21/12/2012 06:34 GMT | Updated 19/02/2013 05:12 GMT

Spend Less and Play More This Christmas


You don't need me to tell you that economically things are very tight right now. We're all being squeezed - and that was before Christmas reared its seasonal head. For many this year, tightening the belts is not just an abstract novelty but a necessity. But in some ways, this will be a blessing in disguise. The motto this season has to be: spend less, play more.

The reason I say this is because we need to get kids of all ages (and that means you grown-ups, too) back into the realm of imaginative play. Play is a crucial life experience and a vital part of human development. For kids, some playful activities help them develop their imagination. Some games increase their vocabulary. Some help them acquire motor skills, like holding things or opening and closing things. Other playful activities encourage children to be less bossy or to listen to others.

And this ought not to change as we grow up. It's vital to our well-being that we build 'play time' into our lives. And it doesn't have to cost money. Women getting together one afternoon to sample all the cosmetics testers at the beauty departments of stores are tapping into their inner child. Men watching football in a park together are bonding and imagining what they would do differently. We are, after all, group creatures, and there are plenty of low-cost activities (carol-singing? Robin-spotting? Holly picking? Making Christmas decorations?) which we can do with friends or family and which therefore nourish us psychologically.

Now I don't want to sound like Scrooge in the run up to Christmas. Affordable treats (a new lip gloss, some fancy chocolate) nourish our psyche and remind us that we and our loved ones are worth treating. Life is always about balance and it's nice to believe that if there's one time of year when we might push the economic boat out it would be Christmas. But the importance of play provides the rationale for tapping into something more vital to the well-being of all ages than money can ever be.

None of us really need gadgets or batteries or remote controls to feed our minds or to relax. This is because imagination thrives more on unstructured than structured play. How many kids' birthday parties have you gone to where the play has moved on from the structured games of pass-the-parcel to more open-ended play such as dressing up, or hide n' seek? This is because kids of all ages are hungry for mental stimulation. And remember: those of us who can entertain ourselves through imagination (making up stories about people on the bus, wondering where that plane in the sky is going to) will acquire a skill which will see us into old age when other resources (such as health, strength, co-ordination) may limit activities of pleasure.

The key this season is to make the mental shift. It's one thing to believe you're denying yourself things because you know you can't afford it. That way misery and frustration lies. It's quite another thing to say to you and your family: ok, this year, we're going to tap into our inner child and make this a Playful Christmas. Cover yourself in glitter, schedule Charades for after Christmas lunch, deliver mince-pies to the local old-people's home or women's refuge, walk in the snow (if we get it). Play needs to continue throughout our lives, not least because we all benefit. It's the greatest gift you'll give this season.

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