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Friday, February 15, 2013

Plastic-fantastic-free gift shopping for kids

Last time I blogged, I was on my high horse about ridding your house of the plastic fantastic and encouraging your kids to play independently. You can find that post here if you missed it.

Are we having fun yet?...
But hey, this is the real world! Kids have birthdays, Christmas (or your own personal gift-giving festival day, according to your faith) comes around...

....and that's when stressed-out, busy mums and dads get overwhelmed. Oh *expletive*, the birthday party's tomorrow... or this afternoon, heaven help me!... (Well do I remember that awful moment, from my days as a working mum with an equally tired child in tow!!)

That's the moment when they grab the first vaguely appropriate piece of junk they can find on the supermarket or toy shop shelves. Or, in many cases, inappropriate piece of junk.

So I thought it would be only fair, after that last post of mine, to talk about some possibilities for junk-free present shopping.

Presents that encourage outdoor play

A toy that encourages kids to get outside, run around, use their muscles and develop hand-eye, gross motor or fine motor co-ordination is almost never a mistake. Do make a call and check with parents that some of these are appropriate for their family culture and environment, though.

Balls of any shape and size are always going over fences or being punctured by the dog and needing replacement. Check what ball games the child enjoys.

Game sets- cricket, boules, T-ball, badminton, volleyball, indoor 'soft' alley bowling for families with a hallway, even lawn bowls- encourage families to interact.

Blow-up punching bags- the sort you put sand or water in the bottom of, so they bounce up again- can be a hoot, and they help very active or frustrated kids channel aggression away from hitting other children or throwing things. (These can be particularly helpful with children who are enmeshed in a family crisis such as divorce or illness- things that are out of the child's control.)

Skipping ropes, especially longer ones that encourage children to team up and take turns, seem to be unusual enough these days to spark up children's curiosity. (NB: Always supervise skipping games to ensure ropes don't end up being used inappropriately- actively teach safety considerations.)

Real tools for gardening, including seeds and seedlings of edible plants or beautiful flowers, can encourage good eating habits and a sense of beauty, as well as being great fun and giving the child a sense of 'ownership' of the outdoors.

Presents that encourage creativity

There are two main 'big hints' I want to give you here.

One: OPEN-ENDED toys encourage creativity. The less defined the purpose of the present is, the more it encourages creative thought.

Two: CHILDREN LOVE REAL TOOLS. Never buy plastic fantastic when you could buy the real thing instead.

Small open-ended building kits, such as Legos (avoid the gender specific ones, please!) which start as an exercise in following instructions and then eventually become something other than what's on the box, make great gifts.

Balsa wood dinosaur, insect and aeroplane kits can fit in with a child's interests, as can plastic model boats and planes to build and paint. The 'creative' part is not so much in the construction- that's more a fine motor skill builder and a lesson in multi-step direction following- as in the decoration, so supply paints as well if they're not part of the kit.

Don't assume that a girl won't enjoy constructing something like this, either. I used to be horribly jealous of all the building kits given to my brother.

Craft kits- jewellery making, gift card making, anything at all that provides the materials and tools but preferably doesn't give a blueprint for exactly what the end product should look like- can entrance a child for hours.

Again, don't assume that a boy won't enjoy that sort of present.

An inexpensive digital camera - and I'm not talking about one slathered with Disney princesses or Spiderman- is a wonderful present for a child. I've found this a particularly useful gift for children with special needs, such as autism. Looking through a camera lens is often far less threatening than looking a person in the eye.

Cookware, and I'm talking about real tools. Children adore having their own real stuff for baking. A wise friend of mine, knowing that my boy LOVED cooking, gave him a set of small Victorinox kitchen knives before he was even in his teens. I don't remember him ever cutting himself, and he treasured them with a passion- I suspect he still does today. At times when she had less money to throw around, she'd contribute smaller items like a garlic peeler or mortar and pestle, which were received with almost equal joy.

The wild animal prints were a big hit.
From the op shop!
Dress-ups don't have to be purchased from a toy shop. Go to an op shop (thrift shop), or check out your own wardrobe for fun items you don't use any more. My mother's cousin's old cocktail dress was a gift I enjoyed for many, many years, and you KNOW how kids love 'real' handbags and shoes.

