This holiday season, skip the toys and clothes and gift your kids with character-building, memory-making experiences they'll love.

Child under the Christmas tree in Santa hat
Credit: CroMary/Shutterstock

When we cleaned out my daughter's closet recently, we found so many gifts of Christmases past that were barely touched, or, even in a few cases, left unopened. And these long-forgotten things weren't random presents that other kids or distant cousins gave her—they were once on her Santa list. So I asked her, "What was your favorite gift from last year?" Her response: The tickets to see Aladdin on Broadway that my parents gave her. And as we thought further about those "special" presents from over the last couple of years, only one or two of them were things (like a boxed set of the Harry Potter books) and the rest involved some kind of experience. So I've changed my strategy for this Christmas: While I'll probably pick up something from one of the Parents toy guides and a title or two from the 10 Best Children's Books of the Year, I'm going to focus on experiences like these:

See a show.

  • Touring Productions for Kids Ages 6 and Older: You don't need to live in NYC to see a Broadway-caliber show; many popular musicals (including some currently on Broadway) have a touring version with stops in at least a couple dozen cities. I'm seriously considering tickets to Rogers & Hammerstein's The Sound of Music when it makes its way to Hershey Theatre in Hershey, Pennsylvania in March. We're also going to check out the touring production of Into The Woods. Family-friendly Broadway touring shows include Finding Neverland, Matilda the MusicalThe Lion King, and Wicked; you can check out the schedules for all of them on Older kids would also enjoy Something Rotten!—especially if they’ve read Shakespeare in school. We've been able to snag discounted tickets to some touring shows on Goldstar. You might also want to consider an event with a single Broadway performer, such as the Broadway Up Close Series at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.
  • Musicals Especially for Preschoolers: Popular children's books are being turned into short shows that are appropriate for kids ages 3 and older. Some of my friends with little ones have raved about the touring productions of Pinkalicious, The Musical, Elephant & Piggie’s We Are In A Play!, and Peter Rabbit Tales. And your local community theater may put on A Year With Frog and Toad or The Musical Adventures of Flat Stanley.
  • Broadway Shows: If you live near New York City, take advantage of Kids' Night on Broadway. For each full-price adult ticket, you receive a child's ticket for free. You can buy tickets starting in December. Wicked, Disney’s The Lion King, Disney’s Aladdin, and School of Rock—The Musical are great picks for younger kids; Dear Evan Hansen, and Chicago are best for teens. If you can't make it that night, you can likely snag discounted show tickets using the TodayTix app. Unlike the discounted TKTS booths in Times Square which sells same-day tickets, TodayTix allows you to buy show tickets up to a week in advance.  
  • High-School Musicals: If Broadway shows aren't in your budget (or you're just not sure if the kids are up to one), test their interest at a local high school. Many schools put on musicals every spring. We saw an incredible high-school production of Mary Poppins last year—and the tickets were less than $15.

Visit someplace fun.

  • Family memberships to local attractions: If the grandparents are looking for a gift idea that covers everyone, encourage them to buy a family membership to your local zoo, science center, aquarium, or children's museum. A couple great things about being a member: You can stop by for an hour or two and not feel like you have to stay all day to get your money's worth, and you often get perks like free parking or invitations to member-only events. Plus, if you're a member of a zoo or aquarium that belongs to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, you may get free or half-price admission to other zoos/aquariums that belong to the org, which comes in handy when you're on vacay. (Check out its reciprocity program here.) The Association of Science Technology Centers offers similar deals. If you already have a family membership, consider booking a special experience such as a behind-the-scenes tour or even a zoo sleepover. 
  • Swim when it's snowing outside: As a birthday or holiday gift, a lot of my friends have bought their kids an overnight stay at one of the indoor waterpark chains. Great Wolf Lodge has 14 locations across the country. Kalahari Waterparks are open in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin, and Aquatopia, Camelback's new waterpark in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, was recently included in Parents 10 Best Water Parks story.
  • Give a gift card for a day out: Your kids might appreciate an experience that typically wouldn't fit into the family budget, like a pedicure at Sweet & Sassy, painting pottery at Color Me Mine, lunch at American Girl Place, admission to Legoland Discovery Center, or a session at BounceUPump It Up, or Sky Zone. A trip to the local ice rink or bowling alley would also be fantastic.

Catch a game.

  • Take them to the ballpark: Got a mini sports fan? There are nearly 250 minor-league baseball teams—and tickets to one of their games are a lot less expensive than major-league outings. Plus, there's usually a lot more between-inning fun.
  • See the Harlem Globetrotters: You don't have to know much (or anything) about basketball to appreciate their cool moves.

Go to a concert or special event.

Help them learn or hone a skill.

  • Pay for a new activity: If your child has been asking to take karate, dance, or music lessons, consider getting them as a gift rather than shelling out the cash any old time. They may appreciate it more! Just be sure it's something they really want to try, rather than something you'd like them to.
  • Look into a winter camp: Lots of places that offer summer camps have short versions over winter break. For instance, I've got my eye on a two-day winter break cooking camp at Sur La Table. It's a win-win: Your kids get to do something special and you don't have to worry about arranging childcare when they're out of school.
  • Book a special class: Kids ages 10 and older are probably old enough to appreciate the specialness of something like the Rockettes Experience in New York City (which includes a two-hour dance class and show ticket) or Meet an Astronaut Lunch at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Chances are, no matter what your tween or young teen's passion is, you'll be able to find an experience that they'll flip over.