You may have heard it on the news or morning talk shows: Have dinner together as a family often. There’s even a national initiative, Family Day, that reminds parents “what your kids really want at the dinner table is you.”
Studies have found that kids who have frequent family dinners are less likely to use alcohol, tobacco, or drugs.
But it’s not just about the food, say experts: it’s about the connection. Whether you’re eating dinner, going for a nature walk, or holding a family karaoke night, spending time together builds healthy families and healthy kids.
“If you grew up in a healthy family that did these things, it makes intuitive sense to you: this is what glues families together,” says Meg Cox, author of The Book of New Family Traditions: How to Create Great Rituals for Holidays & Everyday. “It’s about a sense of connection, of being loved, a sense of identity and security that runs very deep.”
What family activities can you do with your kids to build those essential connections? The sky’s the limit! To get started with some fun family activities, try these tips from Cox and Lawrence Cohen, PhD, clinical psychologist and author of Playful Parenting.
Family Fun With Food
Play “conversation in a jar" (or basket, or bin). Keep a container on the dinner table with blank slips of paper, and whenever you think of a cool question, write it down and toss it in. Some examples from Cox: “What’s something you can do better than your parents?” “If there were a holiday named after you, how would people celebrate it?” “Make up a nickname for everyone at the table -- nothing mean!” Once a week, use some of the questions in the basket to spark conversations at dinner.
Shake it up. Every so often, have a wacky family dinner night. “Sometimes we’ll eat with the big serving utensils, use serving platters instead of plates, and drink out of big pitchers instead of cups,” says Cohen. Or you can put food coloring in everything and make goofy food. Or just serve dinner as a picnic, on a blanket in the living room or playroom.
Have a “reading dinner.” Choose a book and read aloud while you eat. If your kids are old enough, they can take a turn. “I think the reason my kids ate all their vegetables when they were younger is that the rule was, you have to keep eating if I’m going to read!” says Cox.
Enjoy special food outings. Have a regular, simple ritual, like going for ice cream after dinner once a week, or walking to the farmer’s market on Saturday morning.
Cook together as a family. Even the youngest child can help in the kitchen by pouring or stirring. “Just remember, it’s about the process, not getting to the outcome,” says Cohen. “It’ll probably take you longer to make the cookies than if you made them yourself, and the kitchen will get a lot messier. But if you tell them to stop and let you do it because they’re making a mess, you’ve blown it. It’s about time together.”
Invite friends to a monthly “soup night.” This is about more than just your family -- it’s about connecting with a community of friends. On soup night -- maybe the first Saturday of every month? -- make a huge pot of chili or stew and let it be known that friends are welcome to drop by with a bottle of wine or a loaf of bread. “Having things like that, that sense of community, lets kids grow up in a place where they feel safe,” says Cox. “They know there are other adults who will look after them.”
Family Exercise and Outdoor Play
Introduce your child to a sport you love. Whether it’s yoga or ice skating, fishing or biking, almost no child is too young to be at least a small part of your favorite activity. “If it’s something the parent loves, the parent’s enthusiasm will make it fun,” says Cohen.
Go for family walks together. If you think your child will be bored with a simple walk, try Cox’s trick: storytelling walks. “We’d make up stories together -- for example, after the movie ‘Toy Story,’ we’d imagine what our sons’ toys would do while we were gone,” she says. “We’d make up elaborate scenarios about which one would get lost, which ones would help find him, and so on.”
Make up indoor versions of outdoor games. “Thank goodness we never destroyed anything, but we did do indoor soccer in the front hall,” Cox says.
Family Music, Games, and Comfort
Have regular jam sessions. One family periodically Evites their daughters’ friends for a Sunday-morning music fest. The parents come too, but they are under strict instructions that they must dance, sing, and act silly -- no audience members allowed. These parents are musicians, but you don’t have to be. Just cue up some reggae, zydeco or disco, hand out tambourines and maracas, and go to it!
Freeze dance. Just turn on your favorite music -- whether it’s the Grateful Dead, Beyonce, or some one-hit wonder, -- and dance. Then when you stop the music, everyone has to freeze. “It’s not a competition, nobody’s ‘out,’” says Cohen. “It’s just really fun to do together. It’s kind of a miracle drug.”
Make up your own TV endings. Watch five minutes of your favorite TV show, then turn off the TV and make up the ending. Act it out as a play with your kids’ dolls and stuffed animals.
Love your library. Regular trips to the library as a family, for story hour or just to pick out an exciting new story, can build great bonds over books. Ask your child to pick out a book he thinks you should read!
Create a comfort ritual for tough days. Cox knew a family who had what they called the “poor sweet baby” blanket. “It was this worn old blanket that they kept in a closet. When Dad didn’t get a promotion or a child got picked on at school, everyone in the family would wrap him in the blanket and stand together around him, saying things like ‘Oh, you poor sweet baby, we love you.’"
Time spent together can remedy a lot of problems, says Cohen. He recalls one family who was about to send their troubled daughter to him for counseling. She’d caused trouble at home and in school.
“Then… the father started walking the girl to school twice a week instead of putting her on the bus. A couple of weeks later they called and cancelled their appointment with me, because things were going great,” he says. “The dad was getting to spend time with the daughter and talk to her when they were both fresh and full of energy. It filled her up, made her school day different, and made coming home different. These little changes really do make a big difference.”