The Best Non-Toy Gifts for Toddlers that are Fun to Open

Every year around Christmas I come across one of these blog posts by parents begging for an end to the toy madness.

They have all the toys, they say. Please, make it stop. If you must give the kid something, the kid has a college fund.

I feel these parents’ pain acutely.

But I’m not sure the solution is to ask for museum memberships or ballet lessons instead, as many have suggested. Here’s why:

1. It’s not about what the parents want. Sure, the parents are in charge. But the gift is for the little kid, and what THEY would rather have for a gift is a cool new THING, for better or worse. And the potential look of excitement on a kid’s face when they open a toy often beats any parental complaints about clutter and space, especially for your close family members. Good luck changing their minds. Plus, giving a 3-year-old a card that says “hey, happy birthday, I put $15 in your college fund” is kind of a buzzkill. Waaaaay less exciting than a $15 toy truck, regardless of the immense collection of toy trucks already sitting in his bedroom.

2. Cultural norms are tough to change. Unwrapping gifts in shiny paper has become a big part of American tradition. It takes a lot of energy to change the way things have been done our whole lives. Buying an inexpensive toy at the grocery store for an upcoming kids’ party is way more convenient and socially acceptable right now than any alternatives, even for those of us who agree that kids generally have way too many toys — and that glut of toys wastes money and creates a sea of plastic garbage.

We don’t have to go cold turkey on giving physical gifts to take a step in the right direction toward slowing down the endless flow of toys into our homes.

There are plenty of things that are fun to open up on a birthday or Christmas that aren’t toys. Many of these are things parents might actually want to buy for their kids anyway.

This list is full of affiliate links for Amazon’s afilliate program. that means that if you click on one of the products and buy something as a result, I could get a small commission at no cost to you.

Snow boots or rain boots. Many toddlers actually like trying on boots and using them to pretend. My son calls them his "work boots." Unlike other shoes, small children can often pull these boots on themselves, and it's exciting to get them out when it rains or snows. Toddlers like to do things that get them extremely wet and muddy, so any backup shoes should be appreciated by parents, who might not have a many extra pairs because kids' shoes are surprisingly expensive. Everyone wins with this gift.
An umbrella or rain coat. Yes, a 2-year-old is somewhat likely to poke someone's eye out if given sole control of an umbrella. But under supervision, an umbrella is a great tool that they can use through childhood. They'll feel like a big kid having their own. We received a rain coat as a birthday gift from a friend for a birthday and we really use it a lot. It's one of those things that a parent might not have gotten around to buying yet in their kid's size, but suddenly when it's raining, it comes in handy.
Mini home improvement tools. These are nice for a few reasons. 1. They don't get shoved in the mix with the rest of the toys -- they tend to stay in the garage or shed or toolbox with the grown-up tools and come out only when the grown ups are raking leaves, shoveling snow, etc. 2. They're used for a long time and can even be used by parents in a pinch. I've definitely grabbed my kid's shovel to do some gardening when it was more convenient. Again, some of these definitely require supervision for a toddler -- but I still think it's a great gift.
A helmet. This age is when I started considering getting my kid a balance bike, which technically requires a helmet. A helmet can be exciting for a kid to open, especially if you explain that it's a "racing helmet," and especially if it has cool designs -- and plenty of the helmet designs these days are pret-ty cool.
Sunglasses. These are also something that parents already have to buy. In fact, they often have to buy them multiple times because they're easy to lose. Plus, sunglasses on a little kid are adorable. The Ninja Turtle sunglasses my son got for his first birthday were one of the most useful and most photographed gifts my toddler ever got.

