by Melissa, co-founder of Melissa & Doug.
The holiday season is here! Yet instead of feeling that familiar rush of excitement coming with the deluge of “top toy” lists and holiday catalogs, I find myself in a state of utter panic over needing to once again purchase those “perfect” gifts.
This leaves me wondering why a time of year that should be about togetherness, connection, and warm memories has become so stressful and anxiety-inducing!
If we revisit past holidays to ponder which memories remained long after the decorations had been stored away, we’ll see they have very little to do with material gifts. Instead, the magic of the holidays largely involves our five senses (or however many of them are available to us) and how experiencing the season through them touches our hearts.
So here’s a top holiday gift list of my own—which proves to not only be extremely budget-friendly, but guaranteed to leave magical memories dancing merrily through your head well into the new year.
The 10 Best Holiday Gifts for Kids
1. The gift of sight
The visual symphony of autumn colors ushering in the holidays is one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves. The season’s colors are so ALIVE and WARM with a vibrance unseen the rest of the year—burnt reds, oranges, yellows, and rusts mesmerizing us with their beauty.
And as the fall season progresses and daylight fades, our lives then become touched by manufactured light—beautiful twinkling electric lights signaling the start of an entirely new season with ordinary homes and landscapes coming alive in their sparkling holiday attire.
Try this: Make time each week for a drive or walk to take in the holiday lights. Each holiday season, my younger children and I take an evening drive around town to marvel at the bountiful display of holiday decorations against the starlit sky. There is something awe-inspiring in seeing a Christmas tree aglow with ornaments and lights, or a Menorah on the last night of Chanukah awash in flame.
2. The gift of smell
Nothing evokes a sense of the holidays more than the tantalizing smells of the season: apple cider, cloves, freshly baked sugar cookies, spiced orange, pumpkin and apple pie, gingerbread, peppermint, red currant, caramel, cranberry, amber, cedar, and pine and evergreen needles, to name a few. Those distinct aromas connect us to happy times and fill us with an immediate sense of warmth, communion, laughter, and special moments spent with those we cherish.
Try this: Pull out some seasonal spices (nutmeg, vanilla, cloves, cinnamon) and have kids smell and look at each as they say their names. Then have them close their eyes as they take a quick whiff and try to name the spice. Or use a small piece of muslin fabric to make holiday scented sachets to place under everyone’s pillows!
3. The gift of taste
Savoring the tempting treats of the season represents pure satisfaction and indulgence—for so many of these goodies are served warm and deliciously beckon us to feast on them: steaming mugs of hot chocolate and hot apple cider with cinnamon sticks, pecan pie with warm caramel sauce, candy apples, crisp latkes, creamy eggnog, cranberries in all their tart goodness, warm, rich soups and fluffy mashed potatoes. The taste of these comfort foods brings us a sense of “fullness” and contentedness, almost as if we are being embraced in a warm hug.
Try this: Start a tradition of baking holiday cookies together—some to enjoy as a family and the rest to share with a local homeless shelter or senior center. Create fun shapes and decorate them creatively to infuse them with a personal touch and meaning. Then deliver them together and take pride in others’ enjoyment of your creations!
4. The gift of touch
The holiday season gives us innumerable treasures to touch with our hands, as well as many others touching our bodies and keeping us warm and snug through the winter cold: fluffy warm socks, soft hats, scarves, and gloves, sweaters and puffy down coats, touching pine cones, pine trees, time-worn menorahs, Chanukah candles and sparkling ornaments as we excitedly prepare for the season, the first snowflakes of winter gently making their way from the heavens to greet our upturned faces, and feeling the wet snow on our skin as it falls into the collars of our jackets and over the top of our boots. But most of all, I personally look forward to the touch of others as my family tends to “hug” more during this season and I both crave and cherish every single one of those warm embraces.
Try this: Send kids on a sensory scavenger hunt around your home to find something soft, something fluffy, something scratchy, something smooth, and something bumpy. Reward them with a focused period of time spent together doing whatever they’d most enjoy!
5. The gift of hearing
The sounds of the holidays fill us with excitement and anticipation for the upcoming festivities—the strains of familiar holiday music everywhere we go, bells ringing, carolers caroling, the crunch of snow under our boots, the clink of spoons against mugs of hot cocoa, the crackle of logs in the fireplace and the wondrous silence greeting our awe-filled eyes when we step out into the cold on a frosty morning after a snowfall. But the best sound of all is the gleeful laughter of children and family as they enjoy each other’s company and partake in holiday merriment.
