Sunday, November 4, 2007

Ten Kid Gifts Least Likely to Become Landfill!

It’s that time of year again, when we shop for appropriate, meaningful gifts for the kids on our holiday lists. Having raised two children and sent annual gifts to six nieces and nephews (that’s over 240 birthday and Hanukkah gifts, from birth to college) I have been on both ends of these gift-giving transactions. Unfortunately there is very little correlation between what catalogues assure you a child will adore and what a kid actually likes. Most of the money and effort spent on buying, wrapping, and shipping an item will be wasted. What follows are some ideas culled over the years, noticing popular gifts in our house. Here are my ten favorite gift ideas:
1. Give a matching item every year, so it adds up to a beautiful set the child will have as an adult. My friend Louise’s grandmother had very modest resources, but each Christmas and birthday she gave Louise a piece of matching china. By the time Louise reached young adulthood, she had a beautiful matched set of tea cups, saucers, and dessert plates. I know this because Louise used them when she entertained, many years later, and took much pleasure in telling us the story of her beautiful dessert set. The point here is that while a child will initially think this is an unexciting present, watching a set grow from year to year becomes very meaningful, and the result is ultimately cherished. Instead of a lot of junky toys which are eventually discarded, these gifts become an heirloom.

2. Buy gifts from the UNICEF catalog. This way part of your outlay goes to support children around the world. Many of their gifts reflect multicultural understanding, so they are educational as well. Be sure to explain what UNICEF does, along with the gift.
3. Buy real tools or utensils, not play ones. Children love real things. When I baked with my children, our favorite utensil was a huge 13” spill-proof stainless steel bowl which cost $4. A gift of such a bowl along with a few simple kitchen utensils will be a big hit. Kids love having their own anything. Likewise, you could buy a few tools at a hardware store and make a kid very, very happy. My son even loved looking at a home repair book which featured pictures and diagrams of tools. His favorite was needle-nose pliers. You gotta’ love a tool named Needle Nose!
4. Buy a picture book and create your own read-aloud by recording or videoing yourself reading it. You can embellish and personalize the text by adding your own funny touches and renaming the central character the name of the gift recipient. (When the child learns to read he or she will be in for a surprise when learning the character’s true name.) This could be done as a digital file and played on whatever kids listen to these days. Be sure to give a signal when to turn the page. Or have someone video you, and hold each page up when you read, too. This would be a great gift for far-away kids with whom you would like to maintain a relationship.
5. Purchase tickets for an event to attend together with the child. Take lots of pictures when you go, and make a little album of your adventure. When my daughter was a theatre-crazy teenager we combined her November birthday with Hanukkah and sprang for Broadway tickets. She picked which play we attended. It cost more than I would have spent on a gift, but looking back, it was great bonding and more memorable than a material item. Plus I got to see The Producers, too. If your goal is to nurture a relationship with a young person, this is a great way to spend structured time together.
6. Subscribe to a magazine for the child. It promotes literacy, benefits a worthwhile sponsoring organization, and it’s exciting to receive a magazine in the mail each month. My children were the recipients of World Wildlife Fund’s preschool magazine Your Big Backyard and later graduated to their school-age publication Ranger Rick. We saved every issue and often used them for references later.
7. Adopt an animal in the child’s name. Children study endangered species and identify strongly with animals. Your contribution funds the upkeep of a designated animal. The Adopt-A-Bison program sends you a picture of “your” bison, along with a certificate which you can give framed. This gives the child something material, but the main part of the gift is a donation in the child’s honor. Some children will appreciate this more than others, and some parents will appreciate this more than others. In any event, you know your gift is doing something useful. If you start early enough you can have the certificate shipped to yourself and present it in a frame, so it feels less abstract.
8. Help the child start a collection. You might save stamps for them, which you give along with a stamp album and reference book about stamp collecting. Or maybe just bundle a few related items like cool flashlights. It doesn’t take much for a collection to get started. Pretty soon the kid will know about every flashlight ever invented. This takes some imagination, but if you can involve the child in a shared activity, you will both enjoy it. Next thing you know, you’ll be on the outlook for flashlights, too! (You can substitute anything for “flashlights” – that was just a random suggestion...) It would be great for people who have done this to share your recommendations.
9. Promote imaginative play and give a treasure chest of hats, accessories, scarves, funky clothes, and jewelry. The trick here is that nothing needs to be new. Present it in an attractive, sturdy container. Boys like dressing up just as much as girls, by the way. You could clean out your own closet, or create a large collection for a very small amount at a thrift shop. A self-standing laundry bag would be a perfect container for this purpose.
10. Give a very small item (it could be some money, or just a card, even) wrapped in a GIGUNDA sheet of bubble paper. Bubble paper is endlessly entertaining. Kids think of amazing things do to with it. We recently entertained two very active little boys for over an hour simply by bringing out a 4’ x 4’ bubble paper remnant. They stomped on it, making very loud noises (both the boys and the popping bubbles), rolled in it, made a tent out of it, made it into capes, and generally had a blast. Especially with younger children, the bubble paper will make a much bigger impression than the gift.

One of my aunts sent me fancy monogrammed stationery each birthday. I basically used one each year to write her a thank you. But it did make me appreciate fine stationery, and I was proud to use them for shower gifts as a young bride!


Anonymous said...

I personally remember receiving 3, 5, 6, and 7 as a child. And they all had a much larger impact on me than the more traditional gifts. Especially the animal adoption. I loved, and still love, wolves. When I opened the wolf adoption present, I was a little confused at first, but after I read it and understood it I immediately got up and gave my parents hugs and kisses.

One that I was expecting to see but didn't: Savings Bonds. Especially for very young children (pre-talking), they are great when they get older and understand. I still have bonds dated within a week of my birthday that have been growing for 23 years, and while I never could have when I was younger, I appreciate them now.

Betsy Teutsch said...

Hi Justin-
You were a lucky child!
I am going to mention savings bonds in part II. They're not much fun for kids who understand money, but maybe for preverbal kids they're a nice gift, especially if they come in bubble paper!

Anonymous said...

when I was a kid, I got Cricket Magazine and I LOVED it. I actually still have some of the issues. I started giving it (and one of their companion magazines) to one of my relatives a few years ago, and she really enjoys it. I think kids like getting their own mail, and as a grownup, I like giving kid-centered educational magazines.

Anonymous said...

What a great list -- and just at the right time as my husband and I were looking at all the catalogs that came in the mail this week (I dread buying Christmas gifts!). I'm going to forward this list to my family so they can consider new options for gifts for my kids. I'm a co-founder of a preschool magazine called The Tessy and Tab Reading Club so we certainly have that on our list of gifts for friends.

Anonymous said...

I really like your suggestions. I've been building a collection for each of my kids; every year they get to choose a new menorah or dreidel (not too expensive). You can read about them here:

I've also started a collection of bells in crystal, china, glass and brass for my daughter, whose real name is Isabelle. Last year, for her 7th birthday, I got seven vintage brass bells on eBay and hid them around the house for her to find when she woke up.

Anonymous said...

All great ideas! I have either given or received a number of these over the years.

Anonymous said...

What a great list! I especially like 3 and 4. When my son was 8 and my daughter was 6 my husband bought them each a nice-sized tool chest. Now, every Christmas he gives them a tool to add to it.

The read-aloud recording is a great idea. Even though my daughter's 12 I think she'd still like it.

Thanks for visiting my site, as well. The more good gift ideas we can spread around the better!

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