A note from the editor: today is a special birthday. The Arena is one year old! It seems appropriate to celebrate, therefore, by publishing a guide to birthday gifts–but for kids!
When an invitation to a child’s birthday party includes the words, “Your presence is your present,” it is wise and respectful to honor that sentiment by foregoing bringing a gift.
Most of the time on kids’ birthdays, however, as my friend Laura said to me years ago, presents are a wonderful part of the fun. It’s a lovely thing when you have a chance to celebrate a child in this way.
Still, buying children’s birthday gifts throughout the year can lead to decision fatigue as birthday after birthday arises and you have to figure out a present yet again. With that in mind, I have found it helpful over the years to keep a list of favorite gifts for different ages so that I don’t have to go searching for ideas with each new birthday. Often I will even give the same gift to several similarly-aged children across any given year, switching to a different set of gifts the following year. It is one of my more genius life hacks, if I do say so myself.
So, without further ado, I present to you a list of tried-and-true birthday gifts for children and teens, divided by age group. I have tried my best not to repeat items from my Christmas gift list, but you may find some ideas for birthdays on there, as well (“washie pets,” anyone?)!
Babies (Just born or 1 year)
I have news for you: babies don’t care about presents. They will occasionally pay attention to a toy, but what they really need is time and support. That is, their parents need time and support. Here is how you can give parents the gift of time and support for a baby’s birthday:
- Babysit, just for an hour or two. Even if it means going to a restaurant with the parents and bouncing the baby in the lobby while the parents enjoy a baby-less meal. You can bring the baby to the mom to nurse and then take her back again.
- If you’re not local or otherwise can’t babysit, consider sending the parents flowers or pizza on the baby’s first birthday or as a new baby gift. New parents need to know that other adults appreciate the gift they are giving to the world by welcoming and caring for this lovely baby.
- For a new baby, give this bouncy seat or this type of play mat. Electronic bells and whistles are not necessary. The simple versions effectively engage babies and give Mom or Dad twenty minutes here and there in which to take a shower.
- The very best toy for babies, in my experience, is any dangly toy with lots of different parts, such as this one. Such a toy can be attached to the car seat handle or to one of the bars of the crib or to the stroller, bouncy seat, or playmat, or the baby can just wave it around, chew on it, and whack things with it. We loved these toys so much for our babies that we made up songs in their praise (“She’s A Good Old-Fashioned Spidey-Bug” was my favorite).
Toddlers and Preschoolers (1-5 years)
- Little folks who have just begun walking really enjoy this small wagon and this shopping cart. Toddlers of both sexes also love this wooden bear toy as well as this fun little balance toy.
- Three- and four-year-olds will very much enjoy anything that involves buckles or latches, such as this latches board and this busy mat. They also really like this cookie toy set. And they love spinning manaically for long periods on this disc, which is great for vestibular development (balance) and proprioception (knowing where you are in space). If you know a kid who twirls a lot or bumps into things often, definitely buy that disc! Sensory mats (you can find cheaper, smaller versions, too) are also really fun for young kids (and adults!).
- Four- and five-year olds often pass through an intensive puzzle phase, during which Ravensburger puzzles are without a doubt the superior choice. The pieces lay flat and only fit together if they are actually meant to fit together. Don’t underestimate how many pieces a young child can put together; start with 24 if the child hasn’t done many puzzles before, but you will probably find that an experienced puzzle-doer will also enjoy 100-piece puzzles. In terms of board games, Sleeping Queens and Spot It, Jr. are wonderful.
Elementary School (6-12 years)
- Kids this age tend to be really into creation and construction. I like to give them Klutz craft kits, whichare high quality and lots of fun and cover a range of creative activities. Favorites among girls are this mini-bake shop one and this mini-erasers one. I have known boys to especially enjoy this paper airplane one and this circuit clay one.
- Boys and girls this age also tend to love baking. Don’t get them yet another kid-sized apron and spoon, though. Get them something cool and specialized instead, and then make a date with them to show them how to use it, if you can! I recommend this pie-top cutter, this set of candy molds (along with candy melts, which you can get at Michael’s or the grocery store), or this shortbread pan (there is literally nothing as easy and yet impressive as shortbread). This kind of thing helps children develop a sense of “mattering” – they are capable of helping to feed their family!
Middle School (12-14 years)
- Middle school girls really enjoy things like scented lotions and candles; as they grow into womanhood, they need encouragement and tools like these for practicing relaxation and self-care. Warm scents like vanilla, peach, and cherry are usually a safe bet. Stationary and pens are also well-received, as are initial necklaces. You can also introduce them to high-quality adult literature to help lure them away from the awful young adult section. And don’t forget that they still like to play – a game like Apples to Apples can be lots of fun for this age group, as can something as simple as a volleyball for an active girl to take to the net at the park now that she is growing too tall to enjoy the playground equipment.
- Tween and young teen boys are drawn to extensive visual encyclopedias like this one on military history or this nerdy Star Wars one and will pore over them for hours on end. They also will enjoy complex role-playing board games like this excellent Lord of the Rings one or this fantastic Sherlock Holmes one in which one player gets to be Moriarity and the rest chase him! (Girls enjoy these, too!) A soccer ball or a disc golf set (if one of his local parks has a course) is also fun for this age as boys transition away from the monkey bars but still need active things to do with their friends.
High School (14-18 years)
- Young men in high school like black stuff, leather stuff, and canvas stuff, depending on their personalities. They also like very stupid socks and strange T-shirts with yetis on them, as well as very expensive tech stuff that I do not buy for them. So I embrace the canvas with something like this messenger bag or this backpack (depending on his style), each of which is extra welcome if you fill it with Takis or Oreos. Young men also appreciate getting an awesome deck of cards or a wallet multitool (again, add junk food to either of these). High school boys are also about ready to read Death Comes for the Archbishop and The Screwtape Letters, and these both make good gifts. Oh, and did I mention junk food?
- For young women, lip balm and a fancy box of truffles put together in a pretty gift bag is a delight (this is more appropiate for a woman to give than a man, excepting a girl’s father). Also, in the weird land of young-woman-dom, water bottles are apparently all the rage, and I suggest that you consider this one or this one and further consider filling it with chocolates. Artistic or literary young women very much enjoy this illuminated letters practice book, and maturing readers this age will enjoy and appreciate A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and My Antonia. A wallet multitool (see above) is also a handy gift for a young woman!
I hope this list gives you some good ideas to go on as you approach another year of kid birthdays! Pick your favorites and stick with them, and you may find that you will become a very popular person among your young friends very soon indeed.