Kids Gift Guide - Best Gifts We've Ever GivenNov 29, 2023
Every year Jeff and I talk about the gifts/things we plan on doing for our children and we’ve come up with quite a list of things that have been a “home run” over the years. So we decided to compile some of the top hits (and why they're a hit) and share them with you!
We could have written an entire article about every single one of these, but tried to sum up each one in a paragraph or two to not make this a 30 page post. That being said, if you have questions about any of them, just give us a ping and we’d be happy to give you more details. (or write up a full post if there’s interest)
Note- This isn’t comprehensive. E.g. we didn’t include things like a bicycle, skates, sports stuff, musical instruments, etc. But hopefully you’ll find one or two (or half dozen) things on this list that help you find something special for your kids that will have a longer than usual shelf life/be memorable.
Here are the categories we’ve come up with:
- Open Systems
- Classics Toys
- Unique “Toys”
- Random Thoughts & More
e.g. anything that’s open ended enough that there is a LOT of room for creativity/imagination.
Sheldon- Basically this is cardboard box building on steroids. I saw these at a STEM event several years back and had to get these for our kids. This isn’t something that is out All of the time. (It takes a lot of space to make their creations and the amount of cardboard can definitely fill a couple recycling containers) but a couple times a year we’ll raid the local recycling dumpster for a couple dozen large cardboard boxes to make some pretty epic forts. Check out the Makedo Hub or Instructables for some fun/really cool ideas. Their imagination is the only limit here.
Duplo & Lego-
Sheldon- We’ve spent more money on these than any other toy… (too much) It’s almost embarrassing how much we have. That being said there are ways to get used Duplo & Legos that won’t break the bank. (Here is just one them. Give me a ping if you’d like more;) That being said, Duplo and Lego are toys the kids repeatedly use over and over. The interest comes and goes in phases, but there’s a reason it’s a classic. We love both Duplo and Lego, but if I’m honest I think the Duplo’s actually get used more.(although that maybe evolving as the kids get older) I think it’s a combination of being safe for all ages of kids, but mostly because you can build BIG. (and fast) Here’s a post where we built a tower to the ceiling and crashed it. As well as a large Duplo tower the kids used in their slow-more submission to CrunchLabs this summer.
Sheldon- Finn (our third child) is a budding engineer/architect. You can see one of his creations in the slow mo-video above, but it doesn’t do justice to the amount of creative things he’s built over the years. When you buy a set it comes with a small book for ideas, but I also collected several and put them into a google doc here if you’re interested. He’s built all of these several times though and usually just finds new/bigger things to build on Youtube now.
Sheldon- (not the game, but for building/toppling) We’ve all seen the crazy dominoes tracks on youtube right? No we haven’t gone that crazy, but just like all the other “open systems” this is a repeat every few weeks/months to build something epic. You can find inexpensive sets to test out the waters with your kids. But if you feel this is something they would enjoy getting into I’d suggest getting a good toppling brand right from the start, like https://bulkdominoes.com/ or https://www.lampingdominoes.com/
Wooden Train Tracks-
Sheldon- We’ve built some fun Train track sets over the years. In fact we’ve done things to combine our duplo and train tracks together to make some pretty epic tracks.(including 3D printing connectors) Here is a great post on the different types of wood trains out there. Once you’ve got a good set of trains and accessories it’s pretty inexpensive to buy lots of expansions to make tracks to go from every room in the house. (I talk more about this later but as always, shop around or use a tool like Camelcamelcamel to set price alerts on any item in Amazon)
Jeff- My kids absolutely love this track. They have used it to test the speed of every one of their Hot Wheels (of which we have MANY), build amazing tracks for hours of fun and much more. But our favorite thing to do with this track is to play Monster Truck football. We saw some Youtubers playing it and then we made it a whole lot better with field goal kicking and everything. We loved it so much, we bought a second 6-lane raceway, a football field play mat, mini plastic football helmets with NFL teams on them and small foam footballs that we rubberband to the top of the Monster Trucks to level up the gameplay. We have epic battles! Now that we bought a 3D printer, I plan to print our own plastic helmets with the logo of the teams we’ve created. (all Amazon links are affiliate links)
Classics - (but for a reason)
Swing Set -
Jeff- You can’t go wrong with a swing set in the yard. We added one in recent years and it’s been among the best purchases we’ve ever made for the kids. My suggestion here is to not go cheap, you’ll regret it. We opted for the Lifetime brand and it has been amazing. Note: If you buy it from a physical Lifetime store, you can get the set plus delivery and setup for about the same price as online with no delivery and setup. All my neighbors who have gone for the cheaper wooden versions have had to replace theirs in just a few years. It is an expense, but it's’ hard to beat something that encourages outdoor and imaginative play on a regular basis.
