Giving the Gift of an Experience

By FCPS & Fairfax County Government
December 13, 2021

It is now December and the holidays are just around the corner. It’s easy to fall into the trap of making the season all about material things. However, research such as a University of Toronto study featured in Science Daily shows that it may be better to focus on special experiences and time with loved ones rather than the latest toys or gadgets. Giving the gift of an experience helps build on the positive relationship between the giver and receiver, as well as create a lasting positive memory.

Consider these additional reasons for gifting experiences:

  • When families spend time together with children it translates into improved performance in school and gains in social-emotional development including an increased capacity to understand, express, and manage emotions and to develop meaningful relationships with others.
  • Children’s brains are constantly changing. The conversations and experiences they have with adults help form the mental connections they need to understand the world around them.

The emotional connection from a great experience is unparalleled. Think about the excitement that comes with attending an event (e.g., a concert, play, athletic competition) or participating in a special activity (e.g., going out to eat, visiting a state park, bike riding through the city, ice-skating) with a loved one. Instead of fighting the crowds in the mall or shopping endlessly online for the perfect item, take that time to plan and experience a seasonal family activity. It could even be an activity that incorporates giving to others and cultivates gratitude.


“Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives. In the process, people usually recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside themselves. As a result, being grateful also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals — whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.

In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.” Harvard Health Publishing – Giving thanks can make you happier.

The good news is that gratitude makes everyone happier! Researchers have discovered that gratitude and generosity increase when experiences are given instead of objects. 

So, if you are wondering what activities you can do with your children to increase their gratitude or which experiences you can gift them in place of the latest video game or hottest toy, we have a few suggestions:


  • Write holiday cards for the military or elderly.
  • Thank mail carriers and delivery drivers. Create a sign thanking them and put a care box with items like water or snacks outside your door.
  • Deliver cards of thanks and goodie bags to local organizations that help others in our community such as police stations, fire stations, or hospitals.
  • Bake holiday cookies or other treats together to share with friends or neighbors.
  • Make ornaments and decorate the house together.
  • Make holiday presents for family and friends together.
  • Perform a chore (e.g., raking leaves, shoveling snow, delivering groceries) for a neighbor who could use the help.
  • Participate in a food drive.
  • Gather used clothes or toys to donate to others in need.
  • Choose an activity to participate in as a family for a good cause...such as a 5K walk or run.
  • Create a Kindness Jar. Every time someone in your family has done something to help others, write it down on a piece of paper and put it in the jar. This is a good time to reflect on helping others and how it makes us feel. You can watch the jar fill up over the course of the year. 
  • Volunteer in your community. Visit Volunteer Fairfax to find opportunities to give back to others.
  • Adopt-A-Family for the holidays.


  • A subscription for a book bundle, magazine, or busy box to read or assemble as a family. 
  • A board game or puzzle to do as a family.
  • Find a book to read together.
  • Register to participate in a class (e.g., cooking, making pottery) as a family.
  • Lessons or equipment to promote active participation in swim, sport, dance, music, etc.
  • Homemade gift cards for your child’s favorite outdoor activity.
  • Trampoline jump passes for the whole family.
  • Visit seasonal festivals or fairs.
  • Restaurant gift card for the family.
  • Local or national state park passes for a year.
  • Coupon for a day out for each child with a special relative such as a grandparent, aunt, or uncle.
  • Handmade museum passes. Many museums in D.C. offer free admission.

This article was originally posted as part of the Department of Family Services' Community Corner, where you’ll find timely information about upcoming events, parenting and wellness tips, programs and services, and more! Share these helpful posts with your friends and family. Don't miss out on future postings! Sign up today!

If you or someone you know may be experiencing a mental health challenge or crisis, text HOME to 741741 to reach a crisis counselor, call 1-800-273-8255 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or call 911.

The Healthy Minds Blog shares information related to youth mental health and wellness for an audience of parent, educators and community-based providers. Articles include tips and strategies for increasing wellness and resiliency, as well as fostering success at home, at school and in the community.

The Healthy Minds Blog is a collaborative project between Fairfax County Public Schools and the Prevention Unit of the Fairfax County Department of Neighborhood and Community Services. It is part of the Healthy Minds Fairfax (see below) initiative, designed to support emotional wellness in youth and families.

SUBSCRIBE to Healthy Minds and receive a quarterly digest of our most recent articles.