Have Yourself a Tactile Little Christmas

Gift ideas for parents who want their kids to play the old-fashioned way.

Illustration by Ellie Skrzat

Illustration by Ellie Skrzat

Christmas is as close as I’m going to get to time travel. The fragile glass ornaments, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and Nat King Cole’s album of Christmas songs all transport me back to 1970s. I have pressed these traditions on my children. Usually they resist antique rituals, like those associated with keeping an orderly bedroom, speaking clearly to adults, and not interrupting your father when he’s telling another important story about life. But they do not resist the Christmas rituals. 

More important, they get confused during the holiday season and become open to other slow-moving events, conspicuously free of blinking lights, explosions, text messages, and Taylor Swift. They open the little wooden boxes in the Advent calendar and are content with the small things they find there. 

But then we ruin it on the big day with gifts that are directly in opposition to this pleasant burble of holiday life. The Xbox, for example, does not lead to family harmony. It leads to sibling fights, sullen mopes, and short dinners. This year, my son wants headphones. The big kind you can raise kittens in, so that he can listen to Skrillex and be delivered from our company even when he must temporarily be in it, like during long car rides. 

So the challenge over the last few years has been to find gifts that slip past their weakened defenses and introduce them to nondigital thralldom. The point is not to be a digital scold (I need opponents to play me in Company of Heroes) but that there are richer pleasures that come from patient focus and fumbling with tools that make a sound when you drop them. The hope is that they might actually become interested in these kinds of activities in a way that lasts beyond December. 

It has been a tricky spot to hit. If a gift is too complicated on the first day, the kids won’t stick with it. Too simplistic and crafty, and they’ll feel like you’ve sent them to some sad camp. You also have to know your child. Our introverted daughter loves making Nanoblock structures alone, but our son likes building models together. (As long as “together” means the parent is in the role of consultant and not manager.)

I asked around and found that other parents are overthinking their choices in the same way I am. Here (with a big assist from Facebook collaborators) is a list for parents trying to lure their children away from the glow of those little rectangles: 

Building structures: Everyone likes Legos, either the traditional blocks for free-form creation or the models that let you build everything from the power digger to the Millennium Falcon to the extravagant Mindstorms robot. Or Lego Architecture sets if your child is a little more refined. Melissa and Doug and Whitney Brothers sell old-fashioned wooden blocks that have actually been the biggest hit in our house, particularly when stacked as high as possible in a tower. Nanoblocks, the Legolike construction sets, are perfect for discrete creations on rainy afternoons like a Taj Mahal or Statue of Liberty that you can hold in your hand. Pitsco makes some wonderful balsa wood items, including a full house frame that you put together the way the Amish might. You can build all kinds of amazing things with balsa wood. Something very interesting also seems to be happening at Zometool too.

Maker projects: I’m intimidated by the technology-based do-it-yourself projects of the maker movement because the ramp-up process seems huge. However, this Elenco Snap Circuit set is a popular place to start. Makezine also has a cool gift guide with items for the beginner. If you spent some of your childhood in the little electronics bins at Radio Shack and burning holes in the shag carpet with your soldering iron, as I did, and want to pass on that tradition too, then there is a vast world of much more complicated projects. Start with Littlebits kits and then move to bigger challenges like Raspberry Pi and Simulink, the Arduino Starter Kit and the wonderful looking but daunting items for sale at Evil Mad Scientist. Also: The old-fashioned Erector Set has been updated and like Lego has free-form construction as well as specific models

Art, crafts, and cooking: This is a tricky category in which there are a million offerings but where we’ve had some disappointment: muddy pottery wheels that wobble the wrong way, beading projects that explode and leave hidden minefields for the bare feet. But there are success stories. The Spirograph gets universal praise. I don’t think we ever gave our kids a glue gun, but one found its way into our house, and it has been used in a lot of craft projects, some of them even sanctioned. Sculpey, the moldable clay, is an enduring hit. Cooking classes are also great because you get to enjoy the results.

Models and rockets: The Estes rockets combine all the edification of model building with the thrill of explosions. The key with models and rockets is making sure that their complexity matches the tolerance of your children. Also, with models, make sure you get a reputable maker like Revell. Otherwise the pieces will be off, and it will get frustrating fast. Here are some gorgeous Da Vinci models, including the ornithopter, the catapult, and the air screw. 

Board games: If you just want to spend more time together as a family, we have had success with the following, as have others who answered my call: Settlers of Catan is still the big favorite. Ticket to Ride, a train adventure game where you plot routes and travel the United States, was far better than I thought it would be. Cathedral is a turn-based spatial game like Blokus, but the wooden pieces are very pleasing to play with. Dixit is simple, fires the imagination, and has the advantage of being a game the kids can play but that’s also (wait for it) fun for the whole family. 

If none of these suit your fancy, here are a list of websites that carry these analog, more tactile kinds of toys: Young ExplorersMindwareThe Ottomus, A Mighty GirlMarbles: the Brain Store, HearthSong, aToyGarden, and Fatbrain. Also check out the TKSST Gift Guide.

My final suggestion is idiosyncratic: slot-car racing. When I was a kid, my brother built a vast AFX racing track with which he eventually let me play. It is my Rosebud. I can still remember its design in the attic—the lake, the mountain with the tunnel, and the straightaway where you could catch up to your opponent if you gunned it. I have a much smaller version we take out every Christmas. (It’s sadly been discontinued. The Long Beach Grand Prix is close but sold at antique toy prices; Carrera seems to be the slot-car brand of today.) The kids have to cooperate to assemble the fragile pieces of track. They can make it like the one on the box or go off-script and make their own configurations. They have to learn the tricks that keep the current going and how to repair the cars.  To race, you simply squeeze the controller trigger to make the car go. Too much and it flies off the track and you have to pirouette through the ribbons of track to retrieve it. Squeeze just the right amount at the right time and you are covered forever in glory that you will remember the rest of your life.

Disclosure: Slate is an Amazon affiliate; when you click on an Amazon link from Slate, the magazine gets a cut of the proceeds from what you buy.