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Non-Cluttering Non-Toy Gift Ideas For Kids

Non-Cluttering Non-Toy Gift Ideas For Kids

By Amalah

Hi Amy-

I have a question that might be more appropriate closer to the holidays, but was sparked by conversations with my sister during a recent visit. The situation is this: our family (my parents, my 2 sisters and I and our young families) are spread out across three states in the US and one European country. Despite the distance we are all pretty close, and see everyone 1-2 times a year (maybe more for those of us stateside). We all see giving gifts (birthdays, Christmas, and maybe when we visit) as ways to connect with the kids (there are 5 grandkids total, ages 9 years – 18 months). My parents are especially prone to bring a lot of random little toys that they can play with the kids when they visit (especially to Europe). This all amounts to a lot of toys that end up mostly just taking up space. Not ideal.

We’d love to come up with some traditions that still allow us to connect with each and the little ones without cluttering everyone’s houses. Given the distance, experiential gifts (e.g., taking a niece to a special one-on-one dinner or movie) isn’t really practical. I am hoping that you and your readers have some ideas for long-distance non-materialistic gifts. Ideas I’ve had or used in the past: books, money for a special gift or book the kid picks out (but money is so impersonal), for the adults some specialty food items and tasty treats. Any other ideas?


Oh goodness, do I ever feel you on this one. The toy clutter level around here is UNREAL, and I find myself dreading the lead-up to holidays and birthdays because of the influx of more, more, MORE and my inability to get my kids to purge in any meaningful or substantial way. (Everything is suddenly precious the minute the donate/trash question is poised, be it a toy with dead batteries they haven’t touched in years or a brochure about feline thyroidism they picked up at the vet. [True story; it’s been sitting on my dining table for three days while I waited for summer camp to start so I can throw it away.]) Throughout the year we try to stick to the “one toy in, one toy out” rule, but then the holidays/birthdays/visit-from-out-of-town relatives come along and BAM. An avalanche o’ stuff. I end up sweeping in with giant trash bags while nobody’s a home to do a donate/junk purge once or twice a year and just hoping “out of sight/out of mind” will cover my tracks.

In other words, I picked your question for completely selfish reasons, to force me to come up with some ideas I haven’t actually tried yet, and then to steal all the ideas people post in the comments. Hey, it’s my advice column. I do what I want.

One thing my MIL does that is GREAT (though most visits still entail her arriving with half the Target toy department in her suitcase) is a special “Grandma Bag” she brings full of those random little toys you mentioned, mostly as entertainment options for when we eat out at restaurants. MadLibs, Click-a-Bricks, plastic baggies of random LEGO, Matchbox cars, invisible ink pens, etc. Honestly, this is really all she could bring every time and my kids would still love it — what’s in the Grandma Bag this time?? — and then she takes it home with her to restock or swap in new little things she comes across.

My aunt had something similar for when I visited her as a child — she lived in a very small apartment and didn’t have room for toys, but kept one small box she filled with completely random little doll house miniatures, cereal box prizes, marbles, novelty rock collections, etc. Most of it was probably flea market finds or even crap she found on the street. I LOVED THAT BOX. I have vivid memories of being transfixed by all the weird and tiny  (soooo tiny) things she would find for HOURS. She’s long gone now but that box is still the first thing I think of when I think about her. I didn’t need (or even want) something new and shiny to play with every visit — I knew what I was going to play with there, and she had a real knack for putting together just the right assortment of “unusual” things that fascinated me in a way that took up very little room. (Or maybe I was a particularly weird child. But she definitely understood my flavor of weird.)

If giving gifts at each and every visit is just too deeply ingrained in your family, however, you probably will have better luck simply asking for (and providing) non-toy alternatives for your visits. Books are obviously the go-to here, but a few other ideas:

1. Gardening kits, DIY herb gardens, etc. Or have your kids plant a tree or perennial that they can come back to “visit” and take care of each time.  My boys have helped their grandparents in the garden and love to check in on the stuff they had a hand in planting.

2. Kid-sized kitchen tools, utensils, aprons, etc.. These can also stay at the gift-givers’ house to help bake holiday cookies, birthday cakes or other special/favorite treat. Cooking with kids is a great way to connect with them and for them to feel included and important, and most of us have room for a couple extra small utensils and tools in a kitchen drawer somewhere.

3. Hand-me-down clothing (or thrift store finds) for playing dress-up. Keep a box stashed away and add to it when you come across funny hats, old prom dresses or work uniforms, etc. It doesn’t need to fit them or be a purchased costume (that will quickly get outgrown anyway) — dress up is more fun when it’s silly and creative!

4. Magazine subscriptions (my kids love Highlights, National Geographic Kids, Lego Club, etc.). Monthly mail from far-away family in general will probably be more meaningful than yet another small Lego set or stuffed animal.

5. Low-clutter drawing supplies — we buy marble composition books in bulk from Amazon or Staples and lots of pencils, crayons, markers for one universal bin. They all go on one shelf at the bottom of our kitchen pantry. My kids spend hours on them. The finished books don’t take up much room and once in awhile they come up with something really creative or hilarious that I don’t mind keeping around forever. I find the notebooks are much better than individual pieces of paper, as my kids also have a hard time parting with their precious doodles and the paper clutter can get super out of hand super quickly.

