Non-Toy Christmas Gift Ideas for Kids and Families

Want clutter-free ideas for kids’ Christmas gifts? Here are the best non-toy gifts for kids.In 2003, pediatricians were given advice on how to help parents choose appropriate toys (in Pediatrics: the Office Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics). One salient line states, “Although toys should never be used as a substitute for loving, unconditional attention from parents and other caregivers, toys can enhance these interactions.” (1)By 2018, the advice had become sorely outdated, and somehow parents were handing their children iPads and cell phones literally as a substitute for interaction! It was time for an update for the digital age. In the article “Selecting Appropriate Toys for Young Children in the Digital Era,” Drs. Healey and Mendelsohn make strong claims against digital babysitting and the replacement of toys with virtual “toys” (quotation marks theirs, sarcastic tone assumed). (2)In summary, they say:
  • Research shows that play is critical in all areas of development: cognitive, language, social-emotional, physical).
  • Too many parents assume educational benefit of screens, and they are wrong to replace physical toys with digital “toys.”
  • Perhaps the greatest harm caused by screen-based play is that is precludes real human interaction and language that is vital for development.
  • Goals with play should include: “use of words and narratives to imitate, describe, and cope with actual circumstances and feelings,” problem-solving, fine and gross motor skills (no, sorry, not Wii Dance exactly — my kibitzing on the docs), and a combination of solo play and play with adults. The adults help the children scaffold their learning and move to the next level of play, and interaction builds language, social development, and emotional connection.
Most alarmingly are the statistics on how early children play with the digital “toys” that are literally replacing physical toys and human interaction (38% under 2 years old used a mobile device in 2013, doubling from 2011 – what do you think it is now??). Most screen time is consumed without parental supervision, and the risks are many. If you’re considering an iPad for your child this Christmas, I urge you look instead at the old-fashioned toys that your child can touch and work with, or better yet — non-toy gifts that still facilitate play, learning, and most importantly — connection within the family.

Non-Toy Kids Gifts 

That’s what we do in our cooking classes for kids, literally connecting families around healthy food and giving kids a chance to problem-solve, improve fine motor skills, and build language with their loved ones. We love seeing family members give the Kids Cook Real Food eCourse as a Christmas gift, and I haven’t asked the good doctors, but I bet they’d agree cooking is better than screens. 😉 But sometimes it’s hard to NOT have something to wrap, isn’t it?

Would I Put My Money Where My Mouth Is?

I got a text from my sister-in-law the other day that made me do a double-take. I had asked her if she had any Christmas gift requests for her two kids or if we should just wing it, since we know what kids like, having received #allthethings now that we have four of them running around. She sagely asked if, since our kids always get way too much stuff anyway, we should just donate to a charity in one another’s names.Maybe we already have enough... give clutter free gifts this year, non toy kids giftsNow don’t get me wrong. I’m all about scaling back. And in fact, with all our siblings we have stopped giving birthday gifts for the past couple years, but have kept up on Christmas and all gifts for kids, because kids are fun to give gifts to, right? That was the double take part. I thought, “Oh no, even the kids? Won’t they be missing out? Won’t I be missing out on the thank-you hug?”I didn’t answer right away but walked around and continued life for a few hours with that little seed of a thought sitting in my brain.What would it be like to not give any physical Christmas gifts to my niece and nephew?When I turned on my conscious brain and employed my common sense, I thought of the following facts:
  • All of our kids on both sides do have plenty of toys and books and clothes.
  • We both have enough income to buy what we need and want at any time throughout the year.
  • I don’t like shopping at all for myself or anyone else.
  • I don’t like wrapping gifts.
  • I don’t like the stress that to-do lists at Christmas time cause me, so why would I want to give someone else that stress (even though I love when people pick out clothes for me).
And here was the clincher: in my selfishness, I thought it might feel odd not to give the kids something for Christmas and enjoy seeing their faces when they opened it.

