The Best Default Birthday Presents for Kids You Don’t Know Well

default birthday presents for kids2018 Update: We still stand by this post on default birthday presents for kids, but you may also want to check out our more recent discussion on kid birthday party guest etiquette

For the first time ever, my eldest son J is having a birthday party for just his friends. (Summer birthdays are always awkward, but as he turns 6 he’s old enough now that he knows who his friends are, even if they’re not necessarily in the same class or exact same time slot for Activity Y.) One of the things that’s been surprising to me is how many moms are actually asking what he wants — in part because my previous strategy as a gift-giver has just been to spend $25-$50 on toys or books, purchased at a store that isn’t too difficult for returns, with a gift receipt. (To me that usually means Target, Toys R Us, or Barnes & Noble!) The theory behind it is that if the kiddo liked it and/or didn’t have it already, great; if not the parent could return it for another toy or book the kiddo liked more.  (Or, hey, for a gift card that could then be used for a larger gift.) I think I’ve also written about how the grandparents do SUCH a great job of getting presents that I tend to favor experiences over toys — so I don’t even really know what he wants and have just been responding “Oh, you know, Legos or Star Wars stuff!” (Honestly, what he would LOVE are Nerf guns, iTunes gift cards, and candy, but I would probably be annoyed at anyone who got us those!!)

In any event — let’s discuss! What’s your strategy for getting default birthday presents for kids you don’t know well? Do you have some default birthday presents that you tend to just grab and go, similar to my theory on “eh, they’ll return it if they don’t like it”? What are the default presents that you get again and again for kiddos — and for what age ranges? Do you ask moms of birthday boys and girls what they want for their birthday?

These are some of my default birthday presents for kids I don’t know well — but ladies, I’d love to hear yours…

Under 1: Baby registry. Just stick to the baby registry or get some nice books for the new mom!

1 Year Old: Board books — or touch/pull/lift books like those from Matthew Van Fleet.

2 Years Old: Books your family loves. Dream blanket! My boys both love (loooove) their dream blankets.

3 Years Old: Playdoh toys, Magnatiles, or books from the “Five Minute Stories.” (J particularly loved the “Diggin Rigs” kind of Play Doh toys.)

4 Years Old: Lego sets. Art supplies. Junior board games.

5 Years Old: Phonics/level 1 or 2 reading books. Hidden Picture books. Legos, art supplies, board games.

How about you guys? What’s your gift-giving strategies for kids’ birthday parties? What birthday presents do you get for kids you don’t know well?

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Picture via Stencil.default birthday presents for kids you don't know well

Ever been invited to a birthday party for a kid you don't know well -- whether it's a daycare/preschool friend of your kid, or you're the auntie who maybe only sees the birthday kiddo rarely... it happens! One working mom decided to round up her "default birthday presents for kids" -- great list!


  1. For elementary school-aged kids, Crayola Marker Maker. Age-appropriate puzzles.

  2. EB0220 says:

    My new favorite is the Melissa & Doug dress-up costumes that are more occupation-oriented (doctor, firefighter, construction worker, pirate). Girls often have only princess dress-up stuff and boys often have no dress-up items (but love them).

    • mascot says:

      Yes, esp. for the 3-6 set, these are great gifts.

    • 22 Weeks says:

      Son loves his doctor dress up set, gifted at his 2nd birthday! He would also love a firefighter (…. I may get him this for his 3rd, thinking about it).

      • mascot says:

        If you have access to a Costco, they’ve carried some fantastic firefight costumes as part of their Halloween offerings. Ours lasted for several years until my kid outgrew them.

        • 22 Weeks says:

          I do, and just saw the halloween costumes there last weekend (although I didn’t go through them). Thanks for the heads up!

    • anon for this says:

      I observed something at my son’s daycare (2.5 year old classroom) this morning that really bugged me, but I don’t know what, if anything, to do about it. As an aside, we love this daycare, and it’s a really good fit for my son, who has some behavioral challenges. I was chatting with a mom and her little girl, and the little girl pointed to the dress up clothes and asked “What’s that?” The teacher showed several to her, and she pulled out a green scrubs-like shirt that said “Doctor” on it. The teacher held it out and said, “You could be a nurse… [sees label] doctor.” I didn’t say anything, and I’m not convinced it would have been appropriate to since the teacher corrected it. But it just bugs the hell out of me because it seems indicative of how girls are socialized and underestimated at SUCH a young age. I highly doubt that the teacher would have suggested that a little boy could be a nurse, no matter what the costume said.

      What would you do?

      • anon for this says:

        Sorry for the total thread jack… I saw the thread about the costumes, remembered the thing from daycare this morning, and forgot that this is a post with a specific topic. I’ll post on the general thread tomorrow.

      • EB0220 says:

        I’ve done a lot of thinking about this because I do think that children are pretty sensitive to some of these subconscious gender stereotypes when they’re in a childcare setting all day. Since the teacher corrected it, I would be encouraged that she at least recognized her error. Some of these biases are pretty ingrained, and even though I have 2 girls and think about this regularly I still find myself slipping up sometimes. My approach has just been to avoid these gender norming statements myself as much as I can. I figure that most kids in childcare have two working parents, so hopefully the kids have role models of men and women working which will offset any teacher bias. I also like to point out “so and so’s mommy is a doctor, other kid’s mommy is an engineer”. It’s kind of fun and one of the neat things about daycare in my opinion. So – no really good answers – but interested to hear other opinions.

