When my boys were younger, one of their favorite games was to play “Christmas” and “Santa.” We celebrated Christmas in our home and there were inevitably gifts wrapped up and placed under a tree. We tried to be really conscious of what we were giving them, so it was usually just a few small gifts from us and a few gifts from the grandparents.
In the eyes of a child, I’m sure it still looked like a lot.
When my kids were maybe 4 and 9, after Christmas was over and the gifts had all been put away, my kids made up a game that went on for many months. The game consisted of taking items from around the house, wrapping them in a blanket and doing some version of “Santa” who would be delivering the gifts. The person receiving the gift would close their eyes while “Santa” delivered it, then open their eyes and unwrap the gift with excitement, exclaiming how much they loved the gift.
We didn’t really emphasize Santa in our home, so I found it fascinating that this is how they were playing it out. Personally, I had really mixed feelings about telling my children that a fat man in a red suit was going to break into our house while we were sleeping (we didn’t have a chimney in Florida) and leave them really expensive gifts, so the result was that we usually had some small gift that was unwrapped from “Santa,” but the gift didn’t say it was from Santa. We just let the kids decide who it was from.
Back to the game.
In this particular game, anything was a potential gift. Shoes were wrapped up, clothes that may or may not belong to the person receiving the gift, kitchen utensils, toys that had been received during the holidays, and sometimes even the cat (who was VERY patient with such games). Sometimes it was serious. Sometimes it was hilarious (for us, not necessarily the cat).
As the holidays are approaching, I am hearing from parents who are feeling so stressed at the prospect of the holiday season where gifts are an expectation. And I’m reminded, as I remember this game my own kids played, that for our kids, less is truly more.
We don’t have to buy into our cultural messages about the latest and greatest gadget or toy. We can find things that are simple, that encourage unstructured, open-ended playtime that our children will really enjoy and play with day after day.
When you’re thinking about gifts, consider items that don’t have a single purpose. These kinds of toys are great for their imaginations. Look at what my kids chose to play with in their Santa game- a blanket and other things they found in the house, including the cat.
We always joke about how we buy a fancy toy and our kids only play with the box, but it’s true. I feel it’s a good reminder that the box can become many things, while many toys, whatever it is or however popular it may be, have been created by someone else’s imagination to be something specific that may or may not fit into your child’s play experience.
Toys to consider for gift-giving
If you’re participating in any gift-giving holiday this time of the year, consider gifts that are open-ended, or gifts that can become more than one thing. Blankets, play silks, blocks, play food, small pots and pans, boxes (seriously), tools to dig, a swing, something to climb, a stool to help them safely help you in the kitchen. Toys that represent the things they see in their daily lives- cars and trucks (for boys or girls), play cell phones (they need to play out what they’re seeing), emergency vehicles, and “doll” houses with small people are all good gifts to consider and allow them to show you their experience of the world. Gifting markers or art supplies, painting a wall with chalk paint that they can color on, and giving gifts that allow them to learn a skill to create something are some other ideas.
Children act out their experiences through play
When I think of our kids showing us their experience of the world through their toys, I always think of one of my clients many years ago who lived in New York City. Her son loved Matchbox Cars and would often spend hours carefully placing all of his cars in a long line that ran through multiple rooms in the house to create a traffic jam. He was playing out his experiences of sitting in traffic.
Another story I often think of is when my youngest son (who is now 14) was 7, we moved to a house near the Gulf of Mexico and our new environment began showing up in his play. We had been going out into the Gulf to explore the little islands offshore, so that’s what he created. But look at what he used to create the scene- some Legos and a blue blanket.
If you are choosing to give gifts this holiday season, what are you thinking of giving? Do you have other ideas to expand upon the ideas of simple gifts that allow space for creativity? I’d love to hear them!
Want to hear more about the importance of unstructured playtime and creating the space for your kids to play, along with why that’s so important for their optimal development? Check out our Podcast Episode #31, this Friday, to hear more!