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Why give non-toy gifts at all? Why not natural, sustainable toys?
If your home is anything like mine, you've donated more than half your children's toys to your local thrift store and you still don't see the dent.
It's amazing how pervasive our mountains of toy possessions can be – and how quickly they can grow.
Now, don't get me wrong – there are a lot of toys I really like, some I even love. Some toymakers have gotten incredibly innovative in creating toys that are creative, engaging, socially responsible, AND durable. After all, play time is an ESSENTIAL part of a child's healthy growth and development.
What I take issue with is how overrun most of us are with toys. It's the sheer volume that does us all a disservice – and our children the most.
And secondly, spending time with our precious kiddos is a far greater gift than anything we can put in a gift bag anyway. They may not jump up and down with such grand enthusiasm on Christmas morning as gifts are unwrapped, but thirty years from now, they'll still be talking about “that time you took me to see…”
So this year, I propose a toy-free holiday when it comes to gifts. There are some really great toy alternatives that will serve our children well – and whether you use this list for Christmas, a birthday, or another gift-inspired holiday, these 31 are just to get you started. 🙂
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Before we go any further, the easiest non-toy gift is…
There are TONS of great ideas through the post below, but if you want to give a simple gift that will keep on giving and provide plenty of on-going opportunity for your child to tinker, create, and explore their world, gift a KiwiCo activity box monthly subscription or an Amazon book box. (If you are outside the United States, that link may automatically redirect to your country's Amazon store and display literal boxes to store books in, as the Amazon book box reading club currently only exists in the US.)
31+ Non-Toy Gift Ideas for Children
1. Tickets to an event.
One of my favorite birthday presents growing up was when my dad took me to the symphony. Give your child tickets to an event that allows them to feel grown-up, special, or just something to look forward to. Most of all, it's something to do together.
2. Magazine subscriptions.
One of the most thoughtful gifts we received when our first child was born was a subscription to Babybug magazine, which morphed into Ladybug and Spider as she grew. Not only does she look forward to receiving mail every month, but magazines such as these that are low on fluff and high on quality give a child a on-going dose of fun education and encourage their literacy skills!
And there are SO many great options for magazines these days – my husband cherished the gift subscription to Ranger Rick he received for several years when he was a kid (he still has those magazines and shares them with *our* kiddos), but now there's also Ranger Rick Jr., as well as Ask (arts and sciences for kids), Click (“opening windows for young minds”), Muse (from the Smithsonian – for kids), Cobblestone (American history for kids), and Faces (people, places, and cultures), just to name a few.
Encourage what your child loves or is good at. Be it dance, art, athletics, horseback riding, music, storytelling, or carpentry, give your child a chance to enhance their skills doing something they love or want to learn. The only word of caution here is to book the classes before you gift them – it's all too easy to promise this gift and then not follow through on actually booking them.
Doing a class together can be a twist on this idea – it's time together, it's a great way to demonstrate that you're never to old to learn something new, and – depending on the topic – it can even be a way to teach deeper life skills, like my perpetual favorite, Kids Cook Real Food, a class you do at home once a week and your kids finish the program ready to show off their new-found cooking skills.
If there's a zoo, aquarium, museum, theatre, or music venue in your area, gift your child a membership so they can attend regularly. Not only will it provide on-going events together, but you'll get to explore more in depth each time you attend. These are especially good for large families, as typically getting a “family rate” is significantly cheaper than purchasing a day pass once or twice.
5. Dress-up clothes.
Dress-up clothes used to be hand-me-downs from Grandma, so visit your local thrift store and fill your dress-up wardrobe with inexpensive, REAL clothing (not the cheap Disney pre-made stuff that only allows your child how to pretend to be one movie character). Our favorites are aprons, old-fashioned shoes, feather boas, fans, hats of all sorts, old ball gowns, scrubs, and the like.
6. Repurposed play food & kitchen items.
Put together an entire kitchen of play food by collecting used containers from your own kitchen, such as spice jars, salt & pepper shakers, and empty boxes (such as from baking powder, cornstarch, sugar, and baking soda), then cleaning them out well and carefully taping shut any sharp or loose edges. If they're already “pretty” enough as a gift, leave them be, but if you want to “prettify” them, paint and decorate them to make them look just right.
