Over four years ago, I wrote a post about non-toy gifts. It was a *hint hint* to the loved ones in our lives for that Christmas. Since then, this list has grown much longer and broader. In the last couple of years, the notion of non-toy gifts has become a trending topic. So many of us parents feel like our homes have become overrun by toys, but even more importantly than that, we fear our children are growing up with too much stuff. We can focus on time together, appreciating what we do have, truly knowing another person, and acts of service.
How do non-toy gifts make a difference?
By encouraging people to give your children gifts that aren’t toys, you help build the qualities in their lives that you want to cultivate: time together, building memories from experiences, appreciation, and a more simple way of living life in a home that is not cluttered with stuff.
I want my children to remember time spent with their grandparents and aunts and uncles. I want them to look forward to doing something with a significant person in their lives. I want relationships to grow and memories to be made. I want my kids to understand that they have more than they could ever need and many people don’t. I want them to appreciate their gifts.
And I don’t want any more junk in my house.
You’ll find this guide broken into different categories. We hope you find it helpful! Feel free to share it with those in your life who will be giving to your children and with your friends who also want more non-toy gifts for their people. A note for the 2020 holidays: this guide includes our usual suggestions, but we think you will find options for everyone on your list no matter their level of physical-distancing. There are many ways to give fun, creative, and meaningful gifts that can work for everyone as we continue to deal with COVID. Happy gift giving!
If you’re local, check out the Oak Ridge Children’s Museum or make the trek to Chattanooga for a day trip to enjoy their children’s museum. There’s lots of fun stuff for children to do, learn, and touch.
Dollywood Season Passes
Give the gift of memories and fun. Creating memories with our littles is priceless. So is taking them for something FUN. This helps us moms and dads do that without breaking the bank.
Little kids can have the chance to play with friends at the gym and older kids can do the same. What better way to teach a healthy lifestyle to teenagers and children than to model exercise for them. Pick a gym with a pool and waterslide and they may just think you’re the best!
“Play, learn, discover” is the tagline for the Muse, and you can spend hours doing just that. A great local spot, be sure to check out all that the Muse has to offer!
The gift that keeps on giving! We go to the zoo for an hour and a half some days and leave. Because we have a zoo pass and can go whenever we want, it allows for the little chunks of time there to be OK.
Take a day trip
The aquarium, Cades Cove, Rock City, Pigeon Forge, the Lost Sea, or Chattanooga. Take a day trip to one of these places or somewhere else. Spend time together, enjoying each other’s company and making memories. A child may not remember what toy you gave them on their 10th birthday, but they will remember you taking them on a special trip.
Check out nature
Go to the mountains, the lake, an open field…anywhere where you feel nature is amazing. Take your little one and teach them why it’s so great and special. One of the wonderful things about East Tennessee is the beautiful nature all around us.
A special occasion date
Kids love spending time with their loved ones more than money or a toy. Take them somewhere special. Take them on a lunch date and then to play at the park. Or go ice skating, mini golfing, to ride go karts. Do something special that shows them you care and want to spend time just with them. Even if it seems mundane to us, it will make their day!
Go to a game!
Baseball, basketball, football, hockey. Whatever it is you love, take them along! Not a sports lover? How about the ballet, the symphony, a play? Take them to a special event that you could enjoy together. Creating memories is such a sweet gift.
Concert or play
Buy them concert tickets if they are older or take younger kids to a fun concert, play, or show they will love.
Plan something fun for them and their friends
This is especially great for older kids and teenagers. Make plans for them to do something fun and plan it out to include their favorite friends. They’ll love it and think you’re really cool!
US Space Camps
For the space-lover (or even not because this is so cool) in your life, this is an amazing gift!
Send them on a scavenger hunt. You can change up how hard the hunt is and how far it expands based on the kids’ ages. Young kids could do a hunt around the house and teenagers could hunt all over town. At the end, you could have a cool gift for them or even just eat a meal out together.
Letting little ones or big ones pick out the books they want is a great gift.
Fun, delicious lunch for kids and a good time without the money out of mom and dad’s pocket.
We can buy everything on Amazon these days, so a gift card allows them to get whatever they want (with parental approval, of course).
Visa gift card
Works just about everywhere. This is a great gift for teenagers, especially.
Kids enjoy being able to buy their own meal. Make it a gift card to their favorite restaurant and they’ll be so excited. Teenagers could always use the gift card to eat out with friends.
Pick a store you know they will enjoy — local shops are even better!
Perfect for teenagers to learn and practice taking care of their vehicle and keeping it clean.
