Vacations, rather than toys, make better holiday gifts for children

When special occasions such as birthdays, Christmas, or other big holiday events come around, parents often scramble around looking for that special toy for their children to enjoy. But there is a growing understanding that gifts of time and bonding, such as vacations and other experiences, make better and more lasting gifts for children.

Experts agree that gifting children with memorable trips and fun experiences are better for their body, mind, and soul, and has corresponding positive impacts on the rest of the family!

In a 2017 study that surveyed about 500 women between 18 and 93 years old, Dr. Zita Oravecz, a human development and family studies professor at Pennsylvania State University, asked, “Most people feel loved when … ” The study, published in The Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, showed that the most popular answers had nothing to do with any tangible item.

Dr. Oravecz said,   “Our research found that micro-moments of positivity, like a kind word, cuddling with a child or receiving compassion make people feel most loved.”

Clinical psychologist Oliver James agrees. He stated that as opposed to toys, details from a trip are more likely to “stick with them for long after the [vacation] ends.” James advised, “Give a 2-year-old a present and she’ll get absorbed in the box instead. It’s similar with children and travel. We should let them explore their own ways of finding wonder in their surroundings.

James added that vacations “remove us, physically, from our highly pressured everyday lives where everyone’s focused on meeting targets. They are times when everyone can relax and be playful together.” When families interact in a stress-free environment, this creates warm, generous feelings towards one another, which are likely to be remembered with fondness.

Vacations create strong emotional responses that don’t often come with material possessions. So the excitement of a trip to an exotic place, or the feeling of sand on one’s feet at the beach, or the fear felt on a terrifying ride at a theme park, are shared emotions that create stronger bonds and happy memories in the family.

In addition, British child psychologist Dr. Margot Sunderland believes that vacations make children smarter. “What is less widely known is that [vacations] can also advance brain development in children. This is because on a family [vacation], you are exercising two genetically ingrained systems deep in the brain’s limbic area, which can all too easily be ‘unexercised’ in the home.”

Citing the work of neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, Dr. Sunderland said, “These are the PLAY system and the SEEKING system.” The brain’s PLAY system “is exercised every time you bury your child’s feet in the sand, tickle them on the pool lounger, or take them for a ride on your back. The SEEKING system is exercised each time you go exploring together: the forest, the beach, a hidden gem of a village.”

She continued, “So when you take your child on a [vacation], you are supporting their explorative urge (SEEKING system) a vital resource for living life well, and their capacity to play (PLAY system). In adulthood, this translates into the ability to play with ideas — essential, for example, to the successful entrepreneur.”

Dr. Sunderland added that vacations provide an enriched environment that aid in cognitive development and frontal lobe growth. “An ‘enriched’ environment offers new experiences that are strong in combined social, physical, cognitive and sensory interaction.”

In a busy household, perhaps the most pragmatic reason for giving the gift of experience is less clutter! The fun of having the latest toy may not last, but the space it occupies in the house could be there, and gather dust, forever.

So on the next round of gift-giving with the children, consider an experiential gift instead! Costs can range from cheap to super expensive, but considering all the benefits, the return on investment is definitely priceless!