Family Christmas Gift Ideas

But then I realized we exchange gifts with this family at a huge Christmas party with probably 50 people there. The great-aunts actually get all their great-nieces and nephews physical, wrapped Christmas gifts.So many toys, so much plastic, so many batteries. …So many things being donated within the year. I realized that whether my niece and nephew got a gift from Aunt Katie and Uncle Kris or not, they wouldn’t really even know the difference in the midst of all that chaos.ideas for experience gifts that won't clutter up your houseThat decided it for me. I’m going to ask if maybe we can give an experience gift, like the promise of making something fun in the kitchen with them or going all together to a museum or zoo or park. But other than that, it sounds like nothing will be wrapped this year. And I’m guessing if I propose the same to my sibling and his family, I’ll get the same relieved answer.

Are We All Getting Tired of Gifts and Clutter? Non-Toy Gifts for Kids

I find myself wondering lately if this is something I’m experiencing by myself or if it’s really a cultural trend in the direction of simplifying and buying less stuff. When I consider decades of history in America, we can go back to the Great Depression, where every tiny pin or paper clip or rubber band was kept and used to its ultimate practicality. Then, as people began to earn more income and companies began marketing many more convenience items to make our lives easier, we started buying more. But still, I think, gift giving and commercialism was at a measured minimum.At some point, and my husband and I point to our parents’ generation, people started feeling like they could make their kids’ lives better than their own if they could buy them lots of stuff, if they could provide them with easy experiences that didn’t really challenge them. That means my generation, now parents, has a habit to buy things and put them in our house. And some of us, perhaps many of us, are realizing that we become mean and awful people when we spend many hours a week walking around our house picking things up, putting them away, dusting them, organizing them, buying tubs and totes and shelves and storage units and stuffing closets, etc, etc, etc. It’s become too much. And I’m glad for one if this is a trend in the direction of simplifying. I do think we buy and create too many things. It has an impact on our households, on the way our children view the value of many things as dispensable, and even on our environment and our earth. We are creating more things than people can even use. And although sometimes it seems like there are needy people in our communities, if you visit the back end of most places that take donations, there are far too many items, more than can ever possibly be used. Many usable things get thrown out because they have some small problem.People aren’t fixing and using up and making do anymore. We’re just buying new and donating the old. In fact, in my own house, I had cranky moments where I was an absolute terror to my children over cleaning things up and having too much stuff that didn’t fit on our toy shelves.It was so severe that I’ve written notes in my Google calendar to myself for the following year:Dear Katie, do not buy any toys for your children this year. Absolutely not. Do you hear me? I’m serious. You have too much stuff, and they don’t appreciate it or take care of it anyway. I repeat, do not buy toys this year!I suppose I should take that note to heart as it was written by a very well-intentioned person at the end of her rope. 🙂Time to Simplify - Gifts that don't need to be dusted, organized, cleaned, or repaired.If this is the year of simplifying your gift list for you as well, then I commend you, I applaud you. I’d love to propose some of our favorite charities if you’re going the charity route. If you feel like you still want to give children in your life a gift, but not something they can unwrap and hold, I also have some great ideas for presents that are completely clutter-free: No dusting, organizing, or batteries to change. 😉

