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From the Field to your Home: Ideas for Family Connection During the Holidays

Open Sky Family Services Team

We recently asked our Family Services Team members to share their best tips and ideas for having meaningful conversations with family members this Thanksgiving. Staff contributors to this article have extensive experience in the field, working with students and families. Whether you’re celebrating Thanksgiving via Zoom or with the family members in your household, we hope these ideas prompt new ways of communicating and connecting throughout the holiday season.

Ideas for connection during the holidays



Austin Presas, Family Services Manager

Sharing “Gratefuls” before dinner is one of the most beautiful and straightforward practices that can be transferred from the field to your home. It’s amazing to hear what new students at Open Sky share when they have the opportunity to express their “Gratefuls.” Often, they are grateful for “pizza and friends,” but over time, they begin to share they are grateful for “family, for vulnerability, for always having enough food, to sleep under shooting stars, for growth, for the desert, for love, and simply to be alive.” When we take time to notice and reflect on what we are grateful for, we can fully experience more positive emotions and stop taking the simple joys in life for granted. I have taken this practice with me in my daily life when sharing meals with loved ones and am constantly reminded of how important it is to be grateful.


Level 2 Conversations

Ben List, Transition Mentor

In the field, we talk about the different “levels” of conversation.

Level 1: informational (e.g., Where are you from? What do you like to do for fun?)

Level 2: sharing emotions, viewpoints, and subjective experiences (e.g., If you were an animal, what would you be, and why? How is your relationship with your family?)

Level 3: relational, focusing on what’s happening in the moment, feedback, and reflection.

Guides will often encourage level 2 conversations during dinner or hikes with students. It helps people to feel seen and build connections. One of my favorite Level 2 topics is: if money weren’t an object, how would you choose to live your life? These types of questions spark interesting conversation, helping families to relate on a variety of levels.


Kid’s Choice!

Grant Helmus, Transition Mentor 

I love giving the dinner topic to a different student for each night of the week. I share with students they can present ANY question or topic for discussion for that particular meal. This effectively draws students in as they contemplate an interesting question or topic. No matter what the question or topic, we are almost always able to create a focused, therapeutic discussion from it. This can be meaningful for families at home, as well. The questions and topics students come up with are often incredible! One of my favorite student questions, “If you could have the undisputed, absolute answer to one question, what question would you ask?”


Something you’ve Learned about Yourself

Grant Helmus, Transition Mentor

Another favorite conversation topic is to ask students to share one thing they’ve learned about themselves after a hard day. Students often begin by focusing on the negative and what they did not do well. The conversation evolves into sharing the positives and what they did well despite the challenges and how that makes them feel. As a guide, it also gives us some great insight in terms of working with the student. It also helps students prepare for the next challenging day. They remember thoughts that come up when they’re experiencing a challenge and feeling a sense of pride as they reflect on overcoming challenges in the past.

As a family at Thanksgiving, try having each family member share something they’ve learned that day, that week, or even this year as a whole. It opens up a rich conversation about growth, grit, and self-compassion.


Rose, Thorn, and Bud

Amy Hartline, Associate Therapist & Training and Development Director

Last year while leading a Family Quest, we sat around the fire at the end of the day, tired and quiet. As we tossed some logs on the flames and finished up our dinner, a staff member suggested that we finish up our day by having a simple conversation called “Rose, Thorn, and Bud.” Each member of the family took turns sharing the following:

Rose: highlight of the day

Thorn: low point of the day

Bud: something they are looking forward to.

When the family finished, their daughter teared up. She shared that she had never just sat down with her family like this to have an intentional conversation, simply for the sake of connection. Her father then responded that he had participated in this activity years ago when he was a young man at summer camp. He had never considered that his family would be open to connecting through an activity like this. Everyone agreed that this type of connection and time together was what each of them had been craving but couldn’t quite articulate. Rose, Thorn, Bud became an evening ritual for this family that they continued to practice long after their time with Open Sky.


JJ Simms, Family Care Coordinator Open SkyAcknowledging Challenges and Related Core Values

JJ Simms, Lead Family Care Coordinator

During Thanksgivings in the field, I often ask students:

  • How has family togetherness been important to you in past holidays?
  • What core value does it draw upon?
  • How can you embody that core value for Thanksgiving in the wilderness?
  • What would you change about how you’ve shown up for that value in past Thanksgivings?
  • How will you do it today?
  • How will you do it with your family next year?

These could apply well to families who aren’t able to be together this Thanksgiving due to COVID-19 or other reasons. Ask each other these questions throughout the week or on a family phone call on Thursday. In the sadness of being apart during the holidays, you can connect over values, over memories or hopes, and over ways to make the holidays meaningful.


Affirmations and Admirations

Matthew Krugh, Family Services Director

Put each person’s name in a hat and draw one. (For families gathering virtually, use a tool like!) Take a nature walk during the day and spend five or ten minutes of your walk in silence, quietly contemplating respects, affirmations, admirations, and compliments for the loved one whose name you drew. Then, create a poem based on these affirmations. It can be a simple Haiku, something more free form, or a few lines of words that describe that person. Don’t pressure yourself with the structure; let it be from the heart! It can be both deep and lighthearted. Younger kids can take a sketch pad and draw some doodles or notes. Later on, around the table, by the fireplace, or on a video call, share your poems with each other.

I have led families in this exercise in the field during Family Quest and have done this exercise with my own family. It brings the qualities and characteristics of wilderness therapy into the home by involving nature, physicality, quietness, and contemplation. It pulls from an exercise we do during Family Quest called “The 4 R’s” (Respects, Regrets, Resentments, and Requests) by focusing on the Respects. This is an excellent way to bond, connect, and have a little creative fun!

Family connection during the holidays

Additional Resources…

Are you interested in learning more skills and ideas for connection within your family during the holidays? Check out these blogs and podcast episodes from other members of our team!

Open Sky Blog

Purposefully Present: Three Resources for Becoming Centered

Family Connection in the Digital Age: Tips for Reconnecting

10 Tips for Strengthening Family Relationships

From Distant to Connected: Effective Communication Strategies to Improve Parent-Child Relationships

Do You Speak the Five Love Languages?

Breaking Down the Barriers to Love

 SKYlights Podcast:

Episode 19: How to Build a “Communication Toolbox” and Improve Family Relationships

Episode 16: How Healthy Expression Fosters Healthy Masculinity

November 24th, 2020

Open Sky Family Services Team