How family holidays help with children's mental and emotional development
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According to research, experiential gifts (like travelling) have more of an impact on a child’s mental development than material gifts. Holidays are not only fun and relaxing, they also help your child become smarter, build a stronger emotional foundation, and allows them to explore their natural curiosity.

Cindy Chan, Assistant Professor in U of T Scarborough’s Department of Management and the Rotman School of Management, found that experiential gifts are more effective because they are more socially connecting and emotionally evocative.

“The reason experiential gifts are more socially connecting is that they tend to be more emotionally evocative. An experiential gift elicits a strong emotional response when a recipient consumes it,  like the fear and awe of a safari adventure, the excitement of a rock concert, or the calmness of a spa, and is more intensely emotional than a material possession,” said Chan, an expert on consumer relationships.

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Childhood memories build an emotional foundation that’s important later in life when they deal with issues that make them sad, stressed, anxious or worried. Child psychotherapist Dr Margot Sunderland explains that positive memories serve as “anchors” that provide children with comfort when life takes an unexpected turn. Also, they help kids regulate stress, build concentration, and increase their attention span.

Dr Sunderland also explained how children can exercise two genetically ingrained systems in the brain’s limbic area on holiday which often goes “unexercised” at home. These are called the ‘play system’ and the ‘seeking system’, first discovered by a world-leading neuroscientist at Washington State University, Professor Jaak Panksepp. 

Family holiday experiences activate these systems in your child’s brain (and yours, too!), releasing and triggering feel-good chemicals such as opioids, dopamine and oxycotin. These chemicals reduce stress levels and activate warm and loving feelings.

Of course, these feelings don’t last forever, so what happens when the holiday is over and you’re back to the grind? Panksepp says these systems are in fact like muscles, meaning the more you use them, the more they become part of your personality.

So when you take your child on an enriching holiday, you’re supporting their seeking system when you explore new surroundings, as well as their play drive, which translates in adulthood to the capacity and ability to develop and play with ideas – an important aspect of several professions and personal development.

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These experiences also turn on the genetic expression of key brain fertilizers in the frontal lobes, according to Dr. Sunderland, enhancing executive functions like stress regulation, attention, concentration, good planning, and the ability to learn, and also improving physical and mental health.

She said, “The brain fertilizers triggered in enriched environments are also associated with higher IQ in children. So, spend time exploring together in a new space, and you’re making your child smarter.”

It doesn’t matter where you take them on holiday since you’ll be building happy memories no matter where you go. Think back to your childhood and you will recall a particular holiday that may not have been a fancy trip to Disneyland or Paris, but still left you with fond memories. It may have been as simple as going out for ice-cream with your grandparents or swimming in a hotel pool. If money is tight, you can still reap the benefits of family holidays by choosing a trip that suits your budget.

But research shows that being in nature improves and increases a child’s attention and concentration levels. In fact, playing in nature has been found to be as effective as medication for children with ADHD. So if your child struggles with concentration, taking regular trips out in nature could really help them.

Have you got any family holidays on next year’s agenda? If not, plan a trip soon and nurture your child’s mental development!

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