12/17/2014 09:54 am ET Updated Feb 16, 2015

Give the Gift of Play This Holiday Season

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News reports abound that many of the gifts children will receive for the holidays this year have more computer power than was used in the first mission to the moon. Many shrug and say that's just the world we live in today -- one where technology rules. Kids are playing video games, using smartphones and tablets, and communicating online at earlier and earlier ages. But here's a plea this holiday season -- give the gift of play!

Almost every family I know has a holiday memory of a toddler who was more enamored with the box a toy came in than the toy itself. "We should have saved our money and just gotten her a box," someone probably joked. But this joke reveals an underlying message for all parents to heed -- kids have a wonderful capacity for imaginative play and sometimes, a box is all you need.

In this fast-paced world, our constant need to "keep up" and our fear of "missing out" are only intensified at the holidays. Parents are increasingly worried about bringing home that must-have item, but one of the greatest gifts parents can give their kids this holiday season is the chance to really play.

Don't Be in a Rush

How many times has a mom or dad told a kid who stops to play with a new toy to "put it down because there are more presents to open?" Or the minute gifts are opened, swept wrapping paper into garbage bags and asked the kids to get their presents up to their rooms before family or friends come over? While it's sometimes hard to reconcile with our desire for magazine-perfect living rooms, the mess is part of the fun! So leave the boxes, leave the wrapping paper and ribbon, and most of all leave the kids room to play.

Leave Them Room to Play

Holiday break is an opportunity for kids to get much-needed downtime. Overscheduling has run rampant in our communities, with major commitments required at young ages for organized youth sports and other activities. Children move quickly from one activity to another, with little time to decompress, put their young minds at ease and just be kids. The lack of free, open-ended playtime has dramatic consequences on their ability to be creative, solve problems, make decisions and collaborate with others. If parents have the luxury of having time off with their kids, I hope that they'll resist the urge to schedule it and just go with the flow.

Kids need to know that parents aren't responsible for planning every moment of entertainment and activity. So many parents today feel anxious when their kids don't have something to do and rush to fill the void... often with a technology powered "fix" of computer, tablet or video time. It's okay to be bored! The question, "what should we do now?" is best answered by children themselves...and the holidays offer more extended time than usual for kids to come up with some creative solutions.

Take technology out of the equation and leave them alone to figure out what else they could do. Kids will push back, but if parents stay firm and insist that they go play, they will invent their own fun. Let them make houses out of boxes, a fort out of couch cushions and blankets or mix up the brand new board game pieces with the old dollhouse. Parents should give themselves and their kids the break they both deserve... let go and do very little.

Be Playful

That said, the holidays are ideal for making some time to have simple fun with your children -- play a game, bake some cookies, turn up the holiday tunes or check out the decorations around town. If extended family is visiting, try to make an effort for multiple generations to have fun together. Time-honored favorites like a gift exchange of silly presents or charades are great for getting cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents involved and are sure to create lots of laughs and memories. Or get outside before or after a holiday meal with a family walk through the neighborhood or an informal game of catch, basketball, soccer, football -- whichever is a family favorite.

So no matter what is under your family's Christmas tree or at your Hanukkah celebration this year, please make room for play. When children play, they are developing imagination and creativity in a way that technology-driven entertainment or even formal education often do not. Allowing kids the unstructured free playtime they need is one of the greatest gifts parents can give this holiday season.