Parents can sometimes shy away from giving experience gifts because they lack the wow factor of the hottest new toy. However, with a little effort, experience gifts can get the same reaction as that latest hot wheels set.
I’m not sure what sets me off every year.
Maybe it’s the incessant fighting over the toy catalog they’ve already poured through 17 times. Perhaps it’s stepping on 137 legos on the way to the bathroom in the wee hours of the morning. It quite likely could be the reorganization of the art cabinet for the 29th time while holding a TED talk with my family to walk them through the proper redistribution of supplies, only to find it a mess two days later. (Numbers are exaggerated for the sake of argument, but you get the point.)(Also, numbers are not an exaggeration.)
Whatever the reason, this time each year I find myself completely fed up with stuff. No matter how hard I try to curate a minimalist lifestyle, children always come in with a different idea. They love stuff, and they love a lot of it.
Some use Thanksgiving as a marker for the arrival of the holiday season. My family just watches for my rage-fueled sweeps through the house, filling up the donation boxes to know the season of gifting must be right around the corner. So be sure to guard well your favorite plastic unicorn pen that is also a lip gloss you received in a prize bag at the school’s carnival, which is also your most favorite possession in the entire universe, even better than all the other plastic unicorn pen lip glosses you have crammed in a drawer because if mom finds it unattended, it is a goner.
By the way, this is about the toys, so don’t you dare come to my bathroom and start sorting through my bins. Each and every one of those 127 free samples of hand lotion and face masks and cleansers is an essential part of my skincare routine or will be one day when I have more time because I’m not spending it picking up all of the CHILDREN’S things.
This isn’t a post on minimalism. I’ve already discredited myself from that expertise with my bathroom collection confession. But rage cleaning, however satisfying, is not the only way to counterbalance the collecting of the stuff. What does work is more experience gifting.
We love asking for family memberships to local museums like the Minnesota Children’s Museum, the Minnesota History Museum, and the Minnesota Zoo. Also, sporting events and theatre shows make great experience gifts. We have gifted trips, either large or small, to our children as a way to get them excited and participate in the planning. Even smaller experiences like bowling night, an afternoon movie, or a date to the book store can be an excellent gift for children. Despite their great defense over the tiny trash, I mean treasures, they hoard in their room children really love spending time with their family best. And after many months of saying no to so many experiences because of the risk of a pandemic, participating in these activities is growing increasingly possible this next year with the arrival of vaccines.
However, I will be the first to admit opening up these gifts hits differently for children. Tearing through the wrapping, ripping off the lid, eyes wide at the wonder of what could be inside, only to find a piece of paper inside? The magic of gifting can easily get lost on an experience gift, even if the experience is exciting. Children relate to the tangible, to the recent. Having something to hold in their hands brings the present to life. And it also reminds them of the experience long after the moment is gone.
We need a way to make gifting less stuff through experiences just as magical as the most sought-after gifts under the tree. So with the motivation to declutter my life but still be the cool mom on Christmas morning, I have come up with a few ways to add glitter to the experience gift without any of the mess.
Pair it with a book.
Book and toy pairings are always my favorite gifts. A book is a learning bridge from imagination to reality. That’s what makes it a great way to bring an experience alive.
For Museum Memberships, a book about the wonders of exploring a museum can be a fun way to get them excited. Bonus points if your museum membership is in the book! Going on vacation? There are plenty of options available to get your child excited about the places they will visit. These books will make it more interesting when they visit and recognize familiar sites. With careful exploration and maybe consulting a librarian, you can find a book to pair with any experience and get your child excited for the journey.
Include Explorer Gifts.
If you want to add a small toy (remember nothing big, you are trying to stay away from more stuff!) these are great gifts to pair with adventure experiences as well as museum memberships. Leave them a note that they are becoming a scientific explorer and they are doing research on new lands.
A notebook for recording all the fun, a magnifying glass or binoculars for hunting treasures, and a disposable camera for documentation. Separate or together, they make a scientist out of your child no matter the adventure you have planned.
Add Something to Wear.
They might fight you every morning to get dressed in something other than their red sweatpants and dinosaur t-shirt. Still, with the right accessory, kids really enjoy getting dressed up when it comes to special occasions. They see you getting fancy for a date, so why not get them something for a special day date.
While practical gifts are not fun to open, the silliness of opening something that suggests a possible experience makes the gifting that much more fun.
If a summer pass to an amusement park is inside the box, build up the suspense with sunscreen, sunglasses, flip flops, etc., one gift at a time until the final gift as the pass. Children may not get it right away, but they will have fun anyway.
I joke with the family that all my three-year-old would really like for Christmas is snacks. But honestly, this is not as crazy as you think. What kid doesn’t love snacks? Obviously, you wouldn’t just wrap up a bag of chips. But if you were planning a long road trip, you could pack up all their favorite snacks and call it their emergency food source. It might confuse them until you explain the adventure you have planned for them. Or wrap up fun marshmallows and hot cocoa to have after a cold outdoor adventure. Have a local drive-thru movie theatre? Gift a bunch of popcorn and movie candy. Yummy food can make anyone smile.
Make the Opening Part of the Fun.
A few years ago I was looking for a “big gift” for the kids but couldn’t think of anything that wouldn’t add to the stuff problem. What I knew we really wanted was more quality time. But how do you wrap that up for a 3 year old and 6 year old?
I wrote down 20 different ideas for fun things we could do as a family on small slips of paper, most of which I knew we would be doing anyway. Then I rolled up the paper, stuck it into a balloon, and blew up the balloons. When the kids opened the present, first they opened calendars for each of them, which was supposed to be the simple gift, but that ended up being a very exciting joy. Then we had them close their eyes and dumped the giant collection of balloons on top of them. Oh the joy! We had a great time popping each balloon and reading about all the fun ideas we could do together this year. Confession time: we didn’t do everything. But that wasn’t the point. The exciting part was dreaming up all the ways time together is a gift.
There might be other ways you could do this for your children. For example, send them on a scavenger hunt. Wrap a box inside a box inside a box. Do a piñata. Anything that makes the gift opening fun will put them in a fun spirit to receive the experience.
Share the Memories.
If gifting joy is what we are after for both the children and the gift giver, remember to make this a memory you can share. If the experience is something to do together, document the moment with pictures. Write down the story of your day together. Print pictures in a small album. And if this is an experience the giver may not be present for, like a membership from grandparents, then remember to send pictures throughout the year about the fun. Getting a picture of someone enjoying your gift is like watching them open it all over again. What a joy to experience together, no matter the distance.