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Giving kids gifts they love can be so satisfying. I delight in watching my daughters engrossed in drawing with a fresh set of markers, playing market, setting up a cafe with toy food, or putting on dance performances with their wands and scarves. But if you’re one of those folks (I am!) who can’t stop themselves from evaluating an object’s ecological impact, you no doubt bristle at some of what kids long for.

My little ones are certainly not immune to the lure of popular cartoon characters and positively drool over the doodads, clothes, and toys that feature them.

I freely admit that reconciling the eco-conscious part of me with the boundless desires of my kids is a constant struggle. While I want to make them happy, I also need to say ‘no’ to a large number of requests if I want to prevent them from becoming über consumers and protect them from the questionable chemicals in many common toys. Plus, I just find some toys deeply troubling, from scantily-clad mermaids to toy weapons to addictive electronics.

Thankfully, it’s not hard to have both a green and kid-friendly holiday. Here are some ideas for healthy, environmentally-responsible, and educational gifts kids and their grown ups will love.

Green Gift Strategy #1: Give Less

The easiest way to limit the footprint of the holidays is by giving less. Child psychologists note that too many toys not only overwhelm your house with clutter, but also stress our kids. Reducing the number of toys in a house can be hard, but one easy way to manage the mayhem is to rotate some toys out when new ones come in. Clutter actually makes us all less happy, so tackling the oversupply means kids will benefit from happier parents who have more time and energy freed up from cleaning to play with them.

Buying used is another way to reduce the impact of your giving, and second-hand shops can be treasure troves of nearly-new toys and clothes. Hosting a toy swap can also lessen the impact of playthings that do enter your home. Plus you’ll have extra room in the budget for healthy food for the holiday table.

Green Gift Strategy #2: Give Experiences

Numerous studies have found that experiences actually make us happier than things. Treat that special child in your life to a memorable event, whether it’s a trip to the zoo or the theater, or even just a special hike or meal. Kids don’t need more stuff to feel loved and happy. Some other ideas for extra special experiences include:

  • Signing them up for a class they’ll love, whether it’s cooking for kids, tap lessons, martial arts, or science enrichment.
  • Making a certificate for a special kitchen project to work on together, like a favorite cookie recipe, dinner entrée, or homemade ice cream.
  • Seeing some live theater or a concert together.

Use your imagination to think about the child’s favorite activities and you’re sure to come up with numerous ideas for terrific gift experiences.

Green Gift Strategy #3: Look for Toys Made from Eco-friendly Materials

From PVC to lead, the shelves of toy stores are sadly riddled with compounds that threaten our kids’ health and the environment. Toys and gear made with PVC-containing vinyl are ubiquitous these days, and people just don’t realize they’re giving things to their kids that leach lead, cadmium, and phthalates. The production of PVC also releases all sorts of dangerous compounds into our air and water, so refusing to buy these materials has far-reaching benefits.

Be a curious consumer. If a toy is made of plastic, look for a number on the bottom. Plastics labeled with 1, 2, 4 or 5 are considered safer than the alternatives. Better still, opt for natural materials with nontoxic finishes whenever possible. If your child likes modeling clay, skip the PVC-based varieties and get an eco-friendly version instead.

No child ever seems to have enough stuffed animals. If it’s cute and cuddly, they want it, or at least mine do! I’m somewhat suspicious about the materials most stuffed animals are made from and am thrilled when I find one made with the safety of little bodies in mind. Made from scraps of recycled fibre, these adorable toys are cuddly, safe and give a child the opportunity to create something of their very own.

Kids with a fondness for natural materials and a little magic will also appreciate this fairy house kit, complete with everything you need to make a two story fairy accommodation. But what if your child is ready for something more challenging? In this minimally packaged crafting kit, beginner knitters can learn a useful skill while making a “Knitty Kitty” toy to cuddle.

Green Gift Strategy #4: Choose Educational Toys

Wind power renewable energy kit
The line between learning and playing is often blissfully blurry. Encourage educational play with fun toys that also teach useful skills or introduce kids to science. At a recent “climate carnival,” my children learned about renewable energy through a number of activities, but one of their favorites was a kit that let them generate electricity with solar and wind. This wind power renewable energy kit lets kids build wind-powered generators to energize electric vehicles and charge rechargeable batteries. Each kit includes two styles of wind turbine blades and a gearbox with three different gear ratios for experimenting. I love helping to raise the next generation of energy nerds!

Water Garden
Another unique idea is this indoor water garden kit, which comes with its own aquaponics curriculum that helps nurture a green thumb even when nothing’s growing outside. The kit includes a self-cleaning fish tank that grows edible herbs and sprouts. Or let them try growing their own mushrooms. Educational resources to support this gift are available free of charge to help enhance learning opportunities.

A window nesting box is another innovative gift that can let kids get a close look at the habits of your resident birds. Budding paleontologists will love making their own fossils. Consider adding field guides or other educational books kids will treasure as they delve into their favorite topics.

Green Gift Strategy #5: Give Gifts that Nurture Creativity

Eco finger paint
So much more enriching than battery-operated gifts, presents designed to inspire kids’ creativity can range from eco-friendly art supplies like these paints or crayons to a fairy-making kit. Other art supplies, like an easel, a set of pastels, or yarn, buttons and other odds and ends for collages can encourage kids to explore a range of artistic media. You could also add an art book, an art class, or a trip to an art museum.

puppet kit
Puppets also make wonderful gifts and provide hours of creative play. Kids can even design their own puppets with this kit using recycled wool. Get creative with the kids and build your own puppet theater out of cardboard boxes or old sheets draped from furniture. Then enjoy the show!

Green Gift Strategy #6: Choose Gifts That Encourage Outside Play

One of my favorite strategies for green gift giving is making presents out of things kids need anyway. In winter, this means the next size up in snow pants, mittens to replace the ones they’ve lost or worn out, and cozy hats. Other winter gifts could include skates (with skating lessons), a sled, snowshoes, or skis, all of which can be bought second hand.

If your climate is milder or kids won’t mind waiting to use their present, a hammock or swing could be fun additions to backyard play. Camping gear like tents can be enjoyed indoors until your family’s next trip. Or choose something versatile like the Little Sun Solar Lamp (pictured above) that kids love indoors and out. Five hours of charging in the sun produces up to 10 hours of soft light and four hours of bright light. The lamp also comes with educational project ideas to extend and enrich learning about solar power technology.

For your beginner gardener, a gift of some seed catalogues and graph paper can help them understand how gardeners use the winter season—to dream up and plan their summer garden! Let them help choose which varieties to order and where each crop will be planted. You could also include some child-size gardening gloves and tools, or this Gardener’s Seed Saving Kit.

And don’t forget to use eco-friendly gift wrap!

Making Everyone Happy

A little ingenuity and eco-oriented gifts can make both kids and green gift-givers happy. Enjoy watching your child develop useful skills, appreciate nature, or further their artistic endeavors with the green gifts you give them this year. While the gifts themselves may not be around long, the memories and skills they enable will serve kids their whole lives. What better gift could they ask for?

For more sustainable gift ideas for children, please visit our ‘gifts for kids’ category.