15 Tips for Commercial-Free, Fun-Filled Holidays

Want to make the winter holidays more meaningful, memorable, and rejuvenating for your family? These tips will help you opt out of the commercial hype and create truly special (and sustainable!) celebration for kids of all ages. Less stress, less stuff, and more connection and fun – what’s not to love?!

Choose Presents with Presence

1) Create a different kind of wish list

Instead of material presents, encourage your children to request gifts of time, skill, experience, and connection — the best goodies any time of year — by making a wish list on New Dream’s SoKind Registry. Holiday gifts for kids can include museum memberships, guitar lessons, a contribution toward a special summer camp, and so much more!

2) Choose meaningful gifts

Tickets to a sporting event or puppet show, a weekend camping adventure, gently used (but still fun!) board games, or clothes for a homemade doll or stuffed animal are just a few great gift ideas for children. For tons more fantastic, meaningful gift ideas for kids, browse New Dream’s More Fun, Less Stuff Gift Catalog.

3) Select truly child-friendly toys

The best toys are 90% child, 10% toy. Open-ended toys that encourage creative active play are best: simple things like blocks, dolls, and balls! Leave toys with media characters, batteries, screens, and other flashy features on the shelf. And definitely avoid internet-connected toys, which come with big risks for kids’ privacy, creativity, and wellbeing.

4) Opt for second-hand toys or play boxes

Many classic toys can be found at yard or garage sales or on resale websites. With just a little clean-up, that toy could be as good as new! Or, instead of buying toys, consider creating Play Boxes – collections of small, familiar, inexpensive items organized by theme. Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment (TRUCE) offers creative ideas in their Play Boxes guide (and lots of other tips for healthy creative play and family fun in their other toy and play guides).

5) Customize a coupon book

Use New Dream’s printable Coupon Book to make a holiday gift for children that’s sure to deliver smiles. Some kid favorites include coupons to stay up 15 minutes past bedtime, enjoy dessert before dinner, and design-a-day (kids pick the activity, everyone enjoys the fun!). Because giving feels just as good or even better than receiving, encourage kids to create their own coupon books to offer help with things like folding laundry or assisting a sibling with toy clean-up duty.

Talk About It

6) Talk to kids about where our stuff comes from (and where it goes)

Help kids understand that a toy’s life doesn’t start on the store shelf, nor end when it breaks and gets tossed in the trash. From the resources that it takes to make our stuff to the landfills full of yesterday’s toys, there are impacts on people and the planet both before and after Stuff comes into our homes. The Story of Stuff  movie is a great conversation starter for older kids: it takes a closer look at what toys and other Stuff are made from, where they end up, and the costs they impose on communities and the environment every step of the way.

7) Make a family plan for your best holiday yet

At dinner or another family gathering time, take this 5-minute assessment from the University of Northern Iowa’s Reclaim Your Holidays. It will give you an opportunity to talk together about what you liked and didn’t like about last year’s holidays. Then, you can use what you learn to outline a holiday season that’s just right for you and your family.

8) Set limits to preserve essential time and space

Too often around the holidays, calendars become overbooked with events and to-dos, leaving little downtime to truly relax and recharge. And our homes end up overflowing with presents, adding to clutter instead of calm. Use New Dream’s Simplify the Holidays Calendar to build free time into your holiday schedule, and try using the “four gift rule” (want, need, wear, read) as a fun way to set limits on materials gifts in your holiday celebration.

9) Put down those screens!

Use that extra time off from work and school to savor being together, instead of in a constant state of digital distraction. Designate some days or times during the holidays to be screen-free for your family, and really put away those phones – research shows that just the presence of a phone distracts from face-to-face conversations! Use that newfound time to cook together, sing, play games, and start new family traditions. Bonus: less screen time = less exposure to ads for holiday toys = less nagging for whatever toy marketers have decided is a “must-have”!

10) Plan holiday activities that foster connection

Plan a slow, simple time with your child to explore a special interest, suggests Simplicity Parenting coach Christine O’Brien. If you have a sky lover, consider a cloud-watching date: learn about the different types of clouds, then go for a walk to take photos or draw pictures of the clouds you see. Or if you’ve got a fairy fan, use your creativity and tiny found objects to transform a potted plant into a fairy garden!

Spread Joy

11) What is joy, anyway?

Our consumer culture puts a lot of pressure on kids and families to pursue more Stuff, especially around the holidays. But with a little reflection, we might find that only a few (if any!) of the products we want bring us real, lasting joy, while the rest are quickly forgotten. Great for kids of all ages, the Story of Stuff’s short movie Happiness helps kids explore the question: does stuff = happiness?

12) Give a "share check"

Give kids the gift of making a difference! CCFC Board member Nathan Dungan suggests empowering kids to contribute to a cause they’re passionate about by giving each child a check with the amount filled out and the “pay to the order of” line left blank. Let your kids fill in the “to” field with the charity of their choice and feel the joy and value of their own giving.

13) Create a "givelist"

Flip the idea of a traditional registry or wishlist on its head by creating a GiveList on SoKind and offering to share your talents and generosity with family, friends, and neighbors. Does Mateo make a fine volunteer dog walker, but doesn’t have a dog to walk? Or maybe Bella would like to teach a younger friend how to play a song on the recorder? Or you’re pretty good with a camera, and family portraits are in high demand? Add these to your GiveList and watch community blossom!

14) Get relatives on board with "less is more"

Do you have family members who express their love with excessive gift-giving? Find ways to set limits and preserve relationships with clear, respectful, assertive communication skills. Avoid blame, stay calm, and be clear. For more details on how to do this (we know, it’s not easy!) check out Reclaim Your Holidays’ tip sheets on How to Express Love Without ‘Spoiling’.

15) Spread the joy!

Share this list of tips for fun, commercial-free family holidays on social media. Share it with your child’s classroom teacher, or send it to your PTA to include in an upcoming newsletter. Share it with a church or community group you belong to. Heck,  just tell people about it, no link required! All kids and families can benefit from more fun, more play, and less stuff – and when we share our meaningful holiday experiences, we can help others find theirs.