Sixty Great Gift Alternatives to Toys

12 December, 2013

We’ve been living a pretty toy-less existence for the last six months, travelling around in a Campervan. It’s been amazing to see just how happy the children are without their normal stash of playthings.

A few toys can be fantastic, but the fact is most of us have MORE than a few; many of us have homes filled to the brim to toys and we can’t take any more! Too many toys can push a child’s imagination right under the bed and will eventually wreck the planet our children have got to enjoy for the rest of their lives. (Read my thoughts on that here.)

But friends, Aunties, grandparents and neighbours want to show loooove! It’s the kid’s BIRTHDAY! It’s CHRISTMAS!

Well. Thank goodness for this here list. There are so many alternatives. Millions (okay, here there are sixty but I’m sure we’ve still only scratched the surface!) of ways to show you care, and for the most part they fire a child’s imagination and cause less havoc for the environment. Many of them are free, or cheap and plenty of them can be found in charity shops. There is a common theme of taking children seriously- of trusting them and their abilities, of giving them tools to create.

(When a celebration is coming up and it’s a pressie-giving kind of time, I reckon a good, frank chat is the best starting point. The child/ parents have a better idea about what the child would enjoy/ needs like a hole in the head. But the second port of call should be this list, for sure. Bookmark it, dudes.)

This is a crowd sourced list using Twitter and Facebook, responses to the question: What is the best non-toy present you ever received as a kid, or have given a kid?

Here we go….

Sixty amazing and creative gift alternatives to toys


I am reading “Escape from Childhood” by John Holt at the moment and the thing he is really convincing me of is how much kids NEED to be useful. Exactly like adults! They love to be taken seriously, to have serious implements and to be able to truly, genuinely help and build and be busy working.

A pocket knife. Every kid age 4+ needs a good simple pocket knife, a lesson in using it safely (sitting down, striking away from you, with an adult in range) and a bit of wood to carve.

Same goes with a proper hammer and nails. Throw in some wheels and planks and they’ll be set for days.

Other tools. Toolboxes filled with things were a massive hit; rope, screws, pulleys etc.

Gardening equipment- a proper trowel, some organic slug killer and some seeds.

A greenhouse. A reader says “When I was 9 I got a greenhouse. To this day it is still my beys Christmas present ever as I spent hours with my Grandad learning how to grow food.”

A small fruit tree to grow and nurture.

Cress seeds were specified for very young children- imagine helping to feed your family at only age 2?! Plus they pop up all year round and don’t take as much patience. You can also make them a head to grow them in so it looks like hair! Classic!

My sister put together a survival kit for her six year old son- a good rope, pegs and a tarpaulin for den making, camo paint, a good torch. Flipping heck, that was a hit.

A wind up torch. Sustainable and fascinating for children.

A good baking bowl, a whisk, some scales. Show them you have faith in their ability to make something yummy.

The ingredients to make something yummy! One reader explains about the special thing she did for Christmas “I once gave my daughter’s friend a bag filled with the ingredients, Christmas cutters and the recipe to make their own Christmas gingerbread. They loved it.”

Kitchen implements- one tweeter is getting her 2.5 year old son a peeler with a big handle as he genuinely loves helping in the kitchen. One reader received a sieve when she was young and it was her favourite present ever. I think I might get my three year old a good grater- they are so fulfilled when they are doing something worthwhile. A garlic press was another great suggestion. And every kid needs an apron.

Their own cookery book.

Something to pull apart- give them a screw driver and an old type writer and the afternoon to take it to bits and explore it’s inners.

A rock tumbler. A reader explains “I loved collecting rocks when I was about 9- it was so cool being able to polish them!”

A magnifying glass and a book of British Insects.

A microscope “I spent months finding things to look at and getting family members to guess what it was- the best was tiny slivers of onion skin.”

Binoculars – plus a guide to bird and wildlife.

A calligraphy pen, nibs and ink. “I was given these age ten, and shown how to use it. I still have it!”

A DIY science kit.


The emphasis here is on good quality stuff. Just like adults, children deserve to work with good quality materials. It is frustrating scrawling on crap paper with crayons that barely make a mark. Seeing the vivid colours of acrylic paint on canvas is much more likely to stoke a child’s passion for creating art, no?

A ball of bright coloured, good wool and instructions for finger knitting will open up a whole new meditative world.

Ingredients for DIY porcelain clay- a little box with corn flour and bicarb and instructions. They’ll love the making and the shaping.

Proper non toxic acrylic paint and proper paintbrushes.

A good quality sketch book.

A selection of blank canvases and an easel.

A candle making kit. (I have made candles since I was 11 when I got my first kit and loved it. And the only fire I caused was when I was 22 and being VERY experimental. Just a shame the fire happened on my future in laws dining table.)

