Elf on the Shelf: Potential Roles Related to Leisure

elf on shelf

My nieces’ Elf, Natasha, on December 8th, 2013

Let me start with a reminder that I am not a parent. I don’t have children who are having “Elf on the Shelf” experiences. However, I am an observer of others’ efforts re: The Elf. Friends post photos on Facebook of what the Elf is up to in their homes and I see their pins to “Elf Ideas” pages on Pinterest. I have nieces and a nephew who have Elf on the Shelf experiences. And recently, I have read a number of articles  that have offered various perspectives (some quite aggressive and nasty) on the Elf  along with  responses that argue against those perspectives. I tend to resist the negative judgement on the Elf and its impact on children that some of the articles have suggested (e.g., damaging children’s trust in their parents when they find out the Elf is a lie; creeping out children by suggesting someone is always watching; manipulating children). I don’t know what happens in each family’s home – what they tell their children about the Elf, how children experience it, or how children have reacted when they have become old enough to learn the Elf was moved by their parents each night.

Instead, I’ve found myself focusing on the ways in which the Elf has been portrayed as a leisure enthusiast and this has prompted me to consider the Elf’s role in promoting leisure.


Anticipation is an important stage of leisure experiences. It is the period leading up to the participation stage. During the anticipation stage, we look forward to the event or experience. We prepare for and learn about the experience or event. The Elf seems, from what I have observed, to assist with the anticipation stage of Christmas. I am not suggesting other things do not. Obviously, preparing for holiday concerts, using advent calendars, and participating in various traditions associated with the holidays (those connected with religion and those not) such as baking treats, getting a tree, decorating, attending church services all can help build anticipation. The Elf on the Shelf may be another opportunity to help build children’s excitement about the holidays and all its events.

The Elf can help with anticipation beyond just Christmas. Let’s take my nieces’ Elf, Natasha. I snapped a photo of her (above) when I was visiting them a couple of weeks ago. My youngest niece was having her “friends” birthday party on the Sunday afternoon I was there. It was a Mickey Mouse Clubhouse themed party. When we woke up Sunday morning, we found Natasha sitting on top of the piano in the living room – having colored a picture of Mickey in preparation for the party. The girls were excited that Natasha had helped to decorate. She signaled the significance of one part of their day.

I’ve also seen Elves holding signs cheering for a particular hockey team or sporting little team jerseys. I’m never entirely sure whether the Elf is cheering for the team that the family is cheering for or a rival team (in the case of mischievous Elves) , but the Elf likely generates conversation about the upcoming game that day or weekend.

Promoting Leisure Activities

I have seen Elves reading books, playing board games, skating, baking, skateboarding, knitting, zip lining, and playing musical instruments. I wonder what conversations these “scenes” create. Do children become interested in playing the game that the Elf was playing? Do they ask about knitting – what it is (depending on the child’s age), how it is done, whether anyone they know knits? Do they ask what zip lining is and where they could do it? Can active Elves generate conversations about the importance of activity? The potential exists for the Elves to generate conversations about leisure activities and provide an opportunity for parents to educate their children and help identify potential interests.

Fostering Curiosity and Use of Imagination

In talking to my nieces yesterday, they told me they found Natasha with some band-aids on (and a few others scattered on the floor) yesterday morning. The girls had created a story for why Natasha had those band-aids on. She had gone for a shot. They created a story, in part, based on their own knowledge and experience. They get band-aids when they get their shots at the doctor’s office. My sister tells me that Natasha generates curiosity and stimulates conversations as the girls try to figure out what she’s doing/thinking and why. Why did she climb up to the top of the Christmas tree one morning when I was there? One suggestion was offered: Maybe it is because the lights were on the tree, but the ornaments had not yet been hung. Natasha might want the family to decorate the tree.

In some ways, Natasha has became part of the girls’ creative play. Just as they create stories when playing with their stuffed animals, Sesame Street characters, or each other, Natasha becomes another character in their creative and imaginative play. What might Natasha do tomorrow?

Creating Memories

One morning during my visit, Natasha was hanging upside down from a curtain rod. My older niece (almost 5 years old) explained to me that Natasha she did the same thing last year. She remembers. Recollection is another stage of a leisure experience and taking pictures of the Elf and his/her activities can help with that recall. Pictures are not necessary though. Conversations about the Elf’s actions can prompt recollections about the various events of the holiday season.

Chance for Adults to “Play”

Let us not forget about parents. Sure, for some, the commitment of changing the position of the Elf each day seems overwhelming given everything else they have going on in the month of December. For those who do decide to engage in the Elf games, it is a chance for them to “play”… to use their imagination, to spend time with reality suspended. Adults don’t do that nearly enough.

Final thoughts…

I think that the most important part of the Elf games is that they are fun – for parents and children. I’m not suggesting that every Elf move should serve a function (e.g., communicate a message or model a behavior). We sometimes focus too much on the “function” and “value” of things we do rather than simply enjoying them for fun. Rather, my point is that the Elf on the Shelf can play some interesting roles related to leisure in the lives of those families who have included an Elf in their holiday activities and traditions.


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2 thoughts on “Elf on the Shelf: Potential Roles Related to Leisure

  1. Brenda Robertson December 18, 2013 at 10:05 pm Reply

    This is a really interesting analysis Charlene! I am aware of the Elf…and have seen some of the critical comments but did not have a framework to help guide my thinking on this…now I do! Clawson and Knetsch would be proud of your adaptation of their work. Keep up the good work!


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