The Alternative Gift List for Kids (That Isn’t Just More Stuff)

“Is there anything they’d like for their birthday?” The question that many of us are fortunate to hear about our children but that also brings over feelings of blank and slight awkwardness. Given that 8.5 million new perfectly good toys are thrown away each year in the UK, the whole things makes me feel a bit uneasy and serves to reinforce the fact that childhood has in some ways become synonymous with more and more toys and more ‘stuff.’ 

I’ve known of mothers who have bagged up toys before birthdays to make more space for the new incoming toys and of kids who’ve had total melt downs at their birthdays because they’ve felt totally overwhelmed by all the new toys they’ve received. It just doesn’t add upDon’t get me wrong; the kids love toys, and I love toys. But we don’t need cupboards full of them and I actually see their birthdays and the gifts the kids receive as part of my parenting responsibility. Does that sound over dramatic?! (The science is there to back it up, just in case) Because the truth is, living lightly and simply for me and the family is a priority. The kids have enough toys, and the toys they do have, they share – from a scooter to a sticker book.

All that being said, it’s nice for the children to receive something for their birthday – everyone loves to open something on their birthday or to be made to feel a little special so I’ve put together this alternative gift list which I hope also might help navigate well-meaning family or friends who perhaps don’t share your values, but who you want to have an answer to when they ask the question and don’t want to appear ungrateful to.

My main tip is to not shy away from asking for practical gifts. This year for Jack’s 4th birthday I asked for some (much needed) pants, a good quality splash suit, and a kids camping head torch – all of which have been received, used, and treated with much love. Practical stuff can be fun, too. Gruffalo gardening gloves anyone? Yes please!

I’ve categorised the gifts according to ‘type’ but to be honest I reckon most children will enjoy most of these gifts. One common theme through all of them is that many of these gifts are experience based, many are free or cheap (or can be sourced from a charity shop), others are simply practical or allow kids to help in some way. Some are more expensive, but will last and have meaning, others are entirely personal and will take time to create. Of course some are age dependent, but I hope you can find something here for children of all ages. So here goes; the alternative kids gift list for….

Culture kids
1. Book vouchers (and a trip to choose the book)
2. A playdate in the library
3. A theatre trip
4. An audiobook subscription
5. Write them a story and feature their friends and family. Print it out, bind it – they’ll LOVE IT.

Green fingered kids
6. Fun gardening gloves or a trowel
7. A day out fruit picking
8. A plant to grow and nourish
9. A wormery DIY kit
10. A compost bin
11. A litter picker

Crafty kids
12. A sewing machine
13. High quality paint, pens or a paintbrush
14. An easel
15. A box of dressing up clothes (scour local charity shops for some amazing finds!)`
16. A giant empty cardboard box (seriously)

Cheffy kids
17. A peeler or a knife
18. An apron
19. A cookbook
20. A fruit and veg bag
21. A fun chopping board

Outdoorsy kids
22. A headtorch
23. A tent
24. Membership to a local farm, Woodland Trust or National Trust
25. A magnifying glass
26. Swimming goggles or flippers
27. Great quality wellies

Musical Kids
28. An instrument
29. Tickets to a gig (+ lunch at their favourite restaurant)
30. Music or singing classes
31. A track with you or someone they love speaking or singing on

Bigger Picture
32. Charity donations – Ask friends or family to make a charity contribution to a charity close to your heart in your child’s name
33. Contributions to a savings account
34. Enrol them on a course
35. Adopt an animal
36. Group together – ask friends/ family to group together to buy one larger item
37. Anything homemade is always a winner – from a cards to cakes, you can’t go wrong when the thought is there
38. Remember to ditch the wrapping paper if possible or opt for recyclable wrapping paper (a simple scrunch test will determine whether wrapping paper can be recycled – if the paper holds its shape when scrunched then it is recyclable; if it springs back it is not. To recycle cards, any plastic and glitter sections need to be removed.

I really hope this list is a little helpful to those who are are looking for an alternative to toys as gifts. What other non toy gift ideas do you have? I’d love to read them in the comments below

I’ll leave you with this quote from psychologist Kim John Payne, who puts it brilliantly, if not a little stronger:

“We are the adults in our children’s lives. We are the grown ups. And as the parents who love them, we can help out children by limiting their choices. We can expand and protect their childhoods by not overloading them with the pseudo choices and the false power of so much stuff. And as companies spend billions trying to influencers our children, we can say no. We can say no to entitlement and overwhelm, by saying yes to simplifying.”

Emma xxx

P.S A Plastic Free Kids Party and An Inexpensive Kids Gift Guide


  1. Rosalind Groom
    November 12, 2019 / 8:43 am

    Have a look at Fanconi Frocks on Facebook. Homemade dolls cloths, where 100% of the sale price goes to Fanconi Hope Children’s Charity. Win/win

  2. Rachel
    April 9, 2019 / 8:48 pm

    I love this and 100% agree with the quote at the end. Before birthdays and christmas we hunt through the toy boxes looking for things we can get rid of, its SUCH a waste! My son is going to be 5 soon and id really like to find a charity shop bargain and maybe an experience type gift instead of some toy shop plastic rubbish!

