Non-Toy Gift Guide: Gifts for Learning & Expanding Horizons
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Welcome! We’re thrilled you’ve found our Unrivaled Guide to Non-Toy Gifts For Kids Of All Ages. Not to toot our own horn or anything, but when it comes to presents that aren’t toys, this is the biggest, most extensive and straightforward gift guide on the Internet (toot toot).
For Part 2 of our guide (make sure you check out the others too!), we’re bringing you the best non-toy gifts that encourage learning. These gifts have the potential to teach them new skills, educate them on new subjects, and open their eyes to the world around them. We’ll cover everything from music lessons and STEM activities, to nature exploration and electronics. So let’s get to it!
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Educational Kits + Equipment
For inquisitive kids always asking “why?”, these educational kits and “equipment” will help them understand how things work, and more about the world around them. For many, we suggest skipping the plastic kid versions, and investing in the real thing that will last for their entire childhood.
Science Experiment Kit
For toddlers to preschoolers, we love The Primary Science Lab Set from Learning Resources. The colorful science tools are oversized for their little fingers, and are durable enough to withstand more “physical” play. It comes with a fun activity guide and cards outlining simple experiments. After completing several of these experiments, our testers spent over an hour just playing with a little water and the dropper, funnel, test tubes and beaker. That’s a success in our books.
For older children (recommended 6+), the Magic Science for Wizards Only Kit from Scientific Explorer will cast an enchanting spell over them that captures their attention and levitates their love of science. With 9 magic-related experiments that use chemical reactions, this kit was a clear winner amongst our testers, who loved making a frothing magic wand, test tube crystal ball and color-changing potions!
Engineer Building Kit
For older kids who love to build and use remote controls, this Remote Control Machines kit from Thames & Kosmos will blow their mind (and yours!). Pick one of the 10 models (including a bulldozer, crane and robotic arm) and follow the full-color step-by-step instructions to assemble. Then used the super cool 6‑button infrared remote to actually move the machines around. They can even design their own creations!
And if you want to start their STEM skills at preschool-age, we love the Kids First Engineer Series which includes an amazing, illustrated storybook guide, large building pieces, a storage case and simple instructions for up to 20 different models. We are particularly fond of the Amusement Park Engineer kit with Ferris Wheel and roller coaster models!
RELATED: For additional recommendations for Engineering Kits head over to our Gift Guide: The Best Building Toys For Kids (From Blocks To Robots)
Crystal Growing Kit
Kids love these kits where they can make their very own crystals. This Crystal Growing Experimental Kit from 4M includes all the materials necessary to grow 7 different crystals, along with complete instructions and a display case. Recommended age is 10+ although we think a younger child would certainly enjoy it with a little parental assistance.
Get your kids up close to science (literally!) with a well-made microscope. We highly recommend the Duo-Scope Microscope from My First Lab which features 40x, 100x &400x magnifications and comes with a 50-piece accessory kit.
Kids are naturally intrigued by outer space, so why not examine the stars and planets together with a telescope? This Twin Star 60mm Compact Kids Refractor Telescope is super easy to use, just point and look. It’s light-weight and powerful enough to see craters on the Moon and the rings of Saturn. So fun!
A child can get so much enjoyment out of a good pair of binoculars – from backyard bird watching to imaginary spy games, there are so many uses and kids feel really grown-up with their own pair. Pass on the preschool-type ones which don’t have much magnification, and instead get these Kids Binoculars by Kidwinz which although designed for kids (shock proof, easy to focus, rubber eye pieces), function far beyond a toy.
A good magnifying glass can provide a ton of fun for inquisitive kids – ours have a blast examining their pets, toys and books, but the real fun happens when they bring it outdoors (think bugs, flowers, and dirt!). It is a simple gift, but one that can inspire such wonder. Go with this oversized one from BearMoo– it’s great for smaller hands and also includes an LED light which ups the cool factor!
