It’s fall, and I’ve been working on this list of experience gift ideas for awhile, already. I know it’s early, and I’m completely on board with keeping the holiday season confined to November and December, but the reality is that if you’re on a budget, you have to plan ahead or your bank account can’t take the hard holiday hits!
It’s pretty easy to have a good spiritual focus for Thanksgiving, but when it leads straight into the materialistic frenzy of Christmas prep, there’s potential for our messages to get mixed. Don’t get me wrong: I love Christmas decorations, the smell of a fresh Christmas tree, and the thrill of giving and receiving gifts. I think there’s room for that at Christmastime, but it’s important for us as Christian parents to help our kids keep focus firmly on Jesus and family togetherness–that’s why I’ve put together this list of experience gift ideas. Experience gifts can help bring balance to gift giving. You still have that element of surprise, but it adds an emphasis on quality time.
If you’re anything like me, you probably set out each year with good intentions to get your shopping done early. But, if you’re anything like me, you also probably still find yourself frantically shopping online down to the wire and depending on Amazon Prime to come through with that free 2-day shipping. This year, as much as possible, I’m trying to plan ahead by really thinking about each person I’m buying for, and asking myself 3 questions to determine whether a gift is worth my time, effort, and/or money to give. Of course, for any gift to work, there are a lot of variables at play: How well do you know the recipient? How close or far away do they live? What are their interests? How much do you have/want to spend?
Before you read any further, let me remind you that some of the links on this page are affiliate links, which means I may receive a small commission if you click through and make a purchase. I only post affiliate links to products that I have used and actually recommend.
I’m a stay-at-home (sometimes work-part-time-at-home) mom, married to a pastor. I don’t have thousands to spend on fabulously amazing gifts, so every dollar needs to count. Yes, I value my family and friends more than money, and I feel they’re worth the spending, but as a Christian mom, I have a strong responsibility to teach my kids that our money is God’s. To me, financial stewardship in gift giving means spending thoughtfully within my means and choosing gifts that will be of maximum value to their recipients.
3 Questions I ask myself before I buy a gift
- Is it something the recipient can enjoy with me (or someone else important to them)?
- Is it something that I’m confident will add value to the receiver’s life?
- Does it work for my budget?
Questions 1 and 2 work pretty well to weed out ideas that will just add stuff to someone’s collection. They also help pull focus away from the commercialization of gifting and back onto elements of celebration that are more inline with a Christian worldview. More and more often, I’m coming to the conclusion that an experience gift is the best choice, no matter who will be receiving it. Material gifts are fine (and can be great!), but they should be meaningful and hopefully still lead to some kind of shared experience, if they are to add value. Gifting things that people actually need can work, too. Question 3 is just there to keep spending in check. I’m usually pretty thrifty, but I have a tendency to go overboard for the holidays. I would encourage you to ask yourself these 3 questions the next time you need to give a gift, and see if it helps you to choose something you’re really excited about giving. I think if everyone did this, there would be many more experience gifts given, and many fewer knickknacks and tchotchkes collecting dust.
Why give experience gifts?
For quite awhile now, research has been telling us that spending money on experiences makes people happier than spending money on material things. In 2013, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published an article that concluded that it’s not the experiences themselves that make us happier, it’s the social aspect of these types of purchases that make us feel good. (source) So, what’s the takeaway for gift-givers?
Whatever gift you give, to make the most of it, you’ve got to give your time and attention along with it.
That means that if you plan and give an experience gift, it will bring the most happiness to the recipient (young or not-so-young) if you are present physically and emotionally. Put your phone down, listen, share, and really focus on building memories. If you give a material gift, make it something the recipient can use with you! If you’re giving from a long distance, make it something you know they will have plenty of opportunities to use with a friend or family member. In the eyes of the receiver, the social element of the gift is more important than the money you spend on it. Use the following experience gift ideas or be inspired by the list and come up with your own! Make your gifts as personal as you can, and I promise you’ll feel great about every penny/minute/iota of energy you spend.
Experience gift ideas for toddlers and young children
You guys, as a mom, I am all about experience gifts for my kids. I am absolutely in over my head (almost literally) with all of the toys my kids have. Don’t get me wrong, most of our toys are awesome (and the right toys are great learning tools), but I’m not the only mama who just can’t keep up with the mess. Enter these experience gift ideas for kids. Awesome experiences that toddlers on up will LOVE. Screen-free fun for better quality time with their loved ones. No mess for overwhelmed mamas (or dads) to clean up. Memories that will last forever.
