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12 Days of Non-Tech Gift Giving

12 gift ideas for children that encourage imagination, bonding, and movement

For many children, electronic devices will top the gift wish-list this holiday season. While some parents report their children no longer seem to be interested in anything but screens, others observe how electronics tend to make family members isolated and distracted.

This month’s guest post is by Melanie Hempe, RN, co-founder of Families Managing Media. A mother of four who keeps her home videogame-free (after learning the hard way with her eldest child), Melanie shares 12 gift categories that encourage movement, imagination, and family bonding. (Hint: All of these will be more successful if they’re not competing with highly stimulating electronics!) In fact, this is a good list to keep handy all year 'round.

1.The Gift of Art. Children are natural explorers and art provides a world where they can color outside the lines, discover new ideas, and leave their unique mark on the world. Think your child isn’t an artist? Think again: Everyone is an artist with the right tools. The human brain is naturally creative and creative expression allows all the parts of the brain to work together. Note that when your child is gaming he is experiencing another person's art and creativity, not his own--even in Minecraft.

Art Gift Ideas: Art supplies, art lessons, sketch books (for car and home), sketch pencil set, paints, canvas and paints, liquid watercolors and paper, pastels, modeling clay, and pottery. Bicolor paint, Playdough, stickers, pipe cleaners, crayons, Model Magic, Duct tape, craft supplies, markers, glitter, glue, transparent contact paper, sidewalk chalk, wood burning tools, origami, paper crafting, card making and scrapbooking supplies.

Tips: A quiet space, time and patience are needed for creativity to be born. Many kids today feel the solitude needed for the brain to begin creating feels uncomfortable, so remove screens to minimize distractions. Try different mediums until you find one that your child enjoys. We didn't think we had an artist till he discovered clay one day—you just never know! You have an artist in your house, too!

2. The Gift of Music. Music gifts are perfect for children of all ages: instruments, CDs, your child’s first guitar, lessons and yes mom, maybe even drums! Music makes everything more fun including cleaning your room and shooting hoops in the driveway. It is soothing for the soul and awesome for brain development. It even replaces the distraction of video gaming for some kids as it triggers a different area of the brain. Compared to overly-stimulating screens, music provides a balanced mix of stimulation, creativity, calmness and connection that’s tough to beat.

Music Gift Ideas: a new musical instrument, guitar, drums, music lessons, encouragement to start a garage band! MP3 player, iPod (Nano does not allow Apps), music/alarm clocks, music gift cards, small portable speakers for room and to take outside, and headphones.

Tips: Start young! Music education stimulates the parts of the brain related to reading, math and emotional development, and strengthens pathways for verbal and visual skills. Also, realize that discipline is not a natural trait nor is it easy to learn and music is a fun way to learn it. (You can’t skim over or fake a piano recital; you get exactly what you put into it.) Play it often in your home and make music a part of your child’s (and your) daily routine. Warning: music leads to dancing and singing in the kitchen and other fun family memories! (Even for the big kiddos who act like they don’t like it!)

3. The Gift of Sports, Coordination & Recreation: Your child was born to MOVE! He was not born to win every game or even be good at sports but he was born to move a lot! Kids' brains need frequent and varied movement to develop properly. Meanwhile, the research is clear that technology use keeps our kids from moving much at all. Indeed, it is hard to both play with screens and be outside and move a lot. Unplug your kids and get them something to spark a new outdoor interest this holiday season.

Sports, Coordination, & Recreation Gift Ideas: Any ball: basketball, soccer ball, bag of baseballs, Nerf footballs, whiffle balls, handballs, tennis balls, golf balls, ping pong balls, four square ball etc. Sporting equipment, baseball bats, Frisbee, soccer equipment, basketball hoop in driveway and over door in bedroom, archery, Hacky Sack, dart board, Indo Board, Hula Hoop, jump rope, Pogo sticks, RipStik, Long Board (skateboard) helmet, knee pads, Disk golf case with disks, inline skate, ice skates. Dancing: jazz, modern and hip hop lessons and attire. Bikes, scooters, mountain bikes, wagons, trampoline, ping pong table, cup stacking (great for coordination), table hockey. Yard games: bocce, tetherball, badminton, croquet or a volleyball net! Goal and nets for street hockey and don’t forget water sports and snow skiing!

Tips: Remember that children don't need to be on a team nor be "athletic" to do enjoy a sport. If you think that organized sports is not your child’s thing, help them discover something they like to do outside. Research backyard equipment that can build eye hand coordination and provide hours of fun brain building activity. The Sklz Lightning Bolt Pitching machine is one of our favorites (they're hitting small foam balls.) Jumpstart your recreation shopping experience by going to a sports consignment store to open even more doors.

4. The Gift of Hobbies
How many times have you found yourself saying or thinking Get a new hobby! when your child is gaming all day? We all know that our kids need to be well rounded; they can't eat cupcakes for dinner every night and they should not play with technology all day. Searching for a special baseball card, building model airplanes or knitting baby blankets for the nursery at the hospital all require planning and goal-setting while getting their creative juices flowing.

