I have been wanting to write a list of gift ideas for children, that cost very little to put together (both financially and environmentally), and that can create huge opportunities for exploration and play.
All the suggestions are just the starting point of ideas. Children may like to use the components for all sorts of wide and varied projects and play, according to their own personalities and interests.
Sometimes you just know a child is going to love making use of a particular thing – other times, one idea leads on to the next. The most important thing is to let children lead the way ……… it makes the journey so much more interesting, if the destination is constantly evolving!
The following 14 suggestions are either things that I loved as a child (and an adult!) or things which were loved by the children in the ECE centre where I worked.
(Safety considerations are the same as for any other toys, and will depend on the individual child/children.)
1. A Mud Kitchen.
The children where I worked absolutely loved their mud kitchen! We put it together incredibly economically – mainly we just used what we had around the place.
We chose a shady area which wasn’t being used very much, and set up a few shelves with concrete blocks and wooden planks. We also added tree stumps, driftwood etc. Together with an array of pots, pans, plates, bowls, utensils ….. from opportunity shops and recycling centres – plus some water containers with taps, it became a fabulous area of unlimited play for the children.
If you wanted to give a mud kitchen as a present (with some great shaped parcels!), here are a few ideas –
- Find the components – maybe a few bricks and some pieces of wood to make shelving – or some tree stumps – or an old crate. Set them up somewhere outside (preferably somewhere shady), and then take a photo (or draw a picture).
- Incorporate the photo or picture with the items when you wrap them up. It will mean that children get a fascinating looking package, and they will have an idea of how the things can be used (sort of like when you buy a Kit Set item!)
- Some of the things could be left in the garden if size is a problem. You could draw a map to show where they can be found.
Opportunity shops and recycling centres are the perfect places to look for pots, pans, bowls, plates, utensils etc. etc. I have had so much fun over the years, searching for all sorts of things that would go well in the children’s mud kitchen. There is so much to be found, for very little cost.
Another great asset in a mud kitchen is a source of water. A container with a hole in it’s lid, is a great way to make a small amount of water last a long time. You can make a hole in a plastic lid by heating the end of a nail or a skewer, and pushing it into the lid. Be careful with nails, as the whole thing can heat up really quickly! Water containers with taps are also fantastic.
There is a fabulous link to a very characterful, and beautifully simple mud kitchen here. It turns a small collection of items into a magical setting for play.
You may also like to start growing plant cuttings so that children can have some greenery in their mud kitchen. Herbs are fabulous for this, as are Busy Lizzie plants and pansies. (Nov. 2018 – I’m just adding an extra note, as I see there have been problems with Busy Lizzie’s / Impatiens getting downy mildew – if you search on the internet, there is quite a lot of information available about this).
NB: it is possible that the “Mud Kitchen” may morph into something else (eg. a Car Garage) before it is even put together! If this happens, that’s great – what you are really gifting a child, is just the ‘Start of an Idea’ – where the parcel takes them once it’s opened, is up to their imaginations!
For hundreds of beautiful play ideas (including mud kitchens), and a lot of great information on children’s play – take a moment to visit ‘The HeART of Play’, a Pinterest page put together by Kimberley Crisp. For more information on Kimberley, just look on the internet! She does so much to promote the most fabulous free play ideas and experiences for children.
2. A Roading Project.
This is one from when I was a child! We had a big vege garden, and turned part of it into a ‘Village’. We had roads (compressed ground) going everywhere, houses (usually holes dug down into the ground with drives leading into them), car washes (tins with holes drilled into the bottom of them, and a piece of string attached to holes near the top, so that they could be hung up). Plus lots of bridges (pieces of wood), lakes (water in some sort of containers) …….. and so on!
To put this sort of idea together into a present, you could decide on an available piece of land. Make a sign attached to a stick that you could push into the ground, labelling the ground as belonging to the child/children. You could then set up a few bits and pieces – maybe some cars, a few bridges over some holes, something to dig with etc. Then take a photo, or draw a picture, and wrap up the bits + pieces, together with the photo. Include a map as well, so that they can find their piece of land!
The idea is for children to picture how the contents of their present could start coming together to make something exciting.
3. A Fabric Tent.
This is a total classic that is always popular.
Fabric tents made from sheets are very simple, but it can be challenging to keep the sides supported, especially if the wind is blowing. I found the following things helped a lot! –
- Make sure you have a strong piece of cord or rope to extend between two points, and pull it tight – I used a tree branch and a fence paling to tie the cord to.
