Nan Austin

10 best kid gifts: Go for the stuff they won’t outgrow

Break out the games to help your kids have fun and learn how to relish a well-played loss as much as a lucky win.
Break out the games to help your kids have fun and learn how to relish a well-played loss as much as a lucky win. Family Fun

The official holiday buying spree begins with the last burp of turkey goodness. With Christmas only 30 days later, Hanukkah starting in 29, Kwanzaa in 31, I offer a top 10 gifts list for the younger folks on your list.

10. A GOOD READ: From Winnie the Pooh to Harry Potter, some of the favorite people of our childhoods were never people at all. In this stare-at-the-screen world, digital news and texts fill a need, but let’s face it – paper books fill the heart. Curling up with a good iPad just isn’t the same.

There are online lists to help find a good fit:;;; The New York Public Library,;; and even a list of lists at the Association for Library Service to Children,

Too much? Just look for Caldecott Medal winners (best picture books) and Newbery Medal award winners (best children’s stories).

9. PLAY-WITH-ME GAMES: From Chutes and Ladders to chess, jacks to gin rummy, the point of a game is to have fun and learn how to relish a well-played loss as much as a lucky win.

Rally Up! tops Family Fun Magazine’s list of best family board games, which also includes Scrabble Twist and the clay sculpture game Dohdles! Money Crashers drew up a list of cheap family fun, including card games, Pictionary, charades and a makeshift Game of Things, which asks players to name “Things you shouldn’t do at (or in, or when …).”

Or just go to your mustiest cupboard and brush the dust off a jigsaw puzzle.

8. TOOLS: Sure, this can be hammers and pliers. But it can also be scissors and cookie cutters (for tracing shapes), yarn and a crochet hook, or stretchy string and a tackle box full of beads. It can also be PVC pipes and fittings, or other hardware store finds.

This is the world of Legos, all types of building blocks, circuitry snap togethers and marble mazes. Making stuff, with all the frustration and mistakes that entails, never goes out of style.

7. EXPLORING: Pick a place and give a card with a picture and a date. We live a day trip away from the Exploratorium in San Francisco, Yosemite National Park, Old Sacramento and the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, just to hit a few highlights. All of those places have options for every age.

No time to travel? Walk around a city park, take snacks and juice, and ask every question you can think of about what you see. After everyone has their bets in (winner has to hug everybody), use your phone to Google the answers.

It’s not the trip, remember, it’s the journey.

6. COOKING CLASS: One certificate for a weekend cooking lesson – recipient’s choice of entree or dessert.

Let them pick the recipe (the library has tons of cookbooks) and do most the work. Unfamiliar technique? Learn it together. Results a disaster? Hey, we still have Cheerios. Made a mess? Cleanup is part of the learning experience – don’t get mad, get scrubbing.

No one’s going to starve, but they just might learn a ton – and food disasters make the best stories.

5. MATH MAGIC: Rulers. Protractors. Scale. Measuring cups.

I spotted my husband and (then) young son walking around the house one day, whipping out a standard carpenter tape measure and letting it snap back. “I am 17 inches away from the door.” “I am 24 inches from your belly button.” It was hilarious.

The same exercise could be done with a bathroom scale, weighing whatever can be found around the house. A set of measuring cups, a bag of sugar and a bathtub add up to fun without a sandbox.

4. A JOURNAL: Kids who write a lot do better in school. But not everybody takes to it easily. Any time you can inject fun and self-propulsion into a writing project, put one in the win column.

Document life in the stone ages (before the Internet) by interviewing grandparents. Fill a daily diary over a vacation. Write the saga of bringing a math grade up or the trials of putting up with a horrible lab partner – encourage ranting and raving into the pages – use wrath to their advantage.

3. SCIENCE: We are all born scientists, curious and persistent. No longer a left-brain sort? Turn to, Bill Nye’s official YouTube channel or even Pinterest. Check out rocks and earth science at Explore space with NASA. For older kids, Science News for Students tackles hot topics.

2. STUFF OF DREAMS: Some of the best imagination stirrers are not expensive. A trip to a dollar store can deck out a make-believe kitchen. A big sheet over a dining table makes a fort.

A big empty box with cardboard wings is a flight to Neverland, or where my kids used to take me when the electricity went out – on a family trip to South-abania. “Should we stay in a hotel or go camping? A hotel with camping sites by the pool it is, then.”

My favorite gift of all time was a bookcase my mom made over as a dollhouse one Christmas. She made the furniture out of cardboard and scraps of material. Poker chips served as plates. I spent years making dreams come to life in that bookcase.

1. UNDIVIDED ATTENTION: This, bar none, is the top Christmas gift of all time. Make it a gift certificate for a soda, just the two of you, at McDonald’s, or for a weekday morning walk around the block. (Bonus: This forces everyone to be early-morning organized.)

It can be tickets to a live performance or just time pounding on cans in the kitchen, a game of hop scotch or cutting out and decorating store-bought roll-out cookie dough. Even helping out in folding the clothes or matching the socks.

Your time means more to your kids than anything else you could stuff under a tree this year.

Nan Austin: 209-578-2339, @NanAustin