I had the great joy of becoming an aunt before I became a parent. Like many aunts, uncles, godparents, grandparents, or close friends of new parents—all of whom are thrilled to be a part of nurturing a young life—I considered one of my primary responsibilities as an aunt to be smothering my newborn nephew with gifts that he probably did not need and his parents definitely did not want.
Now that I am a parent and have been on the receiving end of some questionable holiday cheer, I have a little yuletide wisdom to share with all the aunties and uncles of the world seeking to give thoughtful gifts that both the child and parent will love: If you keep reading this, you will encounter 90+ actual gift ideas for every age and stage—none of which require batteries.
But first, here are a few questions to ask yourself while holiday shopping for the little one in your life (hop ahead if you're reading this the day you need a gift and have run out of time to be thoughtful).
Will this gift make the parents hate me? Yes, you are giving a gift to the child, not the parent, but keep in mind that if you give a hippo that sings “I like big hugs” to the tune of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” when the child presses a button, you run the risk of creating a kind of Pavlovian response in which the parents curse you under their breath each time the button is pushed (true story).
Does this fit into the size (and style) of their home? I’m looking at you, grandparents who always want to give a “big” gift. Most parents I know feel as if their living space is already overrun with obnoxious, plastic kid junk—so look for toys that are in line with the parents’ aesthetic. And, please, think small: If you want to give a big gift, think big in terms of time the child will spend enjoying it, effort you took in putting the gift together, or even cost, but not size. If the parents want a pink tent shaped like a princess castle in their home, they will probably tell you.
Does this encourage positive values? I am not suggesting that every gift needs to have a moral message, but there are plenty that can encourage a child to be creative, take initiative, or work collaboratively. And there are also light up toy mirrors that tell a girl how pretty she is when she puts on pretend lipstick.
Should I just ask the parent? You can save yourself a lot of time and deliberation by just asking if a gift idea that you have is right for the child.
Is this developmentally appropriate? When you aren’t a parent (and even when you are), this is a tough one. Many toys and books give an age range, which can be helpful. Below is a list of ideas based about 50% on child development findings and 50% on my own experience and unscientific opinions. Of course, every child is different and develops at a different pace with different interests, so there are no hard and fast truths here. If there were, parenting would be easier.
If the parents want a pink tent shaped like a princess castle in their home, they will probably tell you.
Ages 0 to 1
The kid doesn’t care, so make it about the parents.
Babysitting. Offer to watch the little guy or gal, even for just an hour, while the parents go out for coffee, to a yoga class, or to indulge in the luxurious experience of going to the grocery store baby-free. Bonus: This costs you absolutely nothing but your time.
A bottle of wine. Every parent of a young child could probably use a drink, and (unless you can lactate) the 1-year-old will never know whether or not you gave him something. At this age, the wrapping paper and bow are the most exciting part of the gift! And if you’re worried that you are encouraging bad behavior, throw in a box of these.
Professional photographs. If you're looking to spend the big bucks, consider giving the family a session with a professional photographer to do family pictures and portraits of the babe. While this can be pricey, it is probably the only gift that you can give a baby that will never be thrown out.
Sensorimotor stimulation. If you are bound and determined to ignore my advice and give the baby something that they can actually play with at this stage, think about simple toys that stimulate the senses and help a child learn cause and effect. Babies’ brains are doing some pretty incredible development at this age, as they learn about the world through their senses. Rattles, toys with different textures for the baby to manipulate and explore, soft balls, lightweight blocks, and stacking cups are all appropriate. Keep in mind that babies put everything in their mouths, so do not give any toys with small parts, toxic materials, or sharp edges.
Photo board books. Make a photo board book online of names and faces to teach the little one to recognize and, eventually, name loved ones that might not live nearby (most importantly, yourself). I love the simple design of Pinhole Press’s board books, but other companies offer more customizable options.
It’s time to start on the classics. At this age, kids are really playing with toys for the first time. The gifts that have stood the test of time are often the ones that kids will enjoy for the longest amount of time. Also, they really start moving around at this stage, so consider toys that will help them learn how to go.
Push toys. There are a million different kinds of push toys, but I love a good baby doll stroller or shopping cart myself.
Ride on toys. For example, a wagon. Can be enjoyed from the time a kid is learning to walk through the toddler years.
Balls. I don’t need to explain that one.
Dolls and stuffed animals. Look for well-made dolls that will stand up to years of love and being dragged by their hair.
Trucks, trains, and cars. Try to give vehicles that can be used for years by looking for ones that aren’t too babyish, and trains that fit standard wooden train tracks (that is a thing; look it up).
Toy kitchen supplies. If you know the kid has a toy kitchen, stock their pantry with pots, pans, or play food.
Wooden blocks. Blocks are the evergreens of toys: always in season. If a child is old enough to sit up, she is old enough to enjoy knocking down a tower that an adult builds, and as they grow, they will learn to build towers themselves, and then houses for their stuffed animals, and eventually intricate towns and barricades to house their Playmobil and Legos.
If a child is old enough to sit up, she is old enough to enjoy knocking down a tower that an adult builds.
Ages 2 to 4
Foster their imagination through gifts that help them make believe.
Costumes. Simple costumes like hats, capes, animal ears, and costume jackets that can be put over clothes are a welcome addition to the toy chest of a toddler who is learning how to pretend.
Play sets. Tool boxes and doctor bags are a big hit at this age. Not sure which the child might be into? Chances are that they will like whatever they see their parents doing. (So if mom is handy, go for the tools.)
Puppets, dolls, toy people, and animals designed for imaginative play, rather than just snuggling.
