Amid all the holiday preparations — the cards to send, gifts to wrap, meals to cook — one important aspect of planning often gets overlooked: What to do with the kids during the time off day care and school.
For families staying in town during the break, or those coming for a visit, it’s a tricky time to make plans. The major kid-focused attractions are closed for several days, and then mobbed when they reopen. Weather can be dicey.
And while spending a day or two around the house in pajamas has its merits, a little planning can prevent the whole break from devolving into a screen-time marathon.
Start by involving the kids as you brainstorm a mix of active and quiet activities, things to do at home and places to visit. Think about ways to learn a new skill. Consider inventing a new family ritual. And pretty soon you’ll have a staycation game plan that will delight the kids and connect the generations.
1. Delegate to the kids: Marti Erickson, a developmental psychologist and Minneapolis grandmother who co-hosts the Mom Enough podcast with her daughter, Erin, believes in engaging kids in the planning process from a very early age. As the holiday break approaches, she says parents and/or grandparents can get kids generating ideas about how to enjoy the “gift” of time by asking: “What can we do together, and how can I help you do the things you’d like to do?” Erin, a nurse practitioner who specializes in maternal-child health, says even preschoolers appreciate being involved in decision-making: “You might say, ‘We have three choices, and let me tell you a little bit about each choice, and then you tell me what sounds great to you and why.”
2. Get a guidebook: Picking up a kids’ travel guide to your own city can reveal opportunities that weren’t on your radar. Older kids can help map the locations and tabulate the cost of various options to assess how they fit within logistical and budgetary constraints.
3. Bookend activities: Deepen the way you experience an outing by preparing for your trip and reflecting on it afterward, Erin suggests. Before you go, read about the place you will visit. Have kids take photos during your visit so you can review them when you return. Or create an artwork based on the experience.
4. Incorporate balance and flexibility: Think about creating a balance of some quiet, indoor activities and physical “get out and roll in the snow” kinds of things, Marti Erickson says. Have a loose plan for outings, then ideas for at-home activities can fill in the gaps.
1. Outings: Think beyond the popular child-oriented attractions and try exploring an international market or an unfamiliar neighborhood, Erin suggests. Or put a kid-friendly twist on places geared toward adults. Engage preschoolers at an art museum by buying postcards of artworks from the gift shop and make a game out of finding them in the galleries, Marti suggests. “You can think beyond the places that are specifically aimed at kids, and think about ways to add a little punch to it.”
2. Playing outdoors: In addition to the outdoor classics — sledding, skating, making snow people, snow angels or forts — the Ericksons love to set out with flashlights or headlamps for a moonlight nature walk.
3. Indoor fun: Cooking together can be as simple as making a “stone soup,” where each family member contributes an ingredient. Or challenge older kids to try making an often-purchased food from scratch, such as marshmallows. Supplement the usual board games and movies with activities that inspire creativity and get all generations moving together, such as dance parties, dress-up, or the Erickson family’s favorite, charades. “We laugh until we wet our pants,” Marti jokes.
4. Learn new skills: Use books or online resources to learn a new craft or skill, such as calligraphy or knitting. If grandparents are around, they can show kids the skills they have, whether it’s needlepoint or taking apart simple machines. “This is a great time to pass on your gifts,” Erin notes.
5. Treat others: When Erin’s daughters were in elementary school, they decided to create a “day spa” for Mom and Grandma, with stations for hand and neck massages, for sipping herbal tea, and quietly reading books. Feel free to prompt kids who are too young to come up with such ideas on their own. “You could say, ‘I’m doing a lot of stuff for you, why don’t you plan something you think I would like?’ There are great lessons in that — perspective-taking and empathy and appreciation,” said Marti.
6. Invent a family ritual: Expand on the classic holiday traditions by creating your own personal family ritual, based on a family value, suggests Carol Bruess, a professor emerita at the University of St. Thomas and family communication researcher and author.
It could be volunteering to serve a meal to people who are homeless, or creating a scavenger hunt at a local park, or having kids interview their grandparents about the family history. Rituals, Bruess notes, are one of the best ways to strengthen family relationships. “They enrich our families and connect us over generations,” she notes. “They give us something to look forward to and provide time for loved ones to communicate.”
Allow for spontaneity
One thing Bruess and the Ericksons can’t stress enough: Keep it simple. Planning one outing and/or special at home activity a day leaves plenty of opportunity for spontaneity. For parents who don’t have time off around the holidays, even a few low-key family activities can make the break feel special.
It’s important to leave plenty of time for unstructured play. “Remember that free playtime for kids to be creative where you don’t interfere is so good for their development,” says Erin. “Left to their own devices, kids are going to come up with way more creative things than I think most grownups would come up with.”
Marti has observed that when her five grandkids come to visit her seasonal home in Southern California, they prefer biking, hiking and hunting for beach glass over trips to Disneyland, Legoland or Sea World.
“As adults we sometimes think it has to be the ‘big’ thing,” she says. “The grandkids were very excited to go to those places once, but an accumulation of experiences out there has shown them that they really have the best time just being together.”
And should any whines of boredom arise, Marti offers an effective response: “I always say, ‘Oh, that’s exciting, I can’t wait to see what great ideas your brain comes up with! Being bored, that’s an opportunity, isn’t it?’ ”