Put downtime on your family's to-do list this holiday season

McCarthyClaire_dsc0463It’s nearly school vacation time—and you’re probably making plans (or will, once your shopping is finished) for things that will keep the kids busy during their time off. Museums, concerts, playdates—whatever fills the days in a useful, educational way. Because you can’t leave the days blank, right?

Actually, you can. And sometimes leaving them blank is exactly what children (and families) need.

Don’t get me wrong: if there’s some really cool exhibit you’ve been waiting to see (my family wants to see the Harry Potter exhibit at the Museum of Science), or Christmas wouldn’t be the same without a trip to The Nutcracker, go for it. And if that one kid your daughter has been dying to play with is finally free over vacation, by all means set up a playdate.

But sometimes it’s important to remember the real meaning of vacation, which comes from the Latin vacare: to be empty, free. Children need this, especially these days when being scheduled (sometimes highly scheduled) is the norm. They are so scheduled that in 2006 the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a report entitled “The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds.” It’s sad when the AAP has to remind parents to let their kids play.

The thing is, unstructured play is important. It’s particularly important for child development, because it’s through imaginary play that children explore the world, practice decision-making skills, learn to work in groups and learn to share. It’s also how they learn how to entertain stockphotopro_502628QHA_no_titlethemselves without the aid of an electronic device, and how they practice self-control. Unstructured time is important for mental health, because it gives kids a chance to decompress and relax; without this, there’s a higher risk of stress and depression.  And it can be good for physical health, especially when that unstructured time involves physical activity.

Families need downtime, too. With everybody running every which way, we miss chances for connecting with and enjoying each other. Not to mention the stress on the parents who do all the scheduling—and the drop-offs and pickups and snack- and gym bag-packing.

So how about using vacation as a relaxation and reconnection time? Here are some suggestions:

  • Turn off the alarm clocks and get some sleep.
  • Turn off the TV and computer screens. You may face some resistance on this, as screens are often what kids want to use to fill blank days. But turning off screens turns on all sorts of creative possibilities.
  • Offer your kids materials to make stuff—like clay, blocks, paint and paper. Cut out pictures from magazines and make collages. Build a city. Leave it up all week and add to it.
  • Make a fort out of sheets and chairs. Bring pillows inside. Have a picnic there. Use flashlights.
  • Go outside a lot. Go for walks or to the park. Build snowmen if there is snow.
  • Play music. Dance.
  • Get out the board games. Have a marathon Monopoly game in your pajamas.
  • Take part. This is really important.  Don’t just set the kids up with something and pull out your laptop or get on the phone—play with them. Your kids will love it, and I bet you will too.

If you approach the vacation this way, you just may find that when it’s over, everyone will be not just rested but happier. You might even find yourselves wanting to spend more time this way. Which would be really wonderful—for everyone.

Built any good forts lately? Ever made origami animals out of used holiday wrapping paper? What does your family like to do together during vacation time?