Hardware Store Gifts for Toddlers: Durable, Useful, and Fun
The holidays are here again. Americans will spend over $1 trillion in the next month. Much of this will be on worthless junk whose only purpose is to momentarily entertain our kids. If we gave gifts that actually replaced "regular" needed shopping we could save resources while still bringing our kids joy. This year try heading to the hardware store for presents that are fun, useful and money saving.
Radio Flyer Wagon vs Gorilla Cart
One of the most traditional gifts you can buy a kid is a good old Radio Flyer Wagon. The one I linked here costs just under $140 and would let you pull a couple of kids around happily. Alternatively, you could spend just $60 to buy a Gorilla Cart with a max load rating of 600 lbs! This saves $80 and removes the need to buy a regular wheel barrow or yard cart. The Gorilla Cart is far more durable, as the wood sides of Radio Flyers have a tendency to break when subjected to abuse from small children. It also has a fun tipping feature that easily lets you dump whats in it. Kids love helping dump a bunch of mulch out with it and then climbing in for a ride. They'll also enjoy owning this useful thing and having adults ask their permission to use it. Honestly the joy they'll get out of that alone is probably more than the Radio Flyer would ever provide them. Why spend more on something that is less durable, less fun and less useful?
Toy Snake vs Garden Hose
I discovered this idea while my kids played around with some friends after school one day. The kids found one of those flexible hoses and were running around holding it pretending it was a snake. They loved slithering it around trees, through a bike rack, wherever. Why buy them a fancy 100 inch long stuffed snake for $40 when you could spend just $30 on a 600 inch long expandable hose? You need a hose for your house anyways, and if it can double as a toy snake all the better. Intense toddler play could put a hole in the hose, but this is unlikely and it'd still be useful as a toy and bigger/cheaper than the alternative. Sure your kids will have to use more of their imagination to turn the hose into the snake, but isn't this something we want to be encouraging as parents?
Actual Wood vs Expensive Block Set
You can easily spend $90 on this fancy block set. Or you could spend $9 on this 3 foot oak 2x2. Set up a stop block on your miter saw and cut that into 22 1.5x1.5x1.5 blocks in just a few minutes. You can buy a cheap saw+miter box for $15 if you don't already have a saw. Buy a 6 foot oak 1x2 for $6.58 and you can make another 22 .75x1.5x3 planks. That's just over 15 bucks for over 44 quality oak blocks.
A little more money gets you some sand paper and a few small cans of non-toxic wood stain from the store, the total will still be less than half the fancy blocks. For this project you may want lots of colors, instead of buying them all in big cans just get small "sample" size containers of each color for a few bucks from the paint store. If you've got a drill press you can easily put holes in these and add some rope or dowels to expand the possibilities of play. Bonus points if you get some older kids to help with this project.
Fancy Kids Step Stool vs Utility Stool
Another common kids gift is a small stool to help them get up to the sink in the bathroom. This is a truly great thing to have as it lets your kids become self sufficient sooner. Seeing a two year old climb up to the sink to wash her own hands is a beautiful thing. Just be careful, you could also see that same two year old splash water everywhere.
As far as stools go amazon has some nice little fold up stools for really reasonable prices. This one sells for just $9.50. The only problem with them is that they only work for a very small window in your kids lives. Another option is to buy a stool that will continue to be useful for decades to come. At $25 this 2 step utility stool costs a bit more than the amazon one, but it lets kids get up higher and is useful for adults as well. The only thing I don't like about it is that it can get in the way a bit because it doesn't fold up, but that lets it hold up a lot better when covered with toys, so its not all bad.
This recommendation is a closer call than the others. If you feel like the adults in your house are often in need of a step stool then maybe consider spending more on the bigger adult model. If the stool will truly just be for your kids then get the cheap one and pass it on to another family when your kids outgrow it.
Leaf blower vs Anything
The final recommendation I have is that your kid would probably love an electric leaf blower. There are corded models out there (like this one) that cost under $20! Think of how many kids toys cost $20 or more these days? Think about how utterly useless most of them are. These cheap electric blowers aren't the most useful but they can still do a lot of small jobs. They can blow dirt out of your car, dust out of your garage, and do some fine outdoor cleanup that brooms just can't handle. On top of that kids LOVE them.
Low powered blowers are actually better for kids because it makes them so light a 3 year old can hold them. Being electric you also don't have to worry about mixing oil, pull starting, or noxious fumes. Just be sure and give the kids some ear protection if the one you get is loud. Kids can blow leaves, sand, water, even their friends' hair. If you already have a battery powered mower then you might even be able to find a good deal on a cordless version that uses the same batteries (if you don't already have an electric mower you should really give them a look, they've gotten amazingly good the past few years).
Wait, How is This Green?
At this point you may be wondering to yourself "Why is a blog that's supposed to help me save money and reduce emissions recommending I buy a bunch of stuff I don't really need?" Well, you're right, if you want to be living your best life you shouldn't buy any of this stuff. With humanity rapidly approaching an amount of emissions that will disrupt civilization for centuries to come the best presents we can give our kids and grandkids are ones that will reduce humanity's overall emissions. But, not everyone is ready to become an eco-hermit yet. I accept that few families are going to give their kids solar panels and heat pumps for Christmas. These would indeed be awesome gifts, but they're pricey and kids can't really play with them. So instead I tried to give some more realistic gift ideas.
My hope with this guide is to help get people thinking about gifts that can be fun and replace some other form of consumption at the same time. It's an added bonus that these gifts also save money, which can eventually pay for larger improvements like solar. While you're at the hardware store you can also spend some money to cut your home's energy use. You will almost certainly save money and energy by buying LED bulbs, attic insulation, weatherstripping for doors and windows, window pane insulation, and spray foam for all the holes in your home. Maybe wrap these things up and put them under the tree for the adults in your life too?