Sheldon- I 100% agree. About 30 years ago my parents bought and installed a swing set from This place. As you can tell by the prices, they are more expensive than your Costco swing set special. But 3 years ago when my dad decided it was time to get rid of it, he asked me if I wanted it. Absolutely! I cleaned it up, bought new hardware, chains, and swings and installed it for my own kids. Again, it’s something that encourages outdoor play and gets used every single day in the spring, summer and fall, and even a fair amount of use in the winter. I don’t know how to explain it, but having a swing set that is as good (or sometimes better) than the swings at a community park really does make a difference in how often it gets used. (and if we are still at this house when the grandkids start coming, the quality is such that I’m sure it’ll still be here/in good working condition)
Jeff- If you thought YoYos were dead, think again. This last year my boys and I have been learning to master tricks on the Yoyo. Follow Gentry Stein (world Yoyo champion) on Youtube to learn tricks easily. His Yoyo Master Set of three Yoyos is all you need to get rolling…or should I say Yoyoing? You’ll be doing tricks and Yoyoing like a master in no time.
Sheldon- I found these OpenGoal nets a few years back and it’s now tradition to pull these out for a couple months every soccer season in the fall. I know at the start I said we wouldn’t talk about the “normal” toys/things since most people do various sports/active things for their children. But I’ve found that if I take the time to dig into the available options, I often find a gem like this one. (This particular net has a “bounce back” feature and also helps keep the ball from going over the fence into the neighbors yard) And sometimes that extra bit of thought (or quality) actually does make a big difference in both the amount and quality of play.
Board Games! -
Sheldon- We are gamers. Board gamers that is. (Okay my kids love video games as well, but we try to limit that) In no particular order here are several of our top party/family games that are “light weight” that are good intros into board gaming.
Crokinole- Flick discs and make trick shots in this traditional Canadian dexterity game that can be taught in 2 minutes, but literally has competitive tournaments around the world.
Just one- Give one-word clues so someone can guess one word, but duplicate clues are discarded. Great family game that everyone enjoys but even little kids can play.
The Crew- Go on many planet-discovering space missions in this cooperative trick-taking game. Quick game that can progressively get hard as you pass off levels. Somehow this is both a simple and incredibly complex game at the same time. It’s particularly good if you like games where you work together instead of against each other. Currently the number 1 ranked game in the Family Category on BGG.
Dixit- I describe this as almost like the opposite of apples to apples. (images instead of words and it’s everyone guessing the correct picture instead of one person picking their favorite) Always a favorite with anyone we play with and again, one that young-ish kids can still get into.
Code Names- A crowd favorite for a reason. Several different versions that are good (Duet is great for 2 players and pictures version for kids) I actually used my parents laser cutter and made a lawn size version which has been a hit at parties with lots of people.
Wits and Wagers- It’s a trivia and betting game combined. You get points for getting closest to (without going over) the correct answer. (which is always a number) But before you know who got it right, you get to bet on which one you think it is and get more chips for betting on the answers furthest away from the median. Another quick one to teach and learn, but always a party favorite.
Decrypto- Decipher your opponents' code before they decipher yours. Think of this as a slightly more strategic version of code names. (mechanics aren’t the same, but in terms of difficulty it’s a smidgen more cerebral) Currently the number one party game in Party category on BGG.
Kingdomino- Kingdom building but with domino like tiles. Quick game that’s less than 30 minutes, but every time we’ve ever introduce someone to this game they always want to play it again.
Or check out the top games on Board Game Geek (BGG) (Pro-tip- look up a game you really like, and in the “classification” section it’ll tell you the type, category and mechanism used in that game. Then you can just click on the options listed and find other games that have similar mechanics, themes, etc. This is a great way to find new games that have (at least a little bit) of the same feel of the games you already love. Or search for the top games in different categories- e.g. Abstract, Family, Party, Strategy, etc.)
I don’t own/know enough about board gaming to have my own Youtube channel… but almost. So if you want recommendations on some good euro strategy or heavier weight games, just give me a ping and we can talk shop! (or come join me at SaltCon! I go every year.)
Jeff- We like board games but aren’t as well versed as Sheldon and his fam. We typically play more commonly known card or board games. That being said, if you haven’t tried these below, you should. The first couple are great for young kids to adults and the last couple for tweens to adults …
Sleeping Queens- If you want a quick, fun card game you can play with almost any age, this is a great one.
