10 Holiday Gifts That Focus on the Real Gifts

Presents that bring presence?

The real gifts of the holiday season are not anything that come wrapped up under the tree. Instead, the real gifts are the people that are in our lives. Our relationships and the time we spend together with the people we care about the most. Now let's be realists, there are always going to be some tangible gifts. But in a perfect world, we can tie these two things together. But how do we choose the tangible gifts, things that actually enhance the real gifts...the gifts of relationships?

In recent years, there has been a move toward experience gifts. Give a gift of a zoo membership or a month or two of dance lessons, whatever it might be. An experience rather than a tangible gift. This is wonderful. When the gift-givers are on board, yeah, do it. But this isn’t the reality for many of us. Experience gifts don’t necessarily check all the boxes for gift-givers, especially when it comes to gift-givers outside of your immediate family. Whether it be the aunts and uncles, the grandparents, or friends. 

The Problem with Experience Gifts

The main problem with experience gifts usually lies in the fact that they fail to light kids up in the moment they open them--particularly for young children who seek immediate gratification. Kids want to dig right into a gift immediately. 

The reason experience gifts can be a "hard-sell" is that as adults we love to, what I call, front-load the gifts. A front-loaded gift is something that you open up and the kid lights up and is so, so excited about. This not only brings joy in the moment to the child but also to the adult who gave the gift. The gift-giving process is as much about the gift giver as it is the gift receiver. And that’s okay. You'd be hard-pressed to find an adult who didn’t love seeing a kid light up with joy. It feels really good, not just for the kid, but also for the adults. So the toys and gifts that light a kid up and allow them to dive right in at that moment...those are front-loaded gifts.

Back-loaded gifts are things like experiences. Back-loaded gifts show their value over a period of time. Here’s a coupon for three months of ballet lessons, “Oh thanksssss,” is the reaction you might get in the moment. But a few months later after that child has been through three months of ballet lessons, they’re really going to understand and appreciate the value of that gift. Back-loaded gifts are the gifts that keep on giving with time. But aside from a trip to Disney World, these back-loaded gifts don’t usually light a kid up quite as much in the moment. As a parent, three months of ballet lessons is an amazing gift. But to a child, a giant plastic Sven reindeer from Target would make them a heck of a lot happier, at least for about 10 minutes.

I just spotted this plastic reindeer at Target recently. It’s three full feet of plastic. I can tell you that my daughter would be over the moon about this reindeer. However, it is absolutely never making it into our house. It’s 100% a front-loaded toy that would light a kid up. They would play with it for about five minutes and not give it much attention for the rest of its days. And when I say the rest of its days, I mean the estimated 500 years that plastic toys live on past the date of manufacturing. Toys are notoriously hard to recycle. So when we think about the lifespan of toys, we have to think about them long past the time that our kids are playing with them. Because even when those toys leave your home, or if you take them to a thrift store and they go to another home, even if they live in two or three homes...many, many of these toys end up in a landfill and they long outlive us.

So why is it that so many kids seek out these front-loaded gifts? Immediate gratification is a natural part of child development. Kids seek out things that they want to use immediately. It takes many, many years (closer to their teen years) to start truly appreciating these back-loaded gifts that will actually give more value for longer periods of time.

Talking with Extended Family About Gift-Giving

If you have a child that is seeking out these front-loaded gifts, these gifts that look kind of like junk, you’re not alone. There is a certain developmental aspect of this that pushes a child to strive towards things that are flashy, bright and will light them up and give them immediate gratification. And because of this, it can also be a hard sell to other gift-givers to give your kids back-loaded gifts. The other gift-givers are almost always going to want to give your kids the front-loaded gifts. So we have to give them a lot of grace. You have to be patient with them.

It never happens after one conversation. It’s a series of conversations. It’s modeling a different way of living. With time, you’ll find that your extended family members get on board with the way that you’re giving gifts to your kids. I know there are many people who struggle with even starting the intentional gift conversation with extended family so I wanted to share a little excerpt from my book, Simple Happy Parenting, which gives you some language to try out. I would recommend making it yours and taking ownership over it. But here’s an example to get you started:

Our kids love spending time with you and I’ve enjoyed seeing your relationship grow. I fear that too many packages might distract them from appreciating all the wonderful gifts that you bring as a person. I want them to look forward to spending special time with you more than they do the gifts. How can we work together to keep them focused on the important stuff?