- Use two sheets, one for each side of the tent, to make extra room inside.
- Peg both sheets securely along the top of the cord – make sure there is a good overlap for each sheet.
- Tie knots in the lower corners of the sheets, and also in the middle.
- Wrap twine around the knots, and then wrap it around a brick (or something else that is heavy) several times, and secure the ends. (or use tent pegs etc.)
- Put cardboard boxes along the inside edges of the tent – they will help keep the sides from sagging inwards too much. Banana boxes and wine boxes are great for this.
- To fix up any further sagging in the sides, sit clothes pegs on the outside of the tent fabric, then, from the inside, hold onto the peg, and twist it around. Once the fabric is tightened, wrap twine around the peg, and tie the ends firmly. This makes the tent sides much tighter, and it also makes ‘hooks’ for hanging things on!
To package the tent as a present, roll the fabric up and stand it in a basket, box etc. Include clothes pegs as well. Children may love to extend their tents with extra fabric additions (doors, new rooms etc) – younger children may find traditional ‘dolly pegs’ easiest to use for this. Wine boxes and banana boxes are so useful for storing and transporting all the materials.
Opportunity shops sometimes have great baskets for reasonable prices. Supermarkets often have lots of cardboard wine boxes near the checkout isles, they come in all sorts of colours and designs, and children can find endless uses for them! Banana boxes are fantastic too, and are often available in supermarkets, you usually have to ask for these.
Once again, it would be good to take a photo or draw a picture of the hut in place in your garden (or house) and include it with the present.
There is an awesome article about tent making here –
There are lots of additions for huts as well –
- something to make shelving from – cardboard boxes or a length of wood and a couple of bricks …..
- floor covering – old fabric, old curtains, blankets, towels etc.
- cushions, pillows etc.
- extra fabric to use as doors, curtains, decorations …
- some things to put on the shelves – maybe a few pieces of sturdy china from the op shop (cups, plates, curios etc!)
- An old book or magazine that looks like it could be the basis for some great imaginative play (maybe with some old maps in it!)
4. Vintage Linen.
There are some very beautiful pieces of vintage linen to be found in opportunity shops. Often there may be small holes or marks on them, but they are perfect for children who love linen and beautiful things, and sometimes they can cost 50 cents or less. There are also some great table cloths, for very good prices – including some awesome retro ones! These are perfect for picnics and for play in general.
5. Tea Sets and other curios.
These can be fabulous combined with the vintage linen (and huts, and maybe a Mud Kitchen as well!) Op shops are a treasure trove of old tea cups, plates, tea pots etc. Some may have chips in them, and this makes them even cheaper.
When I was a child, Mum gave me some old china dishes that I could store on the shelves in my tree hut. A few real treasures make all the difference! =)
You could package tea cups etc. with a basket, a tea pot, a table cloth ….. Cups and plates in different patterns often look great together, and they are cheaper if they are not in matching pairs.
Cable reels, crates and even strong cardboard boxes make great tables. These may need a photo with them if you are wrapping them up, so that children know what they can be used for. Once they are a part of their play, they will use them for all sorts of different things – depending on their interests and imaginations.
6. Miniature Bottles.
I have been making a lot of use of these lately. Some of them are very small, and very sturdy – perfect for a few tiny flowers. Daisies and buttercups from the lawn, pansies, lavender – all sorts of flowers (and ‘weeds’) look fantastic displayed in these tiny bottles. Some of them even start to grow roots while they are in the water – lavender is perfect for this.
Opportunity shops, recycling centres and some antique shops can be good places to find miniature bottles.
Including a photo, or a drawing showing the bottles with tiny flowers in them, would be lovely for children to see when then unwrap their present.
7. Small Plants and Seeds.
These can go really well with Mud Kitchens and Roading Projects! There are lots of plants that grow very easily from cuttings – Busy Lizzie’s being one of the best. They are extremely easy to get started, and they grow very quickly. Lavender is also easy to grow from a cutting – either straight in the ground, or else started off in some water. Pansies grow very readily from seed, as do marigolds.
These plants don’t need potting mix, just ordinary soil is fine. You can usually pick up free pots for growing things in (sometimes garden centres have a crate full of them). Recycling centres and opportunity shops are also good for interesting, eclectic pots. Pinterest is full of ideas for containers that can be used for growing plants.
Seeds can be gathered from anywhere. Pansies and marigolds seed prolifically, and are very easy to grow. You can make your own packing for these, rather than having to buy packets of seeds. Pinterest will have numerous packaging ideas!