Try this: With your child, make a list of sounds you might hear outside: an owl’s hoot, a car’s horn, a bird’s song, the rustle of leaves, footsteps, music, wind chimes, bells. Then go for a walk and check off any sounds you hear. Add new ones to the list as you discover them!
6. The gift of gratitude
There is no greater gift than giving thanks for all our blessings. It is easy to get so caught up in our daily lives and challenges we neglect to count our blessings which for me, are many: living in a country where ANYTHING is possible, having a best friend as my business partner and husband, the incredible joy of being a mother six times over, having a job I adore with every ounce of my being, having good health, and also the good fortune of being surrounded by so many kind, courageous people lifting me up every single day and helping me run my life and business. The more we can appreciate and celebrate those gifts around us each and every day, the happier and more fulfilled we will be.
Try this: Place a “gratitude jar” with slips of paper and a nearby pen in a central location in your home. As kids think of those things they are thankful for, write them down and place them into the jar. Empty the jar during trying times or other occasions throughout the year to revisit and remember how fortunate we truly are.
7. The gift of kindness
When you treat others with kindness, respect, and compassion, it comes back to you in an even more profound manner. It has taken me many years to realize the simplest of facts: we all are longing to be seen and to matter. You can never know where one small act (or ripple) will lead and what life it may change. If we make a point of saying or doing JUST ONE THING every day to make someone smile or show them they are appreciated for simply being who they are, it will change both us and the world in ways we never imagined.
Try this: Brainstorm at breakfast or bedtime simple random acts of kindness you and your child could do for someone, and actually engage in doing them together throughout the season!
8. The gift of charity
Even at my lowest points when I have convinced myself how terrible circumstances are, I clearly recognize there are many others much less fortunate than I. Taking a small part of that bounty and giving back makes me feel whole and connected to the larger world, as it just “feels right” taking care of each other and helping those who are struggling. Furthermore, with technology increasingly encroaching on our lives, we are all biologically craving a sense of closeness with real people. Knowing you are giving of yourself to help others have a brighter, richer, fuller holiday season grants as much warmth as the greatest of tangible gifts.
Try this: Spend some time with your child going through their toys, games, books, and clothing together to see what could be donated to charitable organizations. Then wrap them up and deliver them together. Or look for adopt-a-family holiday gifting programs, and take your child shopping for the items on that family’s list.
9. The gift of presence
With the pressure of multitudes of tasks needing to be accomplished for holiday celebrations, we can easily forget the simple fact that “this moment is all we’ve got.” If we do not stop the insanity of racing around frenetically and just breathe, reveling in the magic of this moment and nothing more or less, we will truly miss out on the beauty, wonder, and magic of the season and this time of year.
Try this: Make family dinners a time to turn off all your devices, share stories, tune out the world, and really listen to one another. My family dinners have become our most impactful moments together—to the point where my teenage children will not attend evening activities so they can be at the dinner table!
10. The gift of family
I know it sounds corny … but my favorite part of the holiday season is simply spending quality time with my family. I love nothing more than the meals when we hang at the table telling stories and laughing long after the last dessert plate has been cleared, or watching a home movie with the entire clan and two dogs curled up In the family room, or playing a family game where everyone is included in the boisterous fun and it continues for hours on end. Family and friends are what matter most in life, and the holidays are sweeter with time spent truly focusing on them and enjoying their company.
Try this: Make a tradition of Family Game Night, and introduce a new game to play. Consider organizing a game/puzzle swap with family friends to save money and try something new.
So now let’s be honest: if I actually gave my children this list they would unfortunately say, “Okay great, Mom, now where’s my actual present,” gaping at me as if I had lost my mind. And as much as I’d love nothing more than to skip all material gift-giving, I know in my heart I will still follow tradition and buy my children gifts this year. However, I will simultaneously show all six of them THIS list of the 10 Best Holiday Gifts for Kids, imploring them to read it carefully, hoping that while unwrapping their gifts they (and all of us) will perhaps focus just a bit more on what TRULY matters this holiday season!