Experts agree: parents need to turn off the TV as much as possible. But come to the hour before dinner, when stews boil, everyone’s whiny, and the phone keeps ringing … well, it can get pretty tempting to steer your children straight towards the remote control. 

If you’ve got an emerging reader, here’s another way to go: try bringing your kid into your kitchen for a round of “Making Words,” an easy at-home activity based on techniques popular with first-grade teachers.

To get started, you’ll need one set of cheap refrigerator letter magnets, which you can find at many drugstores, toy stores, or supermarkets. Letter magnets are a lot of fun. You may remember messing around with them when you were small. But teachers use them with a specific goal in mind: they want young readers not just to see letter combinations but to hear, touch, and explore them.

So what is “Making Words”? Start by getting a comfortable place for your child to sit, near a blank space on your refrigerator. Don’t neglect your dinner– keep that chili cooking! Just give directions, and have your child do the letter moving.

Here are a few steps to get you started. For very early readers, just the first few may be enough. Stop if your child feels frustrated, and get them comfortable with each level before moving on to another. With regular practice, they’ll get the hang of it and delight in mastering these letter games.

Step 1:
Encourage your children to use letters to spell out the words on the ingredients you’re using: “milk,” for example, or “jam.” They can keep going until they’ve used up all the letters, or until someone starts throwing magnets.

Step 2:
Swap it up! Tell your child to select one short, simple word, such as “jam.” Now ask him to change the initial letters and see how many variations he can make before he runs out (such as “spam," "ram," "dam," etc.). Which three-letter word can make the most variations?

Step 3:
Change letters to make related new words. This is the most complicated letter game, but great fun. Start with a word like “jam” but challenge your child to change it one letter at a time, on your cue, to make a “secret” new word. (For example, you can say, “Change the ‘m’ to ‘r.’ Now change the ‘j’ to ‘t.’ Now put an ‘s’ in front. What do we have now? ‘Star.’")

Why play “Making Words”? For starters, so you can cook dinner successfully while your child stays busy, happy, and tantrum-free. But at a deeper level, you’re helping your child learn – in a relaxed, supportive way – how letters and sounds combine to form a bounty of words. It’s a new twist on mac and cheese – and the kind of nourishment that can stick with kids for life.