Great Gifts for Gifted Kids: An Updated Guide

IMG_7715Stepping on Legos with bare feet is a common parental gripe, to be sure; after my latest sole-piercing experience, I vowed that this year I would not depend on Lego sets as go-to presents for my boys.

That vow really got me thinking about what constitutes meaningful presents for children — gifted kids in particular. What would lead to open-ended play? What would foster their creativity and inspire innovation? What would help them develop their passions? What would create huge smiles that would last beyond fifteen minutes? And, most importantly, not ravage my tender feet at the same time.

For inspiration, I looked back at the 13 years we’ve been giving gifts to our children. I also did what I always do when puzzling through a challenge relating to my children: I consulted other Mackintosh Academy parents. I put all the information together to create:

(*This list is meant to be inspirational and open-ended—like the recommended gifts!)

The Experiential Gift:

Martha Lanaghen, MakerBolder co-founder and Mackintosh Academy parent, likes to give experiences that involve the whole family, such as Kids-in-Charge Day. “We give them a pass to make all the decisions for a day. Parents maintain VETO power but can only use it once each.” She and her husband also create scavenger and treasure hunts for their children. “This takes a lot of time, but is super fun. We make a series of puzzles that the kids have to solve, and then at the end of the hunt is a treat of some kind.” Martha also suggested letterboxing. From Atlas Quest, a letterboxing website, “Letterboxing combines artistic ability with “treasure-hunts” in parks, forests, and cities around the world. Participants seek out hidden letterboxes by cracking codes and following clues. The prize: an image from a miniature piece of art known as a rubber stamp—usually a unique, hand-carved creation.”

Other experiential gifts recommended by Mackintosh parents were tickets to museums of interest, plays, sporting events, and even passes to climbing gyms, laser tag, and other high interest establishments.

The Passion-Related Gift:

Helping children identify and develop their passions can be challenging. So, when they really show an interest in something, it is great to be able to support it.

Mack parent Sue Fagan likes to give gifts that relate to her daughters’ passions. I’m not allowed to spoil this year’s presents, but in the past Sue supported her older daughter’s passion for animals by “adopting” an animal in her name at a wild animal sanctuary. Because Sue also likes to include something hands-on/experiential, included in her daughter’s gift was a trip to the wild animal sanctuary to assist with their work and to meet the “adoptee.” When her younger daughter developed a passion for space, Sue gave her a telescope one year so that they could watch the stars together (including the star named after her daughter, which was also part of the gift).

Sue’s input reminded me of a birthday gift we gave to my middle son three years ago. While he doesn’t carry around Thomas the Tank Engine like he used to as a toddler, he still maintains a keen interest in trains. So as a Passion/Experiential crossover gift, instead of traveling to his grandparents’ house in the van with the rest of the family, I took him overnight on the train to our destination. Sleeping in the “roomette” bunk beds was his favorite part, though eating in the dining car was a close second. My favorite part was the uninterrupted time we spent together playing cards and chatting while the wintry scenery sped by outside the window.

For another idea, consider giving a series of lessons to provide the opportunity for a child to go deeper into a passion or to simply explore a new interest. Fabricate, a fabric store in Boulder, has Quilting for Kids classes; SparkFun, located in Niwot, offers classes relating to hi-tech building and electronics.

The Kit Gift:

Sometimes a passion or interest can lend itself to a great “kit.”

Several years ago, my oldest son was really into “exploring and surviving.” For Christmas that year, leaning heavily on, we put together an Exploring and Surviving Kit. It included a field bag, a pond net, survival and field guides, a pocketknife, and other survival items. (For those of you who have read Gone-Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright, the kit even included a red sock to mark a path. If you have not read the book, what are you waiting for?)

Last year, our youngest was really interested in magnets. We bought some small, sturdy plastic containers, Christmas stickers, and red tissue paper. We decorated and filled one container with several kinds of magnets we purchased at an educational supply store; we filled another container with various metal objects for magnet exploration. He was so excited Christmas morning, and the whole gift cost less than $30.

Since our kids love to draw, we’ve also put together Art Kits that included various supplies, sketchpads, and books on drawing and cartooning. (I recommend the Adventures in Cartooning series by James Sturm.)

If your children are interested in acting, how about a Costume Kit made up of fabulous thrift store finds? (That plus enrolling them in an acting workshop could really help your budding thespians develop their new passion.)

In-house Lab/Studio Gift:

Last year Mackintosh Academy created a Design Lab where students and teachers can innovate and create. A great gift could be an in-home version of a Design Lab. In our basement we put up an old card table and near it have shelves full of recycled materials plus a hot glue gun, tools, and tape. You could set something like this up after your children go to bed and then wrap up the first clue of a scavenger hunt that will end at the Design Lab. (Check out for great supplies and building materials.)IMG_4949

This would also work for an Art Studio, Science Lab, or Writer’s Desk. Or for your favorite avid reader, set up a cozy, new Reading Nook (a big pillow and lamp would do it), a pile of new (or new-to-you) books, a library card, and an appointment with a local bookseller to discuss “what’s new” in children’s literature. (Hint to my family: that’s what I want for Christmas.)

“Wrap it Up” Gifts & Games

Finally, sometimes you just need to throw something in a box and wrap it. All of the following were recommended by at least one, if not more, Mack parent—both hi-tech and low-tech options are included:

Settlers of Cataan (There are MANY iterations of this game.)




Ticket to Ride

Perplexus puzzles


Soldering kits from SparkFun (begin with very basic kit)

Snap Circuits



Little Bits

Mod Robotics Kits


MaKey MaKey Kit


Spot it

Story Blocks




Straws and Connectors




Rush Hour


Xoom Cubes


Think Its

Last but not least: Legos.

Yes, I’m recommending Legos, after all, despite my poor feet. As an alternative to the expensive sets, however, you can order Legos by the pound on eBay, and you can often find them on Craigslist. Decorate a new plastic bin and fill it with piles and piles of random Legos, and I guarantee hours upon hours of creative building and imaginative play.

Just make sure someone gives you a sturdy pair of house slippers.