This can be for almost anything. Whatever the kid in your life is into, you can gift it to them. As parents we all know how expensive extracurricular activities can be. How wonderful would it be for your child to get to do something because you or a loved one gifted it to them! Grandparents and other loved ones, think about what a fun and wonderful gift this is for the kid in your life and for their parents.
Monthly fun they can look forward to! Whether it’s a magazine or a subscription box, this is a great way to give a gift that really does continue to give.
Highlights, National Geographic Kids, etc.
These are examples of magazines that are geared for kids. They are fun, entertaining, and perhaps even educational. It is fun for kids to continue to get something in the mail month after month.
My mom gifted this to my oldest for his birthday, and he has had lots of fun with it. It’s a monthly educational gift subscription, and it takes kids around the world with a different country each month.
Another monthly subscription box. This one is a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, math) subject matter, and it is awesome! Each month the kit comes with directions on how to build something while teaching them some cool stuff along with it. We have really enjoyed these crates. Good for ages two through teenager.
Magazine or monthly activity box
Those aren’t the only two brands of monthly subscription boxes. There are so many types of magazines and activity boxes. These are great gifts!
This could be a great gift for the whole family! There are shows for the whole family, movies for everyone to enjoy, and this is where my little guy can watch his favorites whether at home on the TV, the computer, or on the go on the iPad or my phone. It would be a great gift to him and us (hint, hint mom and dad).
Many people are ditching cable for subscription services. Paying for their Netflix (whether they have cable or not) is fun for kids and parents!
Same as above.
Contribute to a college fund
Kids are going to grow up and get smart. Help a parent out by contributing to their college fund. My Mamaw gave us a gift for our birthday and gave my parents a check to go straight into our college accounts. It wasn’t the main account my parents used — just a special one set up for Mamaw birthday money. By the time I was ready for school it had close to $4,000 in it. Nothing huge, but nothing little. Every little bit helps!
Kids grow so fast. Pick out something special just for them. Maybe even something fun their parents wouldn’t always pick for them (like that glow-in-the dark princess nightgown or shirt that mom and dad don’t love).
Better yet, take them shopping for new clothes
Self-explanatory. Spending time together while buying them new clothes.
Carseats are expensive and you could give the gift of a carseat. It may not be a flashy gift, but boy will it be appreciated! My parents bought one of my son’s carseats, so almost every time we get in the car now he talks about the carseat his Nan and Pops got him. It’s special to him to ride in something from his grandparents.
Give them a library card and show them how to use it
Living in the technology world that we do, our kids don’t know as much about libraries and checking out books. A lot of them know how to use iPhones, but don’t know how to check out a book. Help them learn how a library works and how to pick out books and bring them home.
Lifetime wildlife hunting and fishing license
In Tennessee, you can purchase this for your child while they are young and give them the gift of a lifetime license. My husband did this for our son for his third birthday. Our son won’t have to buy a new license each year when he’s older (like my husband has to), so it’s a huge cost saver down the road. Plus he got a really cool certificate with his name on it and a special message from his Daddy. It’s framed and up in his room.
Do you have something you treasure that your little one loves? Jack LOVES my Grandfather’s dominoes. He plays with them every time we go over. He loves hearing his Great-Grandfather tell him about how to play and then playing with him. Something like this makes a precious gift for a little one in your life.
Each year for Christmas my husband and I give our son a book. On the inside of the cover I write a sweet note to him, the date, and sign it with love from us. We read those books frequently throughout the year, and I know I will treasure looking back at those when he’s older — and I hope he will, too!
Have a little one who is creative? Paint, paper, crayons, stamps, stickers tend to be well-loved by kids. Buy them a good stock of art supplies to help foster their creativity throughout the year.
The fun keeps on going! Although it’s much more expensive upfront, this allows our kids to play for years on end and have fun outside. It doesn’t clutter up my house, and it’s something that will last them for a very long time. This gift is certainly parent-approved!
This is such a fun and special gift. Every bike ride they take they can remember you giving them this special gift.
Their own plant for which to care
Give them a little responsibility and something that is uniquely theirs. They can learn to take care of something and watch it grow and change. While this one may require some parental help, it can be really fun for kids to take ownership over something.
(Disclaimer: this gift must be parent-approved. No surprise pets recommended.) Pets are so good for kids. Children can learn to love them and learn about responsibility.
Make something together
Take a little girl to a local jewelry making place. You can make a necklace, bracelet, or earrings together. Such a special gift! For a little boy (or girl!), go to a local wood workshop (The Home Depot kids’ workshops or try Woodcraft here in Knoxville) and build something together. This makes for a fun bonding time and something they will treasure.
Kids love pictures! Especially pictures of themselves with their family and friends. Giving a picture in a nice frame for the child to keep in their room is such a sweet gift that will mean a lot to them!
