Toys, Birthdays, and Experiences

birthday experiences toysIt is my eldest’s birthday today (happy 4th, Jack!), so I thought it might be a great time to have a discussion about birthdays, toys, and experiences.  More and more of my friends are telling me that they are purposely not buying presents for their kids, and instead planning experiences like trips, concerts, etc.  At 4, he’s been a bit young for all of that in the past — and honestly, every day is like his birthday around here.  Besides, all of the grandparents love to buy presents for the boys (sometimes it feels like they are single-handedly keeping Fisher Price, Bruder, Tonka, Thomas, and so forth in business!).  So: this “plan a nice experience” sounds like a great idea.  I think up first, we’ll plan a day with him at an amusement park near my parents — they can watch the baby so Jack can get Mommy and Daddy all to himself for a day the next time we visit.  It’s still going to involve a fair amount of planning and research, not to mention day-of logistics, but I think he’ll have a blast.

(When asked what he wanted for his birthday, he said, “Ummmm… a cupcake.” Yes! We can do that!)

Ladies, how do you celebrate your kids’ birthdays?  If with experiences rather than toys, what other kind of experience-focused presents have you given to kids?  

Pictured: Jack, sizing up his huuuuuge Costco cake last year — pantsless, of course, because that’s how we roll.  Also pictured: our fugly but functional oilcloth table cover and our Oxo Tot High Chair.  All rights reserved. 


  1. Midwest Mama says:

    This is very timely for me. My DD will turn 4 in a few weeks and I have no ideas for her. She doesn’t either. And like Kat, her grandparents are also heavily contributing to the toy/clothing company profits. I’ll be watching closely for any good party or gift suggestions.

  2. OCAssociate says:

    My oldest is 3, baby is 1. My current strategy is: big party at 1, then they get the next party when they’re old enough to ask for it. In the meanwhile, we’ve done family-only experiences for the oldest on his 2nd and 3rd birthdays.

    We live near Disneyland, so we’ve done that for one birthday, and a train ride/petting zoo for the other. We usually give something as a “gift” – but it’s typically shoes/clothes that are a little more expensive than I’d normally buy.

    My oldest starts preschool soon, so I’m interested to see if he’ll request a “friends party” for his next birthday. I’m also worried that the “birthday party every weekend” stage is about to begin.

  3. Meg Murry says:

    We also only do something small from us on birthdays, because the grandparents and aunts and uncles tend to do the big gifts. Or if we do actual gifts, its more along the lines of pieces to an already existing set (additional Legos, Duplos or Lincoln Logs, etc), and occasionally clothes, because my kids tend to generally actually wear their age sizes and need to transition right around their birthdays.

    I’m also one for taking kids at their word – if your 4 year old says he wants “a cupcake” then go for it! Maybe a cupcake at his favorite playground? Possibly with the addition of a mylar ballon? That would be an awesome birthday in my almost 4 year old’s world, and pretty much what we did for his younger brother when he turned 4.

    As far as the amusement park you mention – I’d suggest you go with either Memphis Kiddie Park or the Zoo (Akron is smaller than Cleveland and I think a little cheaper but has some really nice exhibits) not Cedar Point or one of the other big parks unless you are taking more adults than just you and your husband – the section the 4 year old can ride in is not that fun for adults and not worth the ticket costs of 2 adults plus kid to not go on the big rides. Unless you really want to re-live some childhood memory with him, save the big parks until he’s over 48 inches. We’ve done the tour of amusement parks this summer with the kids between Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, and they had more fun at the smaller, cheaper parks.

    • Ha, you pegged it — I’m a total Cedar Point snob. I always forget that you’re in the area — are you in Cleveland proper or Akron?

      • Meg Murry says:

        I’m in the far west of Cleveland, beyond what is usually counted as the “official” suburbs – less than an hour from Cedar Point (without traffic, at least). My older son has been, and looooves it – but he’s tall enough now to ride a lot of the coasters. You could do the parent swap thing though, if you and H want to ride coasters – but that means you’ d have to each ride alone. You should check to see what he’s tall enough for – it used to be that kids could ride a lot when they are “with a responsible adult” but now all the stuff I enjoy is 48″ or more.

        I totally get the nostagia effect of wanting to take your kid on his first coaster there, if he’s into that – there are a couple small ones he might be able to do at over 36″. A good friend of mine loves taking his kids there., so it might just be my curmudgeonliness/cheapness showing through. Not to be a shill for someone else, but his blogs about CP and traveling with kids in general are pretty useful:

        Memphis Kiddie Park is pretty much JUST the kiddie section, so aimed at the under 5 set, but very popular if your kid just wants to ride the annoying motorcycle that goes in a circle and beeps, plus way cheaper (and probably closer to your parents house)

        If anyone wants to take little kids on actual roller coasters – our almost 4 year old is juuuust 36 inches, and he was able to ride actual coasters at Waldameer in Erie, PA – and he absolutely loved it.

    • Idlewild says:

      OK, so really not near Cedar Point/Cleveland, but outside Pittsburgh is Idlewild Park, which may be one of my favorite memories as a kid. I used to go when I was as young as 1 or 2 for my dad’s work picnics. Definitely would be fun for Jack!

