An ‘Experiences Not Things’ Holiday Guide for Kids

This article was originally published in November 2017. It was most recently updated in November 2019. 

Ask your kids what they got for Christmas last year. Do they remember? Now ask them about the last time your family spent the day together or took a trip somewhere they enjoyed. I’m betting they not only remember but they’re probably talking your ear off with their favorite details and memories.

Our culture of ‘stuff’ has reached a fever pitch. Our gift shopping lists get longer every year, and our closets and toy boxes are busting at the seams. We feel obligated to spend a certain amount of money on certain people, and with kids – forget it. Kids are conditioned to make lists of toys and collect all the things and everybody from Santa to the Easter Bunny to the Tooth Fairy are delivering STUFF.

1 in 10 of us have a storage unit because our houses can’t even HOLD all the stuff.

The average American family spends over $900 on gifts at Christmas.

And it may seem logical that an object you can see and use every day could bring you more joy over time than an experience that lasts a single day or a few hours. But that object doesn’t bring you the same joy on Day 30 that it does when you rip open the paper on Day 1. It instead fades into your life and becomes part of your normal. Meanwhile, a new experience changes you, it broadens your perspective, and it means memories with your family that will last a lifetime.

A few years ago, my sister-in-law gave Colt this:

experiences not stuff

Many kids get “Birthday Money” or “Christmas Money” — and this is no different. But the spirit of this, “for fun experiences… not stuff!” is one we can all try in big and small ways. A gift like this makes it a teachable moment. It shows kids (that are old enough) that we can make choices with our money — and that THEY can make choices with THEIR money. Colt travels and has amazing memories and experiences with us and with many of our friends and family members — but putting the power of choice in his hands, and challenging him to run with it — is a beautiful gift.

Whether you believe experiences are more meaningful than things, or you’re just over it with the clutter in your storage closets — a holiday season with more experiences and fewer things may be for you.

Experiences Not Things

Ready to try gifting experiences?

5 Things to Consider:

  1. Lead by example. Let your kids see you and your spouse enjoy experiences together and they will learn this is a bonding experience for a family. I hear couples say “this trip is our anniversary present to each other”. Make sure your kids hear that!
  2. Talk about it the right way with your kids. Especially if this is a big change from your usual gift-giving style. Don’t say “we’re not getting any toys this year”. I can promise you that won’t go well… Rather help them make a Christmas list, if that’s a tradition you have, and put some of these types of ideas on the list. Refocus them from toys and gadgets to their interests and hobbies.
  3. Offer gift ideas to relatives who ask. And better yet, encourage those relatives to be part of the experience itself. If aunts and uncles and grandparents can’t be there in person, be sure to remind kids who lovingly purchased that museum membership for them, and kids will appreciate the thoughtful gift.
  4. Find your people! Social media makes it easy to find inspirational families who are taking this approach to heart. They will give you ideas and provide a source of encouragement. Follow hashtags and social media feeds that celebrate and encourage this lifestyle. #ExperiencesNotThings or REI’s #OptOutside campaign are two of my favorites. And of course, join forces with your IRL friends and family to embrace your new outlook on the joy of giving.
  5. Tackle the existing clutter. As you prep for a holiday of less stuff, start now! Sort through old toys and donate them, and have your kids help you. Yes, this means the process may move more slowly, but it lets kids see the number of things they already have and start to think about which of their toys are really important to them and why. It will lay the groundwork for changes you want to make.

The secret to ‘more experiences and fewer things’ is… there is no secret. If you wanna try it, you just have to try it. And it doesn’t have to be a big lifestyle overhaul – start small.

11 ‘Experiences Not Things’ Gift Ideas:

1. Tickets to a play or concert
The holidays are a great time to go to a special show like The Nutcracker or Disney on Ice, but shows like them happen all year in most areas. Snag a schedule for your community theater or the tour schedule for your kiddo’s favorite band or stage show, and you’ve got an incredible gift idea. If this is a particular interest for your family, consider season tickets to a local theater — you will get to enjoy the gift all year!