We think a good globe should be in every child’s home – it helps them get a sense of their place in the world, and the size and grandeur of it all. It can be really fun to mark all the places they’ve traveled to, and will come in pretty handy for geography tests!
We’re firm believers that a childhood full of playing in the dirt and exploring outdoors leads to great imaginations and a respect for our planet. These gifts provide a jumping off point for kids to learn all the wonders of mother nature, and provoke conversations about animals, plants and more!
Bird Feeder + Seed + Bird Watching Guide
A bird feeder makes an awesome gift for any nature lover, and having it located near a window for prime viewing is a must-have to really entice your kids. And that’s never been easier than with this 5‑star rated Window Bird Feeder from Nature’s Hangout. Made of heavy-duty clear acrylic, you can easily suction it to the outside of any window, so birds are just inches away and easy to watch and identify. It holds 2 cups of bird seed, has drain holes to keep the seed from staying wet, and bonus – squirrels don’t stand a chance climbing glass!
And if you want to up the ante even further, this Suction Cup Hummingbird Feeder will delight your children to no end. Seeing the teeny tiny hummingbirds up close is something they don’t get the chance to see often (if ever!), and it’s really fun to see their excitement as they magically hover over the feeder.
And this Suction Cup Suet Cake Holder will have a similar effect as it brings beautiful woodpeckers right to your window. The Suet Cakes also last a really long time so you don’t have to refill them as often as seed…bonus for mom and dad!
These are the perfect gifts that the whole family can enjoy together.
OK gang, this is one of our go-to gifts for any child. With The Original Butterfly Garden from InsectLore they can raise and feed caterpillars, watch them transform into chrysalides, and then emerge as stunning Painted Lady Butterflies! A super engaging 3‑week “experiment” that gives kids a front row seat to understanding the cycle of life.
Bug House + Catching Accessories
A ventilated bug house makes a great gift for kids who love to examine bugs and other outdoor critters like frogs, lizards and even snakes! We love the whole Backyard Safari line including this Critter Shack, Scoop Net and for those who may not want to actually touch the bugs (editor’s note: like this mom!), this awesome Mini Bug Vac for no-touch catching!
Gardening Tools + Accessories
Encourage kids to join their parents in the garden, with high-quality tools that look and feel like Mom and Dad’s. This Big Kids Garden Tool Set from Toysmith is one of our favorites, and includes a metal garden rake, hoe, shovel and leaf rake – all on a sturdy hardwood shaft.
For smaller hands, the House Of Marbles Children’s Garden Tools is a great set that includes a rake, fork, shovel and watering can, all in a water-resistant garden bag. Kids love toting it around the yard and feel super important taking out their own tools.
Herb or Veggie Growing Kit
Inspire your kids’ culinary appetite by having them grow their own veggie (or herb) garden. Backyard Safari has several Egg Carton Garden kits which include 6 different heirloom seed varieties, starter soil, growing instructions and journal, wooden ID stakes and an egg carton planter.
The Pizza Garden Kit is a favorite as it produces tomatoes, basil, oregano, peppers, scallions and Italian parsley that kids can eventually use to create a fresh, delicious pizza!
We remember having an ant farm as a kid, and it was fascinating to watch the tiny little ants dig elaborate tunnels and bridges. But boy have they have come a long way since then! Evviva Science’s LED Ant Habitat Extraordinaire has LED lights (which not only look cool, but helps the ants dig deeper) and blue gel (which helps ants live longer and dig more complex tunnels!). It also comes with a magnifying glass, and free educational e‑book.
Kids can create their own little habitat with the Grow ‘n Glow Terrarium from Creativity for Kids. This super fun set allows children to decorate and assemble their “scene” and then watch as fast-growing seeds sprout to fill-in their mini eco-system. They can even use the included glow-in-the-dark stickers to examine it at night! Or try the new Aquarium Terrarium which comes to life with cool water breads that expand and help sprout your seeds.