Cover Your Cookies- Like cover your assets, also fun, but with a cookie theme and a few extra twists.
Ubongo- We sort of lucked into this one last year. It has African origins from what I understand, and it is amazingly fun and challenging for kids and adults alike. We always play several rounds when we bust it out. It’s quick, easy to learn and will test Tetris skills.
Wizard- An updated take on the classic game phase 10. This has been a family favorite for many years
Skull King- Like wizard but with a pirate theme and several fun additions. This game is easy to learn and great for parties.
Bang- This is an extended family favorite, but does require 6-7 people to make it really fun. Note: it can take a while longer to play than the box suggests. Give yourself 60-90 minutes to be safe
In addition, my kids and I have a ton of fun inventing our own card games and then having them made so we can play them. The Game Crafters is a great site where you can upload your game designs and components to have them custom made for a decent price—Just keep in mind, they’re usually backed up with orders for a 3-4 weeks. So far we haven't mass produced any games for distribution, but that time may be coming soon.
Sheldon - I LOVED having a trampoline as a kid. It was used as much as the swing set we had. (In other words daily) I probably learned more about how to fall and not get hurt from our trampoline than anything else. Yes they can be dangerous (I remember as a kid trying to learn back flips and not landing it right and tweaking my neck/back pretty good) but with the right equipment (nets, pads, in ground, etc.) and rules to keep the craziness to a minimum, a trampoline is just SO much fun. (Although I bet nurses and doctors out there would probably disagree with me.) And yes, as a kid I did jump on our trampoline in roller blades… (and no I would not let my children do that now) I know everyone has a different risk tolerance, but I believe part of the reason my kids Don’t get hurt very often is because we’ve encouraged them (from toddler age) to try things out and weren’t “overly” protective of them. It’s a tricky rope to balance, but somehow our kids seem to do more “dangerous” stuff than all the neighbor kids but also don’t go to the doctors/get hurt as often. I don’t have time here to give this idea the thought it deserves, but here is a previous blog post if you're interested.
“Unique Toys” -
Sheldon- I am always amazed at how much these toys have been used over the years. These are favorites to bring in the car for long trips to stick on the windows and build things. Something about a simple silicon suction cup is surprisingly fun. We saw these Pop-Darts a while back and it was one of those moments that we’ve all had where you go “We’ve literally done this before. WE should have thought of this!”
Jeff- We bought these a couple of years ago on a sale for Christmas and our kids have loved them! They come out of the closet every couple of weeks. They are fairly easy to stack and store and work really well for tweens and kids. If you have them close enough together they can work for light adults, but I don’t recommend it. You can buy them on Amazon (affiliate link) but they are cheaper from the official site. The cost may surprise you a bit, but they are pretty durable and when one of ours broke, they sent us a replacement. Our stairs are pretty steep so we bought a fold out exercise mat on Amazon that works well.
“Exercise” equipment -
Sheldon- Okay… I’m not suggesting that you go out and buy a bunch of exercise equipment “for your kids” as an excuse for actually getting it for yourself. (Actually maybe I am saying that) But between the battle rope, plyo box, pull up bar, exercise bands, kettle bells, exercise balls, etc. you’d be surprised how often they get used for everything from “floor is lava” to just the kids trying to see how strong they are and how many pull ups they can do.
Basement Swings -
Jeff - We put up an aerial yoga hook in the basement that doubles as a swing for our kids. They love it and use it on a regular basis. It's really nice because you can hang it when you want and remove it when you don’t. I love the items that are multi-function and easily stored when you aren’t using them. This has also been great to teach our kids different stretches and tricks to impress their friends.
Sheldon- I installed a couple of these a few years ago and we’ve never regretted it for a second. They are surprisingly multi purpose. From swings, and hammocks, to the home made rope swing and homemade “therapy” swings, these are used daily and range from the somewhat crazy (see floor is lava clip above) to kids relaxing, taking naps and reading books inside them.
Sheldon- Usually these are installed between a couple of trees in your yard or the park. (They are quick to set up) But I installed a couple earth anchors into the back yard a few years ago and used 2x4’s to make my own adjustable height for it(since we didn’t have trees big enough) and it’s been a hit since day one. This is something that gets pulled out multiple times a year and is always a hit with the kids. (not to mention the “exercise” and balance control they are learning from playing on it) Again this is another “toy” that seems to span the ages and as the kids get older I expect we’ll branch out into upping the height and attempting to do more tricks and things with it.
