Alternatives for Birthday Gifts and Party Favors

My kids have so much in the way of toys and games – proving it is indeed possible to have too much of a good thing. Not only do I worry that this makes it hard for them to learn the true value of things, but the ubiquitous toys and trading cards simply make a mess in a house that is already cluttered, and when the boys start arguing over a toy, then I’ve really had it!

So, this post on “Less is More” at My Modern Asian Family blog really resonated with me. I’m sure a lot of us can relate to this mom’s frustration with kids’ clutter, including the little plastic bags of little plastic toys that accompany a lot of birthday parties.

Over the years, my friends and I have tried a variety of innovative alternatives to birthday gifts and to the treat/loot/goody bags that are given out as party favors. Quick summary: for parties, you can try having no gifts, gift exchanges, donations, or gift/donation hybrids; for treat bags and gifts, think of some truly useful items or ones that can be used up and not leave a little trail of plastic crumbs…

As for the parties, I’ve been lucky that my kids have always been receptive to these alternatives. I explain that their birthday party itself is a gift and that they will still get some presents from their grandparents and aunts and uncles, and I haven’t had any arguments so far. I try to rotate the ideas around – sometimes we’ll do a standard party with gifts, especially if it’s small; sometimes we’ll do an exchange, and I plan to try the donations soon.

No Gifts
We’ve thrown several parties where I simply asked for “no gifts, please.” This works, though only to an extent. I think we are all so accustomed to bringing a gift to a birthday party that some parents don’t notice the request and others just really want to bring something for the birthday boy. This is very kind, though I do worry that it might be awkward when some guests bring a gift and some do not. If you try this, I would recommend putting it in big bold print and really emphasize it, eg. “Please do not bring a birthday gift. Our children are already fortunate to have so much, we would like to spend this day focusing on the celebration, rather than gifts.” A little cheesy but also to the point, you could add: “Your presence is your present.”

Gift Exchange
This is a favorite idea at our house. We’ve done both book and puzzle exchanges, in which each guest brings an unwrapped book or puzzle and each child takes one home. This can substitute for both the birthday present as well as for the treat for guests. You can let the birthday boy or girl pick first, so he or she still feels special, and I always put a few extra books or puzzles in the pile, so there’s lots of choice and a little bonus for the birthday boy. I find the exchanges get more universal uptake than simply requesting “no gifts,” because the parents all feel like they brought something. Another great thing about this idea is that a book or puzzle makes a more substantial and useful treat to take home, without breaking the bank for the party host… Though admittedly I have a lot fun with the treats and sometimes still do them.

Instead of birthday gifts and party favors, do a book exchange!  From Jewels at Home.

Instead of birthday gifts and party favors, do a book exchange!

We have some friends who have done a wonderful job throwing “pay it forward”-themed birthdays for their daughter. One year, they collected change in a jar to donate to charity; other years, they have collected canned goods for a food bank. Again, I think this satisfies people’s sentiment that they want to bring something to a party, and what a wonderful lesson for all the children! I’m ready to try this idea with the older boys, now that they are at an age where they can appreciate the concept.

Gift/Donation Hybrid
My friend Betsy co-founded this clever organization called Clover by Clover. You should check them out for the details, but the idea is that your child can pick a charity and a single gift. Then, people donate to a fund, and the money will be divided between the gift and the charity your child picked. What a good way to make your birthday child feel like they got a special gift while also teaching about the value of sharing.

Innovative Gifts to Give
No doubt, the kids love toys and gadgets, and I’m happy to indulge that for a special occasion. For those times I’ve felt like doing something different, here are some non-toy options that will still be fun for the kids:

  • Magazine subscription – There are lots of fun kids magazines that could be suited to a child’s interest, and we know kids love getting mail with their name on it. Some titles they might enjoy are Ranger Rick from the National Wildlife Foundation or American Girl magazine.
  • Adopt an animal – Almost every child has a favorite animal, and you can find an organization that helps these animals and make a donation on their behalf. Many have “adoption” programs where you’ll get a certificate and maybe some information about the animal and a small toy. Some examples are the World Wildlife Fund and the San Francisco Zoo.

