Another year means another opportunity to increase your involvement in your stepchildren's lives. Here are my Top 5 ways to do it.

Stepmother and stepdaughter baking

You know that sometimes, you can go out seeking a ton of fun and paying a ton of money for it — but sometimes, the activities that tickle your little one the most take place within your home and cost hardly anything. I'm always amazed at how the simplest ideas I come up with to entertain B are actually the activities that he loves most. So, here are some activities that will engage your stepchildren and render you a pretty cool stepparent — and they are virtually free! Why not resolve to take up one of these activities in the New Year?

1. Cook anything with your stepchild

Seriously, anything. If you can cook, maybe this entails sneaking out of bed early and getting your stepchild up to help make breakfast in bed for the other parent, or maybe it just means asking your stepchild to help you make a meal. If you are more like me — a person who cannot cook — maybe this just means tossing together some easy-breezy snack mix from various ingredients or baking cookies out of a package. Kiwi Crate just posted an adorable idea for super-easy frozen yogurt snacks consisting of as few as two ingredients. B is a rough-and-tumble boy's boy, but he loves to bake with me! He likes looking through my cake-pop book and choosing designs for us to make together.

Oh, and bonus Stepparent Points for finding an opportunity for your stepchildren to work with ooey-gooey ingredients — they will love that!

2. Create a scavenger hunt

Refer to this post and this post, and you'll see how easy scavenger hunts are and how much fun your younger stepchildren will have as they buzz from room to room searching for the next clue! And it's pretty awesome to sneak in some reading practice with these scavenger hunt clues.

3. Make your kitchen table a work of art

The fun of the holidays is waning, and the January lull is setting in — so why not jazz up lunch or dinnertime with some art? Grab a large sheet of craft paper and place it over as much of your dining room table as it will cover, or take individual sheets of white paper to make place mats. Enlist your stepchild to turn this blah paper into a beautiful "tablecloth" or pretty "place mats." Then at dinner, voila, you'll have instant conversation as your stepchild points out elements of his or her creation!

I freely admit that I got this awesome idea from another stepmom's blog — if only I could remember whose it was so I could give her credit. My apologies.

4. Break the rules (to the delight of your stepchild)

Is there something you could (after consulting with your spouse) allow your stepchild to do that feels as if you guys are "breaking the rules"? I'm not talking anything dangerous, chaotic or anarchist — just something that will allow you and your stepchild to feel like you have something uniquely "yours" that you've allowed him or her to do. For instance, in our house, I've designated a small area of our living room as a "strike zone" for my little athlete. Playing ball in the house is usually verboten, but I found a little nook where my future Cy Young Award winner can pitch a softball to his heart's content. I wrote the word "STRIKE" on a paper dinner napkin, taped it to the wall and asked B to pitch away! I also do a running commentary on each pitch as he winds up and lets loose, and he loves that. But most of all, I think he loves the fact that his stepmom lets him play ball indoors. Little does he know that this is in a contained area and that his dad has consented as well.

What "rule" can you break in your household to make for an activity that will have your stepchild thinking you have bent the rules just for her?

5. Volunteer at your stepchild's school

As a member of the PTA board at B's school and the daughter of a former PTA president, I may be a little biased here. But let me tell you that study after study has demonstrated that parental involvement in school leads to better outcomes for students. Namely, students whose parents are involved in their school tend to have fewer behavioral problems and better academic performance, and they're more likely to complete high school. Also, rightly or wrongly, teachers of these students tend to give greater attention to them, thus allowing for earlier identification of issues.

Let's be practical — as a kid, if you saw your mom or dad at school often, wouldn't you be more prone to behave as you should? And if your mom and/or dad volunteered directly in your classroom and were friendly with your teacher, wouldn't you feel more connected to your school and more motivated to do well? I know I did.

Oftentimes, parents are dissuaded from volunteering at school because they are put off by what they perceive as "PTA moms." As a PTA (step)mom, I get this hesitance — I really do. As a stepparent, you may feel like you just don't have a place at your stepchild's school. Believe me, you do. I can tell you from personal experience of running volunteer programs and events at B's school that I will take volunteers anytime I can get them. One of my active volunteers for a reading program I run is a grandmother! Don't feel like it is not "your place" to be at your stepchild's school. Isn't it your place to be a positive role model for your stepchild? There aren't many better ways to do this than volunteering and being visible in school. B absolutely lights up when he sees his dad and me at school (where hubby is the "room mom"!), and I am there so often that his friends have even asked me if I work at the school.

Volunteering in elementary schools and PTAs is a particular passion of mine. Please, please drop me a line if you have any questions about navigating elementary school volunteering as a stepparent or about how to volunteer if you work full time. Trust me, your stepchild would love to see you at school, and his or her scholastic performance just may benefit from your participation!

And there you have them: My suggestions for engaging your stepchild and becoming more active in his or her life in 2014! Oh, and you just might score "cool points" along the way if you implement one or more of these suggestions.