As you give out gift ideas and make gift requests, consider whether you want to avoid adding more of the same “stuff” to your house. Here's the ultimate guide of 26 experience gift ideas for families that come with the added bonus of values that last far beyond traditional gifts.
Updated March 2020
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. I appreciate it, but there’s enough of it on shelves, in bins and on counters that I lose things, or rant about the clutter, or 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 my house.
Giving gifts is good for the soul, and receiving them doesn’t stink either. But nothing says we can’t pivot the gift-giving strategy this holiday season: give less stuff and more experiences. Below are five categories of experience gifts – an ultimate guide of 26 gift ideas for your holiday shopping pleasure!
- Experience gifts that encourage family time
- Experience gifts that teach something
- Experience gifts that make memories with friends
- Experience gifts that help you do good
- Experience gifts that fuel a new hobby
But first, let's take a look at why we should consider giving experiences rather than things.
Do We Really Have Too Much Stuff?
American homes built in the 2010s are 74% larger than those built in the 1910s (about 1,000 more square feet) even though the number of people living in those houses 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, and 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 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 coming into 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:
- Kids get more creative
- Kids develop longer attention spans
- Kids take better care of things
- Kids become more resourceful
- Kids experience more of nature
- Kids 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
Two years ago, my SALT effect co-founder Kristie and her husband decided they would take their two sons on a family trip 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're kicking of the ultimate experience gift guide with a biggie.
1. A trip
We understand this involves expense. It’s not an “every time” kind of gift. But it’s got WOW factor. Kristie’s family sacrificed traditional gifts, but the ornament used in the big reveal gives them 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 – and I’m a teacher. What should be a season of celebration becomes me morphing 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 your 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.
Butterbeer and a fire-breathing dragon. Not a bad way to spend a day.
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 predict:
- 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 friend gifts that go along 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.
3. Tickets to a show
Check the schedules for local theaters and performing arts centers. Maybe a dinner theater or a 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, my sister gave Escape the Crate as a gift last year. This subscription box sends you a mystery to solve with puzzles and riddles to lead you along the way.
5. SALT effect experience
We started SALT effect to help families spend more time together doing things that matter. This service project in a box brings family members of all ages together over a common goal to give back. Each box has an interactive discussion guide and all of the supplies needed for a 90-minute service project. Each box has a unique topic like Honoring Veterans or Giving Hope to Sick Kids. This experience gives kids a sense of gratitude and shows them that they can make a difference. And to cut way down on "stuff," you can also opt to just buy a digital download of the interactive lesson plan.
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.
7. Membership to a museum
8. Membership to a pool
Experience Gifts That Teach Something
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 in the same conversation as my offspring, but I’m also realistic. My kids are normal-amount smart, but they’ve 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?
Gifting experiences 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).
9. KiwiCo Crates
My kids received KiwiCo activity boxes as gifts last year and had a blast. My oldest son unwrapped one Tinker crate (the box for kids 9-16+ focused on science & engineering) and two more came in the mail over the next two months. My middle child did the Kiwi crate (ages 5-8, Science, Art & More).
They built cranes that ran on plastic syringe hydraulics, sewed body parts for a life-sized paper doll and created a pinball machine. They liked getting mail and doing the projects.
Kristie's son built a mini planetarium with his Tinker Crate.
10. 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.
11. 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. But the boxes I received became a great opportunity to learn to cook new food in different ways.
A few more experience gifts that teach something:
12. Brewery/distillery tour
13. 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 accepting new enrollments!
Our generous friend won a catered lunch at the beautiful local cooking school, The Seasoned Farmhouse, at an auction and treated us to a back-to-school luncheon.
14. Tennis lessons
Experience Gifts That Make Memories with Friends
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. Gifts for our kids evolved from bulky and expensive packages mailed across the state to gift cards for a fun experience. Here are ideas we’ve used:
15. Tickets to a concert
Sometimes we’re booking tickets in February for a September concert. And it’s to celebrate the previous Christmas. But it works!
16. Tickets to an event
Marvel Live, Disney on Ice, WWE, monster truck rally…
17. 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.
18. Experience gift cards
Indoor rock climbing, trampoline park, movie theater. 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. There'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.
Experience Gifts That Help You Do Good
I can’t say enough about gifts that help you keep in mind all that you already have and do something to help others. Times of plenty are the perfect time to consider those in need.
19. 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 couple donates $25 per adult to a nonprofit that represents something that is meaningful to the person or 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 explain the thought behind the donation or write it out in a card with the gift.
20. Sponsoring a child
Sponsoring a child through organizations like Compassion International or World Vision involve a monthly commitment, but Christmas can be a prime time to begin. 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.
21. 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.
22. Gifts that give back
You can consider physical gifts that donate a portion of their proceeds, but our SALT effect box gives back and keeps the “stuff” to a minimum. We donate 20% of the profits of each box to a nonprofit focused on that box’s social issues. For example, every purchase of a Give Hope to Sick Kids box supports A Kid Again, a nonprofit that gives chronically ill children and their families positive experiences and memories.
Experience Gifts That Fuel a New Hobby
Let me start with a disclaimer that this category actually will add more "stuff" to your house. But they are tools to inspire and enable you and your family to pursue new hobbies and adventures.
23. 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 Celestron telescope is under $75 and includes a carrying case.
25. Sewing machine
Singer is a solid brand, and this machine meets all basic sewing needs for under $100.
26. Photography equipment
Do you have other experience gift ideas to share? Let us know in the comments below!
Get a printable version of this list with a few added bonus ideas!