For the past two years I have done back-loaded toy lists (you can find those lists here and here). These lists of my favorite toys have been really popular for the Simple Families community. But this year I wanted to take it a slightly different direction. 

This year I want to give you ideas of tangible gifts that will allow us to focus on the real gifts of the holiday season: quality time spent together. 

So how do we gift things that are going to enhance the parent-child connection and improve family time? Independent play is critical for children, but there are times when we want to spend more time one-on-one engaged with our kids. And I find, personally, it’s really hard to be present with my kids if I’m miserable doing the activity. A lot of parents struggle with being fully engaged in pretend play with their kids.  That's normal because as adults we lost our ability to really authentically engage in pretend play around the age of eight or nine--when we learned the difference between reality and fantasy. So it’s harder for us as adults to engage in pretend play and it gets old really quickly. But I'm here to tell you it’s possible and we should strive to find ways to engage and spend time with our kids that we enjoy too.

I became acutely aware of this when my kids received the game Hungry, Hungry Hippos. I despise the game Hungry, Hungry Hippos. Every time my kids get it out and want me to play with them, I avoid it at all costs. Therefore, I thought more about this question: Why is it that I don’t like Hungry, Hungry Hippos?

I do remember that I loved it as a kid, but the reality is it doesn’t engage me as an adult. It doesn’t stimulate me in any way, shape or form. It’s just slapping this handle, trying to catch some balls and it gets old to me really fast. As opposed to a game like Ocean Bingo, which is a game that we got a couple of months ago, it's a totally different experience. Different games can engage adults in different ways. Hungry, Hungry Hippos: mind-numbing. Ocean Bingo: hey, I can actually learn something from this. I’m interested in this. Not only is it a beautiful game, but it’s also something that I feel engaged in, something that I want to participate in more often. And as a result, I’m more present and I feel more connected with my kids when I’m engaged in an activity that not only they enjoy, but I also enjoy too. Spending time playing with your kids doesn’t have to be mind-numbing.

So that’s what my gift list is this year. Ten things that will increase your presence and your connection with a child. Things you’re actually going to enjoy doing and want to do.

  1. Ocean Bingo + Sea Life Book
  2. Library Book System: Book Bin + Book Tote
  3. Green Kids Crafts (Code EARLY70/GIFT40)
  4. Storyworth (Code HAPPINESS)
  5. Family Collage: Large Canvas + Paint + Decoupage 
  6. Sprout-Kids: Table + Stools + Chairs (Code SIMPLE10)
  7. Mindfulness Kit: Little Renegades Cards + Lavender Spray + Mindfulness Book
  8. Binoculars (Kid-sized Day/Night Version) + Stargazing App + Moon/Constellation Books
  9. Sticker Puzzles: Adult + Child
  10. Meri Cherry’s Book + Essential Art Supplies (find her list in the book on page 12)

Want to learn more? You can also listen to this rather than reading.

1. Ocean Bingo + Sea Life Book

That brings me to the first thing on my gift list this year, which is Ocean Bingo. Ocean Bingo is by a company called Laurence King. And they have a few different versions--Bird Bingo, Bug Bingo, and even Dog Bingo. These games are beautiful and they come with a book of facts to learn a little bit about different objects and different animals within the games. This is my first example of a gift that is going to help you to find more presence with your kids. When you can find a game that you enjoy participating in, you’re going to jump in. You might even initiate the game more often. You could also take it one step further and gift the game of Ocean Bingo along with a book that talks more about sea creatures so that kids can be inspired by the game and want to learn more.

2. Library Book System: Book Bin + Book Tote

So the next item on my list is a library bin and bag. For years, we struggled to use the library. The books always got mixed up with our home books and it felt like too.much.work. But in recent months, I’ve developed a system that really works in our house. We have a dedicated tote that goes to the library with us to select the books. When the books arrive at our house they go into a library-book-only bin. Having a separate bin of library books makes them more available to peruse for the time that we have them in our house and easy to locate when we need to return them. When we decide it's time to return a book, we put them in the tote so they are ready and waiting for the next trip to the library. Making this library book system work in our family has been incredible in bringing new books without even having to purchase them.