Puddle jumper
Swimming stuff. Bathing suits are cute, fun, and less gifted than other clothing types. They're also usually needed by parents, who could use a backup suit even if they already have one. The parents of your kid might also need to buy a puddle jumper like the one shown here (a very popular flotation device designed for little kids) or a life jacket. Check with them beforehand or just keep the gift receipt.
A fun bath towel. This is one of those things I always forget to ask for when it comes to gifts and end up buying them myself. I think people often get a cute hooded baby towel on their baby registry, but once that baby becomes a toddler they need to upsize. Even if they already have one cute bath towel, having an alternate one keeps things interesting when the first one is in the laundry. Animal-shaped towels: putting the "fun" in functional.
Bedsheets or bedding. Maybe you've heard that toddlers pee their pants at night sometimes. Well, the rumors are true. And if other parents are like me, they won't turn down an extra set of sheets, or even an extra comforter / quilt. My son got a set of Peanuts sheets from his grandparents for his third birthday and it's a nice addition to his room. The characters make something boring (a pillowcase) into something fun. Also, at some point during their toddler years, kids transition from a crib to a twin bed, at which point parents often have to buy a whole new bed, complete with a mattress cover and pillow and pillow cover. If your timing is right, you could swoop in and take care of the fun part of the equation for the kid, which is the bedding. May want to check with the kid's parents first, though, because bedding is kind of personal.
Yoga mat - Not every family is into yoga, but my kid would be thrilled to have his own mat. My husband and I each have one so there's usually an extra adult one for him to use, but I know he'd love his own. If the kid you're buying for isn't from a yoga-at-home family, consider something else parents do at home that the kid would want to to join -- perhaps a little apron for the child of a baking enthusiast or little work goggles for the child of a woodworker. There are even make dumbbells for kids who might want to work out with their parents. Cute stuff, you guys. And none of it adds to the toy pile.
A potty or a potty toy. When I had to start potty training my son, I went out and bought a potty, a potty seat for travel, a sticker chart, a few children's books on the topic, and of course a bunch of new underwear. I was pretty surprised at how much money I spent. So ... if someone were to incorporate some of these fun items into their birthday or Christmas, I would have been secretly rejoicing. This stuff is personal, but if you know that the kid you're buying for is on the verge of potty training, ask their parents. A toddler might be pretty pumped to open some big boy / big girl undies or even a big boy / big girl potty.
A water bottle. This is small gift compared to some of the other ones listed, but it's still fun and useful. As with many of the other gifts mentioned here, kids like to have their own versions of what their parents have, especially if you can get one with their favorite characters. Again, even if parents already have kids' water bottle, they would probably like to have a few more. These get a spot in the cupboard and not at the bottom of the toy box.
A new clock. As I mentioned in my post about Milestone Toys for 2-year-olds, the transition out of the crib that most families deal with at this stage often comes with discussions about when it's OK for them to get out of bed and subsequent discussions about how time works. This is a nice time to get them a clock if they don't have one. If you want to get fancy, there are clocks designed specifically for this purpose, like the one shown left.
Waterproof gloves for the snow. These things are usually on the must-buy list for parents in colder climates, as they're very necessary for any toddler who wants to play in the snow without freezing their tiny fingers off. These may not exactly be thrilling to open on the kids' part, but you can easily pair it up with a plastic disc sled for a bigger fanfare. They'll think of you each time it snows.
Socks or slippers. My own kid wouldn't keep these on no matter how freezing our floor was, but I don't think everyone is the same. Despite getting an lots of cute clothes outfits from friends and relatives over his 3 years on this earth, I've always had to buy slippers and socks on my own. Break the mold and buy buy that toddler in your life these Cookie Monster slippers instead of yet another Cookie Monster stuffed animal.

Note: I didn't bother listing them here, but of course clothes and books are the first go-to alternatives to toys as gifts. Clothes and books are nice because they take up less room and tend to get more mileage than toys. I didn't list them because most middle class American parents find themselves flush with both of these things, too, and I'm trying to give you a few outside-the-box ideas.

Finally, feel free to disregard this list. We parents are just happy that you’re involved enough in our lives that you want to buy our kids anything, whether that’s one of the things on this list, a museum membership, or yes, even a giant plastic toy.