100+ Non-Toy Gifts for Toddlers to Teens

What do we really want when we offer gifts to our kids? I’m guessing excitement, happiness, hopefully some lasting joy. It’s disheartening to give a highly anticipated toy or the newest gadget only to see it ignored a day or a week later. The antidote? Fewer presents of better quality, as well as an emphasis on experiences. According to science, these are the gifts that result in real pleasure.

Real Tools for Real Work

Young kids beg to help out.  When we let them, they’re learning skills as well as the satisfaction of taking on responsibilities. Rather than toy versions of tools, get them appropriately sized real tools (to use with supervision). You can get plenty of useful, not-too-large tools at your local hardware and home goods stores. As kids get older, invest in adult-sized tools they can use for a lifetime.

Starting at four years old we got our own kids woodworking tools and gave them access to scrap wood. We also kept a stool handy for little kids to help at the kitchen counter, and whenever possible let them pour their own drinks from a tiny pitcher into a tiny cup during mealtimes—-cultivating coordination as well as a sense of involvement. When our oldest was three and loved to turn machines on and off, we got him a hand vac as a gift. He used it for years, immediately on the scene to vacuum up crumbs like a man on a mission. Saying yes when a child offers to help is more important than we might imagine.

Woodworking tools: Rubber mallet, vintage manual hand drill ,work gloves, level, sandpaper, safety glasses, tool belt, battery-powered drill, cordless screwdriver, measuring tape, wood glue, tool box, and low sturdy work bench. Consider books such as Builder Boards: How to Build the Take-Apart Playhouse14 Woodworking Projects For Parents and Kids To Build Togetherand The Kids’ Building Workshop. For teens, more complex project books as well as power tools, adult-sized hand tools, a sturdy workbench, and the freedom to work on their own.

Kitchen-y enticements: Apron, egg slicer, small rolling pin, small pitcher, rotary egg beater, small mixing bowls, tongs, whisk, wooden spoon, cutting board, Doodle by Stitch apron, safe Curious Chef knives, a step stool or adjustable kitchen helper stoolEngaging cookbooks like The Do It Myself Kids’ CookbookTwist It Up, and Kids’ First Cookbook. For teens, a high quality kitchen utensil of their own (a good chef’s knife is a classic gift) along with cookbooks they’ll be eager to test out such as Cooking for GeeksThe Everything College Cookbook, or a cookbook aimed at particular tastes.

Gardening tools: Seeds, small gloves, trowel, bucket, watering can, small rake and shovel, (there are lots of child-sized tools at For Small Hands), containers to start indoor plants (like starting plants from sweet potato pieces and avocado pits), a kit to grow sprouts for salads and stir fries, books such as Gardening Lab for Kids and Gardening Projects for Kids.Teens with horticultural interests will appreciate adult-sized tools, gift certificates for seed companies, and specialty books.

Handwork tools: A lucet ,a medieval era wooden tool to help make braided cords and necklaces, knitting needles and yarn along with My First Knitting Book, or Kids Knitting: Projects for Kids of all Ages
First Knitter is a device to help small hands learn to knit., Embroidery hoop and embroidery thread. Fabric scraps and a sewing box with some essentials like needles, thread, thimble, and scissors. Needle felting kit and wool roving.  Try a small weaving loom, a larger loom, or make one out of cardboard.

Outdoor exploration tools: magnifying glass, collapsible cup or collapsible water bottle, sleeping bag, flashlight, spork, or crank flashlight, hand-warmers, Stick-Lets, field guides, vest with lots of pockets for gear, binoculars, telescope, raincoat or rain parka, headlamp, compass,, lantern, multi-tool. Wildness survival guides teaching kids how to navigate, make shelter, perform first aid, and other useful skills include Survivor Kid, Wilderness Survival Guide For Kids, and Ultimate Survival Guide For Kids.

Process-Oriented Art Supplies

Materials (plus the freedom) to explore and make using open-ended creative supplies. Process-oriented art doesn’t offer step-by-step instruction or expected outcomes.

\Scissors, glue, tape of all kinds, modeling clay, quality paper, paints (such as finger paints, tempera, acrylics, and watercolors), brushes, oil pastels, gel crayons, beeswax block crayons and stick crayons, colored pencils, ruler, compass

Any materials that foster experimentation in making (toothpicks, cardboard tubes, pipe cleaners, string, twigs, shells, rocks, ribbon, beads, dowels, wire, etc).

