You want to give experiences, not things—but that’s not as easy as it sounds. 

Spooky here was a Christmas gift, and she is indeed an experience.

Ok, you know the drill. I know the drill. The best gifts, for our over-indulged children and our cluttered homes and the simple lifestyle we aspire to in the post-Kondo world are experiences, not things.

Got it.

But that’s a hard standard to live up to, right? Experiences take time and effort. Having given them, you, too, often must experience them. And as much as I don’t feel the need to add more Lego to our collection, I also don’t really feel the need to add any more to-dos to our list. Personally, I’d treasure the gift of an entire weekend spent at home doing absolutely nothing and driving absolutely nowhere. I actually think my kids would enjoy that too, but I don’t think they’d be terribly excited if I put it under the tree (which is how we do gifts in our non-religious, multicultural house; on Hanukkah we make a point of doing something together every day, or at least we make an effort).

So I put the question out there on Facebook—what can we give kids and teens that at least skews towards an experience instead of another Wii game, remote control car or funny t-shirt? And I got enough answers to finish my shopping, and push me well into next year’s birthdays. If you’re not already hanging with my Facebook crew, you should be (friend me here), but in case you missed it, here, categorized, condensed and unattributed, are the ideas that got all the likes.

  • Family Outings/Events: This prompted quite a list. Broadway shows, naturally. (No one even SUGGESTED Hamilton, but one shout out for  Dear Evan Hansen with teens. Circus. Big time sporting event, with–for those of us, like me, who live too far to do that easily, a hotel stay with a pool and a dim sum brunch the next morning. Also rans: arcade, manicure, movie tickets (“package them up with snacks in a cellophane bag of popcorn”). Petting zoo. Farm visit.

  • Experiences: The coupon for a “one on one outing” was the most popular idea here. “My kids would LOVE the idea of one on one dates – even a meal together without the others would be a special treat. Couple it with a bookstore visit and $20 to spend, and it’d be heaven.” Here’s the thing, though–for us, unless I picked a date and made some kind of plan or reservation, I feel like it would never happen. It would be June, and one child would be saying, hey we never did this! And I’d be like, I know, I’m sorry…. So I suggest booking these specifically, if you like the idea. I’ve scheduled a baking class with a child a couple to times. You could make an actual lunch, brunch or tea dinner reservation. Sign up for a one-off craft class. But put it on the calendar and give it as a done deal.


  • Other experience ideas: Theme park memberships are huge (man, my gang would love that if we lived within 2 hours of a theme park). Museum membership, aquarium membership, local community theatre season tickets, season tickets to anything else. Family trip with surprises for the trip (lots of people box up spring break one way or another). Indoor water parks. The Escape Room (sort of a live action family puzzle, the link is to New Hampshire versions, but there are many) or a Stray Boots tour (something like a puzzle treasure hunt). iFly–indoor skydiving.



  • Spotify subscription stands alone.
  • More assorted ideas: Gift the gift of printing a teen’s own design on fabric, wallpaper or gifrwrap at Spoonflower.  How about some art supplies, or a stamped jewelry kit? Personalized stationary. Pens. A photo album or photo calendar, or the Knock Knock What I Love About You Fill In the Love Journal. Bathrobe and slippers, Page-a-day calendar, Amazon Allowance (which is basically an Amazon gift card that refills, not actually sure how I feel about that).Board games, Genealogy projects

  • Family Games–There was a round of enthusiasm for games like Drawful and Quiplash, which (I haven’t played them yet) seem to work if you have any way at all to mirror a phone or tablet screen on a TV, like Apple TV, and then everyone else hooks in their gadget and starts drawing to typing or whatever–well, like I said, I haven’t tried it yet but I guarantee that we will. Apparently it’s key that you get the family friendly version “so your kids don’t end up suggesting names for an x-rated bakery like mine did.” Also on the games list: Exploding Kittens and Super Fight Game.

That’s it for kid and teen gitts. If you’ve got a writer in the family , be sure to check out the most recent episode of the #AmWriting podcast, in which co-host Jessica Lahey and I offered up—along with my December Keep Your Butt in the Chair Manifesto and a reminder that even though the holidays are upon us, WRITERS GONNA WRITE—a list of some of our favorite writer-y things that we’ve aquired over the years. Find the episode here, my list of favorite gifts here and Jess’s list here.

Want more lists of gift ideas? My friends at the Book Jam blog curated a list of book recs from kids, for kids. Find it here. And I found the Teen and Tween gift guide from Between Us Parents helpful, along with the 2016 8 Fun Subscription Boxes for Teens from Chicago Now’s version of Between Us Parents, which appears, confusingly, to be different. But I can roll with that.

If you have any other great ideas, send them along and I’ll do a last minute round up if there are enough.

5 Responses to “You want to give experiences, not things—but that’s not as easy as it sounds. ”

  1. Your kids are older than mine, so many, but not all, of these gift ideas are geared towards older kids. You mentioned a photo calendar, and I just wanted to put out there that this is my favorite gift for my 6-year-old right now. We did this last year, and it was a hit. She and I spend a lot of time sorting through photos from the year, which I need to do anyway as I make calendars for grandparents and a yearbook for us, and we are both happy to relive some of our favorite memories together. She chooses her favorites and gets to design her own calendar on a low-cost site like Snapfish, which at her age is a lesson in months and math. I wrap it up and put it under the tree, and she is excited to look at the photos again on Christmas morning. She coveted last year’s calendar all year, writing in birthday parties and no school days and marking off the days as they past. I loved how this gift included time spent together, happiness from seeing favorite photos over and over again (and it’s fun to see which ones are her favorites), and was used all year long.

  2. KJ says:

    Great idea! I’m doing (shhh) a photo book for one of my kids, I hope–the youngest girl. She’d like a calendar too. You know what she’d like? a DATEBOOK with pictures. There has to be somewhere to make that. Hmmm.

  3. Lisa Wells says:

    Disclaimer: This may be pushing the limits.

    With two college kids, who still believe in Santa (or so they say….), we have fun with Christmas. Santa brings 3 gifts, very different from mom and dad kind of gifts. We crazy last year set ourselves apart from Santa. We gifted Cards Against Humanity. This year, we’re adding with additionals sets. If you’re politically correct, highly religious or don’t like to laugh, forget it. But playing it with my kids and then with my kids and parents, gave us keen insights into the lives of our teen and young adult that we would not have otherwise gained. Useful intel. And it was freaking hilarious. (We also learned they had previously played it on high school sponsored camping trips! )

    PS People say the game is like Apples to Apples. It is not.

  4. Becky Poer says:

    These are wonderful, thank you! I’m loving everything you are writing-I’m a new follower of yours!

  5. KJ says:

    THANK YOU! That’s so great–I really appreciate it!