DSC_0095_edit_resize2. Sports tickets
A trip to see a favorite game or player can be an incredible gift for a sports fan, and if you do your homework, you’ll find behind-the-scenes opportunities to meet players, walk on the field, get autographs, etc. that will make the experience even more special.

3. Camping gear (and plans to take a trip!)
A sleeping bag or a headlamp is a fun gift for introducing kids to a new hobby of camping, and makes them feel part of the planning. The nearest campsite is merely a Google search away, and a trip to a National Park can be an incredible memory for a budding outdoor enthusiast. Order a National Park passport before you go and encourage your kids to start collecting stamps of the parks they visit — a priceless scrapbook!

4. Be a tourist in your own townNYC3_0065_edit_resize
You could have lived in your town for years and be missing unique experiences right under your nose. Visit your local tourism bureau and get some fresh ideas. Wrap a guidebook as a gift, and make a local bucket list together.

5. Travel somewhere new
Simple, but this is my favorite. Take your child to get his first passport, or surprise her with her own suitcase or carry on. Travel is the ultimate new experience, and kids can be good travelers even younger than you might think.

6. Membership to a museum, aquarium or zoo, or season passes to an amusement park
Museum memberships are a terrific investment for yearlong adventure. Did you know many children’s museums are members of something called the Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC) Travel Passport Program? It means your membership to one museum on this list gets you benefits (like free admission!) to museums all over the country. We have a membership to our local children’s museum (an annual Christmas gift!) and we’ve used it to get free admission to museums in seven different states in the last three years!

7. Magazine subscription
A subscription to a magazine can mean your kiddo gets a monthly dose of his favorite topic. Highlights, Nat Geo Kids, Sports Illustrated for Kids, and Zoobooks are great options.

8. Lessons for something new
The options for this are endless: guitar, surfing, pottery, photography, golf, cooking, acting, cake decorating, sewing, carpentry, voice, karate, painting, computer coding, and anything else your little one shows interest in. This pairs well with a book or magazine subscription.

9. Amplify their interests
Is your kiddo into music or history or Legos or space or dance? Do some homework and find the ultimate experience in that area. Last fall, I took my space enthusiast kiddo to visit Kennedy Space Center in Orlando. He loved every second and his interest in space and engineering has only deepened since we spent time and energy diving into one of his passions. It led to a year of saving birthday money and Christmas money — and probably change he scavenged from the couch cushions — to put toward Space Camp this past summer. This sustained interest in space has become a natural outlet for an experiences-not-things mindset.

10. Adopt a project
Commit to training for a 5k as a family (wrap a pair of running shoes) or make plans to plant a garden together in the spring (wrap a child’s pair of gardening gloves and a packet of seeds).

11. Try a subscription box
Ok – so this one really blurs the line into “stuff” BUT! I added it to the list this year because we’ve had an incredible experience with two different subscription boxes this past year and I think they’re a terrific gift idea that is more about time and curiosity than just stuff. There are TONS of options out there — for interests ranging from cooking to travel to photography to art to engineering to computer coding. We can personally vouch for KiwiCo (we’re just finishing a year of the Tinker Crate) and BitsBox for coding. Both were amazing and quite literally the gift that keeps giving.


Add to this list! What are your ideas?

When you give the gift of experiences, what you’re really giving is the gift of time. Children will grow into their own styles as they get older, but a childhood of experiences will influence a lifetime of prioritizing memories over mementos. Best of all, you’ll be inspiring curiosity that will last forever.

More ideas and resources:









2 thoughts on “An ‘Experiences Not Things’ Holiday Guide for Kids

  1. Sarah, this is awesome! And wonderful timing just prior to the holidays.

  2. I love this – and YOU! Such a great family-building concept. We usually do low-cost experiences (camping, etc.) but this year, for Luke’s 21st birthday, I surprised all the guys with a trip to see his favorite NFL team play Jase’s favorite team (Buffalo vs. Detroit)…with a day trip to Niagara Falls. They are so excited and watching them open that present was one of my favorite gift-gives.

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