      • anonymous says:

        I would start by being much much more forgiving of people’s ingrained prejudices, and not ascribing so much intent to them.

  3. PregLawyer says:

    Stickers! I got the Ultimate Sticker Books for the 2-year-old birthday parties I went to this past year.

    • I have to say, until my kid turned 5, stickers were one of my least favorite present. She had no sense of good sticking and would stick them everywhere; it drove me crazy. I much rather preferred either Melissa and Doug Reusable sticker packs (not, the puffy ones- those are a nightmare- so many little pieces) or, even tattoos.
      She now can stick responsibly, and she can be pretty creative about them, so I don’t mind as much. Plus she loves them.

      • October says:

        +1 My 2-year-old also still regularly puts things in his mouth and I’m pretty sure that’s where the stickers would end up. When the cashiers at Trader Joe’s give him stickers, I try to stealthily snatch them away before putting him the car seat.

  4. fidget spinners & books... says:

    I bought a bunch of light-up fidget spinners and have been giving those as gifts, along with a book or sticker book, for kids aged 4 and up. Seems to be a big hit.

  5. Clementine says:

    I actually give a lot of weather gear as gifts. Rain coats/rain boots in one size up. Hats and mittens.

    I’ll usually add a theme appropriate book, so you get ‘the snowy day’, a hat and mittens. Likewise, you might get ‘Cloudy with a chance of Meatballs’ with a raincoat.

    My theory is that it’s never bad to have duplicates of these things, but I generally include a gift receipt (usually to Target).

  6. I put almost no thought or effort into this and get an age appropriate toy on Amazon for never over $25. If the kid(‘s parents) don’t like it they can package it up for the next birthday party they go to.

  7. Different conundrum……..I’m always looking for a better way to communicate “gifts not necessary” (especially to people who don’t know my young children all that well) because we have So. Many. Toys. Getting 10 new gifts more often than not just leads to a bunch of wasted wrapping and cards and sometimes even the toys themselves. I also don’t want birthdays just just be about gifts, there are so many other fun things we could do with the time and money spent on gift buying, wrapping, and unwrapping for small children. (I would never tell family not to give gifts, we often need a few things and I’m not that heartless!)

    • Clementine says:

      Okay, so at first, I noticed people would put, ‘your presence is present enough, no other gift is necessary’, but now most invites I get for kids’ parties straight up say ‘No Gifts please’.

    • D. Meagle says:

      This might not be the answer you are looking for, but you can do charitable giving parties. For example, on the invitation state that in lieu of gifts bring food for donation to a food pantry, or like a pajama drive. You of course, need to coordinate with the recipient, but it is an option.

      Also, in my community, this site is big: shareyourwish dot com. Instead of physical gifts, the guests can make a monetary contribution, some of which is donated to a charity of your choice, and some of which is paid out to the kid to use for whatever they want. You pick the charity or charities you want, as well as the split between charity and kid. The interface is like evite, so it functions as both the invite and the gift giving portal. A good way to get your kid involved in giving back and also not getting inundated with THINGS.

      • +1
        For my daughter’s first three birthdays we held a diaper drive for the local diaper bank and asked people to bring a pack of diapers or wipes in lieu of gifts. My daughter had a great time building towers out if the diapers that people brought.

  8. Anonymous says:

    My default gift for any occasion – a gift card of stock. $20-25 for kiddies, $100 for graduations and weddings.

  9. mascot says:

    We’ve started doing gift certificates for things a 6-7 year old would like- movie tickets, ice cream, putt-putt golf, etc. So much easier and costs about the same. I’ve also given board games like No-Stress Chess or something that will similarly “grow” with them.
    My friend mentioned her son liked nerf stuff and the kid got a veritable arsenal which was pretty funny.

  10. Anonymous says:

    I give The Book With No Pictures, by BJ Novak. Works for ages 3 through probably 7 or 8 (we have given to many 6 year olds). At the beginning of the age bracket, they understand a parent reading it, and find it hilarious. By the end of the age bracket, they can read it themselves!

  11. Anon in NYC says:

    I was just thinking that the LeapFrog Magnetic Magnets Set was a great gift that has held up well since my daughter got it at maybe around 12-18 months and she’s now a little over 2. (see

    It makes noise so other people may hate it, but she has fun playing the songs, she’s finally figured out how to manipulate the different letters in and out of the bus, and I think she’ll get some more fun out of it for a few years.

  12. Marilla says:

    I just grab something age-appropriate from my regift closet or something in the $10-$15 range from Marshall’s (wooden puzzle, book, M+D toy). But our social circle bday parties are for kids 3 and under so not too complicated. We don’t do friend bday parties for our daughter but if we did I would specify no gifts because who needs all that extra stuff (except to stock the regift closet).

