes to kids. However, I have heard tales of 8-year-olds who are in Mandarin, violin, and tennis lessons every day of the week. It’s enough to drive you crazy just thinking about it. Who can keep up with that? Should I be keeping up with that? Am I a bad mother if my kid can’t speak Mandarin while playing tennis and violin simultaneously? No! I say each child is different.

I think childhood should be about impromptu, less-structured activities. There is always time to overschedule and overplan in adulthood, as we all know. Here are five of my favorite ways to spend long, lovely, stress-free afternoons with my sons and their friends.

1. Bring the Kids Into the Kitchen

Kids love to get involved in any kitchen activity, especially when it involves baking, since they can help with the measuring and mixing. Making cookies is always a crowd-pleaser because kids can be involved in the making of the dough, the cookie-cutting, and the decorating. Find a basic sugar cookie recipe that works for you if you don’t already have one. Purchase some fun cookie cutters that fit the season or your child’s current obsession. There are some Web sites with really unique cookie cutters, but you can also find them at JCPenney or any local bakery, and some of my favorite sets come from Williams-Sonoma.

Making pizza is another popular activity in my house. You can get pizza dough from your local pizza parlor, Trader Joe's and most grocery stores. Or if you are very ambitious you can make it yourself. Roll out the dough into personal pizza sizes and let your children pile on their sauce, cheese and toppings.

2. Explore Nearby Museums

Children's Museums are wonderful places for after-school learning and discovery. Many of them have interactive exhibits and weekly programs, such as concert series or art workshops. The Association of Children's Museums has a search function so you can find the best museums near you and research their offerings.

3. Get Lost in the Local Library or Book Store

It is never too early to learn the magic of being immersed in the stacks of a library or bookstore. Do some searching to find the best children’s bookstores in your area and the libraries with the most extensive children’s sections. You can find extensive list of the public libraries around the country here. Most children's bookstores and local libraries have read-aloud hours once a week—make sure to ask about this when you call or visit.

4. Plan an Arts and Crafts Afternoon

Web sites like The Artful Parent provide hundreds of creative and age-appropriate ideas for an afternoon of arts and crafts with your child. There are also links to the products you will need for many of the projects. I also recommend purchasing ready-made Arts and Crafts kits for those days when you may not have the time to create something from scratch. Some of my favorite kits come from the company Melissa & Doug. Purchase a few that your child may be interested in and have them on hand. Another option is to go to an arts and crafts studio, such as Color Me Mine, where you and your child can paint your own pottery. Click here to find a location near you.

5. Head to the Park

The most memorable afternoons are those spent in the park, letting my kids run around with their friends, and just watching what they come up with, themselves. Between the monkey bars and the swing sets, children explore the importance of imagination and negotiation. I have learned some of my best lessons in motherhood from watching the politics of the playground.

What are some of your favorite ways to spend an afternoon with your children? Share your stories!

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