Some people enjoy buying Christmas gifts for their family, but for us it’s a task that often feels a little bittersweet.

As early childhood educators, we’ve seen too many companies use dubious research to falsely claim that their toy will make a child smarter

What the research actually shows (over and over again) is that a lot of high quality learning happens when children interact with each other, use their imagination, and have hands-on, real-life experiences with simple objects (some of which are toys). 

It’s important for our kids to have authentic, interactive experiences with real things on a daily basis (rather than just playing with light-up, noisy, plastic, battery-operated “educational” toys).

Recently, we also read research about what makes people happy. Here’s what we learned:

People generally get more happiness from giving than receiving, and more enjoyment from experiences rather than things. Also, people often get more joy from anticipating an event than from the event itself.


The Pressure of Holiday Magic

This season brings up a lot of pressure for parents to “create memories” and “make the magic happen”.  We’re constantly worried that we’re not doing enough, being enough, or giving enough to make the holiday special ‘enough’ for our family. 

But we realized a parenting truth that we think everyone needs to hear this time of year: 

Our children might forget what we said and didbut they will always remember how we made them feel. In other words–our engaged presence is the best present we can give them.

All of these concepts–learning, connection, true happiness, and presence–got us thinking…

How can parents make this a special time for our kids, while still being mindful of our values and kind to ourselves?

We created 4 journaling prompts and a list of 6 low and no-cost activities that parents can give to their kids (one of these activity ideas is in honor of my grandaddy).

We invite you to use these prompts and experiences to create lasting memories and increase connection in your family–during this season and all year around!


Four Thought-Provoking Journaling Prompts to Increase Your Presence During the Holidays

  • What feelings do I want to have during this season?
  • What are my most vivid childhood holiday memories?
    • Is there anything from the past that I want to recreate with my kids?
    • Is there anything that my inner child needs to hear from me today so I can heal something from the past?
  • What do I need to let go of during this season so I can create what I want for myself and my family?
  • What do I want to hold on to so I can create what I want for myself and my family?


Six Simple No-Cost and Low-Cost Activities and Gifts to Increase Connection in Families

1. “Free All Expenses Paid” Trip

My mom was one of seven kids. Every year my grandaddy gave each child a coupon for a “Free All Expenses Paid Trip.” These trips were not expensive outings to tourist destinations. They were simple day trips related to each child’s interests that the whole family took together. My mom said that these trips were some of her fondest childhood memories. Here are some examples of possible outings:

  • Camping
  • Fruit harvesting: it could be a U-pick farm or wild berry picking
  • Touring a factory
  • Visiting a farm or farmer’s market
  • Botanical garden
  • Touring a non-profit organization “If you’re in Los Angeles, here’s one of my favorite nonprofits to tour.” – Cecilia
  • Hiking or Fishing “I have great childhood memories of fishing with just my dad.” – Jason
  • Trip to the beach or coast
  • Have a picnic

2. Do something for someone else

Happiness research says that people tend to get more happiness from giving than receiving. Doing something for someone else is a way to create more joy during the holiday season. You could:

  • “Adopt” a family
  • Do a gift exchange (or Secret Santa) with friends or neighbors
  • Visit a neighbor and spend time together, especially if it’s someone who might be lonely
  • Go caroling

3. Make gifts for others

There are a lot of simple craft and puzzle gifts that kids can make for members of their family. Try these fun and meaningful homemade presents:

  • Word search
  • Crossword puzzle
  • Bookmarks – make them with paper (or wooden sticks) and glitter glue 
  • Make ornaments – “Origami works well for ornaments.” – Jason
  • Baked gifts, like homemade play dough or pretzels – “I love rolling and shaping pretzel dough with small kids.” – Cecilia

4. Spend Quality Time together

Our undivided attention is what our kids crave the most. Quality time is one of the best ways to build a strong, positive parent/child connection. Some of our favorites are:

  • Movies – “Growing up my dad would get us to the movie theater 30 minutes before the show. We would spend the extra time talking as a family.” – Cecilia
  • Puzzles – “We often leave out a jigsaw puzzle on a card table to be completed over several days. It’s a fun, connecting activity.” – Jason
  • Board game night
  • Card games
  • Crafting 
  • Baking or cooking

5. Meaningful Physical Gifts

Physical gifts don’t have to be expensive or even store-bought. Here are some more sentimental and ‘out-of-the-box’ ideas:

  • Give hand-me-down toys – “My mom had saved some of our childhood toys. When our kids were little, we wrapped up our childhood toys and gave them to our kids. It connected our kids to my childhood. Plus it was easy on our budget, light on the earth, and demonstrated to our kids that not everything has to be brand new.” – Cecilia
  • Give everyday objects as gifts – “Young children especially can get a lot of enjoyment and learning from everyday objects. Some of our kids' favorite ‘gifts’ growing up were a cardboard box and a roll of bubble wrap.” – Jason
  • Give heirlooms – “My mom has a lot of artsy jewelry. As our kids have gotten older, she has been enjoying slowly giving away parts of her collection to the grandkids. And the grandkids get to hear the story of each piece.” – Cecilia

6. Games that Increase Connection

We enjoy playing simple games and having deeper conversations at mealtimes. Here are some of our family’s favorites:

What do you think of these ideas?

What things will you do in your family to celebrate and increase the connection? 

What are you letting go of? 

What are you holding on to?

I love to hear your thoughts and experiences. Add your voice to the conversation below.