      • Burgher says:

        Idlewild is amazing for little ones! I’m so close to Kennywood, I forget about Idlewild.

  4. No kids yet, but big believer in minimizing the number of toys. When I’m not lazy (in which case Toys R Us is where I end up) I like to get friends with toddlers and preschoolers family passes to the zoo or aquarium. Depending on kid’s interests, science museum, music “museum”, or children’s theater would also be options. And if it was my own kid or close family member I’d consider a yearly pass to one of these.

  5. Our girls are pretty young (4 and 2) so we’re trying to maximize birthday time before they start school. For the last 3 birthdays, my husband and I have both taken their actual birthday off work, pulled both of them out of daycare, and taken them on a little outing. My oldest has a May birthday and loves the local zoo. The youngest has a winter birthday, so we did the Children’s Museum in a neighboring town last year. They love the special time with mom and dad and their sister. My husband works a lot of weekends and I’m a litigator, so we don’t often get an entire day devoted to family. This is a nice treat. We let the birthday girl choose where to go for lunch and then have a special family dinner with just the four of us and my parents at the end of the day. We still get them a smaller present, but the real focus is on their special day.

  6. hoola hoopa says:

    We do ‘friend parties’ starting at age 4. The kids also have the choice of an ‘experience’ day, but they’ve always elected for a party. My somewhat-soon-to-be 7 year old is considering going with an experience this year, but being the social butterfly that she is, I’m not going to write a party off yet.

    We give gifts, but we generally coordinate gifts with the primary givers (ie, grandparents). Usually they get to give the Fun Gifts and we give the Practical Gifts, although we usually give 1-2 Fun Gifts.

    We hardly ever buy our kids things outside of birthdays and Christmas, so I frankly don’t feel like we are getting swamped with stuff that they don’t need or can’t appreciate.

  7. We forgot to buy them presents for their birthday. Or for Christmas. We were so focused on planning the birthday party, my parents traveling into town, the guest list getting out of control, etc. that we just forgot. Similar issue at Christmas. That said, the grandparents brigade was generous enough for ten babies, never mind just two, and our guys are way too young to understand anything that’s happening anyway. We’ll do a low-key second birthday I think, just family. After that, who knows. I do know that we plan to milk the joint birthday party for as long as they let us. I mean, twins are doubly expensive in every other part of their lives. We should at least get to save on the birthday party!

    • Clementine says:

      Um, I just went to a joint birthday party for twins. They turned 30.

      If you’re lucky, your fellas will be like these twins and be totally cool with joint parties forever.

  8. Our daughter is only 15 months old, so this isn’t really an issue for us yet. My plan is that, for as long as possible, we will throw her a backyard birthday party with family (not friends), and that will be the experience. We don’t tend to get her gifts for birthday/Christmas, unless it’s something we were going to get anyway. (This year, her “birthday presents” were under $10 worth of balls and bubbles from Target.) We’ll see how long it will be before other families at daycare start doing something more than that, and she wants to follow suit.

  9. NewMomAnon says:

    One thing I learned last Christmas is that I’d rather save my big exciting gifts for non-holidays, because the extended family give so many gifts that the kiddo can’t possibly enjoy all of them (and it was a little disappointing to have grandma outshine my carefully thought out offering with some junky piece of colorful plastic). My brother and I have winter birthdays that got absorbed into family holidays, so my family always did a small summer “half birthday” celebration – we did something as a family and usually got one big gift, and then clothes and books that we had grown into since our birthday/holidays. I might start that once kiddo is old enough to understand it. Right now I’ve learned that it just doesn’t matter. She is 18 months old. She is just as happy with a disposable foil baking pan as she is with a new tricycle. An hour at the playground is all the “experience” she wants.

  10. rakma says:

    DD’s birthday is in early December, so last year between her 1st birthday and Christmas it felt like a month of gifts, and her room went from nicely minimalist to over-full. I put a lot of things away, and we’ve just finished opening all of those toys, 8 months later.

    I’m hoping to avoid a birthday party this year. For her 1st, we ended up hosting a brunch at a restaurant, to appease all of the grandparents (and me, who did not want to host 25 people at my house). If anything, cake at each grandparent’s house, they can invite/entertain who ever they want.

    I’m thinking of asking the grandparents to fund Gymboree classes or something similar this year, rather than buy a bunch of stuff she may not play with (or that I’m going to have an urge to throw out in 6 months). We’ve also made wishlists of more sturdy toys (big wooden block sets, outdoor climbing toys, art desks) in the hopes that they’ll last more years/for more kids.

  11. We have a joint birthday party for my kids (just turned 3 and 5 and their birthdays are pretty close together), invite everyone in their classrooms, ask that no one bring gifts, and ask our parents to renew our children’s museum membership as their big present. We don’t have a lot of toys, and I am 100% fine with that.

