Festive ideas outside the box for this Christmas

Prepare for a different type of Christmas, full of experiences and fun for children, without the usual focus on gifts.

Cookery is just one of the ways that you liven up Christmas with your children, and encourage them to get creative, while foregoing the traditional pile-up of presents. Svetikd
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I’m rethinking the gifts-under-the-tree paradigm. The reason I’m changing my approach to presents for my children has to do with the nature of memory.

When I think back to holidays when I was a child, I remember sitting around the living room with my parents and siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles and family friends, often eating three types of desserts at once, everyone talking over one other. Holidays were one of the crucial times when I collected my family’s history, where I learnt about what life was like for my parents and grandparents when they were children, and their grandparents before that. These memories are assembled thanks to the foods that tell our particular migration story: brisket that pulls apart into strings, stuffed cabbage, noodle kugel, rugelach and babka that followed the relatives who came to United States one by one to escape persecution and poverty in Russia.

What I can’t remember, from the various holiday traditions we observed, is what I got – dolls, books, bicycles and board games. There was a stuffed Snoopy who figured prominently in my pretend games when I was 8, but I can’t recall the moment of unwrapping.

What we remember best, the last 100 years of brain research confirms, are emotionally charged events. The stronger the emotion, the stronger the memory, which is why my childhood montage of meals and conversations and lights and snowy afternoons is much clearer than any montage of gifts I was given.

So this year, in addition to a few toys that will either break or be forgotten by Valentine’s Day, I want to give my children something more memorable: experiences that we can share, trips that shake up the daily routines, lessons that broaden their world.

There are many non-toy gifts that aren’t experiences – tools and clothes and books and magazine subscriptions and sports equipment – but this is my focus. Chosen carefully, these should confirm that we really listen when our children talk, that we understand their interests and desires.

There are many ways to break down the options – adventure, travel, one-time events – but to simplify, these experiences fall into two categories: experiences that your child wants to do and those that you can do together.

Obviously, the gift can’t be something that they would ordinarily do. So where a piano lesson might be part of the weekly routine, a DJ session would be something extra special.

The individual experience acknowledges a child’s character. It’s for an interest that isn’t shared, such as photography, jewellery-making, creating video games, surfing, horse-riding, skiing, rock climbing, or making comics (see box for more ideas).

Experiences that you can do together focus on the child’s interests. While biking might be a parent-driven activity, playing Shopkins is something my daughter would choose.

Here are some ideas, most of which cost next to nothing, and can be given in the form of handmade or computer-printed coupons. For example, for a cooking coupon, you can tie the certificate to a wooden spoon.

• Favourite breakfast. This is a kid special: banana-and-­chocolate-chip pancakes with whipped cream. No nutritional advice allowed.

• Role-reversal: child as teacher. Give your child 30 minutes to teach you how to ride a hoverboard or make loom bands.

• Free pass to get out of one chore.

• Cook a dish of the child’s choice. Maybe you’ll end up with a KitKat cake, or a cheeseburger stacked extra high.

• Sew a set of clothes for a favourite doll. My son enjoys this just as much as my daughter, and it’s the kind of thing I always mean to do, but rarely make time for. Meanwhile, both children learn valuable sewing skills.

• Movie and popcorn night; the child picks the movie that you watch.

• Stay up an hour after ­bedtime.

• Tickets to a favourite musician in concert. Note: One ­Direction are on hiatus. Sob.

• The ultimate show of selflessness: 30 minutes of playing or watching your child’s favourite video games, Vines (six-second-long looping video clips from www.vine.co) or apps.

It’s not just parents who want this kind of a holiday. One little girl whose parents are often travelling for work told me recently that what she really wants for Christmas is more family time. This year, I hope to generate more memories and less trash. Wish me luck.

Five exciting experiences for your child:

For the tech innovator

Taking Lego and Minecraft to the next level, Makers Builders in Al Quoz teaches kids how to code, and make robots move in after-school classes and holiday camps. In doing so, they also give your child a peer group with similar interests.

Ages 7 to 18. Dh1,100 to Dh1,450 for a term; Dh1,400 for holiday camp. Visit www.makersbuilders.com

For the desert noisemaker

When the Moon is full, gather in a drum circle surrounded by sand dunes. Your child will learn basic rhythmic technique in an evening that will resonate with her innate connection to nature and music.

Barbecue dinner and drumming, adults Dh250; children ages 6-16 Dh100; children 5 and under free. Arrive from 6.30pm. Visit www.dubaidrums.com/full-moon-desert-drumming-event.html

For the mixer and scratcher

If your child talks about “the bass dropping” or tries to compose their own songs, they might enjoy learning to DJ and breaking down the elements of a song. Dubai DJ Academy teaches technique, as well as exposing them to realities of the profession.

Dh200 for a one-hour introductory tour; Dh3,900 for a 15-hour course. Visit www.dj-academy.ae

For the kitchen alchemist

This cooking session at the French bakery Pascal Tepper in Abu Dhabi and Dubai is more technical than many of the others around town. Children learn how to bake Viennoiseries, pastries and bread. Plus, parents can have brunch while the kids are in the kitchen.

Fridays, 11am to 4pm, adults Dh99, children Dh69. Visit www.pascaltepperfrenchbakery.com

For the underwater explorer

The UAE is an ideal place to develop a love of underwater exploration. Al Boom Diving offers a course of five lessons in a swimming pool that teaches the basic skills of diving. Any child over 8 who is confident in the water can take part.

Dh1,400 for a package of five lessons. Visit www.alboomdiving.com


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