A perfume making kit – what a cool way to learn about chemicals and stuff.

A sewing machine. I got my first when I was 12 and after a fairly quick lesson from my Aunty have seen ever since.

A hand sewing kit with fabric, needles and threads.

A box of craft materials that is all their own- ribbon, pipe cleaners, beads, buttons, fimo etc.

Jars of homemade playdough and a box of cutters and tools (found in secondhand shops.)

A box. It was the third best gift, suggested by over thirty people! The best explanation comes from reader, Clare “The best ‘present’ I ever got was a great big cardboard box. I made it into a house and played in it for YEARS. The best thing about it was that my parents got really involved in it- my mum made curtains for it and they never complained about having a tatty old hoc in the living room and let me keep it as long as I wanted.”

CULTURISING (y’know, like, doing culture)

A mixtape – burn a cd with a selection of fun songs. Ramona has been given some of these and they are her favourite gift by a mile.

Audiobooks- Roald Dahl stories are fantastic and tantalise imaginative minds.

A subscription to a magazine such as National Geographic. A reader explains how she felt about her subscription given to her by her neighbour age six, “At first, we just looked at the pictures but I read more each year as I grew. In our sleepy village,nit was a very welcome window into different cultures. And I always felt very grown up and acknowledged when I read them.””

A good drum, maracas, a ukelele. A good xylophone. The brain patterns used in music are the same as those used in maths so giving kids the tools to create music is important. And fun. But make sure they are GOOD- in tune etc or children will lose interest.

A song. Rope people in to help you, friends to strum chords on the guitar. Record it on YouTube and send it to them! We have done this a few times, it’s weird and fun. Write your own or just change a few lyrics to an existing one.

Investment in a creative venture- for example Hadar Manor is crowd funding her new album and in return for contributing you can get anything from a shout out on the album to a personalised song, written sung and recorded for you.

A poem. No, really, really! How special, for a kid to have their own poem. Written on beautiful paper. For them to treasure.

A story. We often tell Ramona a tale about when she is a brave knight. How about writing a story about them? Or drawing a comic featuring them? It doesn’t need to be about them. Ramona’s grandad typed out a story for her about his cats, complete with actual photos. She adores it!

Lost My Name team sent Ramona and Juno personalised books featuring their name. The stories are totally unique, funny and the illustration is cracking without any rubbish gender stereotypes.

Books, books and more books. This was the most popular response by miles. The child especially enjoys receiving a book with meaning- one mum explains “her eyes light up when I say “this is something I loved when I was little, and I thought you’d like me to read it to you.”

Last Christmas we were living on the other side of the world to my husbands family. They sent over a book that they had recorded the story into- Ramona loves hearing the voices of her Grandparents, Aunties and Uncles reading to her.

A photo album or scrap book. Reader Sally explains that her three year old loves these.



Days out were probably the second top answer. Kids love hanging out doing stuff, and memories last WAY longer than toys.

A season pass or vouchers to something- an outdoor play area, a private woods such as Westonburt or a wildlife lark or donkey sanctuary.

A micro love bomb- let them have a whole evening hanging out with you, doing WHATEVER they want. Like, really, anything. (Based on Oliver James’ miraculous Love Bomb idea- a whole weekend to reset connection and attachment.)

A micro adventure- grab a tent, pack a little gas cooker and have a night in the local woods. Even London has accessible woods you can do this in.

A visit to stables to ride on a horse- Ramona adored this for her third birthday. A reader adds that when she was seven she was given a Shetland pony-owning day “7 year old heaven!”

One reader had a day of work experience at a farm when she was a child and she cherishes that memory.

A tent and sleeping bags to camp out in the garden.

A day out in a big city- the museums, a picnic, feeding the skanky pigeons, climbing the towers.

A den building afternoon. Take wood, hammers and nails and build a fort together in the local woods.

A course. Six weeks of a children’s photography or pottery or dance classes.

Adopt a whale/ dog/ monkey. This is a delightful idea, the child has a sense of investment with an animal and they can make a real difference for a charity.

A box of second hand clothes and costume jewellery for a fancy dress department. One Tweeter said the stash she was given included a WEDDING DRESS. Brilliant.

An experience for a baby- a jar of beads, jewels and shells for them to shake and look at.

And another idea for a baby- a box of tissues entirely theirs to pull out. (This is probably my favourite of them all- even at seven months old Juno has worked out how to undo the lid of the baby wipes and delights in pulling them out.)


What an epic, epic list. Thanks to everyone for sharing your ideas and stories. I am inspired and have my kid’s pressies SORTED: a grater for Ramona and a box for Juno.