Universally enjoyed by both boys and girls, this will be a well-loved gift!
If you like the idea of a Terrarium, also check out this Enchanted Fairy Garden Kit, which may up the ante for those little ones who love fairies and all things miniature. Not only do they get to assemble and grow their own magical fairy land, they can also paint the included pot, fairy house and toadstools!
If you think your child will be more interested in the play aspect then the decorating — try the equally fabulous My Fairy Garden kit which include less arts and crafts, but more playable features including open/close doors, fairies and accessories.
Giving a child the opportunity to try something new – something that they wouldn’t normally have a chance to do otherwise – makes for a wonderful gift. Imagine where Michael Phelps would be had he not been exposed to swim lessons, or Simone Biles to gymnastics? Lessons can spark a love that can serve as a child’s lifelong passion – an incredible gift indeed! These are just a few ideas for special lessons. We suggest making sure it is an activity that the child has expressed an interest in, or perhaps providing extra one-on-one instruction in something for which they already have a passion.
- Martial Arts
- Horseback Riding
- Music – Learn How To Play An Instrument
- Snorkel or Scuba Diving (lessons/certification)
For kids, opening a physical present is often a big part of the allure and fun of a special occasion. To make your non-toy gift something that is “receivable”, get creative and think of accessories or related useful items that tie-in with your present. For example, if you’re giving dance lessons to a little girl, wrap up a pair of ballet shoes and a fun tutu, or for music lessons, you could give a beginner’s song book, or even the instrument itself!
Games + Puzzles
Give the games that you grew up playing, but splurge on a good quality “vintage” version that feature the old school rules (because they really shouldn’t be messed with!) and will withstand many, many years of use. These ones are beautifully crafted sets or the classic edition, that children who have graduated from any kids versions will really enjoy: Chess, Checkers, Scrabble, Risk, Life, Monopoly, and Clue.
Fun Games for Solo, Sibling & Family Play
There are so many great games beyond Candy Land and Chutes ‘n’ Ladders to choose from but we’ll need a whole separate post for that! Luckily, we have just that — head over to our newest guide: The Best Board Games For Kids & Families (That Aren’t Candy Land or Monopoly) for all our top suggestions broken down into these categories:
- The Best First Games For Toddlers & Preschoolers
- The Best Single Player Games For Quiet Time Play
- The Best Games For Siblings or Play Dates
- The Best Games For Family Game Night
- The Best Classic Games You Should Already Own
Our kids got Rubik’s Cubes in their stockings last Christmas and proceeded to use them every day — taking them on the bus ride to school and challenging their friends to see who could solve it (remarkably, some really can!). If your child loves puzzles, start them off with a 2x2 cube, then move to the original 3x3 and any of the new shaped designs. These really teach them about spatial concepts, thinking ahead and overall tenacity!
To make it extra fun – have them go on YouTube and try and solve it alongside some of the “how to” tutorials!
Mudpuppy is one of our favorite companies for quality children’s puzzles – just look at their amazing selection! Their 12-piece pouches are the perfect starter puzzle for the 2–3 year old set (and take up waaay less space than a box!) and their Jumbo 25-piece puzzles are a great next step. We also love their To Go Puzzles which come in a cute carrying bag perfect for travel and for older kids, their 1000 piece puzzles can’t be missed!
There is no doubt about it, kids love electronics. And let’s face it, technology is becoming an integral part of their lives, so instead of fighting it, embrace it with these techie gifts that can inspire literacy, creativity and provide some fun down-time for kids and their friends.
LeapFrog Epic™ Academy Edition (age 3–9)
We’ve had the opportunity to test just about all the different tablets geared towards kids, and the LeapFrog Epic Academy Edition came out as our clear winner. This Android-based tablet is packed with educational content, making for productive screen time that puts learning front and center – it’s pre-loaded with some great apps (bonus – these don’t require WiFi!) and you have access to LeapFrog’s award-winning library that explores skills like math, science, reading, creativity, problem solving and critical thinking. We also love that it comes with a cool attached stylus so that kids can use their creativity to draw or practice the correct way to write letters.
