Outside the Gift Box: Experiences to Share on Holidays, Birthdays, and Beyond!
Karen Kane is an editorial, marketing, and communications professional focused on creating meaningful print, digital, and real-world experiences for kids, parents, caregivers, and educators. She is always looking for special occasion adventure ideas that she can plan with her family in Atlanta, Georgia.
By the time my daughters were in early elementary school, they’d reached a level of “experiential literacy” that many of their peers in our small, rural town had not. Without even realizing it, all of our family outings and experiences—museum visits, park outings, exposure to international foods and cultures, and the worlds our kids encountered through books—proved to be profoundly formative to their academic development. Through the years, the educational value and memories from our out-of-the-box experiences—created on a modest budget!—have paid dividends in a way that discarded stuffed animals and retired video games have not.
Holidays are an ideal time to consider a different approach to gifting: doing things with your kids instead of exclusively buying them things. If that sounds Grinch-like, read on. The following ideas include family favorites that my now adult daughters still treasure and talk about in a way that warms our hearts. And fear not: You’ll also find optional ideas for goodies to complement each experience!
1. Outside the box: Climb the highest mountain (in your area).
Or, find a gentle hike if your family isn’t up for a true climb. A simple online search will reveal climbs and trails of varied intensities. Our family favorite is a challenging three-hour round-trip hike up a high peak. Prepare with a lesson in map reading and plan the trail in advance. Keep a running count of the diverse plants and wildlife you come across—they can be as varied as the terrain you traverse.
Inside the box: Pack an energizing supply kit.
Include homemade trail mix, granola bars, water bottles, a first aid kit, and a trail map for each family member. You could also bring along a compass to practice orienteering skills.
2. Outside the box: Visit the North Pole (virtually).
This time of year, seasonal symbols of snowflakes, sleigh bells, and the solstice abound. Take a family journey to the North Pole to learn more. Want another chilly adventure without leaving the comfort of your home? You can explore and learn about almost any topic with books and online videos. Consider armchair exhibitions to discover the science behind glaciers, the secrets of how the Inuit survive in the cold, or the mysteries of the taiga biome. The world is at your fingertips.
Inside the box: Freeze the memories.
Wrap up a snow globe and place a label on the bottom with the date, time, and location of your icy family adventure. Or place a bow on a surprise treat in the freezer to celebrate your frozen tundra outing.
3. Outside the box: Let grandparents join the fun.
If grandparents or other relatives are looking for gift ideas, suggest a holiday-themed home viewing of a movie or concert. You can also look for outdoor music, light shows, and local community and street theater performances. Bonus: Put on your own show for neighbors! Shared memories of these special occasions with dear relatives will stick with your children for years, and they’ll help build the bonds that make those relationships so special.
Inside the box: Make family-themed snacks.
“Pop-popcorn” and “ba-Nana bread” are a perfect treat during or after the show!
4. Outside the box: Spend an evening with the stars.
On a clear night, go outside for a family stargazing activity and learn about the constellations. Download a free stargazing app to help you identify stars and more. Some apps also label the International Space Station, the Hubble Space Telescope, and other satellites. Can you find and memorize the astrological birth signs of everyone in the family?
Inside the box: Bring home the light.
Surprise your child with glow-in-the-dark stars to re-create the shapes of newfound constellations, or invite them to design their own. Kids will enjoy decorating their room ceiling or wall, and you’ll always have a reminder of the experience.
5. Outside the box: Become a history buff.
Explore signage and landmarks of historical significance in your community. When our family lived near New York City, we’d often ride the Staten Island Ferry to get a close-up view of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Later, when my daughter’s third grade class took a field trip to visit both landmarks, she could visualize where they were heading, which added to her excitement and engagement. She was able to build on our shared experience and then tell the rest of the family all of the new things she learned. Those dinner table conversations were pure family gold moments!
Inside the box: Mark the occasion.
Make a homemade coupon that kids can redeem for a small keepsake from the gift shop at your destination. Refrigerator magnet souvenirs are practical and make great mementos of all the places your family visits together.
6. Outside the box: Art is everywhere.
The holidays are a great time to visit nearby museums, which often host free entry days and offer kid-friendly exhibits and activities. For a less formal outing, tour the murals, street art, and architecture in your city. Pick a favorite sculpture in your community to sketch. How many different colors can you spot in one hour?
Inside the box: Let your artistic side shine.
Gift your family a puzzle of a famous painting—which makes for a fun after-dinner group activity. Modeling clay can inspire kids to make their own sculptures, and personal sketchbooks and colored pencils will come in handy when inspiration strikes as you explore new art forms.
7. Outside the box: Whip up a tasty dish.
Ask a relative to teach your kids an old family recipe, or invite a friend from a different culture to share a traditional holiday dish. Toss in a food safety lesson from BrainPOP for good measure.
Inside the box: Surprise and delight.
Before you start cooking, pack up the nonperishable ingredients and cooking utensils and divide them among your family members. Kids may be surprised to open a sack of flour or score a spatula, but a handwritten recipe card included in their gift boxes will explain it all!
8. Outside the box: Let’s move!
Turn your family into an amateur dance troupe with a lively jazz, samba, or tap lesson from the comfort of your living room, or outside at a local park. There are plenty of free online classes and videos you can enjoy if an in-person class is not an option.
Inside the box: Get your dance card ready.
Create a stack of four cards—one per week—and schedule “classes.” Include the name of the class and a song you plan to dance to.
9. Outside the box: Run for it.
Find a local family fun run. These are usually held on a weekend morning and are no more than 5K (3.1 miles). It’s a great way to get outdoors, and it may even inspire someone in your family to take up running as a regular form of exercise.
Inside the box: On your mark, get set, go!
The Experience of Giving to Others
In addition to giving the gift of experiences to your family, pay it forward by participating in experiences that benefit your community.
10. Volunteer at a local soup kitchen or food pantry.
These organizations need helpers to assist with setup, check-in, serving, and cleaning. Encourage kids to bring along their favorite canned and dry goods to support a holiday food drive.
11. Donate time and TLC at an animal shelter.
Many shelters need dog walkers or pen cleaners, and welcome volunteers who bring positive energy to dogs and cats that are waiting to be adopted. While you’re at it, learn some new tricks from the pros about caring for pets. (Keep in mind that some shelters may require a minimum time commitment because of the training involved.)
12. Beautify your block.
Participate in a town cleanup day or plan your own as a family. Talk about what happens to trash and turn your outing into a competition to gather the most recyclable goods. It’s amazing how effective a small family can be in a short amount of time. When you’re through, indulge in some well-earned homemade cookies or cupcakes topped off with creative recycling-themed icing designs.
The payoff for orchestrating experiential gifts can have the same, or even more, wow factor as a new gadget or toy, and the long-term impact is an added bonus! Focusing on family experiences adds layers of love and learning to your traditions for years to come.