Family Christmas Gift Ideas: Experiences You Can Give as Gifts When Simplifying

Family memberships or single visits. Think about your local zoo, aquarium, children’s museum, botanical garden, symphony, etc.kids and moms having fun at the zooMovie tickets. Pair with a meal out or ice cream; consider inviting a friend or two to join OR make it special time with the family member.Day out. There are plenty of fun places for kids (think Chuckie Cheese or the equivalent in your area).Learning a new skill. Consider time in a grandparent’s workshop or doing a hobby with them. I remember my grandmother teaching me how to sew and making little crafts out of plastic canvas and yarn. Incredible quality time!Trips and travel. Add an extra family vacation or something special onto a current vacation. My friend’s son went to Alaska one summer as his grandfather’s birthday gift to him!Serving as a family. We do this for birthdays and it’s really a lot of fun. The gift could be paired with a donation to the charity.Coffee date with a kid. Hot chocolate for them most likely. Really, any time out doing anything is great, no matter how average, because special time one-on-one is a true treasure for a child, in our experience.mother daughter hot chocolateMusic or athletic lessons. This is a wonderful thing to request from grandparents or others, especially for a family on a budget with kids who are interested in learning something new. (Note: I would recommend that the child initiate the motivation for the activity…)Concerts. We’re going to Trans Siberian Orchestra this year. We started this when my oldest was 8 years old and have added a child to the list every time they turn 8. In other words, we go to the concert every three years, and each time, there’s one more Kimball attending.SALT effect experience. For those who aren’t feeling all that creative with ideas, SALT effect is a service project in a box that “brings family members of all ages together over a common goal to give back.” Each box has an interactive discussion guide and all of the supplies needed for a 90-minute service project with unique topics like Honoring Veterans or Giving Hope to Sick Kids. To keep it truly clutter-free, you can choose the digital download of the interactive lesson plan.Kids cooking class. I may be a little biased, but whether you go with an in-person cooking class, a kids cooking subscription box, or an online cooking class, I think teaching kids to cook is the most powerful AND practical gift you can give. child cooking at a stove with parent and friendOur Kids Cook Real Food eCourse has become a favorite “grandma experience gift,” and we love hearing stories like Jeanie’s about working with her grandkids:
“My children and grandchildren said have been cooking non-stop since they gained confidence to be independent. We are having so much fun. This class was the best thing I ever gave my grandkids for Christmas! Now they help out with confidence when they come to dinner at grandma’s. I know what they are capable of and can invite them to help out…”
little girl baking muffins independently with Kids Cook Real FoodThat’s one of her little cuties to the right! Lots of grandmas also gift a membership to their grandchildren’s families so they can connect as a family around healthy food (access never expires so it’s truly a gift that keeps on giving!). Our members find that being involved with food helps kids eat a wider variety of healthy options, build confidence that applies to all areas of life, and foster creativity that is sometimes so lacking in this technological age. PLUS the life skills are vitally important to start young. In my own household, I’ve seen the immense confidence knowing how to cook gives my kids, but I also find a better sense of family responsibility when the kids can make entire dinners themselves (they do every Wednesday night), and it allows me to volunteer one night a week and/or spend quality one-on-one time with my younger ones. Our classes offer incredible value, and you’re warmly invited to join as a member today by clicking the gift option (or hop on the waitlist to follow our open enrollment periods).YES! I WANT THIS!child chef ready to cook healthy food

Great Non-Toy Gifts You Can (Sort of) Wrap 

Eco-Friendly Gifts to Give to Those you Love. Give gifts to the earth as well as your friends and family this Christmas!{{BUDGET FRIENDLY!}} Audiobooks read by family members. This is easier than ever with voice recorders on phones! We actually had all the grandparents and aunts and uncles record themselves reading our oldest son’s favorite storybooks when he was about 3 years old, and we STILL listen to them on road trips! Back then it was probably only possible for tech-proficient people like my husband, but now you can follow these super simple steps:
  • Download a free voice recorder for your phone (or many phones have them).
  • Record people reading. Learn from our mistake: Don’t have them greet the child…you might have more children and you don’t want to leave anyone out!!
  • Either keep in a folder on your phone and play whenever you think of it, or transfer to a flash drive. Simple! Done!
  • If your vehicle is older and still has a CD player, that’s easy too. Burn the CD. Done!
If you want to get really fancy, have your readers ding a bell to turn pages, although we realized that my lovely vision of my son following along in the books with his finger never happened after the first few weeks. We really do just listen in the vehicle, so on our latest round this year, we used short stories that didn’t rely on photos at all. I guarantee this will be a family treasure, and you’ll never regret the tiny amount of time (and basically ZERO money) that it takes…especially as our family members age and we think about what it will be like on this earth without them, I often tear up imagining listening to their stories once they’re gone. I also tear up because my mother-in-law got too close to the mic and was a little rambunctious with our bell, but that just adds to the eclectic beauty of this gift! 😉 Kindle books or Audible membership. Someday we’ll have a digital clutter problem, and many people are already experiencing that, but it’s so much more manageable than physical, dusty, underfoot clutter. Kids and adults alike can benefit from Kindle books or an Audible membership! Or why not give the gift of Amazon Prime, which comes with so much more than shipping nowadays. 😉Gym membership. I would only recommend this if you know your recipient would really use it or this could be interpreted poorly! But if someone has a new goal (or is a regular gym member but covering a few months would really help them out), what a great way to participate in their health and wellness.Christmas Music with science. We’ve been using the Wholetones2Sleep system for a few months, and the fantastical mix of scientific research on healing frequencies plus biblical roots blows my mind. You can get the Wholetones Christmas mp3 and basically enjoy Christmas music with health benefits. So cool! There are CDs too, but of course to be truly clutter-free, go digital.