Right-sized place for creating (desk, small table or bench, drafting table).

Process-oriented art for teens include Journal Sparks, Conscious Creativity and/or Conscious Creativity: The Workbook.  Books to help guide younger children include Art Workshop for Children, Play, Make, Create, and Wonder Art Workshop.

To make your own materials together, consider The Organic Artist for Kids: DIY Guide to Making Art Materials from Nature  or The Organic Artist.

For more ideas on open-ended creativity look into the possibilities offered by loose parts. 

Quality Musical Instruments 

Real instruments, scaled for a child’s size, sound great and inspire interest. Even very young children can pluck along to sheet music tucked under the strings of a lap harp. For impromptu playing at my house we leave out a number of instruments including a wooden flute,  set of panpipes, ukulele, small pentatonic scale harp, and a small accordion. And one of the best gifts we gave one of our sons was a used electric guitar when he turned 13. You might want to start with something affordable, such as a harmonica or ocarina. Here are some sources for child-sized instruments.

HearthSong lap harp.

Schylling accordian or Woodstock accordion

For Small Hands percussion instruments such as shakers and drums

Harps of Lorien child-sized or larger lyre

Erhu (Chinese two-string instrument)

ocarinas and harmonicas

Woodstock chimes and children’s hand bells

steel tongue drum

Hohner acoustic guitars 

Bella Luna pentatonic flute or hand drum

Zither Heaven bowed psaltery or a Roosebeck psaltery

Interest-Based Classes 

One of my kids’ favorite activities was surprisingly affordable bagpiping lessons with a gentleman who’d once been Pipe Major for Scotland’s Black Watch. One-time or ongoing classes can expand on nearly every interest or create new ones. For teens, one-on-one mentoring in an area of passionate interest is even better.  Here are some ways you can connect teens to experts in all sorts of fields. Class ideas?

  • coding
  • whittling
  • primitive skills
  • fencing
  • cartooning
  • dance
  • pottery
  • rock climbing
  • archery
  • fencing
  • gymnastics
  • parkour
  • glass blowing
  • kayaking

Membership or Season Passes

My oldest son was the youngest member of a model railroad club and almost never missed their regular meetings. Give a membership to an organization that fits your child’s quirky passions. You can purchase memberships to a local historical society, rock collector’s group, chess club, amateur archaeology organization, herpetology society, magician’s guild, whatever builds on a young person’s fascination. Be sure to read newsletters, attend classes, and otherwise enjoy member benefits. Other possibilities include:

  • hacker space
  • museum
  • aviary
  • botanical garden
  • wildlife area
  • Maker programs
  • amusement park
  • recreation center
  • aquarium
  • trampoline park

One Time Passes

Make this an adult-child activity for young children, for older kids buy two or more passes so they can go with friends.

  • ski slopes
  • challenge courses
  • escape room
  • paintball range
  • waterpark
  • climbing gym
  • skating rink
  • go-kart track
  • bowling alley

Event Tickets

These are special occasions, ones that’ll stay in their memories. Don’t forget to take pictures when you arrive.

Things to do Together 

These ideas are great coming from a parent, they may be even more thrilling coming from relatives who want to spend some one-on-one time with younger members of the family. Simply give materials, instructions, or brochures for something you’ll be doing together.  When you give the gift, make sure to set a date!

Print out a recipe or an entire dinner you’ve never tried, include ingredients, and set a date to make it together.

Go on a train ride.

Make a fairy garden together. Gift a few supplies for the project, like a tiny watering can fairies might use.

Give a bunch of boxes along with the inspiration of Welcome to Your Awesome Robot or find even bigger boxes to throw a kids BYOB party (bring-your-own-box).

Give fabric markers and white or light-colored plain pillowcases (well-worn ones from thrift stores are perfect for this) to decorate one’s dreams with drawings, quotes, or wishes.

Take a road trip, maybe aiming to see oddball attractions in your state.

Give some beanbags and learn to juggle together.

Go on a hike. Give hike-related gear and maybe a book like My Nature Book or any of Jane Kirland’s books in the Take a Walk series

Go on a more challenging hike with teens, maybe take along a book like Wreck This Journal Everywhere

Enjoy plein air art experiences together. You might want to give the youngest child a special tote bag to bring art supplies to the park, zoo, or local wildlife spot to draw or paint. For older youth, consider gifting a small sketchbook along with a  compact set of watercolorsoil pastels,  sketch pencilsor charcoal.

