Childhood is “a short, sweet season,” worthy of the thoughtful attention of loving adults. That’s one of our core beliefs at Highlights.
In this early, brief window of life (Yes, brief. As the saying goes, the days are long but the years are short!), parents and grandparents have tremendous influence over their children. The seeds of curiosity, creativity, caring, and confidence, planted in the fertile soil of early childhood and nurtured, is how kids begin to grow into their best selves. And we can all agree that raising children who strive to be their best selves is our best hope for peace on earth.
The holidays offer wonderful opportunities to double down on this intention. Many traditions place children front-and-center, with the adults in their lives bustling around them to create memories the kids will treasure for years. But what is it that we want our children to recall? What is it that should remain with our children permanently after the gifts are opened, the holiday goodies gobbled up, and the tree has shed its needles?
We want our children to remember feeling not just excited and entertained but, above all, loved. And we want them to experience the good feelings of making others feel loved. When we provide them with experiences that foster these feelings, we create the most meaningful kind of celebration.
If you want a holiday season rich with meaning—one that will give you all more joy and strengthen the family bond—here are a few ideas:
- Gather your family’s holiday-themed books, or visit your library to check out favorites. Gift wrap each book, and let your children choose one book to unwrap and read together at bedtime. They’ll enjoy the element of surprise and the time spent reading aloud together.
- Although less common these days, we like the practice of sending friends and family seasonal greetings. Let your kids help you create your family’s holiday card. If your tradition is a Christmas photo, solicit their ideas for a backdrop, a theme, and a message. It doesn’t need to be perfect. Strive for an authentic representation of your family! Or make a family card using your kids’ drawings. Maybe your crew would enjoy creating a video greeting card. If you enlist their help in scripting the message, they’ll practice writing skills and have fun at the same time.
- December calendars fill up fast with parties and special events. Take a breather and commit to spending at least one night a week “cocooning” at home. Keep this family night sacred by saying a firm no to other invitations. Order pizza or fix a simple dinner to allow time to play a board game, work a jigsaw puzzle, or watch a holiday movie. Bundle up and take a long winter walk or build a snowman family. Imagine at least four nights in this busy month that are all and only about your family!
- It’s easy for kids to catch the “gimmes” this time of year, but you can help them think of others. Engage them in a toy drive for less fortunate children. Or find a volunteer activity the whole family can do together. You could ring a bell to collect coins for charity, shop for a food pantry, volunteer to help serve at a community luncheon, or take supplies to a local animal shelter. To start the habit of charitable giving, you might talk with your children about donating a portion of their allowance to a cause they feel strongly about. When they give some of their own money, they may experience in a whole new way the good feeling that comes from being generous.
- Handmade gifts rock! They move the focus off the money and put it on thoughtfulness. Encourage your kids to think creatively about what they could make that a loved one would cherish, and then provide the necessary supplies. It might even be an opportunity for them to learn a new skill, such as knitting, scrapbooking, or even songwriting.
- Tell the story of the origin of the holiday you celebrate. Consider, also, sharing the origin stories of the holidays your friends and neighbors celebrate. This could open some great conversations about how we’re all alike, as well as different.
- Add to your family’s holiday traditions. Start a memory book. Buy or make a beautiful notebook or journal, which you’ll store with your seasonal decorations and bring out year after year. When the holiday is over—or as your family is celebrating—let each family member, including the kids, record some of their favorite moments from the month. Younger kids may need help writing—or you can encourage them to draw a picture to tell their story. They’ll enjoy revisiting their entries year after year—and so will you.
Christine French Cully is Chief Purpose Officer and Editor in Chief at Highlights for Children. As Chief Purpose Officer, Cully’s focus is on growing awareness and implementation of the Highlights purpose, core beliefs, and values—to help actualize the organization’s vision for a world where all children can become people who can change the world for the better....
When my sister Ursula turned one, our mom, Madeline, bought her a big, red plastic ball. It cost ninety-nine cents and delighted her more than any other gift she received. For years my mom has told friends: “When your child (or grandchild or niece or neighbor) turns one, get the big plastic ball.” And everyone who’s followed the advice gets the same big-smiled result.
