When my sister Ursula turned one, our mom, Madeline, bought her a big, red plastic ball. It cost ninety-nine cents and delighted her more than any other gift she received. For years my mom has told friends: “When your child (or grandchild or niece or neighbor) turns one, get the big plastic ball.” And everyone who’s followed the advice gets the same big-smiled result.
When that same sister was 30, six months pregnant, and living across the country, I flew her back home as a Christmas surprise for my parents. My own small children were thrilled to help sneak her into the house and wrap her, mummy-like, from head to toe with yards of snowflake wrapping paper while she stood stock-still without laughing for a good half hour. When we told my parents to come open their gift right away as it was perishable, they marveled for a while at this wrapped totem, trying to guess what it could be. Honestly, they had no clue; we’d all spent the run-up weeks lamenting a Christmas without Ursula. “A tree?” said my mom, to which my dad said, “No, it’s giving off heat.” They tried and tried to guess until my kids demanded, “Unwrap it already!” I think that was the year I realized that it’s more fun to give than to receive.
So, what makes a good gift? It’s all about age, stage, delight, and surprise. Add in “thoughtful and unique,” says Mia Galison, founder of eeBoo, a company that makes crafts, toys, and activities for kids. Last year I gave chilled cookie dough, alphabet cookie cutters, and a container of icing to my five-year-old cousin. For her child’s friends’ birthdays, my colleague Beth pairs books with significant props—Pippi Longstocking with zippy, striped socks, or The Last Crayon with a large new box of 64 crayons.
There’s a lot to consider in coming up with the right present. First, if it isn’t age appropriate or doesn’t speak to a child’s developmental stage, the gift will be a dud. “Children’s development, skill level, and how they play change as they grow,” says Tovah Klein, Ph.D., author of the book How Toddlers Thrive. “Think about where the child is in terms of development when you’re picking a toy for him,” she says. “Playing should be fun, and toys should support his development.” An expensive stuffed animal may be handsome, but probably not as much fun to play with for a one-year-old as the wrapping paper it comes in. Given this reality, you may want to wrap gifts for the very young with easy-to-tear paper, keeping the gift itself on the inexpensive side. Klein’s motto? “The simpler the toy, the better.”
Once you’ve nailed the age and stage question, experts agree that what kids play with should support exploration, learning, and growth. ”Matching games that ask children to find a connection between pictures, like a dog and a leash, are perfect for the 3+ set,” says eeBoo’s Galison, “because they are a delightful way to sharpen memory and focus.” Klein, a psychologist, is a fan of open-ended toys, which require no “right” or “wrong” ways to play. “They allow children to have their own ideas, to think, create, imagine, and make what they want,” she explains.
As children get older, they develop specific interests that gifts can complement. A preschooler who loves trains will be happy with new train cars, or even a miniature accessory that can add to an existing set. A six- to eight-year-old who is into art will appreciate a cool dot-to-dot book, or, if more sophisticated, a learn-to-draw book, such as the wonderful Illustration School series by Sachiko Umoto, including Let’s Draw Cute Animals. For more bang, pair with colored pencils in a cool tin.
It’s fun to get creative when it comes to tapping into kids’ passions. A preschool dinosaur fan might love a 3 ft. high inflatable T. rex, while an older budding paleontologist can appreciate a daytrip to the natural history museum followed by frozen hot chocolate at a special café. Got a game player in the house? Give a classic like Candy Land (3+), Trouble (5+), or Parcheesi (7+), along with coupons that guarantee your spot at the table as an opponent. You might enhance the package with a book like Who Was Milton Bradley? When you acknowledge a child’s passion, you affirm her individuality—a big esteem booster.
Whatever age you’re buying for, go for the “Wow”; presents must delight their recipients. My poor son Jamie used to unhappily refer to Christmas as the “shirt holiday” due to the number he received from well-meaning relatives at a loss for other ideas. It’s good to differentiate what kids need from what they’d like. A bike is a present. A bike helmet is not. “Unless,” says Galison, “you have fun with it.” Like my friend Jenny who gave her son Theo kneepads first and the skateboard second. “You said no so many times to that board,” Theo told his mom. “I never thought you would get it for me.”
Personally, I’ve become a fan of experiential presents over the years— tickets, edibles, a workshop. But children love to open presents, so if you’re giving tickets to, say, a special show or concert, wrap that little stub of paper in layers of different paper, Bubble Wrap, and boxes so there’s some fun in opening your gift-to-be-redeemed at a later date. And consider throwing in a related but inexpensive add-in to go with that dance class or music lesson (think: a little tutu or harmonica) to be enjoyed on the spot.
Also, include your kids as you plan gifts for others so they learn the joys of giving. “Making a card for a friend is a way to introduce preschoolers to the idea of giving to others,” Tovah Klein says. Older kids can help pick out gifts for friends or sibs, though before ages five or six you shouldn’t expect them to express the selflessness it takes to shop for anyone else.
Include them, too, in charitable giving. As my children grew, holiday time gave me an opportunity to impart my values as I gave to toy drives or made year-end contributions to nonprofit organizations. “When they are eight or above,” Klein suggests, “you can involve them in donations, explaining that you are helping others who may not be able to afford holiday gifts this year.” When they are younger, says Klein, they don’t quite understand what it means that others have less. “In fact, it can sound scary that some children don’t have clothes or toys or their own bed to sleep in. If you help out a neighbor or donate books to the library, your child will see that giving is part of what you do.”
For me, the adage “It’s the thought that counts” are words to live by. Some years, when I’ve been flush, I’ve spent a lot on gifts; other years, not so much. But always, always, I think of the recipient as unique and so, too, the present I give.
Pam Abrams has written for and about children for many years, and currently serves as Program Director for Jacob’s Digs, a nonprofit organization in New York City. She has two children.