Each year during the gift-giving holiday season, so much focus and pressure is put on parents to purchase the "latest and greatest" toys and products for their children. What is often forgotten is that many of these toys do not foster the creativity and spirit of discovery that is such a treasured and important part of childhood.
This year, the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, in partnership with New Dream, Story of Stuff, Simplicity Parenting, TRUCE, and Reclaim Your Holidays have published a guide entitled “15 Tips for Commercial-Free, Fun-filled Holidays”. The guide provides suggestions for choosing gifts and planning activities that focus on creativity, foster connection, prioritizing giving over getting, promote ecology, and have little or no cost.
Inspired by this guide, the CEC directors have created a collection of just a few of our favorite low to no cost activities and gifts for infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and school-age children that we have used for our own children or as gifts for others.
Recommendations from Lisa for Infants and Toddlers
"I made all of these for my own children, as well as many times over during my years as a teacher. " - Lisa Cain-Chang
1. Moving Water in the Tub
Using large suction cups and a drill, PVC connectors and spouts can be transformed into hours of fun and leaning in the tub. (Simply drill holes in the PVC to hold the “insert-able" side of the suction cup. Waterproof glue can be used to secure if needed.)
2. Muffin Tin Fun
The fun and learning in this is to find a variety of objects with different colors and textures and place them in the cups of a muffin tin. Older babies and toddlers love to place objects into containers. Objects can be balls, blocks, plastic animals, etc.)
3. Amazing Ice Blocks
While you probably won’t want to wrap a block of ice, this gift is the items and instruction needed to make it.
- A one gallon plastic container (the ones that hold milk or juice)
- Plastic or metal objects (animals, small toys, pinecones, rocks, etc.)
- Liquid watercolor (optional)
- Cut of the top portion of container (making a large enough opening to insert objects.
- Place items in the container, fill with water (adding a few drops of liquid watercolor if you like) and freeze for at least 8 hours.
- Cut container away from now frozen ice block.
- Place frozen block in a place where children can freely explore it as it melts, revealing whatever was frozen inside! (You can also add a large paint brush and a cup to pour water to make the ice melt faster.)
4. Locks and Latches
Purchase a variety of locks and latches and attach them to a board with smooth and sanded surfaces for hours of play and skill-building.
Recommendations from Ellen for preschool age children
"''Discovery Boxes' make great gifts because children use greater creative and problem-solving skills than with most toys, as well as providing unique experiences every time they interact with the materials. You can also tailor the materials to the interests and abilities of the child." - Ellen Veselack
1. Writing Box
Collect old envelopes, stationary, note pads, calendars, cards. Add a variety of writing utensils such as regular pens, gel pens, pencils, colored pencils and markers. Add a sheet of one cent stamps to complete the box. These can be put in a shoe box that has been covered and decorated.
2. Nature Discovery Box
Collect a variety of nature items such as pine cones, acorns, interesting pods, bark, moss (if you can find it), leaves, shells, etc. Add a magnifying glass for close observation and a small journal to record their observations. Put in a box, decorated in a nature theme.
3. Sewing Box
Place an embroidery hoop, fabric that is loosely woven such as burlap (can be reclaimed from items already purchased that came in a burlap bag, then cut to fit the embroidery hoop), large blunt-tipped darning needles, fingerling weight yarn or embroidery thread in a wide variety of colors, and large buttons for sewing on, in a decorated box or basket.
4. Construction Box
Gather a wide variety of small pieces of wood scraps and put in a sturdy wooden crate. Include a bottle of wood glue and some tempera paints and brushes.
Recommendations from Allegra and Talar for school age children
“Children of all ages love personalized, special activities tailor-made just for them. These activities can work for a range of ages and can be adjusted for the age of the child. My own girls love the activities that they can do together or with a parent, and love helping to create gifts for others. The coupon book is a great example of something children can make for their parents! Creative and original, these gifts are filled with love.” - Allegra Inganni
1. “Concoctions” Kit
Purchase Mudworks -- a wonderful book filled with amazing recipes for all kinds of dough and slime. A great gift would be to give this book, along with some of the basic supplies, to a child (ages five and up).
2. Recipe Book/Recipe in a Jar
One of my favorite gifts was one my mother gave me- a handmade cookbook filled with favorite family recipes. For an older child who loves to cook, one could fill a journal with simple child accessible recipes. For a fun touch, Include a gift card to a grocery store for purchasing ingredients.
Recipe in a Jar
You may have seen this project at local stores, but it is easy and fun to make at home. Fill a mason jar with all the dry ingredients for a simple recipe- a favorite cookie or muffin recipe works well. Add a recipe card that explains how to add the wet ingredients and voila- it is a simple fun gift for all ages!
3. Coupon Books
Older children love to make homemade coupon books for their parents- each coupon can be a ticket for a special something. “This coupon entitles you to 20 hugs.” “ This coupon entitles you to breakfast in bed.” This project is great for a parent and child collaboration to give to another parent.
4. Dress Up Box
Develop a dress up wardrobe by bringing together fun, fancy and interesting clothing, costumes and accessories found in thrift stores, garage sales or online. Items could include medical scrubs, chef aprons, gowns and everyday clothing.
5. Outdoor Exploration Backpack
Start with a certificate good for a hike or spending the night in your backyard. Pack contents could include magnifying glass, sleeping bag, binoculars, flashlight, snacks, or the making for s'mores.