Tired of Stuff? Try Experience Gifts Instead!


Girl Wrapping GiftWe received a holiday toy catalog in the mail in mid-September. I quickly took it straight from the mailbox to my super secret hiding space so the kids wouldn’t find it. I should’ve known better.

An hour later, the catalog had been found and highlighted by my three lovable, highly materialistic darlings. There were approximately seven toys they did NOT highlight. 

Time to break out our arsenal of “it’s about giving, not receiving” books and movies. Again.

The experience made me laugh, groan, reflect on all my parenting fails, and determine to make a change. We plan to try experiential gifts this year. We’re not necessarily saving any money, but there’s less stuff. Plus, it gives us all something to look forward to beyond the gift-opening day.

Ideas for Experience Gifts

In case you’re thinking along the same lines, here are some ideas for local experiences that work well as gifts.

  1. For the Artist  – There are so many great opportunities for the artist in your life. The Des Moines Art Center offers classes for kids, there are many local painting studios that have kid sessions, and the Des Moines Playhouse has dramatic outlets for your adorable little performer. Don’t forget about your local parks and rec or community education offerings.
  2. For the Foodie – With the explosion of food trends, there are plenty of prime eating experiences we can offer our kids. However, the budget doesn’t really allow for many of them outside of special occasions. Plan an outing to their favorite cupcake shop, candy store, or themed restaurant. Our next choice is the Coffee Cats Cafe in Valley Junction for our cat-crazy babies. We can sip coffee while we pay for them to snuggle with some kitties.  
  3. For the Shopper – Let the kids be their own personal shopper. Our 4-year-old is currently in love with Scheels and was delighted by a gift card for his birthday. Our daughter loves every craft store she’s ever been in. Our oldest son has a blast at the local hobby shops. Pick their favorite place and enjoy a dual-purpose experience: they get to pick out their own gift AND learn a bit about costs and budgeting.  
  4. For the Athlete – There is no shortage of sports experiences in the Des Moines area. Consider tickets to the Iowa Wolves, the Iowa Wild, or the Buccaneers. Iowa State University, Drake University, and Grandview University offer a college experience that’s great for kids. Local high school sports events can give your kids a taste of their potential future. The I-Cubs might be done until next season but their games are always a good time.
  5. For Free – For an experience that won’t cost anything other than your time, check out your local library’s adventure pass. You can check the pass out for a day and take two adults and two children to the Des Moines Botanical Garden, Science Center, Brenton Skating Plaza, Blank Park Zoo, Reiman Gardens, and more. Note: Many of these locations also offer a variety of kid classes for a fee.
  6. For the Outdoorsy – We’re always looking for an excuse to get the kids outside during the dark, cold winter months. Check out the Polk County event calendar for free classes tailored to kids. They get to trek through the woods while learning something new. Jester Park Nature Center also offers classes for a fee, and the Brenton Arboretum has Nature Club sessions for a small cost.
  7. For the Vehicles Lover – Our boys can’t get enough of cars and trains and anything with wheels. We’ve been meaning to check out Pole Position Raceway in Grimes. Area car shows happen year round and you can always just wander around a car dealership. If you want to plan ahead for next year, check out The Iowa Aviation Museum in Greenfield, or the Iowa Speedway in Newton, when they open for the 2023 season.  
  8. For the Reader – We don’t buy many books anymore since we’re out of storage and we keep a steady supply from the library. However, a trip to the bookstore is always a good idea. Whether it’s a local store like Beaverdale Books or Storyhouse Bookpub or a larger chain like Barnes and Noble or Half Price Books, letting kids explore the stacks of all things devoted to literacy can be fun for all. 
  9. For the Homemade – We mistakenly watched the movie Yes Day with our kids. They’ve been begging for their own “Yes Day” ever since. I’m not sure I can commit to a full day of yes but I’m thinking I could give each kid a “Yes Hour”. With ground rules. And a kill switch. 
  10. For Those Online – If it just doesn’t seem possible to organize a field trip out of the house, consider some online alternatives for your gift. When we were homeschooling, we used Outschool for some cool extra instruction. They have plenty of offerings, from one-time events to weekly meetings, for all interests and all ages. Many of the classes are very reasonably priced.
  11. For the Game Enthusiast – If your kid loves to compete and needs something beyond your own game cabinet, consider a gift card to one of the many local offerings: bowling at Warrior Lanes, pickleball, ping pong, and more at Smash Park, arcade games at The Old School Pinball and Arcade, B&B Theaters, Monsterama Arcade, GameDay, Great Escape, and others. You might also want to include a lesson on losing. Or promise not to keep score. Maybe that’s just my kids?

Check out more local experience gift ideas here.

What are your favorite experience gifts for kids? 


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