Family Christmas Gift Ideas that Give Back & Really Make a Difference Beyond Creating Wrapping Paper Waste

simple wrapping paperPrayer bouquet. Promise to pray a certain number of prayers for someone. Kids can make a fun art project by cutting out flowers with prayers on them and making an actual “bouquet.”Sponsor a child. Many families love to share the Christmas spirit all year long with Compassion International, World Vision, or similar.Donation to charitable organization. A few years ago our “stocking stuffers” for the extended family were just notes that we had donated to the American Heart Association in the family’s name, since the patriarch of the family died very young from a heart attack. Some of our favorite charities include:
  • IJM – to end slavery in our lifetime. I was appalled to learn during a recent presentation at a conference that there are more people in slavery right now than at any other point in human history. What??? Not acceptable. IJM has a team of lawyers, counselors, investigators and more, pulling children from slavery and working to end its terror. This is my special fundraising page, and I’d love to hit my goal of $1000 from the KS community!
  • Catholic Relief Services. CRS gives aid in disaster situations both around the world and domestically.
  • Kids Food Basket and Guiding Light Mission. Both of these are local to Grand Rapids, Michigan, but I love that they serve the poor with such grace and love. KFB provides sack suppers for kids who are food insecure, and Guiding Light helps homeless people get back on their feet. Every community has one — find your favorite to support!
  • Hope Unexpected, Pregnancy Crisis Center, and Cradles of Grace. All 3 local to me again, but there’s nothing better at the holidays than to know you’re supporting women who have chosen to give life to their babies. The Morning Center is one example of a national organization doing the same.
Reverse Advent Calendar. How about a strategy to actually get RID of some of the clutter? This is less of a gift and more of a tradition that you should start right around this time of year. Hat tip to Mum in the Madhouse via @thekindnesskidsclub for this one: Put out a basket or tub and every day add either a food item and donate to a food bank after Christmas, OR each family member can add a toy or item of clothing and do a big donation the week after Christmas.

Family Christmas Gift Ideas: Eco-Friendly Consumables

non-toxic lotion bars from MadeOnSometimes you really do just want SOMEthing to wrap. I propose that consumable gifts are still clutter-free because they’ll be used up before the next holiday. Are we ok with that one little fudge step? 😉If so, here are some of my favorite purchased and homemade ideas: 
  • MadeOn lotion These little hard lotion bars and lip balms are my favorite gift to give teachers or put in stockings!
  • Homemade vanilla extract. You could still start some immediately and leave a bean in the jar when you give the gift.
  • Homemade salad dressings
  • Bottle of wine. I found cherry chocolate wine and paired it with sourdough chocolate cake one year for a whole bunch of people…heavenly! My adaptations to the recipe are in Smart Sweets.
  • Subscription to their favorite magazine or hometown newspaper if they’d buy it themselves anyway. Otherwise it’s clutter to the max!!
  • Homemade playdough for little ones.
  • Homemade spice mixes. We teach preschoolers to make taco seasoning, ranch dressing mix and more in the Beginner level of our Kids Cook Real Food eCourse. People really love receiving the finished mixes from children! Great stocking stuffers packaged in baggies, or pretty them up in mason jars with chalkboard sticker labels.
For even more ideas, visit the SALT Effect.I’ve been working on this post all week, but come to think of it…I never did text my sister-in-law back! I’m so inspired and warmed in the heart by all these non-toy Christmas gift ideas, so I think I’ll ask her if we can do a prayer bouquet, audio books, and some athletic lessons. They’re already taking them, but this way we can feel connected while they participate if their parents say, “Uncle Kris and Aunt Katie wanted this for you!” and then we can see pictures and congratulate them. Connection beyond Christmas = win win! Ah…hear that sound? It’s an empty shelf in our toy room…what a beautiful concept!! 😉
What’s your balance of tangible gifts vs. experiences or clutter-free gifts? Would you ever give NOTHING to a child in your life and do exclusively charity?
Clutter-Free Gift IdeasSources: (1) Pediatrics: Office Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. April 2003Selecting Appropriate Toys for Young Children: The Pediatrician’s Role. Danette GlassyJudith Romano and Committee on Early Childhood, Adoption, and Dependent Care(2) Pediatrics: Office Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. December 2018. Selecting Appropriate Toys for Young Children in the Digital Era. Aleeya HealeyAlan Mendelsohn and COUNCIL ON EARLY CHILDHOOD(3) American Academy of Pediatrics online. December 3, 2018. Ignore the Flashing Screens: The Best Toys Go Back to the Basics.