6. One of the many, MANY kid-focused subscription boxes that are out there. You can pretty much type in anything your kid is into (STEM, cooking, sewing, jewelry making, etc.) with the words “subscription box” after it and find something. Just a three-month subscription would be enough to have a brand-new box to offer as entertainment for a years’ worth of visits, with minimal added clutter. There’s also online Lego rental programs so your kids can build and play with the big ridiculous sets, but then you get to send them back before they disintegrate into a million loose pieces.

7. “Use once and destroy” type toys like water balloons, bubbles, and tubs of PlayDoh (without the plastic-heavy “accessory” sets; you can totally make shapes and textures using stuff around the house — or make your own homemade version together). Go for stuff that they can play with and use up over the course of a visit and be done with it.

8. Fill a box full of fort and play tent building supplies. Fabric and old linens will fold pretty flat, and you can find plenty of great indoor fort kits and colorful fabrics on Amazon if you don’t have extra to commit to it. (Check out this and this or this.) Every visit will result in a completely different fort/tent arrangement and lots of imaginative play.

9. A piggy bank with some start-up money. Yes, money can feel impersonal but I promise that a) kids loveeeee it, and b) being able to count and save up money are really, really good skills. Better to teach them about saving up for what they really want then the immediate gratification of some random toy they’ll tire of in a week.

10. I know you and I both already mentioned books, but I’m out of ideas and my brain won’t let me leave this list without getting to 10. So. BOOKS.

Aaaaaand. I’m out. Readers? Your non-cluttering non-toy gift ideas?

Photo source: Depositphotos/gregorylee


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About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Vickie

    June 28, 2017 at 1:44 am

    My paternal grandmother had fabulous tiny random things in her purse. Good, quiet entertainment.

    I LOVED the aunt’s box story.

    I have a canvas bag I have filled with all kinds of small and silent things. I take it with me to events where extended family with small children will be with us. And then I tell their moms when the kids get restless they can come pick something out of my bag to do. When they get tired of that one, they can come trade with me. Magnet sets, tiny wooden bear dress puzzles, coloring, cars, small etch-a-sketch, wrap stick puzzles, etc. Lots of age ranges. You would be surprised how much you can get in a bag.

    Movie passes are good gift. Passes for trampoline places, roller skating, ice skating, water parks, and children’s museums are great.

    A friend does tokens for the rides at the local zoo in Easter eggs instead of candy.

    Several friends do zoo or pool memberships instead of gifts for their grandchildren. Horse back riding is a fabulous gift. Summer activity camp admission is great gift too.

    So, I lean toward activities,
    and away from clutter
    and away from “treat/junk” food.

  • Courtney

    June 28, 2017 at 5:48 am

    One of my favorite things to suggest to my parents is a cooler version of a thing a kid needs anyway. If I’m buying sheets for my daughter, they are whatever’s on sale at Target. When grandma buys them, they’re the My Little Pony sheets. Or light up Frozen shoes instead of the boring sneakers we would usually get. Takes up absolutely no extra room since she needed the sheets/shoes/rain coat/whatever anyway but everyone feels like it’s a special gift AND it saves me money!

    • SarahB

      June 28, 2017 at 7:59 am

      Oh, yeah! I often suggest to my mom that she get shirts, etc, with whatever character my kid is into. Then I never have to shell out money for those, and my kid appreciates that Grandma got him the amazing Star Wars shirt, etc.

      • Alecia Ramsay

        June 28, 2017 at 11:25 am

        Great idea @SarahB!

    • Vickie

      June 28, 2017 at 10:50 am

      This (things they need) is what we did for our own gifts to our kids when they were little. And still do now that they are grown.

      I have friends who do this for their grand kids now. Sheets, comforters, boots/shoes, pj’s, clothes, sports equipment, etc. Great suggestion.

    • Alecia Ramsay

      June 28, 2017 at 11:25 am

      I love so many of these ideas! Name-brand anything (my grandpa got me Guess jeans for my bday in junior high – I seriously wore them to shreds), cooler version of boring things at home, gift card or $$ towards something specific for the kid or the entire family (movie theaters are great – taking multiple kids to an evening first-run movie in a theater gets expensive). For my kids, they are both involved in various sports. $$ for/towards something related to their activities would be awesome – so the Lionel Messi soccer cleats (or $$ contribution because those bastards are expensive), gift card to or a new ball, a set of fancy kamas (karate scythe thingies), a t-shirt from the karate studio so that he can rotate during summer when they only have to wear uniform pants. Other ideas for bigger kids – Apple app store or iTunes gift card for games/music (this is what we got our 16yo niece for her bday), $$ for the latest Star Wars Whatever xbox upgrade (bonus if you know the specifics – “here’s $20 towards the expansion pack for Star Wars Whatever on the xbox), etc.

