What does Owen want for Christmas? That question begins arriving in my e-mail inbox every year right around this time from well-meaning relatives and friends. They’re looking for a suggestion of what to give my son to make their holiday shopping list more manageable. But they also want to find something he’ll get a kick out of. (The same sort of question pops up around his birthday, too.) This year, I’m trying a new answer: “Owen doesn’t need any more things. How about if you give him the gift of ... you?"
I’m suggesting to friends and family that they spend an afternoon with my son, sharing a hobby, an interest, or a talent of theirs that will make the day memorable and unique. “The gift of time is always the most important thing you can give to a child,” says Mark Bowers, Ph.D., a pediatric psychologist at the Ann Arbor (MI) Center for Development and Behavioral Pediatrics. “When children look back on their childhoods, they’re much more likely to remember events than objects.” On this page and the next is a guide to offer to relatives and friends that they can use for connecting with your child. (You can also use it yourself with your nephews, nieces, or other children.) All of the suggestions we offer are budget-friendly! As always, it’s important to coordinate any plans with the gift-receiver’s parent in advance.
The setup: Find two chef’s aprons — one for you and one for the young chef. You can even decorate the little apron with his name or a picture of one of his favorite dishes using fabric paint.
The gift: Decide on a dessert idea — a recipe passed down from your mom, something you invented, or a confection you’ve always wanted to try — and find the recipe if you don’t already have one. (You could also take him to a bookstore or library and pick out a recipe from a cookbook.) Offer to bake either at your house or his. Take pictures as you scoop and stir and of the sweet reward. Then set up a “fancy” little tasting for the two of you when the kitchen’s all cleaned up.
Put a ribbon on it: Make an online photo album documenting all the fun (use a photo-sharing site like Shutterfly) and add captions to tell the story of your day together. Include the recipe!
Monet For a Day
The setup: Smocks for two! An old button-down shirt will do. Decorate them using fabric markers; choose a medium (finger paints, crayons, pencils, clay) and ready the supplies.
The gift: Take her to an inspirational spot (a park, a bridge with a view, your porch) and share why the spot is meaningful to you. Set up your easels or drawing pads, and start creating. You can each work on an individual piece or pair up on one.
Put a ribbon on it: Frame her masterpiece and hang it on your wall so she can see it whenever she visits.
We suggest: Explore Monster Comics together, an activity book in which you use an invisible ink pen and light to learn about and make your own little goblins. Fun!
The setup: Create a dinosaur dig right in your backyard (or your kitchen) by filling a small kids’ swimming pool or a shallow storage container (one made to fit under the bed is perfect) with sand or soil. Then bury a dino skeleton. You can make one out of cardboard or buy a toy model — we like the 3-Foot Ultimate T. Rex Skeleton by the Discovery Channel or some fossils.
The gift: Explore the world of these prehistoric giants with your paleontologist-in-training at a museum or online. Then head home to unearth a Jurassic find of your own! With a trowel and paintbrush, sift through the sand and clean off your findings like real scientists. When you’ve found all the skeleton pieces, assemble them. Or identify each fossil.
Put a ribbon on it: Send him home with the skeleton he constructed or the fossils he found. They make great decorations.
The setup: Keep your eyes open for a construction project happening nearby, or contact your local town or city hall to find out where a new building might be going up or an old one is being taken down. Pick up two costume construction hats from a party store, and choose a project to build together — perhaps a Popsicle-stick box with a young child or a birdhouse with an older one. Most craft stores offer woodworking templates or kits.
The gift: Suit up in your construction gear (hats) and head over to the site you found. While staying clear of danger, explain what’s going on and how the different machinery works. Snap photos in front of the scene before going back to your own “construction site” at home to build the project you prepared.
Put a ribbon on it: Using one of the photos from your day together, create an “official” diploma — it might read “Master Builder,” or “Handyman Extraordinaire.” Fill in his name, the date, and a brief description of his amazing accomplishments.
We suggest: Habitat for Humanity's “Kids Only” section features puzzles and coloring-book pages all about construction safety and building homes for charity.
The setup: Put a favorite childhood movie at the top of your Netflix queue, get tickets to the local high school’s musical, or find a few YouTube clips. Charge up your video camera.
The gift: Watch the movie, the play, or clips together and discuss what makes them so memorable. What was her favorite part? What made her laugh? What would she do differently? Next, write a quick skit together, raid your closet for costumes, and perform it (recording as you go). Later, pop some popcorn, and invite her parents over for the premiere.
Put a ribbon on it: Dig an old trophy out of storage, put a special new label on it, and present the “Oscar” to your starlet. Burn the movie to a DVD so she can watch her breakout performance anytime.
We suggest: On Stage: Theater Games and Activities for Kids by Lisa Bany-Winters is full of ideas!
The setup: Get a few small pots (or use plastic yogurt containers with holes poked in the bottom), topsoil, a variety of herb seeds, and paint for decorating the pots.
The gift: Roll up your sleeves and start planting! Decorate the pots with the name of the herb or a picture of the plant. Talk about the different meals each herb is used in, like pizza, and brainstorm a sunny spot inside where she can keep her new “pets.”
Put a ribbon on it: Send your little gardener home with the potted plants and all the ingredients for a homemade pizza (frozen dough, sauce, cheese). Once her herbs start sprouting, mom can help her make the pie and sprinkle it with the herbs you planted together.
We suggest: Visit woollyschoolgarden.org to see how schools can obtain an outdoor garden classroom.
4 Quick Gift Ideas For You
- Pet for a day: Give the gift of animal “ownership” for an afternoon. Invite the child to join you as you walk your dog or help feed him. You might also consider lending Rover out for an overnight visit.
- Bike tour: Take a bike ride together to a park, beside a lake, or through the woods. (Don’t forget the helmets!) Have a picnic lunch along the way.
- Sports night: Play catch, kick a soccer ball, shoot some hoops. Take him to a minor-league, college, or high school game near you, and then invent rules for your own made-up sport. Invite some neighbors to come over and try it out.
- Tree hugging: Take a hike in a local park. Bring lunch, binoculars for bird watching, and a notebook for writing stories and making sketches about the beautiful plants and creatures you see.
Carolyn Buchanan is a contributing editor to Parent & Child.