Have a fantastic, present- moderate, thrifty, imaginative Christmas!

PS For more parenting/ travelling / thrifty blogging follow through Facebook or Bloglovin

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  • Reply Jo 12 December, 2013 at 8:34 pm

    I love these. Our kids do have loads of toys – more than they need, but I think we’ve done quite well with showering them with creativity and time. We’re helped by the fact that our eldest (now 6) just doesn’t really play with toys, and never has. We (and others) have given him a fair few things from this list but I’m so glad for a whole load of fresh ideas. Thank you!

  • Reply cat 12 December, 2013 at 9:52 pm

    What a fab list, and not just for the tinies! My plan for 14-yr old stepson (obsessed with the The Walking Dead) is a Zombie Apocalypse Survival Kit – ie a box-full of many of the above : a proper knife, camping bits and bobs, a tin of spam…
    I know the rest of the family’s going to give him lots of technology and cash. Yikes, fingers crossed… it does take courage to go alternative on the presents doesn’t it..?!

    • Reply cjc 10 December, 2014 at 9:57 am

      That’s fabulous. Throw in the books WWZ and How to Survive a Zombie Apocalypse 🙂

  • Reply Phili 12 December, 2013 at 9:53 pm

    I am printing this off and aim to tick off every single one of these with my 3 bunnies! Eventually………………..

  • Reply Lyns 12 December, 2013 at 11:26 pm

    Brilliant! Thanks so much for these ideas. defo planning on thinning out the toy stash and providing some proper tool kits. A pre- chrimbo trip to london and a visit to natural history museum is causing much excitment here too 🙂

  • Reply ThaliaKR 13 December, 2013 at 6:31 am

    Brilliant! That’s the next fifteen Christmases SORTED!

    Well done, Lucy!
    ThaliaKR recently posted…101 Christian Women Speakers to Discover in New ZealandMy Profile

  • Reply Eline 15 December, 2013 at 2:47 pm

    What an amazing list! I reckon I’ll be referring back to this for years to come. Might send it out to the relatives too…

    Thanks for including a couple of baby ideas too. I think older babies and younger toddlers are often overlooked and just given the bijilionth rattle or soft toy or horrendous noisy thing (okay they do like those), but they need more stimulating, ‘grown-up’ playthings than that.

    The tissue box is a fantastic present – I made my little boy a really pretty one out of a shoebox and squares of old fabric. You could even appliqué things like letters or animals onto the ’tissues’, and make into a real keeper.
    I’ve made a few more things for him and plan to run a feature on my blog about it soon.

    Thanks again for the hard work you put into compiling this, it’s so useful

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  • Reply Thelma 19 September, 2014 at 8:31 pm

    A world map or globe is a wonderful gift.

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  • Reply otilia 25 October, 2014 at 6:46 am

    Fab ideas!
    otilia recently posted…Muddy Halloween Chocolate Cake & Foodie Friday LinkyMy Profile

  • Reply Kelly from Oz 25 October, 2014 at 11:21 am

    Thanks for this post. 🙂 I have been wanting to tone down the Christmas gift giving to my kids this year. These ideas have got my creativity going as to what to give them. Sponsoring wildlife I haven’t thought about. And I was thinking about paddleboard lessons (which can be expensive) and now I’m thinking of a friend’s teenager who has a paddleboard and may appreciate a bit of money (with me there and safety measures taken of course) 🙂 . Cheers Luv!

  • Reply ThaliaKR 27 October, 2014 at 1:53 pm

    Great to rediscover this epic list. Thanks, Lucy! So helpful and will make such an impact.
    ThaliaKR recently posted…Advent with Kids: 76 (or so) Ideas for Getting Ready for AdventMy Profile

  • Reply Frank 27 October, 2014 at 4:30 pm

    Okay – so next list: 60 great alternatives to iTunes vouchers for teenage boys.
    Pretty please?!?!?!?!

  • Reply Katy Hill 28 October, 2014 at 6:58 am

    LOVE this. What brilliant ideas – thanks so much for sharing x

  • Reply Babes about Town 29 October, 2014 at 6:18 am

    Absolutely love this, have bookmarked! I’m all about making memories through wonderful experiences with the kids and I’ve been much more focused on ‘experience’ gifts as we continue to declutter their toy boxes. At Christmas, I let Santa bring their dream toy (last year it was toy wrestlers) but Mum and Dad give stuff that’s useful or lasts e.g. an apron you can scribble on, a Mr Men cuddly that transforms into a travel pillow, tickets to a show or a trip, a piece of art for the kids’ bedroom. There are so many ways to light up your kids’ faces without cramming your home with too much junk. I’ll be doing a gift guide along these lines for Christmas, and will definitely give you a shout out when I do 🙂
    Babes about Town recently posted…Half Term London Kids Scoop (October 24-November 2)My Profile

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  • Reply Kelly - Project Me 7 December, 2014 at 9:49 pm

    A friend of yours posted a link to this post in the Facebook comments beneath Dr Laura Markham of Aha! Parenting about my own great alternative to toys (Experience Vouchers they can redeem for doing fun stuff with mom and dad: I love your list and will share it on my FB page this week 🙂

    • Lucy
      Reply Lucy 10 December, 2014 at 6:38 pm

      Awesome, thank you! Yours is great!

