Holidays Are Good for Children's Brain Development

CC BY 2.0. Donnie Ray Jones -- Girls jump in ocean waves

Why relaxed, unscheduled playtime and exploration during holidays is actually better for young brains than cramming full of activities and information.

Today kicks off the first day of March Break in Ontario. Kids have a week off school and some parents – myself included – may be wondering how on earth they will keep the kids occupied for five days in a row, plus another weekend. But before you rush out to enroll your little ones in art camp, museum camp, hockey camp, Lego camp, theatre camp, or whatever specialized camp sparks their interest these days, take a step back and think about this: Idleness is good.

You know that fabulous feeling you get when you’re on holiday? That total sense of relaxation when you’ve taken a vacation and have nothing else to worry about except choosing which trail you’re going to hike, which beach you’re going to lie on, or which restaurant you’ll eat at that night? Kids feel it, too.

Kids need holidays desperately. They need a break from their overscheduled, extra-curricular-laden lives. Their brains crave the many benefits that come from laid-back holiday time.

In an article called “The science behind how holidays make your child happier and smarter,” child psychotherapist Dr. Margot Sunderland explains how holidays can actually advance brain development. Playing and exploring with children in new settings activates the ingrained “play” and “seek” systems in the brain, which “trigger well-being neurochemicals including opioids, oxytocin and dopamine, [and] reduce stress and activate warm, generous feelings towards each other and a lovely sense of ‘all is well in the world’.” This can have lasting benefits:

“When taking your child on a family holiday, 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 to the successful entrepreneur, for example.”

Spending time outdoors can calm a child, lower blood pressure, improve focus and concentration skills, as well as mood. Sunderland writes that green-play settings have been found to be as effective for behavior control as ADHD medicine.

Other research has shown that spending holiday time in an ‘enriched’ setting – defined as offering new experiences that are rich in sensory, social, physical, and cognitive interactions – can actually “turn on the genetic expression of key ‘brain fertilizers’ in the frontal lobes, enhancing executive functions such as stress regulation, attention, concentration, good planning and ability to learn, also improving physical and mental health.” These brain fertilizers are linked to higher IQ in children.

All of this is to say, don’t stress out about scheduling your child’s March Break to the max. Nor do you need to hop on a plane to head south for a truly relaxing experience. Just letting kids be, letting them play and rest and explore within their own neighborhood and backyard, will go a long ways toward refueling them psychologically for the remaining months of school.