Hide-outs such as tents, or do-it-yourself kits made from op shop-purchased lace curtains with big bulldog clips or string ties to secure them to trees or tables or doorknobs, can provide hours of fantasy play.

How the kids loved Mr Crocodile...
Puppets are something that every child needs to own. Sometimes a puppet will tell you something that the child can't let out through their own lips... and sometimes it is better to act out a conflict with a puppet than to put a child 'on the spot'. (NB: I have purchased quite a few mint condition puppets from op shops, much more cheaply than the new price!)

Add-ons for existing open-ended collections can extend play in new directions. An extra few pieces of wooden Brio train set were always welcome gifts for my son.

Presents that encourage intellectual growth

(NB: With all these presents, it's a good idea to be sure not just of the target child's chronological age but of their mental age. My gifted child was doing jigsaws, playing board games and reading books many years above the suggested appropriate age level, so know your child- or purchase a voucher instead.)

Books are another sure-fire, non-junk present. Always subtly take along the receipt in your bag, in case the book is a double-up and needs to be changed- or get a book voucher instead, and let the shopping trip be part of the extended joy.

Jigsaws are another winner for kids who enjoy them.

Strategy board games and card games can be another big hit with slightly older children. You can get simple card games for younger children too, like Happy Families or Go Fish. These have the advantage of encouraging socialisation and family time.

How-to guides are another present that can centre on a child's interests- how to make a paper plane, fold origami, create tole work, play chess, do bush crafts such as making an outdoor shelter from branches, etc etc... these can be treasured parts of a child's library for many years.

A piggy bank with a donation of lots of your loose change inside encourages delayed gratification and teaches great life skills, as well as encouraging maths skills as child tries to work out how much he/she has been given and what they can spend it on.

Personal furnishings and accessories

(Hint: steer clear of branded character goods, eg Disney princesses and action heroes. That 'closes' the child's imagination regarding the function of the item and also affects the child's moods and behaviour when using that item.)

A special oversized cushion can be both comforting and fun. Small cushions in appealing colours and designs are also very popular, and can be used for dolls as well as kids.

A personal chair- whether a beanbag (avoid in houses with children under 3 years), beach chair with drink holder or a child-sized foam lounge- can be treasured for years and used for dolls and teddies when the child grows out of it.

Even a satin sheet from the op shop...
can be the sea! Or a tent... or... And the
rainbow scrap was much in demand.
Soft, cuddly, child-sized throws and material scraps of various sizes- I just visit the remnants bin at Spotlight and hem them up on my sewing machine- can provide quilts and tents for dolls, scenery for imaginative play (the sea, the sand, the rocks, the flower garden), cuddlies for nap time, symbols for moods (I had a volcanic red we used for anger, a sunny yellow for joy, and a cool blue for sadness in my preschool room, and the kids really got into it) or just a beloved mat for curling up on and dreaming. A whole rainbow of coloured, textured scraps can really excite a creatively-minded child.

Outings, interest and special need presents

Tickets for the child to accompany you or one of his parents to a live show, the zoo or another fun venue are lovely presents if you can afford them, and can provide weeks of excited conversation afterwards.

Camel ride, anyone?
A special outing with you, the giver, and your child to a cafe or restaurant, or to an outdoor  'adventure' of some kind can be both relieving for the parents and a memorable experience for the child.

An iTunes gift card has never, to my knowledge, been rejected by a teenager. It's a gift that keeps on giving and it doesn't matter if you double up or give the same thing many years in a row. Music is an important part of a teenager's growing sense of identity and can be very comforting for a confused, angry or sad child.

It doesn't have to be a puppy- sometimes
a fully grown animal is a better choice.
And go to pounds and refuges, not pet
shops please!
A companion animal can be a saving grace for a child who is having trouble with friendships.

NEVER BUY A CHILD A PET WITHOUT CONSULTING THE PARENTS. But do consider how an animal to care for, to love and be loved by, can transform a child's life.


Well, that's all very well when you're doing the buying. But how do we prevent well-meaning friends and relatives from cluttering our own homes up with the plastic fantastic twice a year?

Avoidance strategies

Think ahead!

