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10 Experience Gifts & How To (Nicely) Ask For Them Instead of Toys

Because summer camp is expensive, and you might explode if another noisy plastic toy enters the house.

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The holiday season is a time of magic, wonder and, for some of us, an absolutely overwhelming onslaught of toys from well-intentioned relatives who, notably, will not be the ones tasked with hunting down the one missing piece of the 57-piece Bluey set at 9 p.m. on a school night. If the thought of finding a place for even more stuff gives you hives, you’re not alone. “This is actually a very common thing that comes up around gift-giving, and it is very difficult,” says Jody Baumstein, LCSW, a therapist at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. However, asking family and friends who want to give your children presents at the holidays for experience gifts instead of toys is completely reasonable thing to do, she explains. “People don’t want to bring up boundary-related conversations because they think that they’re going to be perceived as negative or difficult, but the reality is, healthy relationships actually have very, very good boundaries.”

It can be hard to accept that it’s not selfish to have preferences about what people give to your kid, but Baumstein says it’s essential to really believe that your feelings are valid before you try to approach a relative about asking for experience gifts instead of stuff this year. “A lot of times people feel guilty. They think, I shouldn't feel this way. It's nice that so-and-so wants to show up for my kids,” she says. “But, two things can be true at the same time. You can be grateful and feel like the gift giving is a little off-base.”

How do you ask for experiences instead of toys?

Conversations about gifts can be simple, kind, specific, and direct, Baumstein says. When people are uncomfortable, they can start to talk in circles, but she encourages simplicity and directness, as well as understanding that you don’t need the relative, in-law or friend to completely understand why you are asking for this. Instead, they just need to respect and hear your wishes. “We don't need agreement, we need alignment. And that's a huge difference,” she explains. “We don't need to agree that this is the right way, what we need is alignment about what you’re going to do for your family in your home.”

Practically, she explains, these conversations can follow a really basic structure that is rooted in an understanding that gift-giving is an act of love, and that you appreciate and value the other person’s intention. Nonetheless, you hope they’ll hear your wishes, too. Baumstein suggests approaching the conversation like this:

  1. Acknowledge the positive intent. That can be as simple as saying: “I love that you want to show up for my kids.”
  2. Express your gratitude and appreciation. Try something like: “I know that you show love by giving gifts and I appreciate that.”
  3. Redirect. You don't want them to feel shut down or ashamed, but to redirect them towards experience gifts instead. Try saying: “The kids have plenty of toys right now, but what we really need help with are experiences.” Or maybe: “The kids really want to try new activities and we'd love some help if you want to contribute with that.”

Think of this conversation as welcoming them even closer into your family’s circle, instead of it becoming us-against-them. “We're making this about us, collectively, and not you're doing something wrong. That's just a really genuine way to do it,” Baumstein adds. “What can be really helpful is giving very concrete ideas. Problem-solving, and collaborating together so it doesn't feel like you told them not to do something and then you gave them no ideas for what to do instead.”

These 12 experience gift ideas for kids are really just a jumping off point, and what will be best for your family will depend on budget and need, too. It’s OK to ask for something — like summer camp or swim lessons — that your family really needs and perhaps struggles to afford. A relative who’d like to give one of these can still wrap it up in a fun way, and coming up with a fun way to give the gift can be another way to help your relative give a gift that your family truly wants and needs.


Swim lessons

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Your kid needs to learn how to swim, and it’s a real bummer that those essential lessons are not free. If your in-laws want to make the gift a little extra fun, maybe they can give a swim suit and goggles, with the promise of paying for swim lessons. The gift of a lifetime of fun in the water! What could possibly be better?


Summer camp

It’s painful to get those summer camp sign-up reminders just as your credit card is feeling more maxed than ever. And yet, many of the ones your kid is most excited for start accepting sign-ups in mid-December. Perhaps your mom or dad would like to ease a little of your holiday season financial strain and pay for summer camp? A gift for you as well as your kid — win-win.


A special vacation

Camping, Disneyland, a spring break trip to the beach — it doesn’t have to be jetting off to Paris to be exciting for your kid. Depending on your child’s relationship to the gift giver, the trip could even be a special day-trip with the relative to a nearby attraction.


Art or crafting classes

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If you’ve got a little artist on your hands, you probably dream of putting them in art classes. But if you’re eyeing the “tiny tots ceramics playtime” and thinking that $65 seems kind of steep of 6 weeks of playing with clay, well, may let a generous Grandma or Grandpa know how much you think your kid would thrive with a class like that in their life. They just might make some holiday magic for you.


Music lessons

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As school music programs struggle, many parents who want to enrich their kids lives with music education have to see it outside of school. And that means coughing up serious cash. Music is a joyful outlet, and it’s great for growing brains — in other words, asking for music lessons as an experience gift is a pretty easy sell to most anyone who loves your kid.


A family movie night, with the whole family & all the trimmings

Whether you opt to go out and have the whole movie-theater experience, or just want to make pretend “tickets” and pop some microwave popcorn, inviting a big crew to watch a favorite movie together always feels special. If you host it at home, it’s also a great low-cost experience gift for relatives who want to treat your kid but need to stick to a tight budget.


A baking day with Grandma (or Grandpa or other favorite relative)

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It’ll get messy, but it’ll be so much fun. Even the littlest kids love to roll up their sleeves and smoosh cookie dough around, and what better experience to share with a beloved grandparent than a cozy day in the kitchen? And the gift to you is that their house will be the one covered in flour and sugar, not yours.


Local zoo membership

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If you have one nearby, a zoo membership can be a lifesaver for no-school days and long breaks alike. It’s a go-to place to meet up with friends, too. And — though it’s worth it — they’re often a little pricey. This is truly an experience gift that keeps on giving.


Money for college

Your kid probably won’t be incredibly excited about this one, but you will be extremely grateful. If you’ve set up a 529 plan for your child, but haven’t been able to put much in it — kids are expensive, after all — it’ll be a relief to know that someone has contributed to it.


Theater classes

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If “what a ham” is a constant refrain in your world, it’s time to get that kid into theater classes. Channel their star power into all the fun and community that comes with putting on a play or learning improv skills, and ask a relative to give the gift of theater classes or camp.

With experiences gift ideas for every budget and every type of family on our list, you’re sure to find something to love here.


Jody Baumstein, LCSW at Strong 4 Lift at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta

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