VICENZA, Italy (November 30, 2018) -- As the days get shorter and the air crisper, we march closer and closer to the holiday season. And of course, with that comes -- depending on your point of view -- the much dreaded, or intensely longed for, school break.

Those two weeks off from school can be a much-needed pause for children, just as the time can be a source of anxiety for parents struggling to figure out how to keep everyone sane now that the family is suddenly spending a lot more time together. Never fear, parents. There are ways to ensure that everyone in the family has a happy and peaceful break that's both restful and stimulating at the same time.

Take a breather. Remember that it's a break; it's important to let children relax and recharge. But this is a great opportunity for you, too: Take the time to let everyone in the family stop and relax for a moment. For two weeks the usual rush to get to school and then complete homework, get to afternoon activities, eat dinner, prepare for the following day, and get to bed (repeat ad nauseam) can be a welcome break for parents as well. Embrace it. Slow down the pace and take some time to do something different.

Plan your days, but do so gently. Children of all ages need unstructured free time, so make sure they get a good dose of open unfilled space. That's when they have the best opportunities for getting creative. But, children can also benefit from some planned activities. Make it easy on yourself, make it fun, and keep the focus on spending good family time together to create and strengthen bonds and positive relationships.

Take a trip. How lucky are we to be in one of the most sought-after vacation destinations in the world? Take advantage of being in this unique and spectacular place. Enlist the help of your children to decide where to focus your travel plans. Kids like art? Architecture? History? Music? Food? You're in luck! Italy's got them all. But there are also more obscure experiences that Italy, and the surrounding areas, can offer to anyone with a little creativity and a will to look for them.
Though you certainly can go forth and explore faraway lands, but you don't have to stray too far afield for some great fun. There are plenty of things to experience in a day trip, too. Check out where Outdoor Recreation is going: https://italy.armymwr.com/programs/outdoor-recreation.

Make something. Give everyone something tangible to work on to see a project through from start to finish. Small children can do easy art projects with materials you have lying around the house. Older children can get into maker-and-tinkerer contraptions. You don't have to be super crafty to get children involved in making something, and the final product doesn't have to be Pinterest worthy. The goal is to help kids feel satisfaction from having something to hold in their hands that they made. And if you do it together as a family, even better! Take a look out our Vicenza Crafts Center schedule for some ideas: https://www.facebook.com/groups/EderleArtCenter/.

Take a tech break. Sure, it's tempting to let children veg out in front a screen for hours on end. Though a well-chosen tablet game here and an age-appropriate movie there isn't going to harm anyone, screen time can easily get out of hand. Consider instituting a moratorium on screens for an hour, an afternoon, a day, or even for the whole winter break. It might be hard at first, but you may find yourself amazed at the remarkable things that happen, and the connections you create and nurture with your children, when they aren't glued to a screen.

Create a family tree. The holidays are a great time to strengthen connections to family. Younger children and older children alike may be fascinated to learn more about their roots. Help them create as much of a family tree as you can, and then enlist far-flung relatives to flesh it out. As part of the effort, children can also dive into a family history project by interviewing relatives about their lives and experiences. The Great Thanksgiving Listen, a national movement headed by StoryCorps has some great resources for putting together a family interview at any time of the year. See https://storycorps.org/participate/the-great-thanksgiving-listen/ for more information.

Family book club. Read a book -- or books -- individually or together, depending on age and reading ability. Then, get together and talk about what you read. Ask your children thoughtful, open questions about the themes from the books and share your own thoughts and impressions. If you let older children choose the books, you'll get the chance to learn more about what interests them and enter a bit into their world.

Focus on helping others. The holidays are a great time for community service. There are lots of ways to fill their break with altruistic activities. Help them choose something nice to do for others during the break, whether it's choose which of their toys they want to donate, serve food at a soup kitchen, do something nice for a neighbor or a friend, or donate their allowance to charity.

With some handy tools in your toolkit and just a pinch of advanced planning, the winter school break can turn into one of your favorite family times of the year. And when the going gets tough, remember that these special family moments are the experiences that you'll miss when the little ones are grown and gone. Cherish them! (VanderBorght is the Parent/Child Educator and Emergency Placement Care Coordinator for the Family Advocacy Program, U.S. Army Garrison Italy.)