Hobby Gift Ideas: cooking supplies, photography (camera, photography books). Start or continue a collection: baseball cards, coins, scrapbooking, rocks/gems. Legos, Citi Blocks, train set, tinker toys, snap circuits, sewing machine, knitting/crocheting, potholder kits, dress up for young kids. Model airplanes, ships and other building ideas; their very own tools and scrap wood and a workbench for the garage. Rocketry, robotic clubs, books clubs, etc.

Tips: Your child should have at least three other hobbies that they enjoy as much as technology to move toward a balanced, brain healthy childhood. He needs a hobby besides his video games and she needs a hobby besides posting on Instagram. Like art, children need spare time, space to work and encouragement for hobbies to take root. Don’t criticize or get your child started on a hobby that is too hard; early success is the key to not giving up. Go to a hobby store to get some ideas and keep looking till you find something that sparks their interest. Oh, and Mom and Dad, you need a hobby too!

5. The Gift of Strategy & Critical Thinking

Think puzzles and strategy games.

Every child needs to be challenged. When you give the gift of critical thinking you are giving a gift that will pay off huge dividends later. Strategy games can be done alone (think Rubik’s Cube) or with another player (Chess, Risk). They are not about the roll of the dice but rather the art of planning an action to reach a certain outcome. Digital games are not as effective at making brain connections as 3D games where the child can actually hold and manipulate the pieces. Teaching your child strategy while having a fun time is a win-win!

Strategy and Critical Thinking Gift Ideas: All Think Fun! games, go to and be amazed—they’re all great. Start with Rush Hour or Chocolate Fix, Shape by Shape, Block by Block, Amaze - perfect for all ages! Blokus, No Stress Chess, Backgammon, Clue, Ticket to Ride. All puzzles (White Mountain brand is excellent, found online and at Hobby Lobby), Sudoku books, Legos, blocks, crossword puzzle books.

Tips: Keep games and puzzles out so your kids will see them and want to play when they have down time during the day. (Who knows, you may pick them up and exercise your brain too!) We keep a puzzle out year round in our den and it is one of the best technology replacement tools we ever employed. As mentioned, the Think Fun games are a must-have for kids who need a good challenge, plus they are portable, easy to throw in your bag and the car, and can be played with anywhere (instead of depending on a screen to entertain your child at the doctor’s office).

6. The Gift of Reading & Writing: Teaching your child to love reading is priceless. They will never be lonely with a good book and they’ll learn to use imagination as they immerse themselves in far-away places. They will also learn empathy by connecting with the characters in the book. Reading skill is one of the strongest predictors of success, yet few parents know that even educational screen use hinders reading development.

Reading & Writing Gift Ideas: Book series, magazine subscriptions, book light, bed clip on light, book marks, books on tape (CD), headphones, iPod (with no net access) for books on tape. Inspire your child to write a book with blank books (Primary Lined Blank Books). Library card. Box of office supplies (tape, Post it notes, etc.), diary/journals, lap desk. Write an annual letter to your child. Get markers and blank notebooks for them to write letters and poems and stories.

Tips: You may think that your child doesn’t like to read but don’t ever give up and don’t believe them when they say they don’t like it. Remember that technology use makes it harder for kids to learn how to read and to remember what they’ve read—especially for boys. I talk with many moms of boys who struggle with reading but often they give up too easily. To help kids get started, keep looking for books and topics they’re interested in. Go to the library and browse, and get kids their own library card. Have a “reading roundup” where the whole family reads together, and read aloud to your kids, even when they’re teens. Make it a routine for them to read before bed, and bring books in the car for errands and trips. Get magazine subscriptions, and if possible, have your child’s best friend read the same book so they can talk about it! Be sure to have Dad read books with your kids, too. And remember that reading paper books is far superior to using e-readers.

7. The Gift of Fashion & Accessories: Most kids don’t jump up and down over new underwear and robes but I know plenty who love team jerseys, college logo wear, athletic socks, shirts and jackets and of course boots or sweaters for the fashionistas on your list. Other popular items are blankets and room décor.

Fashion and Accessories Gift Ideas: clothes, athletic socks, shoes, coats, etc. Jewelry, purses, money clips, hair bows, PJ’s, slippers, scarfs, hats, bathrobe and toiletries (bubble bath, scented lotion, soap, etc.); dress up clothes for younger kids.

Tips: Don’t underestimate the power of a super hero costume or the excitement of receiving nice jewelry. Give that clothing, tote bag or jewelry a more personal touch by adding a monogram! Get a trunk to store dress up clothes, and go through your closet to donate old scarves, costume jewelry, or clothing kids can reconstruct.

8. The Gift of Unconditional Love.
Pets are a wonderful addition to any family. Children raised with pets show many benefits, and pets teach responsibility and empathy, lower stress and anxiety, and build self-esteem. Families struggling with electronics use may observe that a new pet will provide a welcome diversion that gets the child off the couch. Pets provide hours of entertainment for your kids, and dogs especially provide a daily lesson in what unconditional love looks like.

Pet Gift Ideas: Pets: dog, cat, hamster, bunny, fish; pet toys, especially that encourage activity (ball launcher); pet training; coupons to go to a dog park or beach or hiking trails that allow dogs.