7. Their own travel supplies.
Whether it's a toiletry bag to keep their toothbrush in the next time they spend the night at Grandma's or a backpacking backpack all their own, having their own travel bag or supplies for on the road gears children up for adventure and helps assuage fears of the unknown by fostering independence. If you've traveled away from home before, perhaps slip a few photos from the trip into the gift as well.
These super-fun decorative pillow/pillowcases can make a trip all the more delightful too. 🙂
8. Monthly mail.
One of my daughter's absolute favorite gifts of all time was when my sister, who lives abroad, gave her the Christmas gift of sending her a postcard once a month for the following year. My sister was intentional in choosing cards with fun images that reflect the place where she lives and my daughter still treasures each of those postcards. Kids love getting mail and it provides a wonderful, on-going connection between the giver and the receiver.
9. A piggy bank.
Help your child begin to learn important budgeting and saving skills by giving them a piggy bank. We especially love this one that has separate compartments for spending, saving, and tithing (sharing). You can seed the piggy bank with a cash gift too if you so desire!
Music is the language of the soul and can stir the heart, the soul, and the mind – so whether you want to gift your child classic rock or classical rhapsodies, give a gift that can inspire for years. My husband and I still return to music we first heard decades ago when we feel the need to dance, grieve, or just sing at the top of our lungs while we do family housecleaning – and our children do the same with the music they each love.
11. Musical instruments (real ones, not toys).
Listening to music is essential, but making it and creating your own sounds, melodies, and rhythms is even more so. Whether it's small, like shaker eggs and maracas, or large, like a guitar or keyboard, the ability to create music informs and shapes the mind AND spirit.
A good story enlivens the mind and inspires discovery. And sometimes it's just nice to hear a story rather than read it, especially when it's read by a master storyteller. Give your child a gift they can curl up with over and over again. Some of our family favorites include the Classical Kids series, The Children's Homer, The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, the Magic Tree House series, and any of the books from The Chronicles of Narnia.
We tend to like our audiobooks on CD (as is evidenced by the links above), but we also use Audible as a way to share audiobooks between devices and for easy listening on the go. You can check out Audible in two places: click here if you'll give Audible as a gift to someone else (so they'll choose their own books and their subscription will end after a specific length of time) and click here if you want to get Audible as a gift through your own account (the subscription will keep going until you cancel it, you can choose the titles, and you'll be able to share it within your own family and devices).
13. A photo album.
Whether blank, filled with photos, or gifted with a small camera, a photo album helps create the story of one's life. Whether the child uses it to tell the story of a single event or the events of their life, this can become a treasured item for years to come.
14. One-on-one outings.
Do an activity together of the child's choosing, such as skating, swimming, skiing, bowling, painting – you name it! Intentional time together having fun is the best part of this gift.
15. Nature up-close.
Give a gift that will help your child observe and interact with nature on a regular basis. A few ideas include a butterfly garden to watch caterpillars morph into butterflies (you can order them here), a bird feeder + bird seed + bird field guide (like this one), a bug house, or even just a magnifying glass, a pair of binoculars, or a telescope. If your child or grandchild loves to really get in and study things, a high-quality kid's microscope also be a great gift (for studying puddle water, of course!).
We also LOVE this catch-and-release aquarium – it's seriously well-designed for the well-being of the creature as well as maximum observation by the kiddos. You'll need a net too – we use an inherited one very similar to this one.
16. Their own kitchen tools.
It has surprised me over and over, but some of my kids' favorite presents have been their own tools to use in the kitchen when they help us cook. Invest in simple-but-sturdy whisks, wooden spoons, measuring cups, and measuring spoons. These can also make superb stocking stuffers if you feel they're too small a gift to give on their own. (We were just introduced to this simple set, which looks fantastic but we haven't tried it out yet.)
17. Their own work tools and outdoor equipment.
Give your child their own gardening tools, their own workshop tools (these ones are FANTASTIC!), their own fishing rod, their own hiking stick, or their own gardening gloves. These “just like Mom and Dad's” type of real tools give a sense of independence while emulating their role models AND give them the tools to discover the world – literally.
18. A watch.
Not only does having a watch help a child develop a sense of time and how quickly a certain period of time passes, but it gives a sense of independence. Knowing when an event will happen or knowing that they have 15 minutes to complete an activity and it's their responsibility to finish in time can be a very empowering, encouraging thing.
