Nan Austin

On Campus: Shopping for ideas for kids? Great gifts don’t have to cost a lot

A toddler plays while her mom shops. Toys that help the youngest kids learn the underpinnings of numbers and letters could help them later in school.
A toddler plays while her mom shops. Toys that help the youngest kids learn the underpinnings of numbers and letters could help them later in school. Modesto Bee file

If Thanksgiving makes you dream of shopping, not turkey and mashed potatoes, this column is for you, with a lot of reasonably priced – even free – ideas for the youngsters on your list this year.

First, the little guys. Looking over the things teachers will be teaching kindergartners, it is hard to miss the added emphasis on basics below basics. Learning the underpinnings of numbers and letters – things to know before even seeing the squiggles on the page – forms a lot of what is laid out in cumbersome detail in the in-depth lists of Common Core standards.

What this gets at are things, ideally, youngsters get early and often at home: People reading and turning pages in the same direction every time. Describing things as “soft,” “squishy,” “slimy,” “slippery” to build vocabulary. Stacking plastic cups, counting spaces in a board game and adding up the dice. Using colors when talking about what to wear.

The first-years-in-school kids can use anything that encourages reading, writing, addition and subtraction. Easy reading books and time spent listening would be the best gift. Add a stuffed animal that sleeps better with a bedtime story read by the beginning reader. Struggling readers also get great practice reading aloud to a pet that adores the attention and won’t mind the slips.

For mid-grade kids, the goofy books with embedded science and young detective stories are my favorite. Anything that capitalizes on a favorite subject shows you are thinking of them. Toys they can build or experiment with stretch a lot of interests and a range of years.

Tweens or teens on your list? A book and funny slippers or a fleece throw was my go-to gift for kids growing up too fast for me to keep up with. A more personal alternative would be homemade gift cards for craft, photography or other hobby “lessons” they could do with you. The best talks I had with my teens were them unloading while the attention was on a joint project. Mastering variations on an empathetic “Hmmm” was key.

As you do your holiday gift buying for kids this year, here are my suggestions for bringing great stories, a little math and a lot of holiday cheer into their lives:

1. Good books

Movie titles can be fun, but so much more is out there. Go for the Association for Library Service to Children list at, or ask their teachers.

2. Blocks

These can be homemade or expensively crafted, elaborate building projects or simple cubes. The point is to build up until it falls down or another idea takes over, and start all over.

3. Games

Board games, dominoes, Nerf balls, checkers, puzzles, marbles or anything you’d like to play with them will be wonderful.

4. Music makers

These can be cheap tin pans to whack together, a sealed container of rice, a bell, use your imagination or, better yet, use theirs. Ukeleles and kazoos can make a family band of any age.

5. Computer games and phone apps

There are good ones, but they can be hard to tell from the junk. The nonprofit Common Sense Media has a helpful list at

6. Simple science

Plastic measuring cups can go from bathtub to beach, teaching fractions before anyone needs to know them. There are chemistry sets and engineering toys, but a book on simple science experiments or simple machines such as catapults adds inspiration into the mix. Check out

7. Your time

The most precious gift a child of any age can get is the undivided attention of an adult who likes him.

▪ Need to grocery shop? Leave a little extra time and quiz the kids on vegetable names and how they might be cooked. Let them select an “adventure” veggie to try. Older kids can compare box labels and decide which brand has the best nutrition. Bring two calculators and have one youngster keep a running total on the basket, another check per pound prices.

▪ Short on time to gather up or fold laundry? Have them help, even though it really is not any help – yet. I gave up on having sheets folded neatly, but the pictures were so worth it.

Give points, generously. They cost nothing and can work wonders. It was amazing how much my kids would do to get extra points, and how fast they learned to add them.

No matter what you get, savor the joy of knowing how much they will love it. It helps when little ones just want to play with the wrapping paper, or teens toss it all aside to hang with their friends. They got the message that you care. Who knows, you might get a “Thank U” text.

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at or (209) 578-2339. Follow her on Twitter @NanAustin.