Tips: Remember that very young children may have a hard time being nice and not hurting the pet (because their empathy is not developed). This is normal for their cognitive development, you will have to evaluate their maturity and supervise them. Also remember that kids who rely heavily on gaming or social media are often lonely and even depressed; a pet can offer playful, relaxing companionship. While getting a pet is a big decision, you can be sure it will be at the top of the list for best-gifts-ever!

9. The Gift of Indoor Family Competition
Board games! This is a big one!

Each time you pull out a board game, healthy attachments are formed and a lot of good things happen. Board games help children learn to: follow rules, focus, build self-control, detect patterns, predict outcomes, manage boundaries, take turns, learn from experience, and lengthen attention span.

Indoor Family Competition Gift Ideas: Board games: American Trivia, Scrabble, Bananagrams, Ticket to Ride, Settlers series (Settlers of Catan, Settlers of America, etc.) Pictionary, Trouble, Checkers/Chess, Monopoly, Risk, Clue, Apples to Apples, Sorry, Life, Backgammon.

Tips: Don't worry so much about the Christmas decorations or cleaning the house--your kids will care more that you spent some time with them. Keep a deck of cards on your kitchen table and always be ready to fit in a quick game of Crazy Eights or have a solitaire game set up for them when they walk in the door from school. If you don’t know how to play a game your child knows, have them teach you. Even teens like to play board games with their parents (just ask them!) And don’t wait for Christmas Day to open a new game the whole family can play. Start having family fun today!

10. The Gift of Outdoor Family Fun: This is perhaps the richest category for meeting kids' developmental needs as it will often encompass each of the top 4 necessary ingredients: Attachment, Touch, Movement, and Nature.

Outdoor Family Fun Gift Ideas: Camping and all the equipment that goes with it, local outings, day trips, boating, rafting, geo-cashing, weekend trips. Think of all the things you can do as a family outside and offer some equipment to get them started. Bikes for the whole family with helmets and a bike rack for the car. A fire pit in back yard (inexpensive from a home store) works magic for teenagers and kids of all ages!

Tips: Family outdoor activities generally need to be scheduled into our busy lives so you may have the job of keeping this a priority. Think of things that you can give your child that have to do with family outings like camping gear, a new bike or any type of outdoor game. Don’t forget a football and a basketball for a quick solution for smaller pockets of time when plans aren't made.

11. The Gift of Acts of Service: The service I am suggesting here is the gift of doing something for your child, helping him or her complete a personal project that is important to them. It involves sacrifice on your end. Children learn how to give when it is modeled for them and they feel it in love.

Service Gift Ideas: For teens, this may be to paint your daughter’s room, help your son build something with wood, or help him fix or wash his car. Build a tree fort with your younger child, build a go cart, fix his bike, build a pitching mound in the backyard, a golf hole, etc. The goal is to do something for your child that models service. It is a project that you do not just individually with your child but for your child.

Tips: Do something unique that speaks to their interests and personality. If your son likes outside adventure and you don’t, do it anyway. If you like sports but your son doesn’t, an act of service would not be taking him to a ball game. Think of things that will show your child you love him. Acts of service that will show you know his world and care about it. This gift works well for all children but it works particularly well for older kids and teens.

Your act of service will be remembered far longer than that new video game….trust me!!

12. The Gift of Your Time: The most valuable gift you can give your child is the gift of your uninterrupted non-tech time. We spend our money and our time on the things we love and our children know this even better than we do. Think in terms of talking, building your relationship and relaxing or playing with your child one on one. Sometimes it may just be reading a book together in silence.

Whatever you are doing there are only 2 rules:1) You are physically present with your child, and 2) You are not connected to your technology (TV, laptop, phone). The gift of your time makes even older kids feel loved and special more than any gift you caan wrap up or plug in.

Parent Time Gift Ideas: Coupon book can include a trip to get ice cream or yogurt on a regular basis, a regular one on one dinner out, a trip to the bookstore to browse. Eat. Reading a book together, cooking something together or taking the dog for a walk with just one child, fishing (a fishing pole and a note from you), camping or going to the park. This gift of your time will make even your older kids feel loved and special more than any other gift you can wrap up or plug in. Trust me on this one!

Tips: It doesn’t really matter what you are doing but rather that it sets the stage for you to bond with your child. The purpose of this gift is also to get to know your child better (making him or her feel loved) and exposing your child to your values and beliefs. You may need to carve out time for this; sometimes grabbing an unexpected 15 minutes with your child will be easy but most of the time it needs to be scheduled to make it happen. When using coupons, make a deal with your child that when they wish to “cash in” that you’ll put the activity in the calendar if you can’t do it that same day.


It won’t be long before that childhood door is shut completely and you both realize that all that screen-time didn’t count for much. Enjoy these precious magical moments with your children as they discover all that childhood has to offer. Soon they will become the memories that hold your family closer together as well as the memories that your child hangs on to when life gets hard. So leave the screens at the store for now! Happy Holidays!

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For more on how real toys and play are critical for mental health and brain development, see "Reset Your Child's Brain."

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