Gift Guides that do not suck: kids
Ok! Off to the races! I have two little beans myself and have been happily over-shopping for my eldest niece for six years now, so kiddos are my favorite category of gifting. This is one that probably isn’t too hard for most people - children’s clothing is extremely fun to shop for - but sometimes you want to go beyond a cute outfit that Mom enjoys but Kid doesn’t even notice. You want to stand out from the crowd. You want to give THE THING that gets played with every day so that you get grateful “oh, we bust this out all the time!” comments straight through July. Sometimes you want to win Christmas.
For this, you need to get your game face on and think like a four year old. Build yourself a sofa fort, get your crayons out to take some notes, and join me for a lesson in awesome stuff.
First up: Thrift store treasures. This is excellent enough to basically be your game plan for every gift for a child under 8 for the rest of time, but I shall elaborate. Take yourself to a Salvation Army or a good thrift shop near your house, and begin perusing the racks along the walls and the random stuff in glass cases. Make a pile of stuff that you think is super neat but you could never imagine actually needing or using yourself. You are probably done shopping now.
The goal is to find detailed, slightly mysterious items that suggest a whole life story behind them, preferably one full of grown-ups who carry briefcases. Putting on these items should feel transformative: distinctly non-kid-like, and fancy. Weird old glasses (extra points if there’s a sturdy case to take them busily in and out of), church hats, glitzy evening dresses or velvet coats, charming but unwieldy picnic baskets, ornate metal teapots, low-heeled shoes. We are world-building here. Funny enough, I think overly-specific dress-ups that dictate the game are not great; give my son a fireman’s helmet, and he only takes it out when he feels like being a fireman. Give him a tweed fedora, for which he has no context in the real world, and it is just a metaphor for “I’m not me right now.” Who he IS can change moment to moment.
Don’t overlook the homewares, either: ornate and useless boxes are basically genie factories, and mismatched cooking gear like old pots and pans mean that they MIGHT not demand the pots the family actually uses to make dinner (har har, they definitely still will). Things with lids are far preferable to things without; lids that are hinged and attached are even better than lids you can lose. Kids really love putting stuff inside other stuff. Never gets old.
All items should be hard to break and easy to slip on without a grown-up to help. Tchotchkes should be wood, leather, or metal, with no super-sharp edges. Accessories should avoid delicate things that could tear easily, like netting, unless the kids are a little older. Large buttons = good; tiny hook-and eye clasps or old janky zippers = frustrating.
There you go. You just won Christmas.
Up your game: get an old interesting trunk or toy chest (also at the thrift shop?) and buy a bunch of cheap but ornate dress-ups to fill it. We had one when I was a kid, and it not only got used every dang day when I was little, it also had a renaissance when I was a teenager and my friends and I would spend hilarious hours putting together insane outfits from my parents’ most extravagant old clothes from the 70s. It was a constant drag show. None of my high school friends should run for office, is what I’m saying, cause I have blackmail photos.
If you MUST purchase things that are guaranteed not to be haunted by the spirit of an old lady named Maude, I’m a huuuuuge fan of Crazy Forts.
We’ve been playing with these since my oldest was 2, and I think the ceiling age on enjoyment here is… when arthritis gets in the way? Forts are fun, end of discussion. This solves the age-old question of how to make a fort that is large enough to fit more than one kid, but will not fall over constantly or incapacitate all sofas in the house. They’re pretty great bare, but very good with an old sheet draped on top. They’re even fun as an adult to try to figure out how to make a spaceship, or a truck, or “an airplane that crabs can drive” (just my house?). The balls and sticks are just a giant erector set, so they even get used to make wands and tools. Best of all, they clean up quickly and easily, and pack back into their small box that slides easily under a sofa or into a cabinet. This is the toy I take on vacations, because it promises hours of fun but takes almost no room in the car.
Up your game: Include a fun sheet to throw on top. Or buy two sets, for truly giant structures!
Beautifully illustrated, dip-in and dip-out books. I’ve gotten a few of these for my son, and I love them as much as he does. The illustrations are intricate and engrossing, so he has fun looking at them alone, but I also like the format as an alternative to linear stories. The pages are one-off tidbits or poems and short stories, easily put down or picked back up later. I can say “we have time to do three beasts right now - which one should we start with?!” or “Ok, we left off last night with the letter O…”
Magnet sticks and balls. These things are so fun. We have a received a few different brands, and our favorites are SmartMax. They stick well, but they aren’t hard to pull apart either. There are some cool accessories like wheels and ladders that make building really versatile. They can easily be turned into wands or gardening tools like hoses and weed-whackers (…just my house?). I also try to engineer scenarios in which they become microphones, because once at bedtime I was treated to the most intensely excellent Mick-Jagger-circa-1974 rendition of “Baa Baa Black Sheep” you can imagine - prancing, preening over the shoulder, that weird knee-bending twist thing he does with his ankles crossed - simply because this magnet stick and ball looked like a Mic. Merry Christmas to meeeeeee.
Christmas for kiddos. Done and done. Really, just go find an ornate box at the Salvo and make up a story about the fairy that lives inside it at night, and you are swathed in a little shroud of magic that won’t wear off until the peanut needs braces. You’re welcome.