By Jennifer Hunter
Gifts for your family aren’t just about what’s in the box (although the box is thrilling for any kid). Child development and behavior specialist Betsy Brown Braun told us the best presents are also catalysts that help families spend more time together. She calls them “memory makers,” items that create rituals that make a lasting impression: “Experiences last so much longer than gifts,” she said. These 10 items (that kids can actually unwrap) all work for multiple ages and abilities, so the whole family can enjoy them and help foster that closeness.
Hoops for the whole family
An empty driveway is a missed opportunity. Any baller will go crazy over this Spalding NBA Basketball Hoop, and even less eager family members will enjoy a low-key game of HORSE on a summer evening. A basketball hoop is great for a solo player practicing three-pointers, but it’s also a chance for the whole family to team up and play together (Brown Braun said teams are an especially great bonding tool for siblings). This hoop has a solid base (which you’ll need to fill with water or sand for weight), and you can wheel it aside when you need to park the car. It’s regulation size, but it also lowers to 7.5 feet (from 10) so that younger kids won’t be left out. We saw cheaper hoops with plastic backboards, but this one is made from polycarbonate, which is stronger and bouncier (and makes for better rebounds).
A cloud-like hammock
When my young daughter resists her nap, I think, “Are you crazy, kid?” The only thing more luxurious than a regular afternoon nap is an outdoor snooze in a big, soft hammock, and the Hammock Sky Brazillian Double Hammock has room for two. (You may even get some actual conversation from your kid while the two of you are sitting head-to-toe in a hammock.) The canvas is soft but hardy—it has a lifetime warranty and can hold up to 475 pounds but still packs down into a small carrying bag. It’s also all cotton, so it should be easy to throw in the washing machine—key for an item that lives outdoors. Unlike the string hammocks we’ve tried, its breathable fabric won’t let your skin bulge through the cords and leave a grid on your thighs. If you want a hammock to take on vacation, we also recommend some comfy camping hammocks.
Scan the night sky
Stargazing is fascinating for every family member, but big telescopes can be cumbersome and pricey. Instead, try a pair of astronomy binoculars. They’re strong enough to get a close look at the night sky, but they’re easier for kids to manage and more comfortable to use because you can look with both eyes instead of squinting through one. One of our editors loves her Celestron binoculars and said they have “surprisingly good optics.” They’re also cheap enough that an accidental drop isn’t the end of the world (but still, use the included strap). If your arms tend to get tired, Celestron also sells a tripod adapter that can help you get a little closer to the true telescope experience. If you want more magnification or features, we recommend several full-size telescopes.
The perfect picnic game
The best games are the ones you can play while holding a glass of wine—just ask the Italians who invented bocce. It’s the perfect way to get your family outside, and a great game to play with multiple people. Almost anyone can roll a ball, and even young kids can understand the simple rules: Get your ball closer to the target than anyone else. The Perfetta Club Pro Bocce Ball Set includes everything you need. The weighty resin balls feel great in the hand, and the set comes with a 10-year warranty, so if one does chip while you maliciously knock your opponent’s ball out of bounds, you can get a replacement.
Movie night, upgraded
If your family loves watching movies together, treat them to the big-screen experience at home. A projector transforms any wall into a viewing surface, and our favorite budget projector, the BenQ MH535FHD, is the perfect size for a living room and a good choice for households watching their budget. It produces a bright image, so it’ll work even if you want to camp out with the kids for a matinee with the curtains drawn. If you want to take your movie night on the road—say, to a friend’s house or on vacation—we recommend the handbag-size Anker Nebula Mars II Pro, which is portable (and cordless) and has a decent-sounding internal speaker (you can also connect it to external speakers if you wish). Its battery survives for over three hours, so you’ll be able to get through a whole movie, and it has built-in streaming services, such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, which you can control with a smartphone app, so you don’t need to bring the remote along. We also have recommendations for projector screens to take that home theater experience to the next level.
A classic winter sled
Unwrapping a sled is fun for any kid yearning for a snow day. It’s also the ideal family gift, according to Brown Braun, because it encourages families to spend playtime together. You can find lots of cheap plastic sleds, but this toboggan is the best we tested. Its plastic is thicker and can withstand lots of trips down a hill, and it’s easier to grab anywhere along its edge (so there’s less of a chance it’ll slide away without you). It also comes in five bright colors, so everyone on the hill can marvel at your daredevil speed.
A multi-generational game
For inside play, Codenames is the best board game we found for groups. It’s an interactive word-guessing game, and it’s played in teams so you can pair parents with kids of different abilities to expose younger players to new vocabulary words. It’s also easy to learn, so your family can spend less time getting everyone caught up on the rules and more time actually playing. Wirecutter staff writer Signe Brewster said it’s a perfect cross-generation game—just as entertaining for grandparents as it is for kids (it’s rated for ages 14 and up, but we think even 10-year-old kids will enjoy it). If you have younger kids, Betsy Brown Braun recommends an old-fashioned game of Charades (here’s a refresher on the rules) because you can tailor it to topics (books, movies, or songs) that a little kid understands. Bonus: It’s free!
Endless ice cream
If there’s one thing that’ll get kids excited about cooking, it’s the knowledge that there’s a big bowl of ice cream in their future. We ate a lot of it while testing ice cream makers, and the Whynter ICM-15LS was our favorite. It’s less expensive than other models we tried, but it makes a smooth, luscious batch every time. There are no bowls to freeze or ice to crush—just add the ingredients, and the compact cube automatically churns and freezes the ice cream in about 35 minutes (which will still feel like an eternity to any kid). The texture of the ice cream straight out of the machine is similar to that of soft serve—which is delightful and totally fine to eat immediately—and melts quickly. You’ll need to freeze the churned ice cream for a firmer consistency. It’s a fun family activity with a sweet reward.
An up-close and personal bird feeder
You’re buying the birds dinner, but you get the show. This clear bird feeder mounts to the outside of a window (with strong suction cups) so you can get an up-close view of any hungry bird that stops by for a snack. It provides hours of entertainment for kids—and wouldn’t you rather have them glued to this real-life nature show than to the TV? It’s surprisingly enjoyable for adults, too. Add a bag of birdseed, and you’ve got an inexpensive gift nearly anyone will enjoy.
Don’t overthink it! Betsy Brown Braun reminded us that some family gifts can be just a collection of things you may already have around the house. She recommends making a “creation station,” a basket full of stationery supplies, hole punches, markers, and ribbon. “They [kids] love stationery,” she said. “Their store of choice is not Toys‘R’Us, it’s Staples.” Many Wirecutter staffers love using IKEA’s Råskog cart to keep supplies organized. (And we particularly like the look of this art-station setup from funwithmama on Instagram.) A gift like this is also an opportunity to teach kids about responsibility—Brown Braun suggests that kids be the ones in charge of maintaining the gift by putting the tops back on pens and packing up the supplies when playtime is over.
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