We Switched to Experience Gifts for Our Kids, and It’s Even Better Than We Thought

published Dec 14, 2022
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Family watching movie in home theater.
Credit: Monkey Business Images/

I’ve always been drawn to the idea of a minimalist-leaning lifestyle and I do try to regularly and ruthlessly declutter our belongings. 

Or so I thought.

When we moved recently and couldn’t fit everything into the two full-size moving trucks we’d rented even after I’d decluttered our entire our house, I determined to recommit to an active practice of having less. The sentiment only grew as we unpacked and realized how much more we could have lightened our load. 

Along these lines, we decided to finally implement an idea we’d been thinking about for a while: switching to primarily experience gifts for birthday and holiday presents for our kids. Our younger kids have plenty of toys already and our older kids don’t really play with toys anymore. There’s only so much sports gear or art supplies you can buy before your home is saturated with them!

When we found ourselves browsing for more stuff that would make them happy and asking them what things they wanted, we realized that what we were doing was the exact antithesis of the goal we were trying to pursue. 

This year, with my youngest daughter’s birthday, we began to make the transition. For her fourth birthday, we took a family trip to the Build-a-Bear Factory at our local shopping mall. One set of grandparents was contributing to the gift as well, so my daughter had an absolute blast picking whatever stuffed animal she wanted (a rainbow bear that she named Happy for Happy Birthday) and then picking out an entire outfit for her (including a sparkly pink tutu and a shiny pink bow that, in ways I still don’t quite understand, somehow attaches to the bear’s ear). It was so fun to watch all my other kids help her pick things out and seeing them delight in her delight. This was truly a gift for us, their parents, as well. 

When my oldest son’s birthday rolled around a few weeks later, he was harder to sell on the idea of an experience gift. His love language has always been gifts and I knew I needed to prepare him for not getting the amount of physical things he’s used to receiving. He was hesitant and worried that he wouldn’t be happy without an item to hang on to. (Isn’t this exactly what we want to teach them? That things are not the most important thing? This was a such a good opportunity!) 

For his twelfth birthday gift, my husband and I took our son on an outdoor ropes course adventure — at night. The whole course is lit by string lights and, let me tell you, it is utterly magical. My son was absolutely thrilled. He loved testing his strength and balance on the different challenges, and he got to see how well his mom and dad could hold their own. It was a total bonding experience and it left him wide-eyed, breathless, and full of gratitude. He got to do something rare and super fun, and we got to enjoy some equally rare and special two-on-one time with our son. It was the best. He even told me, “Ok Mom, yeah, this experience and memory is better than any thing.” Cue the tears. 

My husband and I have extended the practice to each other as well. For his birthday and Father’s Day, all he wanted was to rent a boat and take the kids out on the lake. It was a blast. For my birthday, I asked to get my colors done (I have big plans for this leading to more decluttering). And for our anniversary, we bought season tickets to the Tennessee Theater for pre-scheduled date nights throughout the year. 

As the holidays approach, I’m so excited to gift the kids more experiences. I have tickets for a nearby snow tubing adventure and I’m looking into tickets for an ice hockey game, too, to name a couple things. We can’t wait to continue our new tradition of collecting moments and memories and not just things. 

A few more thoughts about this new-to-us practice:

  • I still try to wrap a little something, even if it’s a copy of a ticket or some other token of the adventure. Unwrapping presents and being surprised is always fun!
  • I also like to get the kids a few smaller, consumable gifts to unwrap, simple things like their favorite candy or chips. This way, they do have a few tangible items they can enjoy.
  • If I can gift a practical item, I will. For instance, since our family just moved to a new climate (from Florida to Tennessee), we are all in need of some more substantial cold weather gear. These will be gifts they open and will go along with the snow tubing adventure. 
  • Experience gifts allow us to enjoy things with individual children that we may not be able to do as a whole family. Especially since we have such a large family (five kids), this kind of quality time feels like such a precious experience for all involved. 
  • Finally, some physical gifts lead to experiences, such as family games; memberships are experience gifts that keeping on giving; and creating a concrete keepsake of the experience, such as a framed photo, makes a sweet reminder and cements the memory. 

Want more great ideas for families with kids? Sign up below for Cubby’s Thursday newsletter or get one weekly text featuring our best meal ideas, editor-approved product recommendations, and all the kid’s room decor ideas you needWe’re also on Instagram!

Cubby: A Weekly Newsletter for Families at Home

Whether you need smart solutions or fresh ideas, our editors at Kitchn and Apartment Therapy are here with our best meal plans, organizing and design tips, toy recommendations, and more.