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Beyond Thanksgiving: 9 Ways to Cultivate Gratitude in our Families

Thanksgiving presents families with wonderful opportunities to express gratitude. The traditional Thanksgiving meal offers a pause from the everyday and a rare chance to gather with the express purpose of giving thanks. But what happens when Thanksgiving is over? In the U.S., the holiday season officially begins, and with it often comes a great deal of pressure and stress. We mean well, of course. We yearn to create the perfect holiday for our families, complete with a plethora of gifts. But at what price? Gratitude? Meaning? Joy? Much of that is forgotten soon after the turkey has cooled.

How do we cultivate a spirit of gratitude in our families, during the holidays and year-round, and ensure that it is not just something we proclaim during Thanksgiving?

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What is Gratitude and How Does it Benefit Us?

It might help to take a step back to explore gratitude and its benefits. The Greater Good Science Center defines gratitude as having two components. The first is an affirmation of the gifts and benefits we have received. The second is an acknowledgement that the sources of those gifts exist outside of ourselves, that we have benefited from other people—or even higher powers, if that fits your belief system.

That second part is key, say the folks at Greater Good, because its social component heightens meaningful connections with others and stimulates our circuits for pleasure and reward. It also helps with entitlement issues by reinforcing to kids that happiness is a gift from others, rather than an inherent birthright.

People of all ages who practice gratitude consistently report a range of physical, psychological and social benefits, from stronger immune systems and lower blood pressure to more joy, optimism and compassion, and less loneliness. Cultivating gratitude, and the happiness that results, is a skill we can teach our children.

9 Ways to Cultivate Gratitude

Keep a gratitude journal

The simple act of recording our gratitude in writing has been linked to benefits such as better sleep, fewer symptoms of illness, and more happiness for both adults and children. Have family members keep individual gratitude journals, or keep a list as a family. Write 3-5 short items weekly, naming the things you are grateful for. One exercise is to imagine what life would be like without those components. According to the Greater Good Science Center, journaling 1-2 times a week is actually more powerful than journaling daily. Focusing gratitude on people is more effective than focusing it on things. You may want to start journals on New Year’s Day and try to write in them throughout the year.

Practice expressing gratitude

Journaling won’t work for your family? Take time before or during meals to share things you are grateful for. The items can be profound or trivial. As with journaling, sharing needn’t occur every day. The important thing is that kids get into the habit of expressing gratitude regularly. Parents can model gratitude by letting other family members know that they are grateful for them and their specific actions.

Mornings and bedtimes also present abundant opportunities to express gratitude. Have young children greet the day by thanking the sun for rising, the air we breathe, the beautiful trees, and their family members, teachers or neighbors. You may wish to sing a thankful “Good Morning” song (see below). Many parents use bedtime as a quiet time for cuddling and asking children to name three things they’re grateful for.

Seeking another way to help kids express gratitude for others? See below for a fun gratitude craft.

Slow down and create family time

Studies show that play time, down time and family time are vital to kids’ and families’ well-being, benefiting every area of physical, psychological and emotional health.  Children who have unstructured time and play are more creative, collaborative, flexible, self-aware and calm. Families who have unstructured time and play are joyful and close. Slowing allows families to savor the positive feelings and events that are a hallmark of gratitude.

At holiday time and throughout the year, try to leave some down time in the schedule. That might mean reducing the number of activities each family member participates in, or turning down the occasional invitation.  It may take practice to put the same value on “down time” that we do on organized, goal-oriented activity. It may be uncomfortable at first to be idle. If you have to schedule this time in a calendar, do so.

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Be a tourist in your town

Have you ever noticed how tourists are usually delighted? Granted, they’re on vacation together and they have come to their destination to have fun. But they also see everything with fresh eyes. Even if you’ve lived somewhere your whole life, there may be new things to see or do if you decide to do so like a tourist. This is a particularly wonderful activity and mindset for school breaks, when kids are home. As a bonus, there are often special holiday events and activities, like decorated store windows and homes, skating rinks, free music performances, and other things that are joyful, without impacting the family budget.

Find adventure in your daily rounds

At any time of year, you can cultivate gratitude and stimulate positive social emotions by helping your kids see daily life as an adventure. Get up early one day and visit local businesses – watch produce and eggs get delivered to markets and restaurants, see bakers bake bagels and decorate cakes. Or take a walk and stop and say hello to neighbors, shopkeepers, mail carriers and others who are on their own daily rounds. Feeling a part of the neighborhood and community are very important to children’s senses of security and feelings of gratitude.

Along with thanks .. giving

Service is a tremendously enriching act, for ourselves and for others. Studies show that people who engage in “pro-social spending” are measurably happier than those who do not.  It’s not difficult to find an agency, event or individual in your area who would welcome your help, whether for one time or on an ongoing basis. Many people especially need our help over the holidays with meal preparation and delivery, toy and book drives, companionship, and other needs. Jewish Family and Children’s Services offers many volunteer opportunities for individuals and families.

Create a culture of giving in your family

Instead of giving traditional gifts, consider gifting in a recipient’s name to a non-profit or other organization. Research organizations as a family and involve your kids in choosing the most worthy and meaningful to them. Have your kids cull their rooms regularly for toys and clothing that can be donated to someone less fortunate, or have kids request that birthday party guests bring new or used toys or books for donation to the charity of his/her choice, and then deliver those items together. Consider setting aside a portion of your children’s allowances or gift money and having them choose a recipient for a donation.