When that same sister was 30, six months pregnant, and living across the country, I flew her back home as a Christmas surprise for my parents. My own small children were thrilled to help sneak her into the house and wrap her, mummy-like, from head to toe with yards of snowflake wrapping paper while she stood stock-still without laughing for a good half hour. When we told my parents to come open their gift right away as it was perishable, they marveled for a while at this wrapped totem, trying to guess what it could be. Honestly, they had no clue; we’d all spent the run-up weeks lamenting a Christmas without Ursula. “A tree?” said my mom, to which my dad said, “No, it’s giving off heat.” They tried and tried to guess until my kids demanded, “Unwrap it already!” I think that was the year I realized that it’s more fun to give than to receive.
So, what makes a good gift? It’s all about age, stage, delight, and surprise. Add in “thoughtful and unique,” says Mia Galison, founder of eeBoo, a company that makes crafts, toys, and activities for kids. Last year I gave chilled cookie dough, alphabet cookie cutters, and a container of icing to my five-year-old cousin. For her child’s friends’ birthdays, my colleague Beth pairs books with significant props—Pippi Longstocking with zippy, striped socks, or The Last Crayon with a large new box of 64 crayons.
There’s a lot to consider in coming up with the right present. First, if it isn’t age appropriate or doesn’t speak to a child’s developmental stage, the gift will be a dud. “Children’s development, skill level, and how they play change as they grow,” says Tovah Klein, Ph.D., author of the book How Toddlers Thrive. “Think about where the child is in terms of development when you’re picking a toy for him,” she says. “Playing should be fun, and toys should support his development.” An expensive stuffed animal may be handsome, but probably not as much fun to play with for a one-year-old as the wrapping paper it comes in. Given this reality, you may want to wrap gifts for the very young with easy-to-tear paper, keeping the gift itself on the inexpensive side. Klein’s motto? “The simpler the toy, the better.”
Once you’ve nailed the age and stage question, experts agree that what kids play with should support exploration, learning, and growth. ”Matching games that ask children to find a connection between pictures, like a dog and a leash, are perfect for the 3+ set,” says eeBoo’s Galison, “because they are a delightful way to sharpen memory and focus.” Klein, a psychologist, is a fan of open-ended toys, which require no “right” or “wrong” ways to play. “They allow children to have their own ideas, to think, create, imagine, and make what they want,” she explains.
As children get older, they develop specific interests that gifts can complement. A preschooler who loves trains will be happy with new train cars, or even a miniature accessory that can add to an existing set. A six- to eight-year-old who is into art will appreciate a cool dot-to-dot book, or, if more sophisticated, a learn-to-draw book, such as the wonderful Illustration School series by Sachiko Umoto, including Let’s Draw Cute Animals. For more bang, pair with colored pencils in a cool tin.
It’s fun to get creative when it comes to tapping into kids’ passions. A preschool dinosaur fan might love a 3 ft. high inflatable T. rex, while an older budding paleontologist can appreciate a daytrip to the natural history museum followed by frozen hot chocolate at a special café. Got a game player in the house? Give a classic like Candy Land (3+), Trouble (5+), or Parcheesi (7+), along with coupons that guarantee your spot at the table as an opponent. You might enhance the package with a book like Who Was Milton Bradley? When you acknowledge a child’s passion, you affirm her individuality—a big esteem booster.
Whatever age you’re buying for, go for the “Wow”; presents must delight their recipients. My poor son Jamie used to unhappily refer to Christmas as the “shirt holiday” due to the number he received from well-meaning relatives at a loss for other ideas. It’s good to differentiate what kids need from what they’d like. A bike is a present. A bike helmet is not. “Unless,” says Galison, “you have fun with it.” Like my friend Jenny who gave her son Theo kneepads first and the skateboard second. “You said no so many times to that board,” Theo told his mom. “I never thought you would get it for me.”
Personally, I’ve become a fan of experiential presents over the years— tickets, edibles, a workshop. But children love to open presents, so if you’re giving tickets to, say, a special show or concert, wrap that little stub of paper in layers of different paper, Bubble Wrap, and boxes so there’s some fun in opening your gift-to-be-redeemed at a later date. And consider throwing in a related but inexpensive add-in to go with that dance class or music lesson (think: a little tutu or harmonica) to be enjoyed on the spot.