19. A calendar.
Whether it's a calendar with kittens on it or a homemade calendar with family photos, a calendar provides a sense of connectedness to what's going on in the family. This can be an especially fun gift for kids in the 6-9 year old range who are starting to develop a sense of longer time periods and who want to KNOW how long it is until vacation starts or when someone's birthday is or when a certain friend is coming to play.
20. A fun or fancy bath towel.
It's simple, but having your own, designated, super-amazing hooded bath towel that turns you into a shark or a beach or a frog or a duck makes bath time fun for years on end.
21. A sleeping bag.
Not only can a sleeping bag be a fun new place to sleep, but it can be a Cave of Wonders to be explored by flashlight, a place to escape to read books by yourself, or the top of a living room fort. Our favorites are the kid-sized ones from Mountain Equipment Co-op and REI.
22. Personalized recipe cards + a special dinner cooking date.
If your child likes to join you in the kitchen, give them a pack of recipe cards on which you can write, “From the Kitchen of… your child's name.” You may also want to include a cookbook that's near and dear to you or a child-specific cookbook, such as this one that our four-year-old son loves.
You can also have a special dinner in honor of your child, and if so, decide a date and a theme, then plan a menu together around that theme. Clear your calendar and cook the meal together, then serve and celebrate!
23. A gift given to a charity chosen by the child.
Depending on the age of your child, this may or may not be an appropriate gift, but if so, introduce several charities to your child. Include organizations that work in your area (such as a food bank), that do work that is important to your family (perhaps, planting trees in deforested areas), or that your child would find intriguing (say, provides school supplies to low income kids in your community). Let the child choose a charity and give a gift in your child's name to that organization. Deliver the gift in person, if appropriate.
Alternatively, you could find a Christmas Giving Tree-type program in your area and gift your child the same gifts you provide for the low-income child in need to serve as a reminder of how kids everywhere all just want to play and feel loved. (These are typically toys, however, so they somewhat break the “no-toy” rule, but provide a much bigger gift, nonetheless.)
24. A special article of clothing.
Give one article of clothing that you know your child would really love and that they don't need. Perhaps a fancy dress, a beret, a certain style of jeans, a scarf, a piece of jewelry, or a tie-dyed t-shirt. Especially if clothing is something you and your child have conflict over regularly, giving a special piece of clothing that acknowledges their desires without foregoing what you feel is important can be a special way of honoring your child and building trust.
25. Art and craft supplies.
When the supplies are on hand to just CREATE, amazing (and messy) things happen. 🙂
Fill a basket with supplies you know your child will use – everything from googly-eyes and pom-poms to sparkly paper and scissors – and include a few items your child hasn't used before, just for the fun of it. It's funny how new paper and unused supplies never cease to inspire. Even as adults, looking through blank journals and fresh pads of paper just feels inviting – like there's something that is just waiting to be created – so this gift is appropriate for kids of all ages!
26. Homemade coupon books.
Every child wants to feel respected and to sometimes feel grown-up. What could feel more grown-up that getting to choose when you'll have game night, what you'll have for dinner, or getting to stay up late? Make a book of coupons the child can spend anytime through the year with items like, “A trip to the local coffee shop with just Mom,” “Stay up one hour past bedtime,” “Impromptu Movie Night! You choose the movie,” or “Redeem this coupon for a double scoop of ice cream after any meal of your choosing.”
Whether your child is a pre-reader (in which case wordless books like Pancakes for Breakfast and A Boy, a Dog, and A Frog are delightful) or a seasoned chapter book reader, books inspire children to explore worlds and emotions they wouldn't otherwise discover – and in often delightful ways.
Read-alouds, like The Book with No Pictures and The Wonky Donkey and Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, are extremely good options too – we return to these again and again after gifting them to our kiddos under the tree several years ago. 🙂
You can also give a book subscription – and we're currently LOVING this option! Once a month, your child receives a box with 2-4 books at his or her reading level and the books included are usually classic or highly popular titles (or ones that should be popular!) Plus, your child receives a package once a month in the mail – and what child doesn't love that???
