Which presents for kids have staying power? Those with this sometimes overlooked magical factor: development. More than any other benchmark of awesomeness—pricetag, scarcity, digital wonders—what impresses a child most are gifts that speak to his or her strengths and interests (and current stage of development).
This helps, too, for the very young: From birth to around age 4 are golden years for gifting because expectations are still charmingly small. (Seriously: Babies don’t care about receiving any!) And babies, toddlers, and preschoolers really are as dazzled and delighted by the lights, music, and treats as anything. Since they’re not yet programmed to crave piles of toys, you’re in prime territory to shape their ideas about what the holidays really mean—for now and later.
Some ideas that feed their here-and-now:
1. Give a special spot.
Kids love a hideaway. Surprise yours with a nook just for him or her. You can make a special spot out of something as mundane as a card table with a blanket thrown over the top—and then add a personalized pillow or two.
WHY IT’S GREAT: Young kids have a developmental drive to hide—it’s part of the process of separating. A safe space of their own is just the thing for that. Their imaginations run wild, too. That card table can become a house, a castle, a boat, a spaceship, and way more.
Some fun ideas:
- A playhouse made from big boxes. A secret room doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive. That’s where fantasy play comes in.
- An indoor hammock. Kids don’t need a lot of space to call their own, so long as it’s cozy.
- A teepee or tent. These more portable versions of the backyard playhouse will get years of use.
2. Give a family mini-adventure.
At this age, you can skip the grand safari or epic Disney weekend—you don’t have to pack anything more than a diaper bag. Plan some low-stress outings during the holidays that involve everyone but keep the kids front-and-center.
WHY IT’S GREAT: For the very young, everything is an adventure! Build on that. Kids of all ages remember your presence more than your presents. Bonus: You might give birth to some family traditions they’ll latch onto and want to continue forever.
Advice from the voice of experience: You’ll all be happier if you keep it age-appropriate. (They look cute in their Nutcracker clothes, but it’s a rare toddler or preschooler who lasts joyfully through the whole ballet.) Avoid over-scheduling, too. One short fun outing beats a long day punctuated by mega-merriment meltdowns.
- An afternoon of cookie baking. Sugar cookies are best because what your kid really wants to do is toss some sprinkles around! Follow with a visit to a local gingerbread-house contest display. (Check local hotels, which often sponsor them.)
- A drive to see the lights. Check the Worldwide Christmas Light Finder for local hot spots.
- Ice skating, a walk in the woods, or a hayride—with plenty of hot chocolate. Emphasis on the hot chocolate. With those little mini-marshmallows, please.
- Shopping for a present for a daycare provider, sibling, or grandparent. Shopping? Yes. Even toddlers, it turns out, are happier as givers than as receivers, showed a 2012 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. And seeing the store decorations can be thrilling the first times. Just avoid forcing the unwilling onto Santa’s lap, and keep the focus on finding only that one special gift.
3. Give blocks, with a twist.
Blocks are so transcendently fantastic a plaything that the mere word “toy” almost doesn’t apply. If you don’t already have a great wooden set, whether the alphabet kind or the ones that come in many shapes, this is the perfect gift! If you’re already a block fan, maybe expand your collection with some of the cooler variations out there.
WHY IT’S GREAT: It’s hard to think of a single other plaything that will grow with your child longer. Or one that research has shown ticks more developmental boxes: motor skills, hand-eye coordination, spatial sense, creative thinking, social skills, language skills, and more.
- FOREIGN LANGUAGE blocks. Choose from Arabic, Chinese, German, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, and Korean…the number of blocks depends on the language.
- STEM blocks feature pictures of math and science terms, from Atom to Zeolite. Your kid may still be oblivious to words like “gravity” (what happens when a block tower falls!) and “reaction” (wah!) but they’re extra fun and can spark great conversations as your child grows.
- SOUND blocks like these “rainbow” versions contain intriguing noisemakers and can also be a starting point for talking about shape and color. You can also find blocks that make farm sounds or vehicle sounds.
4. Give something to read.
No child’s gift-giving opportunity is truly complete without books. Start the habit now, and you’ll amass a wonderful library as the years go by.
WHY IT’S GREAT: You’ve heard all the research about the importance of exposing kids to lots of language from books. But don’t just do it for their brains and vocabularies. Do it for the snuggling! There’s research to reinforce the bonding bonus of reading to your kids, too.
Which to pick?
- Your own childhood favorites. The very best books to read aloud are ones that you enjoy reading! I have a soft spot for Virginia Lee Burton’s The Little House, which was already a classic in my kids’ grandmother’s day, and for Two Tiny Mice, which literally made my toddler son gasp audibly every time I turned the page to reveal a new beautiful scene. It was just re-released this fall with bonus descriptions of all the animals the two tiny mice see.
- A boxed set. Give more bang for your buck: Thomas and Friends: My Red Railway Book Box comes in a carry case (and what kid doesn’t love a carry case?). The Folktale Classics Keepsake Collection introduces The Three Bears, Three Little Kittens, The Little Red Hen, and The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse in their unvarnished original forms, tempered by very toddler-friendly illustrations by the amazing Paul Galdone.
- Something old-and-new. If your toddler loves The Hungry Caterpillar, check out Eric Carle’s newest, The Nonsense Show, where ducks grow out of bananas and kangaroos carry human babies. And if you love Jane Austen (you do, don’t you?) there’s Goodnight Mr. Darcy (“Jane with a blush and Mr. Bingley turned to mush”) or Pride and Prejudice: A BabyLit Counting Primer Board Book and Playset. Please model sharing when it comes to the punch-out figure of Mr. Darcy.
- Choose a celebrity favorite. Sometimes inspiration comes from other parents. Like maybe Melinda Gates, Jack Johnson, or Jamie Oliver. Check out NPR’s Storybook Project, where the famous and near-famous share their five favorite books to read to their kids.
5. Give motion
A gift that encourages physical play is a great way to stock up on things you’ll eventually want, anyway, and it’s a chance to introduce something new.
WHY IT’S GREAT: Although most young kids don’t need extra incentives to move, exposing them to different types of active play experiences works different muscle groups and skills.
- Balls. Here’s a basic every kid can use plenty of. Balls help hand-eye coordination, from infancy up. Give babies balls with textures or sounds inside to explore. Toddlers love their-size versions of big-kid basketballs and soccer balls. Move up to balls with big bats or baskets for preschoolers. Or go wild and fill a wading pool with plastic balls for your own indoor ball pit!
- Things to ride on. Balance bikes—basically bikes or trikes without training wheels—are the hottest thing since your big brother’s Big Wheel days. They build balance and work large-motor skills. Some of these European-inspired, low-to-the-ground models start toddlers “bicycling” as young as 18 months. But you can also find nifty converter bikes like the Twista (for 18 months to age 4) and Flippa (for ages 3 to 5) that start as tricycles and can change to two-wheelers as your child gets the hang of riding.
What’s great about presents like these is that they’re not clutter or mindless consumption. They’re what you want to give your kids anyway: Wonders. Memories. Healthy growth. Togetherness. A shift from getting stuff to being happy.