Fun, Unique, and Green Gifts for your Favorite Three-Year-Old

by - Sunday, December 02, 2018

sweet, blond three year old


So you have a three-year-old in your life you want to buy a present for. Maybe they are having a birthday! Or a holiday! Or maybe you just really love showering that cutie in love.

No matter what, one of the best gifts we can give kids right now is to take care of the Earth. According to the (terrifying) study put out earlier this year, we know that we really only have about 12 years to turn things around save this planet from absolute climate catastrophe. That means the little one you love won’t even be able to drive yet!

So really, the best gift we can give the kids we love is a future. There are lots of ways to do this and get involved, and one of those is to change our approach to shopping. Right now, Americans overshop to a shocking degree- never are we worse than shopping for kids, because we get large upfront reactions (for not much money). That said, our kids don’t need all this junk (in fact many studies show that less will help them be more focused and happy).

So how do we shift how we think about shopping for kids?

Buy Less. 

They don’t actually need all that many toys (and by three they have PLENTY), so you are better off getting one really excellent thing or skipping a physical gift completely and doing an experience gift instead. The fewer toys they have, the better they can navigate them and the more chance they have to actually use their imagination. Those toys might get a big reaction at first, but they will leave them in a pile forgotten for real play with you.

Another way to buy less? Make something instead! Ask yourself what you could make instead of buy.


Shop Secondhand. 


Are you in a Buy Nothing Group yet? These groups gift each other things freely, and if you have a kid in your life, they are basically a goldmine.

Last Christmas, we used Buy Nothing to fill stockings and probably saved hundreds of dollars. And kids don’t care if it is new (unless we teach them to care). Check your area for parent Buy/ sell groups, check out your local thrift shops, and go to Ebay before you go to Amazon. It will save you loads of money, and every thing you buy secondhand means you have kept one toy out of the landfill.

Buy Local. 


Shopping for things that were made where you are supports the businesses that employ your neighbors. It also minimizes the use of fossil fuel for shipping (which is HUGE and adds up- can you imagine how many trips from China it takes to fill the average stocking?). Stop buying things made in Elsewhere and track down American or secondhand choices. Fall in love with that gem Etsy.
Avoid Plastic. Plastic pollution is the burden that these little children will have to face someday, as it floods our water and land with chemicals. In my dream world, none of us would buy one new plastic item this year. Instead, find plastic toys secondhand or find wooden options. The less plastic we buy, the better.

Skip Fresh Plastic.


Those plastic toys of their favorite characters might seem like a great idea, but plastic is one of the greatest threats to our little one's bodies and futures. Every year, we get more information that connects plastics to hormonal problems and even cancer. We also know our poor Earth is being overtaken by plastic garbage. So if you want to do a character toy like that, track down something secondhand, and stop telling companies that plastic junk sells.

Take it Easy on Characters. 


My kids love them too, but they fall out of love with them as fast as they fall in. Daniel Tiger was the king of our house, and now he doesn't come up much. If you want your toy to last more than a month or two, get something that is a little more timeless and a lot less PJ Masks. Buying something with a character on it just cuts the life of the toy in half.

If you are going to buy character toys (and you will, because most kids this age really love some character) USE EBAY. You can find literally thousands of used gifts for Lightning McQueen, Frozen, Paw Patrol, anything. Check there first. Check Etsy second- you can find finger puppets or peg dolls that have their favorite characters without taking it out of control.

This post has affiliate links to Amazon and Etsy. That said, if you can buy something from a local business, that decision is much better for your community and for the Earth. This should give you ideas, but secondhand and local will do more good. 

Alright, let’s do this!


three year olds in muddy buddies on an adventure

1. An Adventure


The first real memories you have are probably from when you were 3 or 4. How many toys do you remember from then? 2, maybe? Odds aren’t great you are buying that toy, so instead focus on the memory and plan a ridiculously fun day. What would they think is amazing? What shows are coming soon? Sports games? Special hikes or picnics? Movies (how cool would it be to take them to their first movie? But you need to know the kids and their sensory flexibility well to take this leap).

More ideas? Take them to a concert. To a Museum. Take them to your favorite place as a kid. Buy supplies and have a fort-building day. Look what events are coming in the next year, and make your card a little book with pictures of what you will be doing. I promise you, it will be a huge winner.