  3. Catrin
    November 19, 2018 / 1:30 am

    My son went on his first play date with his best friend yesterday. I hadn’t bought a present so whilst he was there I took my two daughters shopping. Having recently found you on ig I was looking at all the stuff that I could have bought him (friend’s birthdays usually have a £5 cap) and just saw junk. Landfill fodder within six months. I decided to leave it and put a fiver in a card.

    But as I drove to collect Benji I thought of an ideal gift. Tomorrow night and next Monday night Otto will be joining Benji at rugby tots! A gift for both of them!

  4. Iiris
    October 23, 2018 / 10:44 am

    Love this! I have to possible photography-related gifts ideas that I’ve used.

    1. A photoshoot and an album made of the pictures OR just a photo album of pictures of the birthday person or the things you’ve done together. Doesn’t need to be fancy. You can use smart phone pictures even though I’ve used a real camera. For a god-child you could even buy a professional photoshoot session.

    2. My own six-year-old inspired me to do this: Give the child a camera and let him take pictures (I mean children usually love doing that even without having to ask ?) and make a photobook of them! My baby was over the moon when she unwrapped ”Ingrid *last name* Photography”! It was so cool. I didn’t put much effort to making it but I really think it’s beautiful even when most of the pictures are unfocused and not technically perfect.

  5. Vic Carberry
    September 29, 2018 / 1:30 pm

    Yes yes yes, I love this post Emma. I didn’t know about the scrunch test so thank you!
    My daughter’s 6th birthday is looming and I’m definitely thinking along the lines of an experience based treat. When asked, it’s all I suggest for Christmas/birthdays for myself too. Also, I’ve found a brilliant charity shop near me; every time I visit I’m guaranteed to find a beautiful used toy for the girls – last week I found a pair of loafers and crate of 120 wooden building bricks for a fiver! I just need to counterbalance with making some donations too

    • Emma Ross
      October 9, 2018 / 12:30 pm

      ah glad you liked the post – and those bricks sound like a total find :)xxx

      • Anonymous
        October 22, 2018 / 8:49 pm

        Vic, I loved you comment and reminder to counterbalance with making donations ourselves. I have bags in our cupboard that need to go out!

  6. Lauren
    September 15, 2018 / 9:53 am

    What a brilliant list Emma, Thank you for compiling it for us, I will keep it handy for the dreaded Christmas ask of what my daughter would like, she has enough of everything and I’m pretty sure she would prefer a Christmas theater trip rather than a pile of presents, she LOVES books which humbles me and they’re such lovely presents, so I’ll keep this handy in the months to come and Thankyou x

    • Emma Ross
      October 9, 2018 / 12:50 pm

      woop! glad it’s of help 🙂 p.s so sorry for the terribly slow reply xxx

  7. Claire
    September 13, 2018 / 1:23 am

    Growing up, one of the gifts I remember giving to a few friends was a nice beach towel, and I had a few childhood friends tell me that they really liked that gift- they had their own special towel for the beach or pool! It was so simple but used and appreciated:) also art supplies and books are always a hit!

    • Emma Ross
      October 9, 2018 / 12:49 pm

      ooh i love the idea of a towel! nice one. p.s so sorry for the terribly slow reply xxx

  8. September 12, 2018 / 6:01 pm

    Yes, Yes, YES! I dread birthdays and Christmas for this very reason! I hate acquiring more STUFF that we neither want nor need and I try to give really specific answers when asked what they’d like.

    Just knowing other parents feel the same makes me feel much better, and much more empowered to set rules for family members.

    • Emma Ross
      October 9, 2018 / 12:49 pm

      oh totally, i hear ya.xx p.s so sorry for the terribly slow reply xxx

  9. Marie
    September 11, 2018 / 6:33 am

    My girls are 7 and 5 and we ask the kids who come to their birthday party for something they make themselves. A drawing or papier maché sword and crown sort of thing, it’s incredible how stressful parents are when you tell them and double incredible what cool stuff they come up with! The kids love to give it because they put so much effort in it and the girls love to receive 🙂

    • Emma Ross
      October 9, 2018 / 12:49 pm

      oooh i love this idea! bet she received such lovely, unique gifts xx

  10. Kehly
    September 10, 2018 / 6:23 pm

    My little one is turning 1 in a month and on her invites (Paper free online invites of course)I put a link for a pinterest page I created for gift ideas. I felt a little weird creating a “registry” for a baby birthday but I wanted to remind our guest that we prefer a minimalist lifestyle but if they really wanted to get her something to get something she needed. The list included natural fiber/organic clothing items, winter necessities, and a few wood toy ideas. We also asked for no plastic, batteries or wrapping paper. I absolutely love this post!!!!!!

    • Emma Ross
      October 9, 2018 / 12:48 pm

      brill initiative 🙂 xxx p.s so sorry for the terribly slow reply xxx

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