  12. POSITA says:

    We tend to do age appropriate toys. Our dd is the first in her generation in both our families and we’re amongst the first of our friends to have kids so she doesn’t get hand me downs. The grandparents aren’t really interested in buying toys or clothes either. If we didn’t buy at least a few toys she wouldn’t have any. At this point she’s been outgrowing toys fast enough that she really is ready for new stuff each birthday and Christmas. I could see that slowing down as she gets older, but for now it works for us. This year when she turns 2 I thinks she’s probably getting a wooden train set, a balance bike, and a swingset from us as big presents. Over the top? Probably, but really we just want her to have age appropriate toys.

    • anne-on says:

      You might want to check your local parents group/Craigslist for the train set. We spent/were gifted easily $300 of Thomas stuff and promptly got about another $300 from the family next door with an 8-yr old boy who was so over Thomas. They take up a lot of space and I swear some parents will practically pay you to get them out of their house when the kids are over it.

  13. anne-on says:

    We’ve got the first grandchild on one side, and the first one in a while on the other side, so we’re suffering from an acute lack of hand me downs. We’ve done pretty well with asking for clothing/books as his birthday/Christmas gifts from family. I’ve also coordinated with my parents to do one major Xmas gift with input from us, the other side does cash for college funds and a small gift.
    For birthdays we do have a family party (at the house, very low-key) and we did the first ‘friends’ party at a gym nearby for all the daycare friends. I didn’t want a dozen excited toddler running around my house and it was reasonable enough that we’ll probably do something similar this year. The downside of having to invite the whole class was the boatload of presents he got. We allowed him to pick 3 and then donated the rest to the local children’s hospital where he had some surgeries. He remembered how much he liked getting a toy when he was released so that went over well with him, shockingly no tears about giving up toys. My parents and inlaws looked at me like I was the grinch until they saw the sheer volume of toys he got…and agreed a 3yr old couldn’t possibly need all that.

  14. shayla says:

    I still like to do a “party” for the kiddo’s birthdays and they are close enough together that so far it’s been a joint party so far. I like them because our family is busy and our friends are busy, but it is an “event” and people come, so you get to see them, see their kiddos, and enjoy some food. This year it was a brunch birthday (bacon on a stick was a huge hit), and perfectly timed about 2.5 hours long. It was awesome…except I wish the collective “we” could understand that when an invitation says “Please no gifts, if you can’t resist, then a book” (it’s a little bit longer and less sharp than that…) that parents really mean it and wouldn’t write it hoping you still give a gift. I almost don’t want to have a party next year merely because everyone still brought non-book gifts, which made the people who did not bring a gift feel bad :-/ And, my kids don’t need things–same universal generous grandparent “problem.” My kids want to play with your kids and I think enjoy having a mass, off-key version of “Happy Birthday” sung to them. I’ll admit, though, the books that were brought as gifts were just so thoughtful and have become some of our favorite bedtime stories. So, I’m happy those were gifted.

    • Carine says:

      Kind of similar, but we did a book exchange (noted as optional on the invitation in an attempt not to be too offensive/demanding) for our 3yo this year: everyone was asked to bring a wrapped new or gently used book, the books all went into a big decorated basket, and each kid picked one out as they left the party. We seeded the basket with a few books to make sure the kids could still all get one in case people didn’t participate, but somewhat surprisingly everyone played along and no one brought additional gifts! Minimized the haul for our daughter, took care of party favors, encouraged reading…it really worked out well and I think we’ll do it again.

      • Late, but can’t help but comment:

        This is a great idea! Especially since it takes care of party favors!

        I also had a friend who rather than discouraging gifts encouraged diapers, etc., and told everyone that the family would be donating them to a local program that provided items for low-income mothers and babies. It was a great teaching opportunity for the birthday boy, who personally had to give away all his “gifts.” I forgot about it but that is something that I would love to do, especially for really young kids who aren’t having friend parties yet.

  15. Philanthropy Girl says:

    Also timely for me – Philanthropy Baby turns one in a couple of weeks. We’re planning a small and simple family only party (no theme, no smashcake, no photographer, no endless loop of games, no candy buffet – just balloons and good food and maybe a sprinkler for the baby and his cousin to play in).

    We are doing gifts – one is a hand-made version of a much more expensive toy I wanted but couldn’t afford, and one a toy I anticipate him using for a number of years. PB is the second grandbaby, but is only a year younger than his cousin – so there aren’t many hand-me-downs, and living in a small town makes finding quality resale items challenging. We don’t have a ton of toys, so I’m okay adding one or two quality toys at birthday and holidays – typically things I’d want him to have anyway that I anticipate him using for a number of years.

    DH and I often do experience gifts for one another, especially for anniversaries or birthdays, so I would image this could become something we do with Philanthropy Baby when he’s a bit older.

  16. Burgher says:

    We have not done much for birthdays so far. We have been doing a bit more each year, as he seems to gain a better understanding of it. Our first is turning 3 in a few days and we’re having a Paw Patrol (his current fav) themed party with family and friends. We got him a few small gifts. We do so much all summer experience-wise, that I don’t feel like it’s necessary to do that at this point. However, when he’s old enough to be able to pick something like that, it sounds like a great idea.

Speak Your Mind