Inspirations for Treat Bags
Into each birthday party, some plastic junk must fall, but I do try to minimize it. Here are some examples of great small gifts we’ve given or gotten at kids’ parties. My favorites are items that are  can either be used for a long time or consumed right away, so all my mommy friends will not be left with an unpleasant birthday aftermath.

Ideas for enduring party favors:

  • Cloth bags – I’ve decorated these cotton canvas drawstring bags/backpacks for several of our parties, and I know people often use them for taking toys on a trip or to a restaurant. I add an iron-on appliqué to fit the theme of the party and write each child’s name in puffy fabric paint. Kids love seeing their names on things! We’ve also received some of the larger tote bags from parties, and we reuse those for groceries or bringing toys to the beach.
  • High quality toys and books – I usually pick just one or two high quality things to give away rather than a lot of smaller items. Examples are the small paperback books, which I have sometimes found in the Target dollar zone, or the wooden-handled skipping rope I gave away at our Pioneer-themed birthday party.
Decorate cloth bags for a birthday party favor that can be put to good use.  By Jewels at Home.

Decorate cloth bags for a birthday party favor that can be put to good use.

Ideas for party favors that won’t linger and clutter

  • Healthy snacks – dried fruit or healthier types of crackers and cookies can make a nice addition to a treat bag. For our bug-themed party, I made these cute butterfly snack bags to go with the theme of the party. We also did a book exchange at that party.
  • Stickers or art supplies – these almost always get used up, at least at our house, so they make fun little gifts that won’t end up as immortal clutter in the toy bin.
Butterfly snack bags for a bug-themed birthday party.  By Jewels at Home.

Butterfly snack bags for a bug-themed birthday party.

So, for Modern Asian Mom and the rest of us drowning in clutter and tripping over small toys, go ahead and try some of these ideas for the next birthday party you give or attend.


Helping Kids Write Great Cards

A brief and belated post from Father’s Day.  I wanted to share the cards the kids and I made for hubby.  This is not an original idea for cards, but I really enjoyed trying it with the boys and look forward to using it for other holidays and birthdays.

We took each letter in “Father’s Day” and wrote an adjective or short phrase about hubby that started with that letter.  I think this project was good for helping the kids expand their writing skills. It was an easy template for them to create something more personalized and creative than a standard “Happy Father’s Day.”

Here’s the example I made:

Father's Day card idea for kids by Jewels at Home

Father’s Day card idea for kids

As you can see, our six year-old started with this concept – he wanted to write “awesome” for the “a” in “dad,” spelled it phonetically as “osum,” and then got sidetracked into other adjectives that started with unrelated letters. The result was very sweet.

Father's Day card by kids at Jewels at Home

Father’s Day card by our six year-old. He did all the spelling himself – “fantastic” came out a little more clearly than “awesome.”

Our eight year-old came up with some cute phrases as well as impressive vocabulary words.

Fun way to help kids write great cards at Jewels at Home

Our eight year-old came up with some sweet and creative words and phrases to describe his dad.

And last but not least, baby J’s contribution:

Baby J's card for dad

Baby J’s card for dad

Some other ways I would love to use this idea would be

  • Using the letters of a friend’s name for a birthday card
  • Finding words and phrases to summarize our year in a holiday card based on the letters of “holiday,” “happy new year,” “joy,” “love,”… the options are endless!

Buggy Birthday to You! Bug-themed Kids’ Party

It’s so rewarding to throw a kids’ birthday party. Children are so naturally exuberant about their special day already, and you can take your theme completely over-the-top, if you have the inclination, time, and energy!

Throwing a sixth birthday party for our middle guy earlier this year was especially fun, as I had been out of party mode for a while with the baby, and the birthday boy had finally emerged from his terrible 2-3-4s and was busy charming us again, so it felt great to celebrate him. He loves nature – it’s amazing how he will notice the smallest flower or animal and stop to point it out to us – so I wanted to do something with that theme. And I decided to do it at home, which is easier for preparing a lot of decorations and activities, as well as when there is a younger sibling’s naps to work around.

A bug-themed birthday was perfect for our little nature-lover.

A bug-themed birthday was perfect for our little nature-lover.