When you write the invitations for the birthday party, consider inserting a short but subtly worded note which includes thoughtful gift suggestions and plenty of flexibility in price and gift style. Something like this.

"Here are some quick-fire gift ideas for (name) to help you avoid that ghastly gift-shopping experience!

"Children's book store voucher
iTunes card- (name) would love to expand his Wiggles music collection!
Piggy bank with 'donation' of your loose change inside
Anything to encourage outdoor play, craft or building
Interests: he enjoys cooking with real tools and cookbooks
Invitation to join you at a cafe, restaurant or other child-friendly outing (please, no fast food)
Tickets to a sporting event, music concert or movie (G-rated only please)
If you'd really like to buy (name) a toy, he currently collects Matchbox cars."

And there's no reason in the world that you can't prime people at Christmas, too. Discuss with your family and any Christmas Day guests what gifts would be most helpful and appropriate for your children- or even go gift-free for a year. Make it easy on people- perhaps you could have a year where everyone from outside the immediate family buys your children book vouchers only?

NB: discuss your change of gift-receiving plan with your children before the big day! We don't want any meltdowns! A mega-shopping excursion to the bookshop can be presented as something exciting to look forward to- you could even take the kids on a preselection trip, where they can look for what they'd like to purchase if they get enough vouchers.

You may find that having these open discussions well before the gift buying frenzy takes place helps to open up your own relationships with family members too, and makes that special day less stressful for everyone.

Be honest, but tactful, when talking to gift givers. Don't refer to failed presents from previous years- instead refer to what your child was really excited by and used over and over again.

Remind, gently, about any house rules (eg no junk/allergy producing food, no character-branded goods, no sexism, no screens, no PVC plastics, nothing that needs batteries, or whatever is your own particular bete noir). Always explain why you have decided that, with your emphasis on how it affects the child's behaviour or wellbeing (nobody really wants to damage your child, do they?).

Try not to go over the top- keep it short and sweet.

MINIMISE PREACHING YOUR PHILOSOPHY. "We believe" statements sound judgmental and patronising, and can inspire people to get back at you for making them feel bad by ignoring what you want! Concentrate on explaining your child's needs.


Well, that's about enough from me. What can you add to my list? What are some great, non-junky presents that your kids have just loved and that haven't driven you crazy?


  1. Still have one of those Victorinox knives (though the others have gradually disappeared over the years). Probably one of the three most used gifts I've ever received.

    Also, epic amounts of Lego for the win.

    For this list, I'd add museum visits, (well chosen) computer games, and, for the technically-minded kid, perhaps some basic programming equipment / software (and possibly an old PC to fiddle with). It's not just interesting for their creativity, it may one day give them a well-paying career they enjoy.

    1. Pass on the computer games unless they are specifically suited to the particular child's needs and interests. The gifted and those on the autism spectrum, specifically, benefit most from gifts like this when well-chosen, but I wouldn't recommend them as gifts for relative strangers.

      I like the idea of programming equipment though, and the museum visit.

      Glad you still have at least one knife rattling around in the drawer!

  2. And on Facebook, Frances Vettergreen Visual Artist adds "Art supplies! Which in our house include recycled packaging...a box with a mirrored interior my mother repurposed from a cosmetics purchase to wrap my Christmas gift has been cut up & is now the wing flaps, instrument panel, and window of the cardboard airplane. I save interesting bits & pieces in a drawer; a box of such things with a collection of coloured duct tape would delight my son. My sister made my niece a "tickle trunk" (Canadians will remember Mr Dressup), full of scraps of fabric and scarves and jewels and old hats; it was added to and played with for years."

    Thanks Frances- I did mean to add art supplies and it fell out of my chemotherapy-addled brain. ALWAYS a wonderful gift, from sketch pads with watercolours and felt tipped pens to wondrous boxes of crayons or coloured pencils all the colours of the rainbow.

  3. Hmm.. museum visit is interesting and haven't tried it before. A lot of outdoor activities would be considered too. I love giving book as a gift and I think it is one of the most wonderful gift kids can get. Specifically, books with pictures on it are enjoyable for them, right?

    1. Depending on the children's ages, yes, Pauline- well-chosen books that reflect the children's personalities and interests are a great choice.

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