With the Epic Academy Edition, you also get a 3‑month free trial of LeapFrog Academy, a super engaging interactive learning adventure geared towards 3–6 year olds. We did a full test on this app earlier this year and named it as one of our Top 10 Educational Apps for Toddlers & Preschoolers – so having instant access to this alone makes the Epic Academy Edition difficult to top.
But even with our love of everything LeapFrog Academy brings to the table, the #1 reason why you should run to purchase this tablet are the built-in kid-safe features. The LeapSearch™ web browser lets kids safely surf the Internet (yes, this can include YouTube if you so choose) and the parental control dashboard allows you to add additional access to websites, Netflix and Android apps as your child is ready. It also has a great timer feature that you can set for a specific length…making the device turn off so you don’t have to be the bad guy!
Other reasons to lust over this tablet: the included protective bumper and shatter-safe LCD screen, customizable home screen, and the always popular ability to take photos and video via the built-in camera.
Overall, the LeapFrog Epic Academy Edition is an incredible first tablet that can grow with your child for years to come.
This incredible, award-winning game system has us totally giddy because it is revolutionizing the way kids can use their devices (and the kids we had test it out, ranging from 4–12, went nuts for it!).
Instead of just being disconnected-spectator-zombies in front of a device, the Osmo system turns them into engaged participants who are thinking, learning and using their imagination with dynamic hands-on play. Can we get a heck yea?!
The set-up is simple: just download the app, place an iPad, iPhone or Amazon Fire device in the base, and clip on the reflector. Then your kids are ready to use the Osmo game pieces or drawing board to start interacting with the screen. We have no idea how it “reads” these pieces, but it pretty much blew away every child we introduced to it (many of which have had years playing video games, so they weren’t new to the concept of cool stuff happening on a screen).
Kids can learn to Code (yes, Code!) with the help of a cute strawberry-loving monster, practice their Spelling and Math, unleash their creativity and have their drawings magically come to life, run a Pizza parlor working with money, fractions and profit, and unleash their brain power with numerous other games.
After the response we got from our testers, it’s one of our new favorite presents to give for the Holidays and birthdays, and we know your kids will love it too.
You will be amazed at the fun a child can have with their own camera. They love turning the tables and being the one taking the photos, instead of the one being told to “smile”. For kids as young as 3, we think the VTech Kidizoom DUO functions far beyond a toy camera. It features a 2.4” color screen and 256MB of memory (which can be expanded with a microSD card) to store their pics. There’s front and rear facing cameras, so kids can easily take those lovable selfies. You can even record video or voices (with fun voice changing effects!) and add frames, stamps and silly stickers to photos.
It also includes 5 built-in motion control games which we could do without, but luckily there are parental controls to limit their play time, or disable them all together. We’ve seen kids as old as 12 playing with this camera and having a ball!
We love this durable action-cam from VTech (think GoPro for kids) and our kid tester’s did too. We mounted it to their bikes and scooters, used it hand-held and even underwater…the kids had a ball creating their own videos and taking photos which they were then able to easily download onto a computer. The camera also includes kid’s games, photo effects, frames and filters. The Kidizoom Action Cam kept them entertained for long periods of time with active play…the only warning we’ll give is that it will likely spark talk of them creating their own YouTube channel!
Remember how much fun you had when you got ahold of your parent’s Polaroid camera when you were a kid? Well despite the onslaught of digital cameras, there’s still something to be said for instant gratification. And your kids will agree, seeing the physical photo seconds after it’s taken never gets old, and they’ll just adore the vintage styling and fun colors of the Fujifilm Instax Mini 9. It’s a perfect gift for those hard-to-please tweens and teens.
OK, so this one may not always “expand their horizons”, but kids will love receiving their favorite movies, TV shows, or concerts to watch over and over again. Plus, you can get some pretty awesome DVDs that are educational in nature.
