Gift an experience that lasts longer than “stuff.” Here’s a list of 34 experience gifts for families that help them spend time together and build great memories.
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I have a love-hate relationship with “stuff.” My home brims with “stuff” I needed and wanted. “Stuff” my husband and kids needed and wanted.
There are so many things on shelves, in bins and on counters on our house that I lose things. Or I rant about the clutter. Or I trip walking up my stairs because of the “stuff” waiting to be delivered to the right bedroom.
As the holiday gift planning and buying season approaches (I literally just saw a 30-day countdown to Black Friday – heaven help me), I want to avoid adding more of the same “stuff” to the houses of those I love.
Giving gifts is good for the soul, and receiving them doesn’t stink either. But nothing says we can’t pivot our gift-giving strategy: give less stuff and gift an experience.
Below are five categories of experience gifts – an ultimate guide with 26 ways you can gift an experience.
But first, let’s take a look at why we should consider choosing to gift an experience rather than “stuff.”
Do We Really Have Too Much Stuff?
As you consider whether to gift an experience, let me share some stats that might sway you.
American homes built in the 2010s are 74% larger than those built in the 1910s (about 1,000 more square feet). Houses got bigger even though the number of people living in them went down from 4.54 to 2.58 according to a Property Shark Real Estate Report.
One in 10 Americans rent offsite storage for “stuff” that can’t fit in their homes. A 2015 survey showed a quarter of homes with two-car garages can only fit one car thanks to other “stuff” in the garage.
And here’s a real kicker: A UCLA study found that only 3.1 percent of the world’s kids live in America, but they own 40% of the toys consumed globally.
To be clear, I was raised by a mom whose primary love language is gift-giving. I love to give gifts – tangible gifts. But I’m also pretty convicted when the amount of stuff in our home hits a certain threshold.
This Becoming Minimalist blog post on Why Fewer Toys Will Benefit Your Kids made a few points that really made me pause and think. Author Joshua Becker notes that fewer toys can mean that kids:
- Get more creative
- Develop longer attention spans
- Take better care of things
- Become more resourceful
- Experience more of nature
- Become less selfish
Becker points out that kids who get everything they want believe they can have everything they want. I’m going to hang on to this pearl the next time I feel guilty for saying no.)
Experience Gifts That Encourage Family Time
When you gift an experience, what you’re really gifting is time:
- time together as a family
- special time together for one parent and a child
- a fun experience for an aunt, uncle or grandparent and a child
- cool cousin or friend time together
Two years ago, my SALT effect co-founder Kristie and her husband decided they would take their two sons to the Big 10 Championship game in Indianapolis in lieu of Christmas gifts.
Kristie is an alum of the Big 10 school where she and I teach, and let’s call her family…well, sports obsessed. If you doubt the excitement of a 9- and 11-year-old learning their Christmas gift is a trip to this big game, check out the video of their big reveal.
We know this isn’t necessarily an every year kind of idea, but we’re kicking of our list of experience gifts with a biggie.
1. A trip
We understand if you’re looking to gift an experience, you likely aren’t up for this kind of an expense. It’s not an “every time” kind of gift.
But it could be something to consider for your immediate or extended family. It’s got WOW factor.
Kristie’s family sacrificed traditional gifts, but the ornament used in the big reveal gave her kids a tangible memento to pull out each year and a reason to relive the memories of that shared experience.
Two of my children and my husband all have birthdays within a 20-day stretch that also straddles the start of school. A busy time for me as a teacher. The season of birthday celebrations often morphs me into a scary combination of a Tasmanian devil and a drill sergeant.
I was NOT feeling the birthday gauntlet last year, so we offered our sons an option: would you be interested in trading all birthday parties and presents for a long weekend at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios?
I thought they would be torn, but we got an immediate “Yes!” from both boys. A fiery dragon in Diagon Alley, roller coasters and shorts in October made my family weep with ecstasy.
Trips take more money and more planning, but as an every-once-in-awhile experience gift, they top the chart.
Side benefits I didn’t see coming of choosing a trip when you gift an experience to your own family:
- My kids felt honored we gave them the power to make a big decision that impacted the whole family.
- We had some good conversations about finances – what parties and gifts and trips really cost, and why we just can’t do everything. We did NOT load up on souvenirs. The TRIP was the gift.
- The kids actually seemed to realize the experience, memories and pictures of this trip would hang around a lot longer than typical gifts.
2. Tickets to a sporting event
Kristie’s family only does birthday parties for ages 5, 10 and 16.
When each of her boys turned 10, they were able to choose between having a birthday party (and the 7-10 friends and gifts that come with it) or going to a Cavs game.
SPOILER ALERT: I already mentioned this family’s sports obsession. They both chose the game. Check out college teams, minor league clubs and professional sports venues within driving distance.
The college where we work even offers birthday packages to soccer, lacrosse, baseball and other games. Packages come with tickets, concession food and swag.
