I’m in elementary school and opening the hallway closet in my childhood home, which can mean only one thing—it’s time for a birthday party! The hallway closet is a magical place, stuffed to the brim with colorful wrapping paper, bows of all colors, gift bags, and the most glorious bounty of them all: a neatly stacked pile of white boxes, each holding a miniature porcelain doll.
The dolls are presents waiting to be selected, wrapped, and given as a gift to one of my friends on their birthday. Every year my mom would stock up, buying ten or so of the dolls for celebrations, choosing a different colored dress each year so none of my friends would ever be disappointed by a repeat.
When I was a kid, dolls were de rigueur, but these days I try to keep more stimulating, creative gifts on hand for kids; I’m always excited when my children are given toys that require active participation. When they give out presents and birthday gifts, I want to make sure what they’re gifting is interactive and inspirational. I also like to keep gender-neutral toys that aren’t blue or pink on hand so I can give them to any kiddo regardless of their gender expression—and don’t have to stock up on two colors of every item.
Now that I have my own gift closet full of artistically-stimulating toys, when celebrations come knocking, my kids and I just swing open the door and pluck out a present that is sure to encourage creativity and personal expression, no frantic trip to the store required.
Choosing Gifts That Inspire Expression
For kids, toys are tools. When my daughter was a baby, you could just see the wheels spinning in her mind every time she lifted her favorite popsicle rattle and tried to put it in her mouth. Her first toys taught her the basics, from motor skills to spatial reasoning. Older now, she and her brother both use toys to express themselves, whether that means inventing new worlds in their head while they play with action figures or laying their imaginations out on paper with the help of some paint.
I was forever breaking crayons and running out of my favorite colors of paint when I was growing up, so when I got a present that refreshed my art supplies, I was ecstatic. I loved opening a present and finding a colorful array of crayons or colored pencils inside—and I can still remember the fresh, soothing scent of a brand new pad of drawing paper just waiting to be filled with color. It didn’t matter if it was something I already had, either, because I knew I would need a replacement sooner or later. And having a plethora of art supplies in the house means your kids can make their own gifts for other people as well.
I was also quite musical as a kid and loved getting new cassettes to play in my boombox (I know, that ages me…). My sister and I used to belt out Annie for hours on end, much to my parents’ chagrin. And, I got pretty good at the theme from Titanic on my elementary school band recorder before upgrading to the clarinet. Both physical art and music helped me work through my emotions growing up; as a shy, introverted kid who got nervous about parties, having these outlets helped me to express myself in a way I wasn’t necessarily comfortable doing through talking and social interaction alone.
Whether it’s sketching, singing, or making 3D versions of their favorite Minecraft designs, all kids have some sort of artsy outlet that lets them express their imaginations and inner selves. Keep a few of these toys in your gift closet so you always have last-minute presents that nurture hobbies and help little ones explore their most authentic selves:
For Miniature Monets
- Finger paints, for a hands-on experience that promotes sensory development and imaginative expression
- Play dough, for squishy sculpting fun
- Coloring books, to help build motor and spatial skills
- Pads of drawing and construction paper, blank slates for creative expression
- Crayons (because what kid doesn’t always need more?)
- Art supplies with a twist, like scented markers, glitter stamp pads, and watercolor pencils
- Modeling clay, so they can bring their imaginations into the third dimension
- How-To drawing and painting books, so they can start to hone their craft
- Acrylic paints and small canvases, to upgrade their art
- Professional-level drawing pencils and erasers, so they can keep their art supplies separate from school supplies
For Mozarts in the Making
- Egg shakers, so they can learn to keep a rhythm
- Tambourines, to jingle and jangle along with their favorite songs
- Drumsticks, so they can turn any surface into their own personal instrument
- A recorder and song book, so they can learn how to play
- A harmonica, so they can let out their blues
- Earbuds, so they can listen to their favorite tunes on their personal music players
- Gift certificates to purchase their favorite songs and ringtones online
- Bluetooth speakers, so they can listen to music even on the go
A Birthday Present Gift Swap
While my mom preferred to buy one gift item in bulk and give it to all of our friends over the course of the year, I like to have a wider variety on hand to give to my kids’ friends so that even last-minute presents can feel personal. But I’ve never wanted to have to spend a lot of time picking out a variety of gifts, so for the past couple of years my friends and I have taken turns hosting gift swap parties where the gifts are presents for other people, usually our kids and their friends.
Everyone has a different idea about what it means to be creative, which makes throwing a just-in-case gift swap party such a great way to add variety to your stockpile of presents. I might hear creative and think “art supplies,” but a friend might think, “Ribbon dancer! Finger puppets! Puzzles!” Even if your group has a lot in common, it’s surprising to see the different ways in which everyone’s minds work!
To throw a gift swap that will help my friends and I add variety to our present stashes, I tell everyone invited to bring enough of one gift for each person in attendance. To make sure that things don’t get too confusing, we track everything on an online gift exchange website, which helps us all stay on the same page. I always set a price limit since people can get carried away when they’re shopping for kids! I find $10 per item works for most people, and also give recipients a theme, like “gifts to inspire creativity.”
At the party, each person gives one of their gifts to everyone in attendance, and receives one gift from each person in return. At the end of the party, everyone goes home with a new batch of creatively inspired presents to stash away until a special occasion arises. It’s so much more fun than wandering cluelessly through the aisles of a store on your own!
These days, whether it’s a pack of crayons and a pad of construction paper, or a tambourine and set of bells, I feel great knowing that the gifts my kids give to their friends are going to help them express their imaginations and emotions through art. Even the sportiest and most science-minded kids need an outlet for their creative energy, and stocking up on gifts that will encourage their self-expression is the perfect way to make sure that your last-minute gifts are more than just toys, instead tools that will help them develop into well-rounded human beings.