Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Non-Toy Gifts for Toddlers

Christmas is almost here... and the toys are creeping in. I freely admit to being guilty in this: D and I bought Bug a train table as his "big present" this year. In my defense, this is the first year that we're really celebrating the holidays since Bug was born, because this is the first year he's old enough to understand (kind of) what's going on, and the first year he can appreciate the family time, the feasting, and, of course, the abundance of gifts.

He's not getting a ton from us. He's getting the train table, and two new sets of pajamas (I made pajama pants for everyone this year!), and a new box of crayons. He's gotten a handful of new holiday books over the past few weeks. I intend to pick up a few more small "stocking stuffer" type of gifts, even though I don't think I'm going to bother with actual stockings this year.

But that's just from us. And we're not the only ones who are giving him gifts.

Bug's grandparents, of course, are sending gifts, primarily toys as far as I know. His great aunt and uncle sent some kind of toy. One of my best friends down here in San Diego is giving him a toy, and one of my best friends from the Bay Area is sending him a toy. I think the mom of one of my other best friends might be sending him something (probably a toy).

All in all, Bug is making out like a bandit this year.

And he already has too many toys, as far as I'm concerned. Not that I'm not mostly guilty for that. I know I buy him too many toys, and I lament that he has so many even when I'm buying him something new. I've got a problem, one that many parents can identify with, but a problem all the same. Come January, I plan to divide all of his toys into thirds and start rotating them in and out, both to reduce the clutter in our living room and to hopefully entice him to actually play more with the toys he does have.

I'm pretty sure most of my mama friends also feel their kids have too many toys. We complain about how they're everywhere, underfoot and in the bathroom and in the car and sometimes in unexpected places like the fridge.

And yet, when the holidays or a birthday comes around, we all do the same thing and just buy more. For our own kid, and for each others' kids.

But if I don't buy toys, then what the heck do I buy?

Well, I have been thinking about that. And let me just say here and now that I'm going to try to make a concerted effort to buy less toys, both for my son and for the children of my friends. Instead, I'm going to try to start focusing more on buying things that are not toys.

Things like...

Didn't you know that books are the best gift ever? A child can easily have too many toys, but one can never, ever have too many books. To be honest, I already tend to gravitate toward books when shopping for birthday presents for the little ones in my life. Babies and toddlers love being read to. And I know I, at least, love reading to my toddler. (Well, most of the time. There are times when I get tired of reading the same book over and over and over again, but that's a rant for another day.) I can only hope that by being constantly surrounded by books, Bug will grow up to love them as much as I do.

     Arts & Crafts Supplies!
The last few times we have seen my in-laws, my mother-in-law has brought little craft projects to do with Bug. They're always simple, low-cost, and create relatively little mess, using just things like construction paper, glue sticks (something he never gets to play with otherwise at this age), stickers, etc. And Bug loves them. The allure of art projects can be clearly felt at even the tender age of not-quite-3, and these little projects keep him entertained for awhile (and out of my hair!) while giving him a chance to bond with grandma. And they always inspire me to come up with my own projects to do with Bug, giving me a chance to get in on that bonding opportunity.

So why not put together a little craft project for the toddler in your life? The Internet is full of ideas, and you can easily put together a little package that they can enjoy with some supervision from a parent. Put together a felt Christmas tree that mama (or papa) can hang and toddler can decorate (and redecorate, and redecorate, and lose the ornaments, and find the ornaments in unexpected places, and hang the ornaments in the real tree, and then ultimately redecorate the felt tree a few more times). Send a bag of popcorn and a spool of thread for popcorn garlands (and remember that simply making popcorn on the stove is a great way to entertain a toddler). Send red construction paper and a bag of cotton balls for making a Santa hat. Send flour and salt for making salt dough Christmas tree ornaments. Send a jar with the dry ingredients for your favorite cookie or brownie recipe, along with a list of other (wet/perishable) ingredients needed and step-by-step instructions. And those are just holiday craft ideas. Go get lost on Pinterest and find a myriad of other ideas for the rest of the year!