3. Tickets to a show
Check the schedules for local theaters and performing arts centers. Maybe a dinner theater, murder mystery dinner or a medieval times dinner theater. Make it a date night for one child and one parent – a chance to dress up, go out to dinner and enjoy the theater.
4. Escape room adventure
My husband and I went with two other couples to an “Escape the ‘80s” escape room experience. The brain teasers impressed me and the ticking clock was a fun challenge. All I kept thinking was, “My son would LOVE this.”
The company we used does not allow kids 6 and under, and kids 7-12 must be accompanied by an adult.
If you want an at-home experience, we’ve done several Exit: The Game experiences. They’re a fun challenge.
5. Service Learning experience
We started SALT effect to help families spend more time together doing things that matter. We created several downloadable and step-by-step service learning projects for families:
- Honoring Veterans Family Service Project download
- Giving Hope to Sick Kids Family Service Project download
We partnered with a nonprofit for each project. Our teaching backgrounds helped us create interactive projects that will keep kids interested and learning while your family gives back.
6. Membership to a zoo
This is a great gift request to give to grandparents, because they can spend the rest of the year watching your family enjoy their gift.
Lots of zoos also have reciprocal memberships to try zoos and museums in other cities.
7. Membership to a museum
In our hometown of Columbus, the children’s museum COSI is a top destination for families. A membership allows families to go multiple times and spend more time in each area because you’re not trying to cram the whole museum into one day.
8. Membership to a pool
Membership to a local pool can be a great gift for families with kids at different ages.
9. Waterpark Passes
I have many friends who request family waterpark passes as a gift from parents for the holidays. It’s an entire season of family fun (or moms hanging out while kids run wild).
10. Board Games
Gift a new board game for family game night. Here are the best board games for tweens and teens.
Experience Gifts That Teach Something
It might sound less fun to gift an experience that teaches something. It’s not.😉 You’re still gifting something the person wants to learn or would like to learn.
As a teacher, I place a high value on learning. I’m proud when teachers compliment my kids or when friends throw the word “smart” around related to my offspring, but I’m also realistic.
Honestly, my kids are normal-amount smart. They’ve also grown up in a house that is annoyingly obsessed with education.
Dinner table conversation in our house:
Son: These vegetables aren’t completely horrible.
Me: Do you know how asparagus grow? Did you realize they can’t be harvested every year? It’s so interesting.
Son: I know they make your pee smell.
My Husband: If asparagus is on sale at the grocery for $2.39 a pound and you buy three pounds, how much do you pay? Can you do that in your head?
When you gift an expeirence you opens up all kind of ways to teach kids new and fun things (in ways that are WAY more exciting than my dinner table conversations).
11. KiwiCo Crates
My kids received KiwiCo activity boxes as gifts from grandparents for several Christmases and had a blast.
My oldest son unwrapped one Tinker crate (the box for kids 9-16+ focused on science & engineering) on Christmas morning. Two more came in the mail over the next two months.
My middle child got the Kiwi crate (ages 5-8, Science, Art & More).
The boys built cranes that ran on plastic syringe hydraulics, sewed body parts for a life-sized paper person and created a pinball machine. They liked getting mail and doing the projects.
12. Raddish Cooking Club
My mom subscribed to Raddish, a subscription box cooking club for kids 4 to 14+, to help teach her younger grandkids to cook. Each box provides illustrated recipe guides, culinary skills cards, a creative kitchen project and kid-friendly tools.
My nephew let me know this week that he made eyeball soup with Mimi for Halloween. Homemade tomato soup with floating eyeballs made out of fresh mozzarella and black olives.
13. Hello Fresh
I’ve given Hello Fresh meal kits as gifts to new moms, newly-married couples and friends who lost a loved one as a way to bring food through the door at busy and stressful times.
The boxes I bought for my own family became a great opportunity to learn to cook new food in different ways.
14. Brewery/distillery tour
This isn’t your best option to gift an experience to a family, but they are a great option from one parent to another. Or as a couples gift to friends or extended family. Pair it with a a six-pack or bottle from that distillery if you want to gift an experience with a more tangible present.
15. Cooking class
Kids Cook Real Food is an online video course with 3 skill levels for kids ages 2-12. It covers more than 30 basic kitchen skills, and also helps kids learn more about healthy eating and grow their confidence and responsibility.
The course is only open for enrollment a few times a year, but you get lifetime access if you enroll. See if the course is The Seasoned Farmhouse. She treated us to a back-to-school luncheon. I later bought my parents a spot in a cooking class at the farmhouse.
16. Tennis lessons
Local racquet clubs and country clubs usually offers lessons even to non-members. Many times they offer both group and private lessons at different skill levels and price points.
17. instrument Lessons
One of these days, my daughter is going to get guitar lessons as a gift. This is a fun surprise for kids or adults who have always wanted to learn a certain instrument.
It’s also a nice “extra” for kids who are getting more serious about instruments for band or orchestra and are ready to up their game.