  13. shortperson says:

    1: beeswax crayons
    2-3: big box of crayola chalk, jellycat unicorn
    3-4: lego kit in theme related to party (meaning usually the disney princess lego kits)

  14. AuntE says:

    I go to and use their gift algorithm (boy, girl, neutral, and age) and pick something from that. The gifts I’ve picked for family and friends (in a range of ages) have been pretty popular. The downside is that they don’t do gift receipts and the giftee can’t just return it to Target.
    Ironically, I love getting books as gifts for my own daughter, but am paralyzed by the fear that the other child will already have it or parents won’t like it, so I hardly ever give books as gifts. (And my niece and nephew honestly prefer toys.)

    • Anonymous says:

      I also LOVE fatbraintoys gift algorithm and have had many hit presents, although I am cheap and use this only for family members or really close friends.

  15. Back to school says:

    Oh man, this is a struggle. Now that DS is in elementary school, I have him pick out the gift for the birthday boy or girl. I figure he knows what they like better than I do. (FWIW, I never spend more than $15 for a random classmate and luckily other parents seem to follow that rule, too.)

    When I’m really stumped, I usually go for a bucket of art supplies, a giant sticker pad, or books. I really love it when parents specifically say no gifts, because trust me, none of these kids are hurting for material items.

  16. Sarah says:

    Pop toobs ( are my favorite toddler toy and go-to toddler birthday present. They can be used in all sorts of different play (they make funny noises, you can make swords or necklaces out of them, you can build things or use them in water) and probably can be fun in different ways from about 18mo through 3 or 4. You can toss one in a bag or in the car for a simple distraction or you can play with a bunch as a set (so on the off chance someone already has some, a few more aren’t clutter).

    I have a friend whose gift policy for kids she doesn’t know well is to buy whatever the top rated new release book on amazon is for the appropriate age. Less likely to end up with duplicates.

  17. I am probably cheaper than most but for my son’s classmate’s birthdays, of which there are MANY, I try not to spend more than $10 unless we have a pretty special relationship with the parents. He’s 5. I typically stock up on stuff during Amazon sales and pull something out of my gift stash, but themes have included:

    young toddler – sand or water toys (like a water wheel spinner), homemade playdough* with a couple toys (toys were purchased in bulk from Discount School supply)

    Preschool – Melissa and Doug reusable sticker books, M&D water wow books, M&D tattoo books, M&D make/paint wooden vehicle kits, mini Lego kits, Alex Little Hands craft kits, favorite books, Spot It! Junior game

    *Note: I have since learned play dough is slightly controversial among the less mess tolerant parents so I don’t know if I recommend that. I bought a bunch of kinetic sand on sale that I ended up not giving away as I realized some people hate it.

    Among gifts we have received, one unexpected and inexpensive one that I and my son really liked was this foaming bath soap in a dispenser shaped like Batman.

  18. Anonymous says:

    For babies and toddlers up to age 3, always books. That’s what I prefer as a parent so that’s why I give.

    For older kids that we love but don’t see that much (i.e., cousins on the other side of the country), the fatbraintoys calculator is awesome. No gift receipt but based on past experiences we are happy to keep doing this. It’s especially helpful when kids are slightly older than mine so I don’t really have direct experience with that circle and since we don’t live nearby I don’t see them day to day.

    For kids we don’t know that well I have a stocked closet of items worth about $25 that I buy for cheap (like $10)…so no gift receipt. When my kids were younger (up to about age 5), I would pick out something for the kid from my stash and I’d have my kid help wrap it.

    Now that my kids are 5 and 8, they like to pick out gifts for their friends. So, I still have my stash, but I pick out 2 or 3 choices from my stash and let my kid choose which one to wrap for the party. This saves me $$ and also time at the store where my kids are distracted by cool toys THEY wish they could have.

    Things that have worked well in my stash, and they work for a variety of ages from 3-9:
    – Lego Klutz kits
    – Lego books (big hardcover ideas books that serve as inspiration when kids just have piles of bricks)
    – Magic kits
    – Science kits
    – Dress up sets (ditto someone above on giving occupation themed ones to girls, but maybe waning interest around age 6)
    – Board games

  19. Tickets for the carousel or train ride at the local park. They are sold in packs of ten.
    Tickets/ gift certificates for the local puppet theatre or children’s theatre. Or, if I know the family well, I will take the birthday child myself along with my own child- the two kids get a play date and the birthday kid’/ parents get a kid free afternoon!

    For 4 yrs+: Jenga. Fun for all ages, plus I t’s less than $10.

  20. HRHNYC says:

    I try to pre-buy non-gendered toys in the $20 range when I see them on sale so I have a gift closet ready to go. My number 1 go-to for a very wide range of ages is some sort of Magnatile or high quality magnetic blocks. Worst case scenario the kid already has and can add to the set. I’ve also gotten kinetic sand kits and nice arts and crafts kits lately.

  21. For kids 3 and younger, books.

    For kids in the 4-8 range, I always give a wooden map of the US puzzle. I can still remember playing with mine as a child, and my parents using it to teach me all the places I’d been, where family members live, where famous landmarks are, etc.

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