  • SarahB

    June 28, 2017 at 7:57 am

    My uncle will send us cash for a specific activity, and it’s great. For instance, he sent money for our son to “take the family out” to our son’s favorite frozen yogurt place. So we went, our son paid the cashier, we said wasn’t it great of Uncle Bob to do this for us, took photos and texted them. It was awesome.

    Gift cards to places you like to go–like if your kids are in love with a particular bouncy place, pizza place, anything requiring an entry fee. My parents used to buy our annual membership to the zoo every year, when we were going a lot. Summer pass to the local pool, etc.

    The key for this gift involves a little parental work: Talking it up with the kids when you go do the experience, then sending the photo to the giver. But that is way, way easier than sorting toys!

  • amakaye

    June 28, 2017 at 8:22 am

    Lessons, or another activity they would like to try. (Cooking class, gymnastics, music, etc.) If it’s an ongoing thing, parents can build it up each time, and the kids can report on their progress, giving another way to stay connected across miles!


    June 28, 2017 at 9:46 am

    I know a lot of people are anti-screen time, but we really enjoyed using Skype/Hangouts back when we lived a significant distance from our family. Perhaps a “calling Grammy iPad” that is only used for this and can be taken out so that you can “live stream” activities that they can’t be there for?

  • Julie Manouchehri

    June 28, 2017 at 9:52 am

    Whenever people ask, I always request a small piece of artwork. It’s neat, takes up little space, and is a memento specific to the gift giver, and, often, to the child’s interests at the time (hence we have collected a wall full of birds, sea creatures, and now dinosaurs…)

  • Erin Withans

    June 28, 2017 at 11:20 am

    Experiences! Make the gift a thing you go and do – waterpark, zoo, magic show, parade, trampoline park, whatever. Take some pictures while you’re there and have a photo book as the only clutter.

    • Kim Crichton-Struthers

      June 28, 2017 at 7:04 pm

      I’ve had relatives give a ticket to something like the zoo and include a few dollars for them to spend on a souvenir. I remind them of who got them that experience and we send pictures too.

  • Alecia Ramsay

    June 28, 2017 at 11:27 am

    Pre-order the big first-run DVD that’s not out yet (with download or just get the download version depends on the home/car set-up) plus the sound track. My kids LOVE sound tracks – everything from Star Wars to Jurassic Park to Moana.

  • CKD1

    June 28, 2017 at 4:29 pm

    A few suggestions I received when I asked a similar question 🙂
    1.) Memberships/season pass to a local zoo, museum, or amusement park (check with the parents first about a favorite spot)
    2.) Classes – swim lessons, dance, karate, etc.
    3.) Gift cards to a favorite restaurant or ice cream parlor – the kids can “treat” a friend or sibling without dipping into allowance
    4.) Sounds like your families do a fair amount of traveling, so maybe a new backpack/bag for the plane with a new book or activity (so many travel options of our favorite childhood board games!) or pack of cards, and a water bottle or something semi-practical. Kids then have their new carry-on and can be in charge of their stuff for the trip
    5.) A coworker of mine once made calendars for the family with various family photos for each month. He then had birthdays, anniversaries, and big events on the calendar where he could (i.e. someone’s upcoming wedding, family reunion, vacations). Huge hit, and gave the kids things to look forward to (Cousin Katie coming to visit!) and made them feel like celebs when they spotted their birthdays, which I think is adorable! If you can, you can even add childhood photos of their parents so they can giggle over pictures of mom and dad as little kids.

    Good luck!

  • Elizabeth Roper

    June 28, 2017 at 6:08 pm

    So my parents live a few states away too. One of the things we’ve done quite a bit is to send each other postcards. The kids love getting and sending them, and I know my parents do too. My Mom has bought some big boxes of assorted postcards and always bring them so the kids can pick the cards they get to send over the next few months. Sometimes she even provides postage. They are perfect because they connect us between visits and take basically no space!

  • Kerry

    June 29, 2017 at 4:02 pm

    Maps! Not fancy ones, but like, the free ones they give you at the zoo. Or the museum. Or hotel. They make for a great prop for facilitating conversation between adults and kids, and then give the kids a sense of connection to the places that are important in their family’s lives. My daughters have several up on their walls. (Also postcards, photo albums, etc).

  • Rachel

    July 7, 2017 at 10:33 pm

    Glow Sticks!! The big fancy wand kind usually found at target (check party supply area, you area, dollar sectipn), and many dollar stores. My kids LOVE THEM! Plus we have a rule, when they quit glowing, they get trashed. Added bonus: if the kids came to you, they now have night lights. Also those little character wash cloths that expand with water. Dollar store again. And they can use them for their bath – YAY BATH TIME! Finally, a roll of quarters and a trip to the nearest arcade or mall play area that has those little ride on things (substitute tokens if applicable).

  • Rachel

    July 7, 2017 at 10:37 pm

    Also my cousin brings them all the free conference swag from her work trips. Usually cheapie stuff they have a blast with, destroy, and we toss it. Blow up beach balls, squishy balls, expanding towel things, flash lights, highlighters, sticky notes, water bottles, etc etc (all with logos emblazoned of course).

    Oh, and temporary tattoos, my kids love those too.