And what if that's a little too crafty for you? Well, I can't speak for every mama of every toddler, but I know that in my house a gift of basic art supplies can never go wrong. A blank coloring pad and a brand new box of crayons will keep Bug busy for a long time. Throw in some stickers and he (and I) will be eternally grateful.

     Playtime Activity Book!
This kind of ties together the first two ideas. I am currently reading/reviewing a couple of different books that are are full of projects that will occupy little ones of all ages (including toddlers, of course). There are recipes for various play doughs, slimy things, homemade paints, sensory activities, and more. There are plenty of similar books on the market; why not pick one of them up and pack it in a box with the ingredients necessary for a handful of the projects in the book? This is win-win for everyone: toddler stays busy, and mama doesn't have to make an extra trip to the store.

This picture has absolutely nothing to do with this post. I just wanted to show off one of Bug's early presents from his grandma.

The most obvious thought here is a magazine subscription. Bug already receives Highlights High Five magazine, and I can't even describe to you how excited he gets every time a new issue arrives in the mail. We end up reading it over and over and over again, and we frequently go back and reread past issues that are still floating around too. Ranger Rick offers a kid's magazine too, albeit one that's geared towards kids a little older than Bug, and I'm sure there are other options out there too.

Or maybe consider one of those subscription box ideas that are so popular these days. Kiwi Crate offers a great monthly craft box, GiftLit offers a book-a-month club, Green Kids Crafts features educational activities. There are, of course, plenty that offer toys too, and those ones listed here are just a small sampling of the subscription boxes available! If kids delight in getting a magazine, I can only imagine how much more he'd love getting a package every month.

     Kitchen Tools!
Put that toddler to work! No, I'm serious. Bug loves to help in the kitchen, and is constantly asking to bake things or stir things. Most of the time, he is just fine working with my regular kitchen tools, but there are some things that I kind of wish I had in a toddler-friendly size. I'm not talking about toys here; I want to get my son some actual, usable kitchen tools. On my mental list are ones like those offered by Curious Chef, which are available from their website and on Amazon. Think kid-size mixing spoons, utensils with grips that kids can keep hold of, a petite rolling pin, and even plastic nylon knives that can easily cut fruits and veggies but not skin. It's too late for this year, but some of these tools are what I'm planning on getting Bug next year.

     A Vacuum Cleaner!
I don't think I have ever met a toddler that doesn't love the vacuum cleaner. There are plenty of toy versions available, but most of them don't look like a real vacuum cleaner. (And believe me, kids know when they've been given the toy version. Those fake plastic keys were never as satisfying as my actual car keys, and don't even get me started on the toy phone.) And most of them don't actually clean. I know, I know, it's probably in bad taste to make my son do menial work at this age, but he honestly wants to help. I would never dream of leaving all the vacuuming up to Bug, but if he's going to be pushing around a vacuum cleaner anyway, why not make it functional? Thus, one of my husband's upcoming projects is going to be to convert a real vacuum cleaner to a kid-sized vacuum cleaner, which looks easier than you might expect. If you're handy with tools, you might consider doing the same for the toddler in your life.

     Learning Kits!
Teaching our kids new things is instinctive. I know I am constantly trying to impart new wisdom to my son, whether directly (What is that shape? Let's count together!) or through modeling with explanations (Let's stop here on the sidewalk and make sure there are no moving cars before we cross!). There are some concepts that props are incredibly helpful for teaching, and while the Internet abounds with ideas for making your own, sometimes you just want someone else to supply the materials. Of all of the similar products I've looked at, Teach My... provides some of the best tools for teaching concepts to babies, toddlers, and preschoolers.