  • Reply Alexandra Thiel 11 December, 2014 at 3:32 pm

    For my daughter’s first holiday my husband bought her her very own box of nice crinkly wax paper-chlorine free! She was 6 months old

  • Reply Beth 11 December, 2014 at 9:52 pm

    I stumbled on your blog, and I can’t tell you how much I love this list! I spent many childhood summers traveling the U.S. with my family in a VW camper van. We didn’t have yours with us, but instead had books, drawing supplies, tape players, and whatever else we could turn into fun (toilet paper is great to turn your little brother into a mummy). My children, in turn, didn’t have a lot of toys. Instead, they turned what they had into myriad imaginative things.

    You mentioned a box; my husband built our older son a wooden box with a lock on it, so he could keep his little brother from getting into his stuff. My son adored that gift!

  • Lucy
    Reply Lucy 12 December, 2014 at 11:34 am

    Thanks for all the comments and extra ideas, everyone 😀 Sorry I haven’t replied to each comment- my excuse is not having the internet in our yurt! I love to read your comments and will add in the extra ideas soon too! THANKS! xxx
    Lucy recently posted…Stuck in a Parenting Rut? 40 Unconventional Tips for Finding Your MojoMy Profile

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  • Reply Lynsey 18 December, 2014 at 7:02 am

    I gave my 7 year old a survival kit last year – it was a massive hit.

    My 4 year old recently spent her pocket money on a dish washing brush and sponge! She loves helping with the dishes.

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  • Reply Regali Bambini 26 June, 2015 at 9:02 pm

    Thanks for this list. It’s really different!

  • Reply Jane Owen 14 October, 2015 at 5:41 am

    Our girls are nearly all grown up now, but some of their favourites included
    Joke books
    A spy kit
    Ballet shoes

  • Reply Esther Stevens 15 October, 2015 at 1:36 am

    I made a toy for one of my 4 children once….it was an empty box of tissues filled with hankies/material squares. They absolutely adored it…..
    All my kids have penknife, sleeping bags, rock collections, coin collections etc etc….
    They can all climb trees, build dens, catch crayfish and make fire.
    We might not be very academic but we will certainly survive.

  • Reply Bill Bennett 22 October, 2015 at 4:09 pm

    The best present I ever got was a ‘sport’ not a toy, I got a Ping-Pong Table. With new paddles, net and ping-pong balls. These 3 items were store bought, the table was not, it was hand made…by 13 year old ME! Around Thanksgiving my dad pulled me aside & said he was giving my younger brothers (7 & 6 yrs old) a slot car set for Xmas. He wanted me to assemble the base for the track. I received 1 – 4′ x 8′ x 3/4″ sheet of very good plywood and enough 1″x 2″ boards to attach around the edge of the whole sheet of plywood for support. And I was to mix up a ‘green’ paint for the entire thing for a ‘field of grass’ look. Me & dad worked on it and when my brothers weren’t around I worked on it alone. Xmas morning we are waiting out of view of the ‘Tree’, while dad started warming up the light bar from HELL for our 8mm movies. My brothers RAN, my sister and I were 12 & 13 so we were to old to RUN but we got right in there, but my brothers were squealing with joy about this and that but I didn’t see the ‘slot car set with my homemade base. Off in the corner I saw a BIG “MERRY XMAS BILL – FROM SANTA” sign & it was on a Ping-Pong table all set up & ready to play. Dad put thin white tape down for the lines, attached a new net, added paddles & balls and had given my ‘hand made gift’ to the person that made it, me. We ALL played on that table for many years and whenever it was put up in the garage to play it always was out for at least a week, usually MANY weeks and the cars parked outside! Good father/son working on a project together time, and some more grown up laughs by all of us over age 7…

    • Lucy
      Reply Lucy 22 October, 2015 at 4:24 pm

      How wonderful! Thank you for sharing 🙂

  • Reply Una 6 November, 2015 at 11:57 am

    What a brilliant article! I am inspired and way better than plastic tack that clutters the place up. Thank you 🙂

  • Reply Kate 7 November, 2015 at 12:11 pm

    Fantastic list, love it. Thank you.

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