Reflections On . . . Having a Playful Christmas

By Trudy Meehan & Jolanta Burke

Updated / Monday, 29 November 2021 11:49

What do people who are frustrated, demotivated, aggressive, or stressed have in common? The answer is often a lack of play in their lives. Many of us know that play serves an essential developmental purpose for our children. But it also acts as one of the adults’ basic needs. Adults who have never learnt, or have forgotten how to play may find it more challenging to build relationships, relax, or cope with daily life challenges. Contrary to the general opinion, playing with children is not adult play; it is parenting.

The word “play” describes any act we perform without purpose. It is something we do for the sake of it because we enjoy how it makes us feel. For some, it may be goofing around with family and friends, dressing up, learning a new language, telling jokes, watching a marathon of the “Friends” series, or having sex with our partners. We do all these things as they help us feel good and make us feel more alive. Whereas playing with children, however enjoyable it may be, is part of our parenting role. We usually do it to keep our children entertained, teach them something, or connect with them. Therefore, it is not necessarily a mutual play. So, let’s make this Christmas a playful time for everyone. After another difficult pandemic year, we all deserve it.

Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, the holiday season tends to open more space for family time together and hopefully some more time to play. But what kind of play really helps our children? What type of play helps their parents and caregivers? Are we abandoning children by not playing with them over Christmas? Research shows that often children need less attention from us adults, less material stuff, and more free time to be with themselves and other children. That’s not to say they don’t need any attention from us. It’s more a case of attending differently. We need to stop micromanaging them and their activities. If instead we observe from a distance, we can still protect them from any genuine hazards while trusting them to learn about risk on their own terms.

Peter Gray, a professor of psychology and specialist in play, talks about how play gives children opportunities to learn about conquering their fears. He gives the example of a child climbing a tree so high that they feel too scared to carry on. When the child climbs down, it is because they have experienced fear. However, they have also experienced their ability to tolerate fear and not get overwhelmed by it. Giving our children chances to test their limits and experience fear is a valuable present we can give them over the holiday season.

Part of giving children this space to take small risks is allowing them to lead their own play. This involves allowing them to direct their play activities and stepping back from over managing their activities. This might mean some bored children looking to us for direction, but this vacuum is a space where their agency can grow and develop, and with it their imagination and creativity. So, learn to “wince but not pounce” for a happy holiday season. In her book How to Raise an Adult, Julie Lythcott-Haims suggests that parents and carers should try to avoid intervening in their children’s minor disasters. She points out that we can indeed wince and cringe at falls, or mistakes, but that we should not get over-involved or move to rescue them too quickly.

Of course, we will also want to play, bond, and connect with our children during this holiday season. It goes without saying. However, let us not do it to the detriment of our play. Let us permit ourselves to play this year as well. Christmas is, for many, a particularly stressful time; when we see family members that we might not want to see, or when we do not see those that we do want to see, whether due to Covid-19 or other circumstances. It is a time of deep cleaning, expensive shopping, and extensive cooking. It is a time when we are so focused on making memories for our children. In all of this, it can be easy to forget about ourselves. So, this Christmas, what changes can we introduce to make our holiday more playful for everyone?

Think back to the times when you played and loved it. What did you do? How did you do it? What helped you do it? Can you bring it back into your life today? Playing is about tweaking slightly what you do. It is about taking extra time for yourself, reorganizing your life to find even 10 minutes each day to play coming up to Christmas, and then some spare time during the holiday season to do likewise. It is time to make time for that chick-lit you keep putting off, that bird feeder you would love to build, or to go to bed earlier, or switch off the phone and enjoy your partner’s company. The choice is yours. What matters is that you do something, for yourself. Have a playful Christmas, everyone!

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of the Museum of Childhood Ireland.

Dr Trudy Meehan is a Chartered Clinical Psychologist registered with the Psychological Society of Ireland. She is a Lecturer at the Centre for Positivist Psychology and Health at RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences. Trudy worked in South Africa as a Senior Lecturer at Rhodes University teaching Narrative and Community Psychology. She was Director of Stanford University’s Bing Overseas Study Programme in Cape Town South Africa. Her teaching, research and practice is community engaged and her research examines the value of art practice and play.

Dr Jolanta Burke is a Chartered Psychologist, and a Senior Lecturer in the Centre for Positivist Psychology and Health, in RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences. She specialises in research relating to wellbeing and positive education. Her latest book is The Ultimate Guide to Implementing Wellbeing Programmes for School, published by Routledge. For more information, please go to

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