8. Containers to hold treasures.
Op shops are perfect for these. Containers of all shapes and sizes, made from all sorts of different materials, are fantastic for holding collections.
Natural resources, and whatever other collections children may have, take on a whole new meaning and whole new possibilities once they are put into a great container. The sky is the limit here, you never know what is going to turn up next!
Possible collections are infinite – shells, sea glass, driftwood, buttons, lace, ribbon, seed pods …….
Now and then children may decide to return some of their collections back to where they found them, to make room for new things. It can be really satisfying, and interesting to return something to where you once found it.
9. Miniature World’s.
For children who love to dream about, and to create small settings, the possibilities are infinite. Looking at tiny objects up close, is fascinating.
If you are wanting to package the start of a miniature world as a gift, here are a few ideas –
- A piece of wood with a few holes in it, is a really good place to start. It means that children are able to stand things up – tree branch cuttings, flowers, seed pods, sticks etc. This gives a whole new dimension to the setting.
- Any sort of untreated wood is fine – driftwood, timber off cuts, tree cuttings etc. A nail banged into the timber, and then removed is good for making holes, if you don’t have a drill. Also a skewer is fine on softer wood.
- Gather together some small containers or drawstring bags, and include the beginnings of some sets of treasures (shells, tiny sticks, stones etc).
- A cloth bag, a kete, or something else to carry around, would also be lovely to include, so that children can easily collect and transport their own treasures.
10. Dolls sheets and blankets.
For children who love dolls and dolls beds, extra sheets and blankets are a lovely gift idea.
There are so many beautiful pieces of fabric around the place, and it is great to get them in use. Fabric serviettes, embroidered table mats, doilies etc. can make lovely linen for dolls and dolls beds. Old clothes can also be recycled as dolls sheets. Family members who love to sew, may be happy to make up some dolls sheets and blankets as presents.
I have noticed there are children who absolutely LOVE to layer fabric. Sometimes 20, 30 or even 60 sheets and blankets at one time – carefully laid one of top of the other! They can be used in so many different ways – inside and outside.
If you are looking for quick and easy storage ideas, wine boxes with one of the sides removed, and fabric handles threaded through holes in the side, may help. They may get squashed fairly quickly, but it is easy to make more! Some wine boxes fit perfectly, one inside the other – this makes them stronger, and also easier to store.
11. Fabric Squares (small square sheets).
Very much the same idea as with the blankets, but a set of hemmed fabric squares all the same size, can be really popular with some children.
Often children like to layer them, to arrange them on the floor or the ground, to display things on top of them …… They can also be a lovely addition to huts and to boxes of treasures.
12. Drawstring Bags.
These are another classic! We had them for our marble collections when I was a child, they were fantastic!
I have a sewing pattern for drawstring bags, and also for ‘shirt sleeve’ bags, which are very easy to make. Please let me know if you would like me to email the patterns.
Drawstring bags full of treasures (once again natural resources, lace, ribbon etc) or else just a pile of empty bags for children to fill with their own things, can make a great present.
13. Fabric Collections.
Old suitcases are wonderful for all sorts of collections, especially fabric, and they can add some magic to children’s play …
Scarves can often be found for very reasonable prices at opportunity shops, fairs, garage sales etc.
We had a really big fabric collection at the ECE centre where I used to work. The children loved to use the pieces of fabric and the scarves for so many different things – dressing up, layering fabric pieces one on top of the other – on boxes, on the floor, on each other, making huts etc. etc.
We also had a collection of very small cushions – all sort of different shapes, sizes, colours and patterns – you can see a few of them in one of the photos above. The long, narrow ones were always really popular!
14. Second Hand Treasures!
I spent a day visiting fairs, garage sales, opportunity shops and antique shops around the Hauraki Plains a few years ago, and this is what I found! ……….
I was looking for things for the children at work to make use of, but I also ended up with some great muffin tins for myself!
There honestly is no end to the awesome things that turn up around the place – it is so worth taking the time to search for interesting things that children will love to make use of!
The first time I ever looked up ‘presents wrapped in newspaper’ and ‘presents wrapped in brown paper’ on pinterest, I was amazed. There are incredible ideas there, it is definitely worth having a look! =)
Large presents could also be wrapped in fabric, to save on paper and to make things a bit easier.
……. I hope you have found a few helpful ideas. Odds and ends, from all around the place, can make the best presents =)
Please let me know if you would like any more information,