And the win-win is that we spend more time reading together too. 

If you want to gift your children a library kit, I would suggest getting a dedicated library tote and bin--just those two things. This seems incredibly simple but it’s been a total game-changer for us. It helps us to keep track of the books and we’re motivated to use the library more often. If I was gifting a library kit, I would probably gift some library books along with the bag and the bin. So you can get started right away on Christmas morning. Go ahead and order some library books just before Christmas. Go pick them up and wrap them with the bag and the bin. This will help your kids understand how the system’s going to work going forward.

3. Green Kids Crafts (Code EARLY70/GIFT40)

We love Green Kids Crafts. This is a subscription box service and it comes with some simple eco-friendly and educational activities to do with kids. These boxes are STEAM-focused (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math). They provide great teachable moments for both the kid and the adults. If you are learning too you are going to be more engaged and present. If you can find things that stimulate your mind too, you’re going to be more on board and invested to spend time doing it.

Green Kids Crafts saved us this year for holiday gifts. The November box was art-focused and provided all the tools needed to make 5 lovely handmade holiday gifts for friends and family. My kids had a great time making them and I didn't have to make a single trip to Jo-Ann Fabrics. 

4. Storyworth

Idea number four is StoryWorth. StoryWorth is definitely a back-loaded gift. Here's how it works: You choose a gift recipient and for one year StoryWorth sends them weekly story prompts. This is typically used inter-generationally--you might choose a grandparent, aunt, or uncle. Then StoryWorth sends this person prompts every week of things to write about. The stories and pictures that are submitted are all compiled into a keepsake book that you can sit down and enjoy with your family.

A subscription to StoryWorth gives you one year of story prompts and one black and white hardcover book that’s delivered at the end of the year. You can also opt for color books too if you prefer. StoryWorth is something that I learned about because they’ve sponsored the Simple Families Podcast, but they’re not sponsoring this post. It’s just something that I’ve come to love and recommend. StoryWorth is such a lovely way to foster, not only the parent-child connection but an intergenerational connection too.

5. Family Collage: Large Canvas + Paint + Decoupage 

This is what I’m doing this year for my family. Meri Cherry, who was recently on the podcast gave me this idea. A family collage is large canvas that your family gets to decorate and add to in any way, shape or form.

My family is going to be using two large canvases and I’ll be gifting some paint along with the canvases and some decoupage. At first, I’ll let my kids go at it and paint those canvases any way that they want. The plan is for this to be a 10 to 15 year project. And slowly as time goes on we’ll be adding and decoupaging on memorable things from our lives. It might be tickets from a show that we loved, or a report card, college acceptance letters, or any kinds of little notes or paper that otherwise would probably get stuffed in a bin somewhere. In the end, we will have a huge memorable, fun experience that also has a final product of things that were really important over the course of our years that we spent living at home together.

I really look forward to sharing this project with my whole family because as a minimalist, I might be tempted to toss out pieces of kid art and that sort of thing. We can add little bits and pieces of those to our family collage and layer them as time goes on.

6. Sprout-Kids: Table + Stools + Chairs (Code SIMPLE10)

We love our table and stools from Sprout-Kids. In fact, we have many pieces from Sprout-Kids that we love. It's a small business that manufacturers in the U.S. and has a sustainable mindset. Clark, the owner of Sprout-Kids, suggested that we do stools instead of chairs for the grownups. Therefore, we have two regular kid chairs and two stools. Sure enough, I’m a hundred times more comfortable sitting on a stool at the table with my kids than I am sitting in one of the little chairs. It’s little things like this that matter: making myself more comfortable to sit down and engage with them. Whether it be a game, an art project, or something at their table...when I’m physically comfortable, I’m likely to do it more often. So this idea can go a long way: A small table, stools, and chairs in which the whole family can find comfort.