We’re partial to the Wild Kratts series (or check out the Kratt brothers’ earlier hit, Zoboomafo) that teaches kids all about animals in such an entertaining way that they don’t even realize they’re learning (editor’s note: my son still pulls out some jaw-dropping animal facts he remembers from watching these). And older kids can’t get enough of Discovery Channel’s Shark Week — try The Great Bites Collection that features some of their best episodes.
Game for Wii, Xbox, or other Console
A new video game will be a coveted item on any grade/middle/high schoolers list. And there are plenty of games that require brain power (check out Smarty Pants Trivia, Little Big Planet, and Portal 2) or physical activity (we love Wii Sports Resort). Just make sure you know what game system they have before you head off to purchase – the same game title can be available for multiple different consoles, so if you don’t have this information, you’ll be stuck!
For those brave enough to pull this off, your child will be forever grateful for their loyal new companion. If you can surprise them with the actual pet, then hats off to you, but a cool tank and gift card to pick out some fish can be just as exciting. Helping look after a living being can help kids learn important life skills like responsibility, commitment, compassion and empathy.
Give to Charity In Your Child’s Name or Volunteer Together
Lastly, the perfect gift for a child is often one that isn’t for them at all — but one that will help those in need. You can pre-select a charity and donate in the child’s name, and then present them with a certificate and explanation of your “gift”. Or, really get your child involved in the process, and have them help choose an organization that they connect with. If they’re an animal lover, then it could be giving to a local zoo or sponsoring an animal. If they love nature, it could be helping plant trees. Whatever it may be, being part of such a grown-up thing can be very eye-opening – giving them a dose of reality that will go a long way, especially around the Holidays.
Phew. If you’ve been through all of our Non-Toy Gift Guides that’s over 200 ideas to choose from! If you missed any of them, be sure to check ’em out:
- Non-Toy Gifts To Spark Creativity, Imagination & Special Interests
- Non-Toy Gifts That Are Practical (But Far From Boring)
- Non-Toy Gifts For Making Memories
- Non-Toy Gifts To Receive In The Mailbox
- The Best Board Games For Kids & Families (That Aren’t Candy Land or Monopoly)
- The Best Arts & Crafts Supplies & Gift Ideas for Kids — From Toddlers to Teens
And don’t miss out on downloading our awesome coupon book (from our Making Memories guide) — these are always a kid favorite!
But wait, there’s more! If you love the idea of non-toy gifts, but would still like to give something that IS a toy, you’ll want to head over to The Ultimate TOY Gift Guide For Kids. We’ve given our top recommendations based on extensive testing for functionality, longevity and fun (all based on your child’s current obsession!)
- The Best Vehicle Toys For Car, Truck and Construction Junkies
- The Best Building Toys For Kids (From Blocks To Robots)
- The Best Gross Motor Indoor Toys For Active Kids (To Get That Energy Out!)
- The Very Best Babies, Dolls & Doll Accessories For All Ages & Stages
- The Best Doll Houses & Accessories For Your Doll-Obsessed Girl (or Boy!)
- The Best Princess-Themed Gifts For Your Little Princess
- The Best Gift Ideas For Super Hero & Star Wars Lovers
- 200+ Unique Stocking Stuffers For Babies To Teens (That Aren’t Junk!)
- NEW! Dedicated Gift Guide: The Best Fun Toys You’ll Actually Want Your Kids To Play With
And we’re always working on more guides (coming soon: The Best Personalized Gifts for Kids).
For notification when we release each new guide, make sure you subscribe to our newsletter. We’ll also hook you up with exclusive deals, and freebies like our popular report: 10 Screen-Free Toys For Guaranteed Quiet Time That Will Let You Relax, Recharge or Put The Laundry Away
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What was your favorite gift idea? Did we miss anything? Let us know in the comments below and we may even add your idea to the list!