3D printers -
Sheldon- (Okay, for those in the know, I could write pages and pages, but this is geared toward someone who’s thinking about dipping their toe into 3D printing for the first time)
3D printers have gone from a Niche hobby for enthusiasts to being pretty mainstream. Innovation in 3D printing has always been fast and furious, but in the last year or so there have been huge strides to bring this technology to “non technical” fans as well. What used to take lots of time and effort to learn how to do well is now largely automated thanks to companies like BambuLab that have pushed the boundaries on user friendliness.
Paddle Boards & Kayaks-
A couple years ago we invested in a couple paddle boards and kids kayaks. It’s very seasonal, but there are enough rivers and lakes around (or community ponds) that these get used a handful of times each year and will be used every year until we die. These are a bit of an upfront investment, but something that the kids look forward to using every spring/summer.
Sheldon- I’m adding this here because it doubles as a floating island any time we go to the community pond to use the paddle boards and kayaks.(and everyone is always asking about it everywhere we take it) I don’t tend to do things in a… small way. So when I decided to get one of these for our kids I got the 8” thick, 6’x20’ option. (and might have gone bigger, but I measured to make sure it fit in our basement/playroom) So between this being a really fun gymnastics pad, floating island, and slip n slide, it’s something I don’t regret spending the extra money on getting… (time will tell, but we've had it for 3 years and expect it to last for many more) It doesn’t stay up all the time. (Because it’s huge) But it deflates and rolls up and stores in a closet when not in use.
Sheldon - We had a pit in the backyard for fires because our kids love roasting hot dogs and marshmallows. But a couple years ago we decided to purchase a “smokeless” fire pit and we absolutely love it. There are several intangibles that seem to make this a hit. No it’s not actually totally smokeless, but there is indeed a Lot less smoke. It uses a double wall where the hot air is circulated and more gets burned so there is less smoke. (which kind of IS a big deal depending on how the winds blowing, etc.) Another thing is that it’s portable. Now every year when we get a permit to go up in the mountains to get our annual Christmas tree, we bring the snow sleds AND the smokeless fire pit. Both to warm up as well as cook dinner and spend a little more time in the mountains. These come in various sizes and can get quite expensive so you’ve got to shop around. But it’s great having a pit that can go anywhere at any time. (side note- ours seems to cool down pretty fast once we’re done/put it out/dump it out. So no it doesn’t take an hour after you're done to pack it up. Also once you’ve got a good set of coals it cooks surprisingly hot as well as fast. It’s much easier to get the perfectly golden mallow over a smokeless pit than it is an open fire)
Jeff - This modern take on 4-square has quickly become one of our family’s favorite games. It’s perfect for large groups and with the adjustable height set, will accommodate almost any age or skill level from 5-99. Every turn you rotate someone in, so you can play with 9-30 people and everyone still gets to play a lot and isn’t waiting very long. I originally played this at a neighborhood party and immediately fell in love. We looked into building our own, but the DIY, PVC sets are heavy, not as easy to adjust the height and still pretty expensive to build. This linked aluminum set is easy to set up (5-8 minutes), durable and can be used indoor, outdoor or even in a pool (you may want the anodized for the water, check the specs). For serious players you can use a volleyball, but most of the time we use a basic, vinyl inflatable bouncy ball like the ones you can buy at Walmart or Target for $3-5. It’s a bit of an investment, but ours gets used a bunch and has been well worth the money. If you want the perfect party/group game, this is it.
Vacations instead of Presents-
Sheldon- Frankly we’ve got enough stuff. (we’ve hit that point where if something new comes in, something old has to go out) And as the kids get older the requests are more for things like computers and expensive electronics anyway. But as the primary goal for any present is to create connection and meaning and memories we are starting to lean more and more toward larger family experiences. I certainly don’t feel like they have to be expensive (I love camping on BLM land) but last year we found a killer deal out of our local airport and did our first family trip flying out together to Houston/Galveston Texas. Between the beach and NASA we had some great adventures/memories together.
Sheldon- These check a lot of boxes in my book. It spreads out over the year (depending on your subscription) and they tend to be experiences and things that you build or create so there’s the added benefit of learning and growing skills and interest. (I’m sure this isn’t new to anyone, but this “niche” has grown over the years to include just about everything. From hard core STEM and engineering boxes to arts and crafts and food and clothing, you can find a subscription for just about anything you can think of.
