Unsure About Gift-Giving This Year? Focus on Experiences

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By Meghan Fitzgerald, Founder and Chief Learning Officer, Tinkergarten

Each November, my husband and I hope to make it a mindful gifting year. And, come December, we inevitably end up hitting the toy store at the last minute, wondering what to grab in order to feel like there are “enough” gifts for each of our kids.

We know we’re not alone — and we suspect the temptation to grab the quickest gift available may be extra-strong this year when parenting stress seems to be at an all-time high.

So, we’re taking a moment to pause and reflect on the things that have guided our best gift-giving in years past.

First, there was a homework assignment. Our then-first grader was tasked with interviewing the family about our favorite winter-holiday traditions, which for our family is Christmas. To our delight, our kids responded with a long list of experiences, from our town’s tree lighting to decorating gingerbread houses to our candlelit church services to candle making on Winter Solstice. They didn’t mention a single “thing” they had been gifted.

Inspired by dear friends who consider themselves true minimalists, we’ve also taken breaks over the years to purge our playroom, donating underused toys and tucking away a bunch simply to make more space. Whenever we’ve done it, we’ve noticed immediately that our kids were playing more, for longer and with greater harmony, in the room.

This reminded us of a study that showed kids play for longer periods — and more creatively — when there are fewer toys around. Yes, less is more!

It has also helped to remind ourselves that acquiring things doesn’t lead to lasting happiness, no matter your age. Much of the happiness we experience with new things is derived from their novelty. Soon enough, this wears off. Worse yet, getting in the habit of getting lots of new things may even lead to the never-ending need for more possessions.

After a 20-year study on the difference between acquiring things and acquiring experiences, Cornell Professor, Dr. Gilovich concluded that:

“Our experiences are a bigger part of ourselves than our material goods. You can really like your material stuff. You can even think that part of your identity is connected to those things, but nonetheless, they remain separate from you. In contrast, your experiences really are part of you. We are the sum total of our experiences.”

Experiences may matter even more this year, now that pandemic life has left our kids so starved for them. And because go-to experience gifts, like special trips, may not be feasible right now, we’ll all have to get a bit more creative.

To guide our gift-giving this year, my husband and I are focusing on one of our favorite sayings: “There are only two lasting gifts we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots, the other is wings.

For roots, we’ll double down on our family traditions. For wings, we’ll keep finding experiences and objects that help our kiddos stretch and grow. We’ve crowdsourced ideas from friends about how best to do that. To follow are some of our favorites, and we hope they help you this season too!

Give experiences. The research tells us that a big part of why receiving experiences brings us more happiness is the anticipation we feel between gift and the actual experience. So, giving kids the promise of experiences to come not only offers them quality time but all of the goodness they’ll feel when looking forward to it.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Give coupons. Give kids a set of coupons that they can redeem for small and safe adventures together. A trip to the bagel shop or a romp in the park can seem extra special when kids get to use a holiday coupon and choose when they happen.
  • Give a class. Find a class that kids can take to enjoy something they love, explore new passions, or learn in an engaging new way.
  • Plan a trip. If you are able to take a family vacation, involve kids in the planning of it. Even wee ones can look at images of the places you’ll go together and get in on the excitement and anticipation.

Give regular time together. Not sure how to wrap time? You can wrap up a certificate, making a promise for a way to spend regular time together. Here are some of our favorite potential promises:

  • Weekly walk up in the woods. Commit to an early wake-up and morning walk together each week.
  • Set a goal. Set a goal to go on 20 hikes or to visit all of the parks in your county. Keep track of your progress and document your visits as you go. You could even try for 52 weekly hikes in 2021! For inspiration, read about our Tinkergarten friend, Megan Fisher and her amazing, hiking family.
  • Set aside a regular park time and use DIY activities to give your play time a place to start.

Put experiences on others’ lists. Welcome grandparents, aunts, and uncles to support your commitment to experiences. They can give you and your kids financial support or purchase gift cards for experiences that help you and your children connect, play, and learn together.

Open-ended toys. Toys may be things, but toys can be powerful tools for fun and learning, especially the ones that support open-ended play. There are some great lists of open-ended toys out there, and we are partial to WIRED Magazine’s list of the five best toys of all time (sticks and dirt are on there!).

Lists aside, we’ve found the following questions super helpful as we reviewed the lists to identify the most open-ended toys:

  • How many ways could our kids use this toy?
  • How many different things could they build or make with this toy?
  • Can this toy also be a tool?
  • How many different ways could they pretend with this toy?

Give books. You really can’t go wrong with the gift of reading — a powerful experience in and of itself that helps kids focus, stretch their imaginations, and explore new worlds and topics. If you’re not sure where to start, here are 36 children’s books vetted by our team of early-learning experts with themes that are perfect for the holidays — or any time of year.

No matter how you gift this season, we wish you and your family a 2021 full of joyful and memorable experiences together!

CircleAround is partnering with Tinkergarten in a series of posts that provide resources and tools for parents and children to learn together through well-designed, outdoor play-based activities. Tinkergarten is a technology-enabled network of leaders that bring families together in a natural place in their community for classes where kids learn through play.

Tags: Education, Motherhood, Developing Skills & Character, Activities for Kids, Creativity

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