Here’s the scenario. You promise yourself — you pinky-swear promise — that you won’t go overboard buying holiday gifts. You want to have a simpler, more meaningful holiday. Slowly, though, you find yourself caught up in the hubbub of the holidays. Before you know it, you’re running out at the last minute to buy one more gift.

It’s hard to go against the beast of holiday gift-giving. Especially when it comes to giving gifts to kids. When their classmates share that they got a $400 gaming system, a homespun holiday is a hard sell. Plus, we want to see children joyful. Who doesn’t love seeing a child’s face light up when they open up a special gift?

All of our gift-giving takes a toll, though. Americans create 25% more waste during the holidays. That includes packaging materials, shipping boxes, wrapping paper, and more.

What to do when you still want to give gifts but also want to reduce your carbon footprint? We’ve got you covered. Here are a few ideas for eco-friendly gifts that your favorite kids will love.

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Tickets or Memberships to Family Entertainment

Sure, kids like unwrapping gifts. It’s fun to tear off the wrapping paper and open boxes. Even the most material-loving kids enjoy experiences, though. Sometimes they even value experiences more than things, especially if it’s something they get to share with others.

child watching fish through glass at an aquarium

Swap out a couple of plastic toys for these types of tickets:

  • Science museums
  • Movies
  • Children’s museums
  • Theatre productions
  • Amusement parks
  • Zoos or aquariums*
  • Adventure parks
  • Wildlife sanctuaries

For the gift that keeps on giving, go with yearly passes or memberships. If you use the passes for more than one visit, they’ll often pay for themselves.

*Not all zoos or aquariums work in the interest of animal welfare and wildlife conservation. Look for one of the over 200 AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums in the United States to be sure your local zoo treats animals ethically.


Compared to plastic toys that glut store shelves, books are a greener choice. There’s no danger of marine animals choking on little pieces of paper someday down the line. You can rest easy buying a special book or two for your favorite kids.

Want to double the green impact of your gift? Buy a book that celebrates the natural world or nurtures a conservation mindset. Stay away from doom and gloom books, though. You know the ones. Protect the Animals, They’re Dying or Meet Franki, the Last Fish on Earth. Go with something a little happier. Kids are already painfully aware of climate change. They don’t need to be staring it down when they should be enjoying the holidays.

Here are some inspiring, upbeat selections.

  • We are the Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom is about Indigenous stewardship and activism.
  • Greta and the Giants by Zoe Tucker is the story of Greta Thunberg told as a sort of fairy tale. A percentage of the sale price is donated to
  • Stuff by Maddie Moate is a kid-friendly take on how we make, use, reuse, and dispose of everyday items.
  • Finally, check out National Geographic’s First Big Books. The series includes books about different animals and habitats with stunning photographs.
Little Kids First Big Book of the Rainforest
National Geographic’s First Big Books series introduces kids to different animals and habitats. Image: Amazon

Jigsaw Puzzles

Power down the screens, sip some cocoa, and open up the puzzle box. Puzzles are a great activity that brings the family together.

Puzzles are pretty low-impact, too. Cobble Hill puzzles are recyclable and made from recycled cardboard materials.

Crocodile Creek has a series of nature puzzles that are designed to keep everyone happy. Kids can work on the mini puzzle-within-the-puzzle while the grown-ups work on the larger puzzle. A Crocodile Creek puzzle is a thing of beauty. You won’t be sorry to spend a couple of hours watching them come to life.

Crocodile Creek - Birds of Paradise Jigsaw Puzzle
Crocodile Creek has a series of nature puzzles that are designed to keep everyone happy. Image: Amazon

An Empty Box

This might seem like a strange gift idea but think about this for a minute. How many times have you heard a parent say:

I spent x number of dollars on a present, and all they played with was the box.”

Maybe we create the expectation for our kids that holidays mean endless gifts. Maybe a little silliness is in order.

What if you started wrapping one large empty box when your child was a toddler? It could become a family tradition as your kids grow older: Who can create the best game with the box?

Put your own twist on it. Leave a message inside from a far-away relative or snowperson or elf. Use the box to start a treasure hunt. Let your imagination — and theirs — run free.

This article was originally published on November 22, 2021.

By Mary McDonald

Mary McDonald is a freelance writer based in Central Massachusetts. After working as a teacher for many years, she now writes about mental health, wellness, and the environment. You can find her on LinkedIn.