A Couple of our favorites - Kiwico boxes are pretty much the gold standard (with tons of options for different age groups and interests) and have been around for a while, but our favorite boxes to date (not that we’ve tried dozens mind you) have definitely been Crunch Labs. Our kids are HUGE Mark Rober fans and actually won the summer crunch labs competition (with this submission) and we got to fly out to San Francisco to shoot the final episode of Camp Crunch Labs. So the engineering boxes are kind of hard to beat in our book. It’s checks all the boxes.
Sheldon- (e.g. ThanksGiving Point, Aquarium, Zoo, local Rec Center, climbing gym, etc.) We usually pick one place a year to get a membership. Sometimes it’s something like a local pool/rec center, sometimes it’s something more like a children’s museum. But it’s always fun to have some place that we can always count on (in a pinch) to go visit/do when the need arises.
Coupon Book/Gift cards/Date nights -
Sheldon- Here is the link to a customizable coupon book I did for my kids a few years back. They loved them. (I did one card that said, “repeat a previously used card” which was fun to see which things they wanted the most. For one it was “play board games” for another it was a “10 minute back rub”)
We’ve done gift cards to movie theaters, date’s with Mom or Dad, local theme parks (usually from a blackFriday sale) and a dozen things in between. The older the kids get, the more we are inclined to move away from gifts and toward memorable experiences.
Here are 3 great blogs for more ideas on gift experiences you should check out-
Hot Wheels track *Sets-
Sheldon- I’m not sure why actually… This feels like it should fit into the “open-system” category, but these have never taken off with my kids. Actually they’ve used the tracks a fair amount, but just not as dedicated hotwheels track sets. That being said, Hotwheels themselves have always been a favorite with our kids. (it’s just the track systems you can buy that haven’t) We’ve had a TON of fun with the cars themselves and have a whole bin full of cars that regularly get used with this blu track we got the kids that goes down the entire stair case.
Jeff: unlike Sheldon’s kids, my kids are obsessed with Hot Wheels tracks and bust them out almost weekly. Probably just depends on the kids. See my post above in Hot Wheels Super 6-Lane Raceway-.
Sheldon - I love this one because I can set alerts on Amazon for gifts and things that I can’t justify buying at the moment, but if the price comes down enough then I’d be willing. My preferred method is to use Camelcamelcamel.com I use the Camelizer Chrome extension so that whenever I’m looking at something on Amazon I can just hit the extension button and it will pull up the historical pricing. (so I can see if it’s high or low at the moment) and then right in the little dropdown that shows me the price history I can just put in the price I want it to watch for (usually I pick the lowest it’s ever been) and wait to get an email for when it finally hits that price point. Obviously if you need it now this doesn’t work, but it’s really useful for when I have ideas of things I’ve seen or think look cool, but don’t need it until the next birthday or holiday.
Sheldon - I love both of these for fun (often inexpensive) gifts for things like Halloween, birthday presents, kids gifts for friends, etc. (The key is that it takes a couple weeks for them to get here, so it’s not the instant Amazon most people are used to) And yes, I’ve gotten more than one thing from both that felt like a cheap knock off of a better designed product you can find on Amazon. But if you’ve ever bought something and thought to yourself “This was made in China” then I promise you can get it cheaper on Temu or AliExpress. But you have to keep an eye on the details (it probably helps that I have a little manufacturing experience) but you can usually decipher if it's a cheaper knock off or the exact thing you’d buy on Amazon, but at half the price.
Temu is basically a more user friendly (maybe slightly better UI/UX) version of AliExpress, but I have found that you can find some things on one, but not the other, so they aren’t 100% interchangeable. (so check both) AliExpress is a little closer to Alibaba/Amazon. And yes both have Apps that make it super easy to browse/buy from your phone.(Temu- Apple - Android) (AliExpress- Apple - Android) Word of caution here! Temu literally has a tagline of “shop like a millionaire” because it can be almost addicting to browse the different categories and the hundreds of thousands (probably millions) of products available. But if you can keep your self control to mostly just buying things you’re actually looking for (and can wait a couple weeks) you can find some amazing deals and really cool things.
Arts and Crafts -
Sheldon - All right, this is already super long so I won’t go into depth on any of these, but over the years I’ve rabbit holed into things like Concrete, Candles and Soap making (which all probably deserve their own post to do it justice) so if you’re interested, just give me a ping.
A particular favorite for family reunions where you can sit around and talk and create art together.
Great for church and any other time the younger kids need a little entertainment.
We hope you found a couple new ideas that will be winners with your family! If you have any particular gifts, crafts, experiences, ides, etc. that have been home runs for your family let us know! We'd love to include it on our ever growing list of favorites.
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