- concert– my son LOVES music, and thinks it’s so much fun to dress up and go to a special concert. Music + quality time with you = a great Christmas gift.
- cooking/baking– spend an afternoon whipping something up in the kitchen together. Decorate sugar cookies, make the child’s favorite meal, whatever sounds delicious! The mess you make will clean up in a few minutes, but the memories you create will last a lifetime. Not really a baker yourself? Use a mix, and you’ll still have plenty of fun!
- “date” day– plan a date! You can plan the whole day/morning/afternoon yourself, or you can wait and let your child/grandchild plan it with you. Either way, focus on activities you both love, with opportunities for good conversation and quality time.
- music lessons– know a music lover? Give lessons! For very young children you could find a Kindermusik (or other comparable) class, and for older children, you might sponsor a few months of instrument or voice lessons!
- camping trip– camping can be a bit tricky at Christmastime, if you live in snowy climes like we do. But, if you just can’t wait until spring, you can set up a tent in the living room and do a practice run.
- gymnastics lessons– we haven’t tried gymnastics lessons with our kids, but my friends who do it have only good things to say about how it teaches their kids gross motor skills and discipline.
- mini golf– my 2.5 year old only actually played about half of a round of miniature golf when we tried it for the first time, but he loved the whole 18 hole experience. Choose a place with an interesting theme, and it’ll be a great time for everyone, regardless of how well anyone plays!
- bowling– alright, we haven’t actually taken E bowling, but he received a bowling session as a gift for his birthday recently, and he can’t wait! Pop those bumpers in and go for it! (If you can find a bowling alley that has candlepin the balls are much easier for little hands to hold.)
- farm visit– plan a day centered around a visit to a local farm or petting zoo. Your animal loving kiddos will love it, and it’s a great way to spend time learning more about God’s creation!
- dinner out– even though E can only actually eat the food at a very small handful of restaurants (he’s got food allergies), he loves going out to eat. You can dress up (if your child is into that) and make a big deal of dinner. Just make sure you put your phone aside (except to get a fabulous selfie of you and your dinner partner) and really spend some quality time together.
- boat or train ride– I haven’t met too many kids that weren’t excited about one or the other, have you?
Experience gift ideas for the whole family
Experience gifts are often more of an investment than material gifts, and if your resources are limited (whose aren’t?!), it might fit your budget better to buy a gift that will benefit the whole family rather than individual gifts for each person. If you’re on the lookout for quality experience gift ideas that work for the whole family, this is the list for you. Be inspired. You’re welcome.
- zoo membership – my parents gifted us a membership to our local zoo, and we have been loving it! AZA member zoo memberships offer reciprocal benefits, so we’ve also gotten into other zoos around the country at a 50% discount, or even for FREE! And, as parents of very young kids, it’s freeing to know that you can leave the zoo to get home for naptime without feeling like you haven’t gotten your money’s worth…we can just go back again soon and catch what we missed the last time!
- aquarium membership– Even my (then) 11 month old was fascinated by the tanks at the aquarium when we visited this summer. If you are buying for a family lucky enough to have an aquarium nearby, this would be a great gift!
- children’s museum membership– Though we live in a small town, we have a great little children’s museum only 15 minutes away! If the family you’re buying for has one close by, check the reviews and consider giving them a membership! Children’s museums are great places to learn through play! (Here’s a list.)
- pool membership– because, um, what kids don’t love the pool? Family fun and great exercise all in one…this one is a winner! And, bonus idea: swim lessons are great gifts for kids, too.
- parks pass– Depending on where you live, this could mean a National Parks Pass (they’re FREE for families with a 4th grader!), a state parks pass (our Michigan Recreation Passport is just $11 per year with our vehicle registration), or even a county or municipal parks pass (we get a Berrien County Parks annual entrance permit every year, and it’s worth it!).
Experience gift ideas you can wrap
One of the main hesitations most people have about focusing on experience gifts is that they don’t want kids to miss out on the experience of tearing open a beautifully wrapped package on the big day! Well, material gifts given thoughtfully can be experience gifts, too. Here are some great things you can wrap that double as experience gift ideas (as long as you take the time to use the gift with the recipient):
- books– reading together is a great way to spend quality time with kids, and kids that read and have someone read to them regularly are at a huge advantage in so many areas of life. We love Little Blue Truck,all of the Otis books, and, if you’re looking for a really cute little Christmas book, Who is Coming to Our House? is a favorite over here.