Experience Gifts That Make Memories with Friends
Gift an experience to friends, coworkers or extended family members that allows you to do something together.
I have a dear friend from middle school that lives about 2.5 hours away, but it might as well be Russia in terms of how difficult it is for us to get together. For years we tried traditional gift giving, but a couple years ago we transitioned into choosing a fun event every year and making it a priority to get together for that event.
Here are ideas we’ve used plus a few others:
18. Tickets to a concert
Hopefully my sons don’t read this post because we bought tickets to a Twenty One Pilots concert in October and each will get a ticket for his birthday since both birthdays are before the concert.
I hope things like this build the friendship between them as siblings now that they’re getting a little older.
Concert tickets require planning ahead, so just start looking far in advance and make sure dates work for everyone involved before you commit.
19. Tickets to an event
Gifts an experience like family passes to Marvel Live, Disney on Ice, WWE or a monster truck rally. Just start scanning Ticketmaster for options.
20. Night in a hotel
This can be in your own town. It can be with a friend, with a spouse or with a child. It’s a day, an evening and an overnight of time to spend together with no distractions. And hopefully a pool.
21. Indoor Rock Climbing
A great gift for adventurous families or active kids is gift cards to an Indoor rock climbing facilities.
If you live in Cleveland or Columbus, Ohio, we have a GREAT suggestion: Play: CLE or Play: CBUS. It’s an indoor facility with a high ropes course, climbing walls and ninja warrior courses. It also has a full restaurant and bar. T
here’s no subscription required, so any gift card can go toward a single visit or a one-month membership (we recommend the one-month membership – it’s the best value).
See more about our Play: CBUS experience.
22. Trampoline Park
There are several trampoline parks in our area, and they’re all a little different. But a gift card to go (especially) with a friend makes for a fun afternoon.
23. Movie Theater
A top gift for tweens is gift certificates to a movie theater. You can pair it with another gift card to somewhere they love to eat, or wrap it up with a bag of candy and a Coke.
24. Indoor Skydiving
Indoor skydiving facilities are popping up more and more these days. What an exciting gift. I’m guessing any pictures you come away with will be priceless.
25. Paint Your Own Pottery
Most cities have a place where you can paint your own pottery. Give a gift card or take someone out for a fun lunch and then show your creative side by painting something to keep.
26. Ski Pass
My husband asked for a ski pass for Father’s Day. He’ll use it to take each of our kids skiing at least once. There are several other dads in our neighborhood who ski so there will probably be a few adults-only ski days as well.
Experience Gifts That Help You Do Good
I can’t recommend enough that you give an experience that gives back or helps others. It helps you and whoever receives your gift appreciate all that you already have and do something to help others. Win-win!
27. Thoughtful donations
Kristie and her husband don’t exchange traditional Christmas gifts with her brother and sister-in-law.
Several years back they started a new tradition. Each person draws a name and donates $25 per adult to a nonprofit that represents something that is meaningful to the person or the couple based on the previous year.
For example, the year Kristie graduated with her master’s, her brother and his wife donated to an educational nonprofit. When they give the gift, they include a card that helps explain the thought behind the choice.
28. Sponsoring a child
If you’re already sponsoring a child, the organizations allow you to send “gifts” through a catalog – anything from an animal to needed supplies to fun holiday treats.
29. Sponsoring an animal
Most local zoos offer an animal sponsorship program. Some offer wrap-able certificates or stuffed animals at certain donation amounts. The World Wildlife Fund also sells “adoption kits” starting at $55 for many different animals. Kits come with a stuffed animal, photo, adoption certificate, species card and gift bag.
30. Animal Experiences
Our local zoo (and many others) offer some really cool animal experiences. For an added fee, you can watch an elephant bath up close or go into the red panda’s habitat. Check out zoos in your area to see if you can gift an experience like this to the animal lovers in your life.
Experience Gifts That Fuel a New Hobby
Ok, I’ll admit it. When you gift an experience in this category, you actually will still be giving “stuff.” But we filed these under experience gifts because they are tools to inspire and enable people to pursue new hobbies and adventures and experiences.
31. Camping gear
Over the years, my kids have received sleeping bags (we love these LL Bean youth bags), headlamps, backpacks and CamelBak hydration packs as gifts. We use them for day hiking trips and overnight camping.
Someone gave me a three-person tent as a high school graduation gift. I used it through college, when I first got married, and my boys now sleep in it when our family camps.
This Coleman tent is the updated version of what I have.
This Celestron telescope is under $75 and includes a carrying case.
33. Sewing machine
Singer is a solid brand, and this machine meets all basic sewing needs for under $100. It stores easily. You just pull it out, plug it in and go.
34. Photography equipment
My daughter asked for this instant camera (and make sure to order extra photo paper that fits the model you get). She and her friend visited a farm and had a blast taking photos of themselves with animals.
Kids or adults with a more serious interest in learning photography might love a good camera. Or a long lens. Or a new camera bag.