Keep that smile all year
With the holidays approaching, thoughts of those growing shopping lists are ever-present. But when shopping for kids, finding a gift that lasts beyond the unwrapping afterglow can be difficult.
"There are ways to give gifts that aren't 'things' that are tremendously meaningful to kids," says Betsy Brown Braun, a child development and behavior specialist and author of "You're Not the Boss of Me: Brat-Proofing Your 4- to 12-Year-Old Child."
"I talk about having experiences with kids for the holiday," says Braun. That could be helping children give their own gifts instead of getting them, like baking cranberry bread for the crossing guard or picking out toys to donate to a needy family. Braun also recommends family games or a treasure hunt during the holidays, so families can spend time together. "Reframe it so it doesn't have to do with 'give me,'" she says.
Unlike a toy that stops working when the battery runs out, here are children's gifts that continue to give all year long.
Museum and zoo memberships
A museum or zoo membership is a great gift -- if the recipients are interested in the offering.
"You have to keep in mind what the kid would enjoy," Braun says.
In addition to unlimited free member entrances, these memberships offer other benefits such as parking passes, special member nights and passes for IMAX movies at the museum, says Jennifer Fink, a Milwaukee mom of four. She bought a museum membership as a family Christmas gift one year, saying the gift was consistent with their family values. "This really expressed our values: time over material things, (and) learning and exploration," she says.
Fink's family benefited in other ways, too, because the membership allowed entrance into participating institutions. "We used our museum membership to visit the Santa Barbara Museum of National History and the Ty Warner Sea Center, as well as the La Brea Tar Pits, when we traveled to California for my brother's wedding," she says.
When buying a membership for other people, consider whether it's a place they'll go regularly. Fink says her family received a zoo membership as a gift, but they only liked to go once a year. "Because we had the pass, we felt obligated to go at least twice that year," she says.
If purchasing an individual membership, keep in mind that anyone accompanying the member might have to pay.
A twist on "of-the-month" clubs: subscription boxes with themes from science projects to crafts are growing in popularity. Subscriptions from companies such as Kiwi Crate, Green Kid Crafts and Kelly Kits mail your child a package each month filled with several craft activities and supplies.
"Particularly for the holidays, when kids are deluged with new toys and gifts, a monthly gift subscription is a great way to keep the fun going long after they tire of their new toys," says Penny Bauder, founder and CEO of Green Kid Crafts. "Not to mention that kids love getting things in the mail, so a new surprise showing up at their door each month is really exciting for them."
The projects are a great topic for the gift-giver and receiver to talk about as well. "We hear from a lot of long-distance givers, especially grandparents and aunts and uncles, who say that they are so happy they sent a gift subscription. Every month, they get a call or a letter from their recipient telling them all about that month's theme and the fun crafts they made," says Bauder.
Magazines are also a good idea. Melinda Joffe of Mountain View, Calif., has her sister and mom give her three kids subscriptions to magazines such as American Girl, Mad Magazine and Appleseeds.
"They love it when the magazines arrive," she says.
Holidays aren't just a time for receiving; they're a time for giving. Making a charitable donation in the kids' names can be great -- if done right.
Kids need to have a connection, says Braun, and donating an animal through an organization such as Heifer International can fit the bill. "I suggest that the kids get something out of it. Whether you buy two sheep or a cow, the kids really like that," she says.
The donation also provides a learning experience, says Allison Stephens, a spokeswoman at Heifer International, a nonprofit dedicated to ending hunger and poverty.
"The livestock angle is something the kids can get behind, and what the livestock provides: milk, eggs and nourishment," she says, adding that the website has fun, interactive features to help children learn about how their donations make a difference to the families receiving them.
But no matter what charity you choose, says Stephens, "It's (about) the conversation between a parent and a child about how important it is to find an organization or cause you care about, and how you donate to that charity."
Sharing fun experiences is a great way to give a child something to remember. "Any gift that allows the child to spend time alone with a parent or grandparent, away from a sibling, is special," says Braun.
For Fink, she says she sometimes purchases two season subscriptions for a local performing arts series as a Christmas gift. "I've always loved theater, and they do great shows. I knew it would be fun to take the kids," she says.
Experiences like this "are the most brilliant gifts because they'll never forget that Grandma or Mom took them to see 'The Lion King,'" says Braun.
If you're having trouble thinking of an experience, a company such as Cloud 9 Living can help. Some of its most popular experiences for kids include whitewater rafting, stock car ride-alongs or learning to fly, says Bobby Augst, executive vice president of Cloud 9 Living.
Augst says 10 years from now, when your kids think back to that holiday or birthday, they won't remember the video game or gift card you gave them. "But they'll remember the time they went for a ride in a stock car for the rest of their lives," he says.
Smaller experience gifts are just as fun -- like a trip to the movies or a nighttime hike, Braun says.
"In the end, this is the gift that keeps on giving. They'll remember that much better than Star Wars Legos," she says.
Classes and lessons
For a different type of experience, lessons and other classes can make for great long-lasting gifts. If your children like certain sports or musical instruments, it can be a great option for them to polish their craft. These kinds of gifts can also allow a child to try an activity he or she has been considering that he might not otherwise get a chance to participate in.
Sue Poremba of State College, Pa., gave her 10-year-old son the Christmas gift of track camp one year.
"My son was very interested in running and track at the time, and the camp was geared toward younger kids," she says.
While her son had a great time at the camp, Poremba says in hindsight, she would change how she gave it. "We didn't really have anything to wrap up except the voucher to get into the class," she says. She recommends getting some of the associated items from the camp to include in the wrapped gift. In her case, things such as a T-shirt from the camp plus a water bottle and other running-related items would have made a great theme gift.