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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Last Minute Holiday Gift Help

My typical approach to Christmas gifts lies somewhere between the frenzy of abject consumerism and the ability to make beautiful jars of preserves from the contents of one's own garden to give as gifts. I love to make presents for people when I can, and I love to buy presents for people when I am inspired by finding something they will truly love. I have always thought (even before this year's economic downturn emphasized the point) that it wasn't how much you spent but how perfect the gift was for the recipient that mattered.

I also have a somewhat stronger philosophy when it comes to my children: I prefer them to receive things that encourage creativity and inventive play rather than lots of plastic stuff that basically plays itself (with two volume choices, LOUD and Slightly Less Loud, you pick!). Son routinely asks for every Power Ranger, Ben Ten (which he pronounced "Bun Tun," much to my amusement), and Spiderman thing he sees in the stores or on his friend's show-and-tell days. But in our house, Santa and I have a deal, and that stuff never makes it under the tree. The man in red comes up with some great alternatives, however, that keep the inventive play going far longer than I think the all-plastic-all-the-time stuff would. (Don't get me wrong, I'm not completely immune to the consumer urge. I happen to have insider info that suggests there will be a laser-firing, talking Buzz Lightyear under the tree; I just try to ensure that there are plenty of things requiring really creative play.)

We spend hours at our house on what we call projects. "Would you like to do a project?" is a pretty common question, and the result might require torn paper, glue and paintbrushes, or paper bags to make into puppets, or glitter paint and egg cartons...there's really no telling. One thing that is really registering for me this year, though, is that when you cultivate family traditions of D.I.Y., it is easier to buy presents that are not super-expensive. All the brand-name marketing costs money. Crayon rocks, on the other hand? Not so famous. But hours of fun.

So, for anyone out there looking for "one last perfect gift" and hoping to spend a little less money, and get something that fosters creativity, here are my best ideas for a range of ages.

Art supplies. Remember that glorious new crayon smell? Remember how you were never allowed the box of 64 crayons because it was an extravagance? But there are so many great colors in there...so many possibilities. At $5, it's a relatively small extravagance, especially if it's wrapped with a tablet of oversized drawing paper. For littler hands, I also like these fantastic Crayon Rocks. You might also consider finger paints, or a nice tin of water colors. Add interest by buying a giant roll of paper and repurpose an old shirt into a painting smock.

Puppets. Last year, I bought plywood, upholstered it in fabric, and built a puppet theater. A lightweight hanging wall bin from Ikea is attached inside to hold all the puppets sent by family members in the know. The kids play with this all the time, making all kinds of plays. You can get great puppets here or here. And, if you're not insane (read: crazy, overachiever) like me, you can also get a great table-top puppet theater from Ikea for about $6.

Costumes. They're not just for Halloween anymore. We have a firefighter, a knight in armor, and a pirate, in addition to all the many Halloween costumes we've collected. We have masks, and hats, and super capes. We routinely make accessories using sparkly gift boxes and sticks, and a lot of packing tape.

Vehicles. Sure, you can buy cars from Little Tykes or adorable pedal-car fire engines (both of which we love). But you can also make a canoe from two diaper boxes taped together. How does this become a Christmas gift? Why not give a "canoe kit" -- with all the supplies, decals and paints for decorating, and some Daniel Boone hats for them to wear while they're exploring the wilds down the river?

Music. We all know how annoying kid music can be (Barney, anyone?). If you spend long stretches of time in the car, or you like background music the kids can sing along with, I was given the best cd that I can actually listen to for hours and hours on end. Elizabeth Mitchell's "You Are My Little Bird" -- filled with lilting, slightly folk-song-ish songs, with great melodies. We have listened to this cd approximately 700 times (roughly once a day for two years), and I'm getting a little sick of it. But only in the last month or two, which I count as a pretty darn amazing investment.

For more active musical interaction, may I suggest a dance dvd? The Swingset Mamas sent me a sample of their "Swing, Dance, and Sing" dvd recently, which Nick Jr. rated in its "best for preschoolers" gift category. Two energetic mamas, singing, dancing, and bopping with kids have put together a great dvd that got my kids up and dancing too. I love that they liked the music AND wanted to do something other than just zone out in front of the tv (something I try to restrict as much as I can). The music is fun and catchy, and many of the tunes also send good messages to kids. Both my nearly-five and two-and-a-half year old had fun, and I will be playing this one again when they need to work off some energy and it's too cold to be outside.

Coupons for personal days together. One-on-one adventures, a shopping, mother/daughter manicures, you name it. You can pick activities that are low-cost, and give activity coupons promising real together time throughout the year.

Books of poetry. Elizabeth Bishop (gorgeous, musing). Edward Lear (hilarious, perfect for kids). Pablo Neruda (romantic, stunning). Spend an hour in the poetry section at Border's browsing.

Black-and-white framed candid portraits (perfect for your spouse). Take your digital camera, follow your children around for a day taking a zillion pictures, and then choose one or two to blow up and frame. Picassa (Google's photo editing softwear) is free to download; or try Picnik. Crop close to the subject, and don't be afraid to lose most of the background, or even crop off the top of a head, frame just a set of feet on a beach, or get down to child's eye view.

So, that's the best I've got. Anyone else want to add to the last-minute list to help out the rest of us? Especially if you have an idea for a mother-in-law...


LceeL said...

Those are great ideas. As for the mother-in-law gift idea? I have been forbidden to even THINK about buying a gift for my mother-in-law ever since, once upon a Christmas past, I suggested a personal vibrator shaped like this religious article she's particularly fond of, as a present. NOBODY thought that was funny. Probably like right now. I should probably erase this. Nah. Let it ride.

MamaGeek @ Works For Us said...

Gift card.

That's ALL I got and Lord knows I could use some ideas myself. :O

Daisy said...

I love the ideas here! Art supplies found a way under our tree for years and years. My daughter, the same kid who opened crayons and sketch pads and a calligraphy set, is now an art minor and wants to be a photographer.

Momo Fali said...

My son asked for a horse. A real one. I'm kind of screwed.

bejewell said...

OR you can get a Snuggie. I'm just sayin'.

Kat said...

Look at you go Martha! What great ideas! I love buying art supplies because I still find comfort in coloring AND that new crayon box smell ;)

Jaina said...

Those are some great ideas there.


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