If you wonder where the summer went, you're not alone. No matter that it seems like yesterday that kids were singing "no more teachers, no more books," here they are back in school again. And this is a good time to think about helping your kids shape up - in both mind and body.The mind

Help children get the

most from homework

Kids may grumble, parents may be intimidated, teachers may wonder if it's worth it, but homework is a vital part of the learning process - teaching children to be self-disciplined and responsible.

However, note the National PTA and the National Education Association, the parents' role in working with children on homework is crucial.

Parents should know that homework is not just busy work. Teachers assign homework to reinforce and extend topics that have been covered in class. Research studies show that homework, when it is returned and commented upon or graded, can improve grades and achievement dramatically.

How much homework should you expect? In the lowest grades - kindergarten to third grade - very little homework should be given, no more than 20 minutes a day. In grades four through six, a child should be expected to spend 20 to 40 minutes a day, say the PTA and NEA.

There is no set amount of time for junior high and senior high students. The amount of homework will vary by the subjects students are taking.

If you think your children are getting too much or too little homework, discuss your concerns with the teacher. Ask your children's teachers how much time they expect students to spend on assignments daily.

Parents can do a lot to help children get ready for homework assignments - and it's never too early to start. When children are young, get in the habit of setting aside a quiet time each afternoon or evening for reading, letter writing and games. This will help children move into homework as it comes along.

Other tips on helping children make the most of their homework include:

- Check to see that your child understands the assignment. If there is a problem, work through an example with him or her.

- Sign and date your young child's homework. Teachers appreciate it when they know that the parents are interested enough to check over their children's homework and see that it is finished.

- Follow up on homework assignments by asking to see your children's homework after it has been returned by the teacher. Look at the teacher's comments to see if your child has done the assignment correctly.

- Contact the teacher if you don't understand the assignments or your child has a special problem. This is a common problem among parents, so don't hesitate to contact the teacher.

- Look for homework daily. Assume that your children have homework to do every day.

- Resist doing your children's homework for them. Work with them and encourage them to do the work themselves.

- Try to be home and available during homework times so your children know that you value homework as another part of their education.

- Be sure to praise your children for a job well done. Encourage the good work that your children do and comment about improvements they have made.

Encourage children to

develop thinking skills

We live in such a high-tech press-a-button world that sometimes we forget children develop skills the old-fashioned way - they learn them.

Thinking skills are extremely important, and there are a lot of activities you can plan that will help children develop thinking skills while having a good time.

"Enrichment activities can be fun, as well as educational," says Elaine Ashcroft, child development specialist with the Extension Service at Utah State University. "Provide for children an environment that is enriched, but not pressured.

While it's true that computers and video games and "Sesame Street" can help children learn to think, many low-tech, low-cost, simple activities can benefit as well.

Here of some of Ashcroft's suggestions:

* At bedtime, ask your children to tell you what has happened during the day. Help them learn to tell things in the order in which they happened - from the time they got up in the morning until the present.

* Play a simplified "Jeopardy" game. Give your child an answer and let him make up a question.

* Let children plan a new holiday for the family. What could it be called? What time of year should it be celebrated? What activities should be associated with it? How should you decorate for it?

* Give children a chance to explore. Give them a large bowl of water and let them experiment with various objects to find out which items float and which sink. Have the kids make predictions about what will happen before they put each item in the water. Water can also be used in experimenting with which of a variety of objects dissolve and which will not.

* Let the child design a family crest or flag for your family. It could include family history, or symbols to represent items or ideas that the family values. A motto could accompany the crest.

Other suggestions for thinking-skill activities include:

* A three-minute story. This is good for a group. Each person gets five pieces of paper to write down five words, such as elephant, cooking, train, etc. All the pieces of paper are put in a bag and the players take turns selecting words from it. Each person has three minutes to write a story using the words he or she selected. Then all the stories are read aloud.

* Make a stamp pad by cutting a design in half of a sliced potato. Dip the stamp in tempera paint and make designs on paper. Kids will enjoy making their own gift wrap or wallpaper.

