A Gift with a Twist: Combining a Cool Thing with an Unforgettable Experience

Meg Buchanan

If there’s a child in your life, you’ve heard a few times: give experiences, not things. I’m not here to dispute that. Some of my fondest memories are of the experiences I had with my Fairy Godmothers. The trips to the Fox Theatre with Gail were especially wonderful; she fostered my love for the theatre and the arts with just the right seats at The Phantom of the Opera (helloooo falling chandelier!), seeing Haley Mills in The King and I, and an evening with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company that inspired an older Meg to push her limits and take a class with a principal of that troupe many years later.

But what about when you don’t live nearby? What if you don’t have the funds to pull together theatre seats? What if that’s not the type of experience you can enjoy together? Sometimes, things are what’s left to give. And sometimes, things can be the representation of an experience. The piles of theatre programs, Cirque du Soleil keychains, and CDs I can’t even play anymore are  reminders that physical things can root us in the memories of the past.

Now, full disclosure? I am in the middle of decluttering my house. A heavy, heavy declutter. My husband and I have inherited things over the nine years of our marriage that have gathered dust in the corners of storage units and office closets, on top of our own memory-associated things. It’s easier now that we have scanners and shadow boxes and camcorders (yeah, I SAID CAMCORDER) on our phones to record with more permanency than the fragile magnetic tape of VHS affords. I also understand that the same ease of recording means that my children will never have the experience I had of Genece taking me to the mall to pick out a new CD and then generously listening to “Barbie Girl” on repeat all the way home.

I understand the hesitancy to just get another THING for the loved ones in your lives, but the actual THINGS can serve a purpose as well. Sue and Genece got me a bracelet for my 16th Birthday that I wore for good luck during sorority recruitment, and used as the “something old” when I got married; an elderly neighbor gave me a mink teddy bear her father gave her that still sits on my office shelves and makes me smile; and there’s an entire shelf on my living room wall for the small gifts people have brought me from their travels abroad. So, without further philosophizing from yours truly, here’s a list of Things that can also be part of experiences.

1. Ornaments

For those who either celebrate or decorate for Christmas, ornaments are a wonderful way to leave a mark. My ornament habit is thanks to Gail, and I have multiple trees in my home to display gifted ornaments, those that I’ve picked up on travels, and the ones I’ve gathered in my life, from hand-me-downs to my own kindergarten handprint snowflake. Every child in my life gets an ornament each year, and I’ve heard from many parents that they’re always excited to put them on the tree themselves. (NB: hit up the Target post-Christmas clearance if you have as many kids as I do – split up the sets of beautiful blown glass ornaments!)

2. Books

I know not all kids are into reading large tomes, but this is actually a really expansive category! Comics and graphic novels belong under this heading, along with picture books, board books, journals, writing prompts – anything that gets a book in their hands and gets them thinking and imagining, regardless of their age! And I really think some books work for any kid. My nieces and nephews are adopted, two from abroad as older children. Their reading and writing skills aren’t as strong as an average kids might be, so a few years ago I started them with books that are easy to read but appealing to all ages: The works of Roald Dahl. I’ve read Matilda a million times (and may read it again), and The BFG is a heartwarming story. James and The Giant Peach? A classic!

And the other wonderful thing about these books? There’s a movie counterpart. If their parents choose, they can sit down and do my absolute favorite thing in the world – read a book, watch the movie, and talk about the differences. Last year, I got them journals with prompts. This year, with the assistance of a keen group of friends, I’m getting them books that will reflect their ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

3. Hobbies

Even though we’re not physically close to our nieces and nephew all the time, we know their interests, they’ve told us what they want to be when they grow up (an engineer, a community resource officer, and a vet), and I make note of what they get for birthdays through the year. There are a million fun STEM kits to be had at box stores, local shops, and online alike – this year, Nephew is getting a “build your own synthesizer” kit! Niece Number One also likes music, so I got her a pair of headphones and embroidery floss to decorate them (some things never change, 90’s Meg!), and Niece Number Two is getting a sewing project for her and her American Girl Doll.

4. Experiences

OK, I’m cheating. Get them experiences. But also make sure there’s something to tie to the experience. If we lived closer, I’d be giving the kids cooking classes and I would gift it to them with a personalized apron. I would get flower ornaments for them and take them to the Botanical Gardens. I would take them to the High Museum and pick up a postcard at the end, and write a note to commemorate the trip. If you have the means and opportunity to do experiences, by all means do it – but think of something small, something that won’t gather much dust, something that they can show their current and future loved ones while they tell the story with a smile on their face.

Need to wrap that perfect gift? Stay tuned for a special gift wrap tutorial from yours truly!


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