I'm already planning ahead to Bug's birthday, when I plan to finally buy him a CD player. (Can you even buy those nowadays?!) See, I really want to start building a music collection him, CDs featuring non-annoying children's music (it does exist, I promise). Then he can listen to music during the day and I don't have to have my own iPod taken over by his stuff. He already loves music, and he loves singing, and so I'm pretty sure he would enjoy being able to control what we listen to during the day. I already have a few of Sandra Boynton's CD/book combos, and I have my eye on other kid-friendly music like San Diego group Hullabaloo, Raffi, and A Child's Gift of Lullabyes. (And I am always open to other suggestions!)

There are so many things to do in San Diego that, so long as you have the ability to travel, there's really no good reason to ever be bored. And there are plenty of kid-friendly things to do here too. Sure, there are tons of parks, which are completely free to go to. There are also a lot of places that cost money that I would love to take Bug to, but I can't always afford them (or justify spending the money on them when there are so many free places to go). There are activities I'd love to try too, but those are another thing my budget usually won't allow for.

Surely I'm not the only parent in this boat! I know I love meeting my friends for playdates at museums and the zoo, so perhaps I should add tickets (or, if I'm ever feeling more extravagant, a yearly membership) to some of these places to my mental list of potential presents.
     Museums.  Here in San Diego, we have the Children's Museum downtown, the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, the Model Railroad Museum, and the puppet theater in Balboa Park that are especially appealing to toddlers. There are many more options for older kids, too.
     Zoo.  I already have a membership to the San Diego Zoo, although I will have to buy a membership for Gregory too once he turns 3 next year. I have gotten my money's worth several times over. Honestly, a membership is really the best way to go when you have little ones. There's no need to try to rush and see everything when you can go anytime you want to, and going for just a few hours in the morning doesn't feel like a waste.
     Classes.  There are so many great classes for little kids here! Baby sign language, music appreciation, yoga, art classes, gymnastics, soccer... the list goes on and on. For some you can buy single classes, while others are available in multi-class sessions.
     Indoor Play Places.  In some cities, you need indoor play places to get out of the rain; in San Diego, you need them to get out of the sun! There are less of these now than there were when I first moved here (RIP Jungle Gym and Java Mama; we still miss you), but there are still lots of great indoor places scattered around the city and the surrounding area. And many of them offer punch cards, which make great gifts.

     Gift Cards
Wait, wait, hear me out, guys. I know that some people look down on gift cards as kind of a lazy gift idea. (For the record, I am not one of those people. Gift cards are awesome. Heck, I'm down with just giving straight money too.) But honestly, gift cards can be a great present for toddlers.

Say you want to give a book, but you have no idea what kind of book to get, or maybe you just don't want to buy a book that the recipient might already have on their shelf at home. Instead, pick up a gift card for a neighborhood independent bookstore (or Barnes and Noble, whatever). In my house, going to the bookstore is a big outing. We spend hours browsing, reading different books on display, debating which one to finally bring home. By giving a gift card to the bookstore, you're giving us the prompt needed to take a trip, and to bring home a souvenir to boot!

Consider also gift cards to toy stores (also a fun outing, and one that we hardly ever do in our home, so it'd be an even bigger treat!), food places (Bug loves Jamba Juice but we hardly ever go; or perhaps consider one of San Diego's many amazing cupcake shops that I usually refuse to set foot in; or there's always Starbucks, judge me as you will), or movie theaters (Bug has only been to the theater once in his young life, but I imagine that will change eventually).

If you still think gift cards are a lame gift for a toddler, you've never seen the look of pride on my son's face when I let him hand over his own money to pay for something. How much cooler would it be for him to have his own card to use?

This post is shared at the Special Holiday Edition: Healthy, Happy, Green & Natural Party Hop.


  1. Great ideas! I would add child-sized tools to the list. Jeff got some pink tools for Tabitha a few years ago at Sears. She loves to help her daddy put things together!

    1. Tools are a great idea! I will definitely keep my eyes open for a good set to get for Bug within the next few years. I know he'd love them!