- seeds– watching a plant grow from a seed is an amazing experience, and you’ll have so much fun working with your child to help it grow. It’s super fun science, guys!
- puzzle– puzzles are fantastic learning tools. Give a child a puzzle that’s just a tiny bit more difficult than they’re used to, and work on it with them. You’ll have plenty of time to talk, and *bonus* you can both sharpen your spatial reasoning skills while you’re at it!
- devotional/Bible story book– the family worship experience is one of the most important parts of the day (read here to find out why you should be having family worship). So, give the gift of a new book to read during your family devotions! Our favorites are The Jesus Storybook Bible and the My Bible Friends series.
- tools/toolbox– my husband made my son a cute little toolbox for his birthday (which hasn’t happened yet, so shhh!!!) and has filled it with tiny wrenches and other relatively safe tools. My son gets a huge kick out of “helping” his dad fix things around the house, and I’m pretty sure he’s going to be over the moon about his new tools. This gift requires supervision, and only works if you’re willing to have a helper who will likely slow you down (but will love every minute of working with you).
- board/card game– playing table games is a great way to spend quality family time (here’s why I think you should play). Some of our favorites (that work well with everyone, toddlers to adults) are UNO and Egypt to Canaan. (If you need that 2 day shipping, Egypt to Canaan is available on Amazon, too.)
Experience gift ideas for minimalist parents (or parents who have everything)
Have you tried in vain to find a gift for a mom or dad who has everything? Or maybe your friend is a minimalist and you know that if that scarf you chose doesn’t give her that life-changing magical feeling, it’s going right back out that door. It’s too much pressure, you guys. Well, look no further, because these experience gift ideas require no decluttering and will be sure to bring joy to any parents (minimalist or otherwise).
- babysitting– Even the parents who have everything they want need some time away once in awhile. Offer to babysit and give them an evening out! NOTE: if you haven’t looked after the kids before, you may not want to give this gift. Parents may have a tough time turning their children over to anyone (even just for a few hours), so if you’re not sure they want to give you the kids, you might want to avoid a potentially awkward situation.
- escape room tickets– Escape rooms are all the rage, and what a fun way for a couple to spend time together!
- a couples class– No, not Pathophysiology or Statistics (but good for you if those float your boat!). Why not treat parents to a fun, one-time class on an interest they share–vegetarian cooking, nature photography, or calligraphy. (Need an example? Here in southwest Michigan the Downtown Market in Grand Rapids has all kinds of offerings: check out this Beginner Sushi class!) NOTE: This probably isn’t the time to teach one parent to love the other parent’s favorite pastime. Choose something you know they both already enjoy.
- date night in box– If you can’t watch the kids and send their parents out, you can send them a date night in! These boxes, which include everything you need for a date night at home, even have a faith option to add more depth to the date night conversation.
Experience gift ideas for grandparents
Buying for grandparents can be tricky. Often, they’re not that interested in accumulating more things, and many grandparents have limited space for stuff, anyway. My suggestion, of course, is to going with experience gifts for grandparents! Here are a couple of suggestions any grandparent would love:
- family photo shoot– grandparents love family photos (I mean, really who wouldn’t? Your family is adorable, right?!) so give the people what they want! Arrange for family photos (on a day when as much of the family as possible is together) and make sure you get photos of the grands with the kiddos, because those will be priceless. NOTE: You have to order at least a few prints for the grandparents, you guys. This is nonnegotiable.
- heirloom day– plan a special day for grandparents to pass on a special skill or story to their grandkids. Grandparents love to be asked to share of themselves, and kids can learn so much from them! Grandparents can be asked to teach their grandkids: a favorite game, how to cook a favorite meal, a special story from their own childhood, how to knit or build a bookcase, etc. The ideas are endless, and both the grandparents and grandkids will have a blast teaching and learning from one another.
You’ve got this!
Get that gift list knocked out in no time with the experience gift ideas I’ve shared with you today. Your time, money, and energy will be well-spent, and you’ll be bringing the focus of the occasion back where it belongs: on the gifts of love, joy, and family that God has given us. Have you received a great experience gift? Tell us about it in the comments below! Wouldn’t mind being on the receiving end of some of these gifts? Share this post with your friends and family! (They’ll get the hint, right?!)