by Kate Koch-Sundquist
Ask children what’s on their holiday wish lists this year and you’re bound to get an earful. It runs the gamut from video games and iPads to plastic cars and dolls, and everything in between. And who can blame them? American kids are growing up in a nation of consumers where it’s easier to buy something brand new than it is to repair something old or broken. It’s an easy pattern to fall into, and my family is no different. By the time our second son was born, we had already converted our dining room to a playroom to accommodate the overflow of trucks, trains and stuffed animals. With each birthday and holiday, the piles grew. Yet just a few years earlier, when I lived on boats, I could fit everything I owned into one big duffel bag and my cabin was the size of a closet.
Somehow I never felt like space was an issue, living such a simple life that my primary joys came from experiences, not things. It seems like a lifetime ago, but this is something I am trying to replicate for my boys. So recently, we’ve said “enough.” Our family has enough. In fact, we have too much. This summer, I stopped bringing toys to the beach and the boys hardly even noticed. They don’t need toys to enjoy our natural environment; they were just as happy digging with shells and drawing with sticks as they had been driving their toy trucks over the sand. In fact, the happiest times for our family as a whole come from exploring, adventuring and making discoveries outside. There’s a simplicity to nature that provides endless possibilities for fun without endless piles of stuff.
Do your kids love to be outdoors? Do they appreciate adventure? Do they have more than enough stuff? This holiday season, we’re giving gifts that won’t pile up, for us or other outdoor families:
A membership to local green spaces. Around us, we have a conservation organization called the Trustees of Reservations. A membership here allows us to enjoy any Trustee property and includes discounts on events and programs. It can also be upgraded to include our annual beach sticker. You may not live close to any of similar properties, but there are lots of other conservation-based organizations, including state and national parks, Audubon societies and wildlife sanctuaries. Find a group local to you, with a mission you can support through membership, and take advantage of the opportunity to enjoy these places all year.
Things you’d have to buy anyway. This sounds boring, but it’s one of my favorite ways to gear my kids up in quality, fun equipment. Buying essentials as gifts means I can justify investing in the thickest winter socks and highest-quality snow pants. As the kids are opening these gifts, I like to remind them of all the fun these essentials will allow. Imagine how warm and cozy these will keep your toes while you’re sledding this winter! This year we’re also putting a new backpack and a sleeping bag on our son’s holiday list. And for his birthday, we got him a new bike helmet. These are all things he’s excited to receive, but we’d be buying them regardless of whether they came wrapped up with a bow on top.
A special outing. Memories last longer than any toy, so arranging an adventure my children wouldn’t normally experience is always a great treat. Last winter, we drove to a local farm that rents cross country ski equipment. The drive was just long enough that the boys felt they were going on a journey, and they loved riding in the pulk sled that could be towed behind us. Afterwards, we all warmed up with hot chocolate and enjoyed the sledding hill before heading home.
Sometimes, you don’t even need to leave your own backyard. One night this fall, as a gift for my oldest who was turning 4, I woke him late and brought him outside to see the eclipse. I wasn’t sure he would remember, but when he went to school and told his teacher what we’d done, even explaining that he’d seen the earth’s shadow pass over the moon, I knew I’d created a lasting memory for us both.
A magazine subscription. When we’re not actually outside enjoying the natural world around, my kids love to read about it and look at pictures of wild animals. Getting mail that’s addressed to them is just as exciting. Last year they were given a subscription to a monthly animal magazine geared to kids their age. Each issue was printed on thick card stock and featured a different animal. The boys loved reading these mini-books, and I loved that we could recycle them when we were done.
A class or camp. These are a top grandparent gift for outdoor families because magazines offer kids a fun new activity, and provide parents with a few hours of free time, truly a win-win. Plan ahead and find a summer program that may interest your child, or choose an after-school or school vacation-week camp. We have a local nature school called Merrohawke that runs programs year round for kids ages 2-16. I love it, and I loved even more that my parents offered to pay my son’s tuition last year as part of his holiday gift.
The holidays are often a season of abundance, and it’s easy to get caught up in the indulgences, from decadent meals to special sweets. But piles of presents aren’t the only way to share gifts. This season, consider the outdoor families in your life, and give a gift that will foster an appreciation for nature while creating lasting memories.
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a writer, adventurer and mother to two boys aged 2.5 and 4. She is also the founder of 365Outside, a movement that encourages outdoor play for everyone, 365 days a year. Kate and her family are based in Essex, MA.
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