Accessories for the dolls and trains you gave them last year. Many kids are moving from simply carrying the doll around everywhere to wanting to cook for the doll, change its outfit, and put it to bed. Rather than just pushing trains across the track, they are now loading and unloading cargo as they start to act out stories of where the train might be going and what it might be doing.
Musical instruments. You do run the risk of making the parents hate you, but let this be the exception: A tambourine, toy trumpet, xylophone, or toy drum can feed a child’s love of music and dancing.
Play silks. I did not know what these were before I had kids, but they are basically just pieces of silk that kids can use to dance with, wave around, wrap up their dolls, build a fort, or do whatever comes into their little heads. (And you could probably make a set, very easily!)
Toddler-sized sports equipment. At this age, kids are starting to be ready for a basketball hoop, t-ball stand, and soccer net—that than just a ball. Pint-sized equipment, of course.
Open-ended art materials. Crayons, markers, papers, stamps, stickers, and hole punches in fun shapes.
The brain is now processing faster and developing more memory and problem solving skills. Kids can handle slightly more complicated toys, and the delayed gratification that comes with playing with something that might take a little patience.
Basic board games. Think simple games, with no strategy, that require little to no reading, and teach the basics of following rules, taking turns, and sharing. (You know, all of that stuff that you probably still need to learn, too.) Chutes and Ladders, Guess Who, and Candy Land come to mind.
Collections. Many kids love collecting things, and you can add to an existing collection of rocks, matchbox cars, or pencils or you can start a kid collecting something that interests you. Yes, you can add to a collection of rocks.
Toys with small parts. Maybe it’s because they finally have the fine motor skills to handle them or maybe because their parents have only just allowed them to play with toys that are considered choking hazards, but kids in this age love toys with lots of small parts. Think back to your own love of Legos, Playmobil, and Polly Pocket. Guess what? Kids still love scattering those tiny pieces of plastic across the floor so that adults can step on them and swear under their breath while the child cries over another broken toy.
Ages 7 to 10
Social skills, logic, and the ability to limit impulses make kids in this age range able to handle much more intellectually and physically complex activities. This is the prime time for the cool aunt or uncle to foster an interest in a subject matter that interests them. Some self-explanatory ideas:
Puzzles and workbooks.
Magic trick sets.
Roller skates, pogo sticks, bikes, and things that require coordination.
By this age, most kids have developed specific interests and tastes. Giving them something tailored to their interest is a way to show that you understand them and respect their preferences.
Equipment for a sport the child plays.
Art supplies, if they seem interested.
A shopping outing where you decide on a (small) budget, take the child to a (parent-approved) store, and let them pick what they want.
Summer camp. Help fund a week long summer camp or after-school activity that aligns with the kid’s interests.
Music lessons. Chip in with other family members to fund a few months of music lessons. To be extra thoughtful, let the child choose pick the instrument.
A mix tape. Or playlist. Or however we listen to music nowadays. This is exactly the opposite of what I said about respecting the kid’s preferences, but sometimes sharing your interests and tastes with a preteen says that they're old enough to enjoy some of the same things that you do, which is a different form of respect.
Sharing your interests and tastes with a preteen says that they're old enough to enjoy some of the same things that you do, which is a different form of respect.
ideal for any age
Books! I don’t think I need to tell you how important it is for kids to read and be read to. The holidays are a great time to buy books for kids because many come out in October in order to hit prime holiday shopping, so there will be books on the market that you can be pretty sure they don't already have.
Experiences. You definitely want to run this by the parents—both to make sure your plan is age-appropriate and also so that it fits into their schedule—but a day at the zoo, aquarium, museum, botanical garden, theater, or concert is a great way to deepen your relationship with the munchkin, give the parents a little time off, and have fun. Particularly for kids under six, you definitely want to wrap up something small for the child to open because she probably won’t understand how an experience is a gift. Erin Boyle, the blogger behind Reading my Tea Leaves, suggests wrapping up a sheet of fish stickers to give a child before going to the aquarium.
Confections. Another reminder from Erin: Kids like treats as much as adults. You could start the tradition of giving a certain goodie, like a pouch of homemade caramel popcorn, every year. (Which sets their expectations at a reasonable level but is still entirely delightful.)
DIY subscription boxes. Subscriptions are all the rage these days (if you're reading this, husband,, please give me a wreath subscription from Food52!), and there are several that are geared towards kids. You can, however, make your own version of a subscription box by putting together monthly or quarterly packages for a kid. Particularly if you live far away, sending several packages in the mail throughout the year can keep you connected to the child.
If you're going the DIY subscription route, I recommend putting together all the packages before you give the child the first one—so as to avoid getting busy, not following through, and disappointing a kiddo. These can be as complex or simple as you want them to be. You could send a young child stickers, coloring pages, or temporary tattoos monthly, for very little cost and effort. Or, you could create more involved kits themed on a topic that interests you, to share a passion of yours with them:
For example, if you're a gardener, you could send seed packs seasonally and include gardening gloves or a pot in the first kit.
If you're into sports, send baseball cards, stat sheets, and baseball coloring pages with a note in each package sharing a little bit about why you love baseball (or gymnastics, or whatever sport that excites you).
If you love cooking, which you probably do if you're reading this, send a recipe with the dry ingredients in each package and include an apron in the first package.
If you love art, send a small craft project with instructions and supplies. If you are Ross from Friends, you can send a toy dinosaur with a note giving some scientific information about that kind of dinosaur. If you are Phil Dunphy, you could send whatever it is that you need to do close-up magic tricks. The possibilities are endless.
Alright. If you have read this far and not come up with an awesome idea for the cool kiddo in your life, I am afraid you are beyond help. Time to resort to that singing hippo.
What gifts have your kids loved the most? Share their greatest hits in the comments.