Also, include your kids as you plan gifts for others so they learn the joys of giving. “Making a card for a friend is a way to introduce preschoolers to the idea of giving to others,” Tovah Klein says. Older kids can help pick out gifts for friends or sibs, though before ages five or six you shouldn’t expect them to express the selflessness it takes to shop for anyone else.
Include them, too, in charitable giving. As my children grew, holiday time gave me an opportunity to impart my values as I gave to toy drives or made year-end contributions to nonprofit organizations. “When they are eight or above,” Klein suggests, “you can involve them in donations, explaining that you are helping others who may not be able to afford holiday gifts this year.” When they are younger, says Klein, they don’t quite understand what it means that others have less. “In fact, it can sound scary that some children don’t have clothes or toys or their own bed to sleep in. If you help out a neighbor or donate books to the library, your child will see that giving is part of what you do.”
For me, the adage “It’s the thought that counts” are words to live by. Some years, when I’ve been flush, I’ve spent a lot on gifts; other years, not so much. But always, always, I think of the recipient as unique and so, too, the present I give.
Pam Abrams is a writer and mother of two who splits her time between the city and the country, and frequents the farmers’ markets in both locations.
During the upcoming holiday break, learning can easily slump. But it doesn’t have to! Here are six ways to incorporate learning into the holidays so your child goes back to school refreshed and ready to study.
1. Read for fun
Reading, as you know, develops vocabulary, critical-thinking skills, fluency, and even empathy. Take your child to the library or the local bookstore at the beginning of the break so he has an array of choices throughout the holidays (or books to take along during travel). Look for books you can read aloud together—you read to him, he reads to you, or a combination. Expose your child to a variety of books—comic books, graphic novels, magazines, poetry, etc. Audiobooks are also great for fluency and are excellent choices if the reading level is just a bit above your child’s.
2. Play together
Gather your family members for a game night that will be both fun and educational—whether your kids realize it or not. Choose games that involve strategy or have to do with literacy, counting, or guessing. Think chess, Scrabble, charades, or various iterations of them. Games like Jenga are great for motor skills. Have your child be the scorekeeper, a role that involves counting and calculating. Most games are educational in some way, and they will provide bonding time for the family. You could even encourage your child to create her own board game!
3. Get cooking
Welcome your child into the kitchen. You might start at the very beginning, such as having him plan a grocery list and helping you buy and calculate costs at the store. Baking is a great (and delicious) way to enjoy learning how to work with measurements, and it can be as simple or as complicated as you like. This direction might even take you and your child into the chemistry of cooking (perhaps try experimenting with different recipes of the same item and see what happens!) as well as conversations about other cultures, cuisines, and lifestyles.
4. Create DIY projects
Encourage your child toward DIY projects, which inspire creativity and problem-solving skills. There are some ready-made kits, which teach children to make their own soap or birdhouse, for example. Check out your local craft store for ideas and supplies, or do new activities you could try together. Turn these projects into holiday gifts or decorations. Teach your child a skill you know yourself, like knitting or crocheting. Finally, encourage your child in building and construction activities. You could use materials you already have at home, such as cardboard boxes, paper-towel rolls, toothpicks, and Popsicle sticks.
5. Perform writing and scrapbooking activities
To make writing fun, expose your child to different genres she may not experience at school, such as the aforementioned comic books, graphic novels, or poems. Have your child respond to books she reads by writing. She can keep a journal in which she writes whatever she wants. She might want to create lists in her journal, chronicle daily events or special occasions, write letters to her future self, or keep a dream journal. Suggest that she write holiday cards or letters to a pen pal or relative. You could also make this more tactile and visual by encouraging your child to scrapbook and collage with pictures and illustrations.
6. Take field trips with the family
Plan some outside trips—perhaps to a museum, local landmark, or historical site. Hiking would be great if the weather allows! Ask your child questions; you could even create a “treasure hunt” of the place if you like. Some museums provide optional, educational activities for children as well. If you’re planning on traveling during the break, involve your child in planning the schedule, reading maps, looking up places to go, figuring out transportation, and researching the historical background of the city or town.
Regardless of whether you stay home or go away for the holidays, your child can sustain his learning throughout the break. Capitalize on the time to encourage your child’s passions. Also consider asking your child’s teacher if he or she has any tips or suggestions!
Lisa Low is a contributing writer for Varsity Tutors, a live learning platform that connects students with personalized instruction to accelerate academic achievement.