Frame their artwork
Nothing shows you value a kid’s work more than framing it and giving it to them. Maybe they have something they worked really hard on or that is very special to them that would be extra special framed somewhere in your home where they can see it often.
A thoughtful love book
This can be anything from a photo book, to a book of handwritten notes from you, to your voice reading a book to them. My son loves looking through our yearly Instagram books of our favorite pictures and for us to read the descriptions to him. He would be thrilled to have his very own special books with pictures and thoughts just for him!
Their favorite CD, iTunes downloads, anything you know they love.
Decor for their room
When I was a little girl, my aunt took me to pick out a painting to hang above my bed. That painting hung above my bed for 12 years before I moved out for college. And I always loved it and always thought of her. This gift also needs an OK from the parents ahead of time.
One of the greatest gifts a little kid can be given.
Another childhood favorite. Good for use at all times day or night.
Make it something fun or especially unique to the child you’re buying for and they will love it! Children and night lights go together like spaghetti and meatballs.
Christmas stuff — stockings, ornaments, and things that they will keep forever.
These gifts are meaningful as well as practical. Growing up, we were each given an ornament every year. When we moved out of the house we took all of our ornaments with us. It is so fun now to show my kids the ornaments I collected over the ’80s and ’90s and to remember who gave them to me.
There are so many cute, decor-matching options out there right now. These make fun little hideouts for kids.
Hammocks, especially the ones that you can hang up and take down whenever and wherever you want, are very popular. This is a good gift from young elementary school up through teenagers.
Indoor swing for reading/relaxing
We love these in my house. My oldest likes to get in and read and my daughter finds it comforting for her sensory processing disorder needs. Plus, they’re easy on the eyes.
Practical and cool.
This gives the option for on-going charms for future gifts. This is a sweet time-honored tradition that is fun to keep up with girls.
US Mint Proof Sets
My Grandfather gave us each that year’s US Mint Proof set every Christmas. As a child I wasn’t crazy about it every year (brat alert), but I think it was so cool that he did that for us.
From one of our readers: “I’m so tired of wasting my money on giving gifts that never get played with because they already have way too many toys! I’m giving my nieces (ages five and 10) each a piggy bank with sections that say ‘save,’ ‘spend’ and ‘share’ on it and giving five $1, one $5 and a roll of quarters. Then each birthday or Christmas they will get another $15 to $20 that they can decide how to allocate. Kids grow up with no real knowledge of money and how much things cost or how to budget. Plus it makes it a lot easier for me! It’s a win for everybody!”
There are options starting at $7 and some that go way up in price. There are microscopes for toddlers and ones for older kids. Check out this one or just google microscopes for kids. Amazon has lots of options.
Similar to the microscope above, there are lots of options and price points on this one as well. Search Amazon for many options!
Teach them a skill and give with it
From one of our readers: “I struggle with meaningful gift giving every year. This past Christmas my husband and I gave our 10 yr. old daughter a cookbook, oven mitt and an apron. Now, we spend quality time in the kitchen bonding, cooking and baking. For our 13 yr. old son, we started a toolbox. I think this next year it will be plans to build something!”
Show them how to serve
There are few greater gifts than showing someone how to serve. Take a birthday or Christmas as an opportunity to show the child in your life how to serve. It’s one of the most precious things to get to spend time together while setting the example of actively serving somewhere.
Compassion International Gift Catalog
Give a goat. Or a chicken. Or baking classes. Or electricity. Give a gift that is tangible and life-giving to someone else. I know families do this many different ways — one idea that we like is that we let each of our children pick out what gift they want to give. One child may choose a goat and one may choose three chickens, and they love that they’re giving something so special. It’s a great opportunity to open their eyes to what life is like outside of the United States.
Gift meaningful jewelry
Companies such as Noonday are socially responsible businesses that give the profits back to the women who make the goods. Beautiful gifts and money going back where it should = win, win. Rather than picking up another toy, make an intentional purchase to give a gift that gives back.
Sponsor a child in their honor
There are many different organizations from which you can choose to go through to sponsor a child. Choose one that is a legitimate organization, and you will be making an awesome choice. This is a great way to get kids involved at Christmas and year round.
Give gifts that support marginalized people groups
For example the International Justice Mission catalog allows you to pick a gift to give to help those who are at risk such as widows and orphans, as well as fighting slavery and sex trafficking.
Serve instead of give a tangible gift
Pick an area and get to work. Take your kids and get them involved. Even simple things such as taking food to emergency responders is a great way for all of us to serve. Check out this post from our Managing Editor, Francesca, with lots of options for getting involved in our community!