28. Restaurant gift cards for a Night Out for Two.
Going out to dine can be a special occasion that is treasured, especially when it's one-on-one. The gift can be specified that it's to be used with the giver or you can offer the option that the gift cards can be used with any one other person the child chooses – a grandparent, a trusted adult friend, a parent, whomever!
29. Games (particularly board games)
Again, these are waaaaaaay more fun to do as a family than all alone, so find a few puzzles that can be done by people of all ages in your family (or work multiple puzzles at multiple levels). Choose puzzles with designs of special interest to the child who will receive the gift. White Mountain Puzzles and Cobble Hill puzzles offer some particularly creative, high-quality puzzles.
(The two examples I've linked to show two fun book collages that are two of our family's favorites, but there are TONS more options.)
31. A digital camera.
See the world through your child's eyes and give them the gift of discovery! You can find brand new digital cameras for under $65 – or perhaps gift your old camera if you are going to be getting a new one yourself. There are also cheaper ones designed specifically for children, but you'll get better and longer use out of a basic “regular” camera.
32. A sewing machine.
Learning to hand-sew is a wonderful life-skill and excellent creative outlet for kids of all ages, but for older children, a high-quality sewing machine designed with kids in mind will help give children the confidence to create anything they can imagine with fabric and contribute useful items to the home. This solid-yet-compact kid's sewing machine has been recommended highly to me by multiple friends and colleagues (and there are other colors available too – don't be put off by the hot pink color!)
33. Giant coloring posters.
If your child or grandchild loves to color, consider these giant coloring posters that provide hours of coloring fun. We sometimes do these all together as a family, as they're big enough to work on together.
34. Mittens or other woolens.
This might sound a little bit like a let-down, but my daughter's favorite recent gift was a pair of mittens. These particular mittens were knit in Nepal that not only are crazy colors she loves to show off on the playground, but are part fingered gloves and part mittens. For her, she gets to show off her sense of style while still getting to play on the cold metal trick bars in freezing weather. For her, total win.
On the other side, my two sons still absolutely adore the slippers my mother-in-law crocheted for them last Christmas – nearly a year later, these are still an appreciated gift. These gifts are small, practical ones that reflects the recipients sense of style – and thus they're cherished ones.
35. A bean bag chair (that actually hides all their stuffed animals).
This is one of the most brilliant products I have run across. My daughter wanted a bean bag chair for years, but we always said ‘no' because they take up so much room. But then we found THIS particular bean bag chair, and it's specifically designed to hold 90+ stuffed animals! Now all the stuffed animals she won't let us get rid of actually have a place to live AND we can fit a bean bag chair in the bedroom.
36. Monthly subscription boxes.
There are subscription boxes popping up all over the place these days, and personally, I think they're wonderful. This may be #36 on the list, but it just might be my #1 non-toy gift idea for kids!
Whether you want to fuel your child's love of discovery with science boxes, inspire their creativity with an art box, or engage them in the larger world with geography-based activities, subscription services that send a box once a month with project supplies like KiwiCo, Green Kid Crafts, and Little Passports are a FANTASTIC gift that keeps on giving.
I'm particularly impressed with the boxes (aka “crates”) from KiwiCo, as they're inventive and well constructed, AND there are versions for every age: Kiwi Crates cover art, science, and more for ages 5-8, Koala Crate is an art subscription for preschoolers, Panda Crate helps babies 0-24 months engage with their new world, and Doodle Crate and Tinker Crate are more in-depth activity subscriptions for kids ages 9-16+.)
Also, you can find subscription boxes for nearly any interest – just type an interest (e.g. “sewing”) plus the words “subscription box” into your favorite search engine and you'll likely have at least one option pop up. There are also sites that curate subscription boxes, like CrateJoy, and you can find nearly ANY topic for kids or adults.
And as I mentioned above, you can also now get book subscription boxes on Amazon that feature really excellent books – I'm LOVING this option. 🙂
And….. there's now a Part 2!
And if you're still feeling stuck on inspiration, consider giving each child four small gifts:
One gift to read
One gift to wear
One gift to delight
One gift to give (like the gifts listed in #23 above)
So, there are a few ideas to get you started! I hope you found at least one inspiring idea for the children in your life. 🙂
What other non-toy gift ideas do you have? Are there any ways in particular you like to celebrate the season with your children?