Try stand up paddle boarding together.

Take trail riding lessons together.

Give a roll of quarters to play at a place that still has arcade games.

Try geocaching. This modern-day treasure hunt is made possible with a GPS.  Learn more at geocaching.com or navicache.com

Participate in a mud run scheduled in your area.

Construct an insect hotel together. You might give a related book like Insectigations. Teens may enjoy creating larger-scale insect habitat.

Build a clay oven together. Test it out by baking homemade pizza.

Give a bird feeder or binoculars, and sign up together to log bird sightings at eBird or participate together in the Great Backyard Bird Count.

Give rubber stamps and a logbook to go letterboxing together.  Learn more at letterboxing.org and atlasquest.com

Buy some supplies and aside time to make skincare products with tweens/teens using a guide like The Big Book of Homemade Products for Your Skin, Health, & Home or Natural Skincare At Home.

Go cloud watching. Consult The Cloud Collector’s Handbook as you “collect” different cloud types. Post photos to the online gallery of the Cloud Appreciation Society.

Make treats for  birds and animals including pinecones rolled in peanut butter and birdseed, popcorn strings, and cranberry garlands. Then go outside to hang them on a tree together.

Mark cardboard squares with Scrabble letters for a giant game to be played outside.

Arrange a weekend trip together.

Set aside open-ended project time together. Get inspiration from books such as RoboticsTinkerlab, and Unbored.

Subscriptions

Magazines are often the only things kids receive in the mail. (Although you can change this with strange and interesting ways to send snail mail.) Ad-free magazines cost a bit more, but are worth it.

For babies there’s Babybug, toddler to preschool ages consider Ladybug, National Geographic Little Kids, Click, and Ranger Rick Jr..

For elementary-age kids, Kazoo, MuseFaces, and OWL.

For tweens and teens, Illustoria, New Moon Girls, andOyla.

Boomerang subscriptions are one of the best things ever and a favorite with my kids. It’s like a radio show wrapped up in an audio magazine, covered with a delicious layer of smart. Perfect for long trips.

For teens, find a publication that meets their interests, whether hip hop or high fashion. Look for indie magazines when you can.

Come up with your own version of a subscription box. Send a themed box every month or every season with projects, snacks, or other small surprises. Or send a letter every week or two with another installment of an ongoing story you make up as you go along. Or try some other strange and interesting snail mail surprises.

 

Parent-Made Gifts

There’s something special about gifts you make. A snuggly fleece blanket, a second-hand riding toy with a custom paint job, a refinished child-sized rocking chair. You can find plenty of ideas online, but don’t forget these old standbys.

Homemade coupons they can “spend.”

  • Get-out-of-one chore.
  • Stay up an hour past bedtime.
  • Solo time with mom or dad all Saturday, kid’s choice of activities.
  • Sleep-over party.
  • After dark walk.
  • Scary storytelling around a fire.
  • A “yes” to any one project on Instructibles.com.

A dress-up trunk with lengths of fabric for capes, interesting hats, strange shirts and skirts, badges, belts, purses, jewelry, masks, and more.

A recording. Perhaps great-grandma telling stories of her childhood, mom reading aloud from a favorite book, or a song composed by dad for his child.

Make a “Who Loves Me” board book with pictures of family and friends (and pets) for the newest baby. For an older child write an adventure story featuring them, or stage and then photograph Dinovember scenes when they’re asleep. For a teen, maybe a silly book with pictures of relatives back when they were teens. Such books are easily created on Snapfish.com and other sites.

Memorabilia to celebrate a teen’s birthday. Find a newspaper issued on the day of his or her birth. You can add a magazine from the month of his or her birth, music popular that year, a political button, a piece of vintage clothing, etc.

A collection of family-favorite recipes. This is particularly useful for older teens and young adults. Just scan them and print out, or use one of the many services that prints hardbound books with your content.

A legacy present. If you’re lucky enough to have things from earlier generations, pass them on. Give grandpa’s fountain pen to your daughter, explaining that he loved to write as much as she does. Give a great uncle’s watch to a teen who shares his wanderlust. Give the funky afghan your aunt made to the kid who is as offbeat as she was. Write down or tell some stories about these relatives when you give such gifts!