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Get outdoors

At any time of year, and especially in winter, outdoor time tends to be low on many family’s priority lists. It shouldn’t be. Research shows that nature play has been linked to improved imagination, cooperation, academic achievement, and numerous aspects of physical and psychological health. Nature also provides a terrific setting in which to slow our paces and have new and meaningful experiences that can enhance family bonds, as well as the feelings of awe and wonder that lead to increased gratitude and inner peace.

Celebrate the winter solstice

The winter solstice (December 21 this year) provides a special opportunity to slow down, count our blessings, and experience the turning of the seasons during the hectic holiday time. Mark the year’s longest night by taking a walk, preparing a special meal or having a family game night. Celebrate the sun’s return by eating oranges or hollowing out the center of an orange and placing a tealight or candle inside. If you have leftover Hanukkah gelt or other chocolate coins, place them in bags and surprise children with them. Take a family walk on December 22 to greet the return of longer days.

Crafts and Songs

Appreciation “recipe” for a special person

This craft helps kids convey a special relationship and feelings in a fun, creative way. Help your child create a recipe for a “marvelous mom” or a “delightful dad” or a “fabulous friend” or any other combination using an adjective and the person’s name or role.

You’ll need:
• Piece of construction paper or poster board
• Markers and crayons or colored pencils
• Ruler

Think about the attributes of the recipient that make him or her special.

Write a heading on the paper: Recipe for a (fabulous friend or other).

Using a ruler, draw six or more lines on which to write your various ingredients.

Write the “ingredients” for the person, in recipe terms, such as “6 cups kindness,” “5 tablespoons love,” or whatever else you can think of.

Leave space at the bottom to write out your instructions, also using recipe terms, like mix, add, fold, blend, and so on.

Decorate the rest of the paper, as desired.

My daughter did this wonderful project with her fourth grade class. Here is her “recipe”:

Good Morning song (traditional Waldorf verse and movements)

Good morning dear Earth (lower hands toward floor)

Good morning dear Sun (raise arms into the air)

Good morning dear stones (place hands one atop the other)

And the plants, every one (open out hands, as if blossoming)

Good morning dear bees (move hand around in flying motion)

And the birds in the trees (move fingers like fluttering wings)

Good morning to you (hands out to others)

And good morning to me! (hands across own chest)

Susan Sachs Lipman (Suz) is the author of Fed Up with Frenzy: Slow Parenting in a Fast-Moving World, which grew out of her blog, Slow Family Online. Slow Parenting and the book were named a 2012 Top 10 Parenting Trend by TIME Magazine. Suz has written for the New York Times’ Motherlode blog, the Christian Science Monitor’s Modern Parenthood blog, and many other outlets. She is the Social Media Director for Parents Place, as well as the Children & Nature Network and Bookboard digital children’s library.


 

Honor Your Family With Fun Gratitude Crafts

When many of us count our blessings, we often start with our own families. After all, those in our immediate and extended family are usually the people we are with the most, through small moments and larger triumphs, and those who mean the most to us. Celebrating family with fun crafts allows us to find expression for our gratitude and can allow family members to feel uniquely appreciated. These crafts can also be a way to pass on family lore, while providing children with a fuller sense of who they are and their place in their family and in the global community.

Create an Appreciation “Recipe” for a Mom or Another Special Person

I got this lovely idea from my my daughter’s  4th grade teacher, D. J. Mitchell. It’s very easy and fun to do, and it conveys a special relationship and feelings that may be otherwise hard to articulate. Help your child create a recipe for a “marvelous mom” or a “delightful dad” or a “fabulous friend” or any other combination using an adjective and the person’s name or role.

You’ll need:
• Piece of construction paper or poster board
• Markers and crayons or colored pencils
• Ruler

Think about the attributes of the recipient that make him or her special.

Write a heading on the paper: Recipe for a (fabulous friend or other).

Using a ruler, draw six or more lines on which to write your various ingredients.

Write the “ingredients” for the person, in recipe terms, such as “6 cups kindness,” “5 tablespoons love,” or whatever else you can think of.

Leave space at the bottom to write out your instructions, also using recipe terms, like mix, add, fold, blend, and so on.

Decorate the rest of the paper, as desired.

Here is Anna’s “recipe”:

Make a Personal or Family Crest or Coat of Arms

Since the seventh century in Japan and the twelfth century in Europe, families, individuals, countries, states, schools, knights, clergy, and others have used decorative and distinctive coats of arms, or family crests, to identify themselves or their clans. It’s a wonderful tradition that can be adapted in a lighthearted way to proclaim or discover individual or family identities and interests.

You’ll need:
• Paper
• Colored pencils, crayons, markers, paints, or other drawing
implements
• Ribbons, scrap paper and fabric, glitter, and other decorative
items, as desired
• School or craft glue
• Frame, optional

Draw the outline of a shield shape, which resembles a pointed shovel.

Draw lines inside of the shield to divide it into various regions. It is common for crests to have 4-6 sections. You may want to give each family member a section.

Inside each section, draw or write the name of one or more things that you enjoy doing or that you like about yourself or your family. If you’d like, leave a space inside the crest, or below it, to write the family name.

Color and decorate the items and the background of the crest. Most crests are elaborate, with lots of decorative items and flourishes.

Frame or display your unique crest.

If you’d like, try this coat of arms template.

 

You might also like:
Make an Altar to Honor Ancestors for Dia de Los Muertos, Day of the Dead

Giving Thanks: Express Gratitude with Crafts, Food, Fun and Contemplation

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