Instead of being a time of carefree fun, school holidays are increasingly a source of stress for parents, many of whom struggle with the balancing act of work vs. kids and feel they need to buy their children new things in order to keep them as busy as they are during term time.
Britain’s best-selling psychological author has something to say about this. Oliver James, writer of the helpful parenting guide, Love Bombing: Reset Your Child’s Emotional Thermostat is convinced that we need to step away from buying our kids material things and instead focus on quality time together. Surveys have suggested that children may only actually want or value around a third of the toys that we buy them; something that many parents would find to be evidential when kids surrounded by playthings complain of boredom.
As a parent to three girls under six, I can relate to this only too well. The novelty of whatever gismo is in fashion at the moment (fidget spinners, I’m looking at you) or plastic tat hidden in chocolate eggs inevitably wears off quickly, whereas a trip to the park or the beach provides hours of free fun. (It isn’t as easy as James makes it sound, however. In today’s society both parents are often working and as I trawl through emails at the kitchen table, sometimes a Kinder Egg will have to do for entertainment!)
Even with the hectic pace of modern day life taken into account, it was a bit of a shock to discover that that Britain has the second-highest average spend on toys in the world (around £508 per child annually). Furthermore, surveys suggest that we also have some of the unhappiest children, with children citing exam pressures, friendship issues and uncertainties about their future as reasons for worry. So what’s the solution?
Happily, holidays seem to be the answer. Sharing experiences and creating memories that last a lifetime is something that has value far beyond the price tag of a hotel. As opposed to trying to distract children from boredom with new toys, holidays together completely change the atmosphere and dynamic of the family and offer novelty and excitement somewhere new. Away from endless housework, school runs and office shifts, parents can let go of the usual routine and enjoy catching up with their kids and trying new experiences together in a relaxing environment.
It is tempting to try and feed ‘educational’ experiences into trips away, but child development experts reassure parents that this is unnecessary. Children need a break from school and formal education in the same way that adults need a rest from work. Besides, wherever you go, kids will be developing and learning more than you realise simply through immersion in a new culture and through exposure to different climates, geography, food and languages. In fact, it would be difficult to stop them learning!
The best holidays for children are those during which they can rest, play freely, explore their surroundings and spend time with the people that they love. James says that free play, sadly declining in British childhoods, is “a crucial human experience, for children especially, but for adults too... without it, life is very empty and lacking in joy.” Agreed. Being outdoors in nature has also been found to be beneficial for mental as well as physical health; after all, who doesn’t love the beach or a picnic in the countryside on a sunny day?
While the price of holidays can be costly, it can be helpful to think about the amount parents could save if we prioritised travel instead of toys. With the average of £508 spent on toys each year, parents with one child could enjoy five nights in a luxury tipi in Sussex during the summer holidays, with spending money left over. Studies have found that exploring open green spaces like the Sussex countryside can be calming and can improve concentration; it also lowers blood pressure and cholesterol so Mum, Dad and the grandparents can benefit too!
Parents with two children could combine their hefty toy bill of £1,016 to pay for the whole family to jet off for a sunny August break in Portugal, and still pocket some change for ice creams and banana boats. For larger families, swap the toys for a break at a Eurocamp resort in France; Domaine des Ormes offers plenty of sports facilities and pools to keep kids of all ages happy, as well as the nearby beach.
Beach holidays are not only a lot of fun, but according to neuroscientist Dr. Jaak Panksepp, they also activate two brain systems that aid development and can even increase IQ. The PLAY system in a child’s mind is wired to absorb sensory and emotional stimulation, so being buried in sand, catching their first wave or simply enjoying a delicious ice cream with the family has the brain firing on all cylinders. The SEEKING system kicks in when kids go exploring; the sight of your hotel, the aromas of the first restaurant and the adventure into a new village or town are all enhancing the experience. When these systems are activated, Panksepp discovered, the brain releases feel-good hormones such an oxytocin and dopamine that encourage us to feel warm and generous towards each other. This could explains why grumpy parents who at home insist on broccoli before dessert suddenly become the ‘anything goes’, second-ice-cream loving favourites of the family when abroad.
Planning a holiday around your children’s passions is a great way to guarantee a good time. Dinosaur-mad kids might enjoy a trip to England’s Jurassic Coast, while adrenaline junkies will love a theme-park based holiday like Disneyland. Asking your children where they’d like to go and what they would like to do communicates to them that you really care about their interests, and also helps avoid situations where half the family is mutinying out of boredom!
As well as the traditional annual break, taking your family on a really once in a lifetime experience is a surefire way to enjoy some quality bonding time as well as an amazing holiday. High up on many family bucket lists are things such as seeing the big five on an African safari; enjoying a novel break in an ice hotel or igloo or visiting the paradise islands of the Maldives with the brood. For older children a family volunteering holiday is a fantastic opportunity to work together as a team, gain appreciation of other cultures and increase their confidence and skills while having fun.
Whatever kind of holiday your tribe are into, the most important aspects are that you have fun and cherish the time together. Kids are often just as happy running barefoot around an English campsite as they are splashing in a pool at a luxury resort; what they will notice and remember is the happy memories that you make together.