* Play clay is an old standby that has unlimited possibilities as far as encouraging creativity and thinking. Use the clay to make Christmas ornaments, decorations, napkin rings, jewelry, toys and games and other things.

The standard recipe uses cornstarch and baking soda:

1 cup cornstarch

2 cups baking soda

1 1/2 cups water

In medium saucepan stir corn starch and baking soda together. Add water all at once and stir until smooth. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until mixture reaches the consistency of slightly dry mashed potatoes. Mixture will come to a boil and start to thicken first in lumps and then in a thick mass. Turn out onto a plate and cover with a damp cloth. Cool. When cool enough to handle, knead thoroughly on corn starch-dusted surface until smooth and pliable. If not used immediately, store in tightly closed plastic bag. Clay may be kept in a cool place for two weeks.

For sand clay: substitute 2 cups sand for baking soda. (If sand comes from outside, sift before measuring.) Use an old pan to cook, since sand may scratch some cooking surfaces. Use for making pebbly "fossils" and other natural-looking pieces.

For salt clay: substitute 2 cups salt for baking soda and decrease water to 1 1/3 cups. Clay will have a shiny, slightly transparent appearance.

The body

Physical fitness and

fun go hand in hand

Adults have jumped on the fitness wagon in recent years, but it appears that children are lagging behind. According to Ash Hayes, executive director of the the President's Council on Physical Fitness, "we're facing a youth fitness problem in America. Studies show that 50 percent of girls ages 6 to 17 and 30 percent of the boys can't run a mile in less than 10 minutes."

While some kids, he says, do participate in sports regularly, a large number don't exercise at all. "Our challenge is to get more kids motivated and continue to encourage those youngsters who are active."

A survey of 6,000 youngsters who participate in the Hershey's National Track & Field Youth Program reveals further insight into kids' attitudes toward fitness programs.

The findings show that enjoyment is a key factor in getting children to participate in fitness and sports programs. Among the findings:

- Nearly 80 percent claim they got involved because they enjoyed gym class; nearly 78 percent feel a high level of enjoyment when they exercise or play sports with friends.

- 82 percent said they got involved in fitness and sports because they wanted to begin a healthy habit that would last a lifetime.

- More than 75 percent say parents, teachers and coaches introduced them to physical fitness and sports.

- 51 percent say they often exercise with friends, while 31 say they are active in team or league sports.

- Girls cited jogging/running (85 percent) as most popular, followed by swimming (74 percent).

- Boys most frequently mentioned basketball (78 percent), followed by jogging/running (76 percent).

Organized sports programs offer kids a chance to get exercise. But a routine exercise session will also help them get fit, says Olympian Rafer Johnson, who is working with the Hershey program.

Exercise will be more fun, he says, if children have an exercise teammate, either a parent or a friend. Pick the exercises that are right for you, but here are some of his favorites:

Running in place: Pretend you're standing in an imaginary circle the size of an automobile tire. Jog in place, making sure you raise your legs up high, but trying not to jump outside of the imaginary circle. Do this to the count of 50.

Running a race: When you've warmed up by running in place, decide on a distance to run and give your teammate the job of timing you. Each time you run a race, try to finish in less time than you did during your previous run. Or begin with a short distance and increase it each week.

Windmill: Pretend you're a windmill. Stand straight, feet apart, arms straight out to the side, palms down. Bend and touch your left toe with your right hand. Return to starting position. Now touch your right toe with your left hand. Start with 10 windmills. Every week add one more windmill to your routine.

Stretch: Sit on the floor or ground with your legs spread apart as far as they'll go. Stretch forward while keeping your legs straight and try to rest your forehead on your left knee. Reach both hands to your left toe. Hold this position for five seconds, then sit up slowly. Repeat the exercise, but this time try to rest your forehead on your right knee. Repeat sequence five times. Now, stand up and shake out your arms and legs.

Standing long jump: You'll need a flat, soft-landing surface and a yardstick. Stand with your feet apart. Jump up and forward as far as you can. Have your teammate measure how far your heels landed from the standing line.