I did some searches on the internet and found Insect Discovery Lab with great reviews! They have also done presentations at our kids’ school, so I knew they would be well-received. There are other traveling bug shows, and even reptiles, but the latter was a bit much for my squeamish side. Even with Insect Discovery Lab, I had to wonder (but it turned out fine!)

Insect Discovery Lab put on a fun show for the kids!

Insect Discovery Lab put on a fun show for the kids! I watched from a safe distance!

In planning activities, I had in mind that I wanted to make the birthday boy a quilt. Long-ish story, but we ended up unexpectedly buying a class quilt for our oldest at the school fundraising auction a couple of years ago. It was definitely not premeditated, more like second-degree over-spending. In any case, having just bought a fixer-upper of a house, I had to tell our birthday boy that we would not be buying his class quilt this year (unless some form of auction manslaughter were to happen), but I promised him I would make him a quilt instead. I cut blank quilt squares for his friends to draw on using fabric markers, and I’ll be joining them into a quilt, hopefully some time before his next birthday!

Each party guest can decorate a quilt block - by Jewels at Home

Blank quilt squares for the kids to decorate with fabric markers.

The other activities were found at Oriental Trading: we had were insect tattoos – some of the older kids helped out with this – and suncatchers. I set up the tattoos and wet towels, and some of the older kids helped the younger ones get tattoos. The suncatchers were popular but a bit messy. I later read a tip to use markers, which would have been neater, though probably not as colorful. Next time, I would put them on individual paper plates for people to paint and transport home, because the paint does take several hours to dry.

Temporary tattoo station

Temporary insect tattoos. I provided some damp towels, and the older kids helped out.

Suncatchers from Oriental Trading Company

Suncatchers from Oriental Trading Company

Suncatchers from Oriental Trading Company

As I mentioned, for someone who works in a biology-related field, I’m pretty squeamish, and a lot of the ideas out there for bug-themed birthdays are a bit gross (think plastic bugs in food). So, I set out to find ideas that were more abstract and focused on the “cuter” insects like ladybugs, while not being too cute for a six-year old boy.

Some of the best ideas I found were those around Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar. It’s a bit young for the six-year olds, but it worked. These apple and cheese caterpillars were inspired by Cute Food for Kids, where there are many more great ideas. I dipped the apples in orange juice to keep them from browning during the party.

Hungry caterpillar apple and cheese snacks by Jewels at Home.

Hungry caterpillar apple and cheese snacks.

The cake was inspired by a beautiful one posted at Week of Menus. I loved the look and taste of the whipped cream and fresh fruit, and it seems healthier than a standard frosted cake, even if it is still, you know, cake. I used the same idea to make a baby shower cake with a ducky for my friend.

Whipped cream and fresh fruit for a bug-themed birthday cake by Jewels at Home.

Whipped cream and fresh fruit for a bug-themed birthday cake by Jewels at Home.

We also served farfalle “butterfly pasta” with cheese and hot dog-spaghetti bugs.


For the treat bags, I used these cotton drawstring backpacks, also from Oriental Trading Company. I’ve done this several times, and I think the quality has gone downhill a bit in the past few years, but they still make nice reusable bags. My kids often pack their “going out” toys and activities in here, if they need to be occupied at a restaurant or accompanying one of us to work for a few hours.

I used puffy fabric paint to personalize the bags and added iron-on appliques to fit with the theme. These iron-ons were adorable, but I actually did have some problems with them falling off with some wear from the kids. In the past, I used appliques made with fusible backing on plain fabric, which I outlined in puffy paint, and they held up better.

Drawstring backpacks decorated as treat bags by Jewels at Home.

Drawstring backpacks personalized as treat bags.

Iron-on insect appliques

Iron-on insect appliques

For the party favors, I lucked out and found some inexpensive bug-themed books and pencils. I also made little snack bags filled with cookies and dried fruit and pinned with a clothespin, to make the look like butterflies. I first saw the idea on this board on Pinterest.

Inexpensive finds for party favors

Inexpensive finds for party favors

Butterfly snack bags for party favors by Jewels at Home

Butterfly snack bags for party favors.

It turned out to be a very fun birthday party!  There are so many great ideas out there, and I didn’t have time to do them all, but I collected some more options on a Pinterest board that you can check out, if you are looking for ideas to do your own bug birthday party!