Five easy things to do with your kids this holiday that do not involve the internet or TV

Getting busy.
Getting busy.
Image: Reuters/Herb Swanson
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The holidays may be the most magical time of the year, but they’re also fraught. Theres’ shopping to finish, packing to complete, last-minute work demands. If it’s tempting to simply plop your kids in front of the TV or iPad to while away the school break, here’s a suggestion: Don’t.

Futile as it may be to recreate some Dickensian ideal of family togetherness, it’s worth snatching some precious moments to actually connect face to face, without a TV, computer, phone, or tablet between you.

Opinions vary as to how damaging these screens are for children. Some think they seriously undermine their mental health. Others argue that they are making our kids smarter, and digitally savvy in a way the world requires.

But regardless, here are a few ironclad truths about technology and your children, from toddlerhood to teenage years:

  • It is zero-sum: The time they spend on their devices is time they are not spending with you.
  • It is a constant source of conflict: Kids want to be online, and we parents want them to be present.
  • The kids will not be the ones to hand over the phone and suggest a leisurely stroll through the park. That’s on us, the grown-ups. 
  • Disconnecting (for parents, as well as kids) requires intentionality. It takes planning and perhaps, coercion. But it will be worth it.

Here are a few easy suggestions for how to do it this holiday season:

Go for a walk

When we moved to the UK from the US, my girls—then 2 and 4—had never gone for a walk. Being New York City kids, they just walked everywhere because that’s how you get around. So when we told them on a rainy British day that we were going for a walk, protest ensued. Cries of “why?” and “where are we going?” erupted. 

Walks are a thing in Britain. In the rain, in the cold, to nowhere: You walk. Research shows there are benefits to both your body and your brain. Common sense suggests that time spent in nature with loved ones is productive. 

Our family’s initial forays into recreational walking weren’t pretty. The girls wanted to wear their princess outfits and they didn’t yet own the all-important Wellington boots. Chocolate as “snacks” helped as incentives.

They now go for walks a lot, and on those walks, the damndest things happen: They run, they play, they build stick forts, they chat, and generally we all enjoy the whole endeavor (when they are not beating each other up, of course). We don’t even need to bribe them with chocolate anymore.  

Bake cookies for the neighbors

In the 1970s, a psychologist named Roger Hart spent two years making maps of where kids in a rural New England town were allowed to go by themselves—the “geography of children,” he called it. He did it again 40 years later. In the 1970s the kids roamed free; 40 years later, few ventured beyond their own backyards.

For all of our connectedness, many of us are less connected to our neighbors than ever before. 

Tis’ the season to do something for others. Here is an easy gingerbread cookie recipe (If I can do it, so can you) and one for brownie bites with peppermint on top. Direct message me on Twitter for a banana bread recipe from my sister-in-law’s mother-in-law, which is as easy as it is delicious.

Baking can take a lot less time than you might expect. The key is planning ahead: Look up the recipe, and make sure you have the ingredients. Get some holiday-themed bags and some ribbon, and fill them with treats.

Make the kids themselves deliver the goods to the neighbors, watching from a safe distance if needed. Reward them with the fruits of their labor. 

Play a game

It is a magical moment when your kids finally get old enough to play games with higher-order thinking skills beyond those required by Candyland (a lovely game for little ones, which is seriously boring for adults).

You’ll rediscover old games, like Life, Monopoly, Hearts and Scrabble. Your kids will find ones like Pie Face, whose sole objective is that someone end up with a face full of whipped cream.

And you’ll discover new ones. Exploding Kittens is popular now among the London tween set, and we like these: Scotland YardRacing DemonBlockus, Labyrinth, and Chess. Friends recommend Rat a Tat Cat and Rummikub. 

Read a book

We love to read, and our house is full of books. But how often do our kids see us quietly tucked up on the couch reading books? Not nearly enough. 

Doug Lemov argues here that even when your kids master easy books, you can help them by reading them harder ones. It expands their vocabulary, shows them complex sentence structure, and the conversations great books give rise to create amazing bonds between you and your kids. (See Charlotte’s Web, for example, for a discussion of what it means to be a true friend.)

Go to the library or bookstore, and let everyone pick out a book. When you get home, actually carve out the time and space to sit and read.

Here’s a list from the UK’s Book Trust, for 0-5 year olds 6-8 year olds9-11 year old and 12-14 year olds and beyond. I love this list from Jenny Rosentrach, the mind behind the blog Dinner a Love Story, and her husband Andy Ward. Here are some of our family favorites. And there’s this list from NPR.

Go to a movie

We may be in the golden age of TV, with Netflix and Amazon streaming original content to every screen you own. But few things beat a trip to the movies (or the cinema, as they say here in the UK).

It’s pricey, but there are ways to save money: Make popcorn at home and let everyone dress it as they see fit, in plastic bags to bring along (sweet, buttery, salty). Bring water bottles or juice to avoid the extortionate prices at the counter.

There’s a lot on offer this holiday season: Sing, Ballerina, Moana, Trolls, to name just a few.

It’s often said that kids want our presence, not our presents. I am pretty sure my kids want both, but I know what I need to do this season is the former, more than the latter.