7. Mindfulness Kit: Little Renegades Cards + Lavender Spray + Mindfulness Book

I adore our mindfulness cards from Little Renegades. If you are going to gift a mindfulness kit, you might include a set of these cards from Little Renegades, along with some lavender spray to spray in the air, and perhaps a mindfulness book for kids. We have this meditation book for kids. 

Even as adults we can always be improving our mindfulness practices. Having a kit like this put together so that we can engage in these practices with our kids is so powerful. We need to practice together in order for them to really understand the importance and value of mindfulness. They need to see us doing it too. Therefore, seeing us engage in mindfulness in a kid-friendly way can be really positive at fostering mindfulness practices that will stick with them for a lifetime.

8. Binoculars (Kid-sized Day/Night Version) + Stargazing App + Moon/Constellation Books

A couple of years ago, we gifted our son a telescope. He was pretty young, but he was really interested in space and I thought it’d be something cool we could do as a family. It turns out telescopes are kind of complicated and we just could not figure it out. And it took a lot of time and energy and we ended up giving up on it. So I started doing some research on a 'foolproof' telescope--trying to figure out if we could find one that was easy for total newbies like us. What I found out was for kids, it’s better to start with higher-powered binoculars rather than starting with a telescope.

So I did research on some good quality binoculars that are kid-friendly and they can start to see some things at night--so these are binoculars are good at night and during the day. And we got some of those for our kids along with the app called Sky Guide, which is really cool. But I think some books about constellations and the phases of the moon would be really great to include as well. 

9. Sticker Puzzles: Adult + Child

I’m really into these sticker puzzles lately. These are great for fine motor skills, but they also have challenging versions for adults. Therefore, you can get a kid version and an adult version and sit down to do them side-by-side together. Anytime that you can do something together with your kids, they’re going to be more interested and more engaged in the activity.

But again, it has to be something that you enjoy. If it’s something that’s painful or mind-numbing, you’re not going to want to do it as often. I love these sticker books. I think they are a simple, quiet, almost meditative activity that we can engage in together with our kids. These are especially great for travel. You don’t have to bring crayons and colored pencils. You just have to bring the book along and everything’s included right in there. 

10. Meri Cherry’s Book + Essential Art Supplies (find her list in the book on page 12)

My final recommendation:  I mentioned Meri Cherry earlier. She has a book of "art invitations" and they’re simple and easy to do. In the book, there’s a list of 13 staple art supplies that are a good starting off point (page 12). You can complete most of the activities in the book with the staple art supplies that she lists. So, idea number 10 is to invest in her book along with some art supplies to get started on creating the activities in the book.

These projects are all process-based art. That means they are simple, slightly open-ended, yet slightly structured ideas to engage kids in some really cool art projects that focus on the process over the final product. And as with many of the things that I’ve been talking about on this list, they are so powerful and engaging if you sit down and do them together with your kid. So if you’re really looking to go big, even doing the small table with stools (#6) along with this art book and some art supplies could be a nice way to get started on something comfortable and feasible to get your family on the same level and engage together.

We don’t have to be exclusively in the tangible gift or the experience gift camp. It’s possible to find gifts that are going to enhance relationships, but also have a tangible component to them. Sometimes that’s the best of both worlds, finding the back-loaded and the front-loaded gifts. The gifts that are lighting kids up in the moment but also continue to give and to provide value over time, too. 

The gift-giving process will change slowly but surely as you get further in your journey towards simplicity. Try to hold back any judgment that you have for your kids for wanting all.the.things or for the extended family gift-givers for giving all.the.things. When we’re asking gift-givers to change the way that they’re giving, we’re asking for a lot of flexibility. In return, we need to give them a certain amount of flexibility too. 

Are you gifting any presents that bring presence this year?

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Denaye Barahona

Dr. Denaye Barahona is a loving wife and mama of two. She partners with families to tackle the challenges of raising children. Denaye is a minimalist who claims to be a decluttering expert (don't let her near your closet). She loves to travel, talk health-and-wellness, and give unsolicited advice. She has been featured on the likes of The Today Show, The Wall Street Journal, The Huffington Post, The Minimalists, Motherly, Becoming Minimalist, and numerous other media outlets. Denaye holds a Ph.D. in Child Development and is a Clinical Social Worker with a specialty in child and family practice.