8 thoughts on “Non-Toy Christmas Gift Ideas for Kids and Families”

  1. I think that if you’re getting ready to transition into giving fewer physical presents at Christmas, it would be a good idea to keep your kids as involved in the decision as you reasonably can – explaining the reasons for the shift and why it might actually be more fun to have mostly non-toy presents, letting them help you pick out which experiences they would most like to do, and so on. If you don’t feel like they’d be ready to have a cooperative conversation about it (such as, the child too young), maybe giving gifts that they don’t immediately notice aren’t toys might be a good idea (cookie cutters for the kitchen, colored paper to draw on, star stickers for their bedroom ceiling). I think that reducing the number of toys kicking around is a good idea, but it would be easy to unintentionally make the kids feel as if the carpet has been pulled out from under their feet. Keeping them involved in the decisions should help them with the adjustment.

  2. I love, love these ideas! You’ve given me inspiration for more family memories this Christmas.
    I also love to put together personalized theme baskets for my kiddos – I assemble a pretty affordable and practical basket of tools and resources the kids will be able to use all year to develop life skills. Think garden supplies for my green thumb, kid-friendly tools for my fix-it guy with a book of projects, and of course kitchen supplies for all my KCRF chefs, SUCH a great investment!

    1. Maria,
      What a FANTASTIC idea with the theme baskets!! The personal touch makes it special and the intent keeps it practical. My kind of gift!! I love that your kids are in the Kids Cook Real Food eCourse too — keep doing that good, hard work of parenting responsible, independent adults!! 🙂 Katie

  3. Hi. Love ALL the ideas. So many. I have found an electronic Advent calendar through Jacquie Lawson. They are cheap and cute. A little screen time-suck, maybe, but it is an advent thing so it’s over by January. I got one for my extended family members.

  4. Katieeeee! I am with you here! I have six kids and I am drowning in toys. And I might dare to say that we have many fewer toys than average. I switched to giving art and craft supplies as gifts, but now I am drowning in art and craft supplies (and projects!). This year I am thinking about having people unwrap things we would buy anyway; “oh wow! A new toilet brush! How amazing!”. My kids definitely do appreciate unwrapping things, so while experiences are good, i like to find something they can unwrap too. Thanks for the great ideas!
    ❤️

    1. Your enthusiasm (and despair!) shows through! 🙂 You can always wrap something related to the experience, like the actual tickets, an outfit they’ll need to wear to the event, or more fun yet, a scavenger hunt with clues to find the tickets in the house! I’m sure you’ll think of some fun ideas and have a more intentional Christmas than ever! 🙂 Katie

    2. LOL! A toilet brush! Love it.. Sad to say I’ve nearly reached that point also, but being a stocker-upper I still have some things in the gift closet for this year. Six kids in my house also and those toys do mount up….

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