2. A Class or Membership


Three-year-olds just want to learn everything. Everything is interesting, and we want to encourage that curiosity (not squash it with screens and super prescriptive toys). Consider getting your favorite little one a membership to a zoo or museum they love to visit with the promise of a date there together.  Another great option is art classes, camps, outdoor learning classes, swimming lessons, music classes, Gymboree, or dance classes. If they are sporty, you could help sign them up for a team too.

You know this kid- what are they into? How could you help them explore or expand what they already are drawn to? There is so much out there for them to learn and do. This is the perfect three-year-old gift.

Seriously, look no further, call the person who has to schlepp and schedule the kid, and sign them up.


3. Dress Up Clothes


Kids this age, regardless of gender, tend to love dressing up or pretend play. Last Christmas, my 3 year old’s gift from Santa was a (secondhand from Ebay) firetruck and a (secondhand from a thrift shop) fireman’s hat. It cost 40 bucks in all. That hat has probably been played with more than anything else in our house this year (partially thanks to a paw patrol obsession). You can find things at thrift shops (you can even grab extra costumes at kids thrift stores around Halloween) or even ask around, because people usually have some hats (or watermelons) they are ready to gift.

It doesn’t have to be a brand name character to be a big hit, but dress up clothes invite so much play and sets a moment apart as special. You can find anything you want for this gift secondhand.



4. A Space All Their Own


Lots of kids this age would appreciate a little bit of independent space, something just for them, and you can achieve this goal lots of ways. The teepee has been popular (they are all over Etsy)- honestly, it's not my favorite (I think fetishizing Native American culture for our kids is just weird) but I agree the appeal of a space like this is pretty undeniable.

My brother and sister in law sent our kids a circus tent that was a huge hit with our three-year-old. Because sometimes they want privacy. And even a simple tent can be a million different places with an imagination.I love these spaceship tents from suitedreamcreators.

This is also a perfect one to make if you are short on money. Do you have a closet that you could paint into a special space just for them? This firehouse understairs playspace is killing me with cuteness, but it doesn't have to be anywhere near that complex to be special. Get something super neutral and usable, or at least be open to them having their own ideas!

You could also try one of these diy forts from somemotherstuff,  There are even patterns to buy (even one for a bus) if you aren't sure how to start!

This also works great for backyards. We got a playhouse on Buy Nothing and kept it relatively neutral, with an open back. It is now most commonly used as an ice cream shop, but most kids who visit spend most of their time in that back house. You can do this too, even this time of year. Look secondhand (ask your Buy Nothing), because so many of these outdoor toys are outgrown long before they are out of life.

Another option? Time to do a big kid bed. We think practical gifts are no fun for kids, but anything (when framed the right way) can be super exciting and fun.


5. Building Supplies


Ok, these are not plastic-free or easy to get used, but I will be honest with you- our magnatiles get more use than basically any other toys in our house. They are super multifunctional, used for everything from making roads, to building houses; we have even seen some dinosaur designs. They are freaking great toys, but for that reason, they are near impossible to find used (four up on Ebay right now- get on that, friend). Parent to parent, totally recommended. As an environmentalist, I know it is slightly trickier.

Other building toys have also been very popular that you can find used easily. Lego has 206,000 used listings up on Ebay. Over 1,000 of those are for 3-4 year olds. You can also ask on local Buy Nothings or check your local thrift shops. They always have duplos. Legos might not be as easy to find, but you might be surprised.

If you want something plastic-free, I would highly recommend Mondo Bloxx. These are made in the US of cardboard, and I can vouch that they can handle a huge amount of abuse. Lastly, you can still find all sorts of wooden blocks secondhand, or check out these wood blocks from Blocksmith.

6. Art Supplies


Three is the magic year where kids start working on representational mark making- they can draw things you recognize (or at least they recognize). They are in a magic spot where nothing they make can be "wrong" and there is no real worries attached to making.

Clearly, we all have to take advantage of this moment. At my parenting best, we make or draw something almost every day. Lots of this doesn't have to be fussy- some printing paper and kids scissors (these are my favorite) can be hours of entertainment. Look what you already have but never get to using.

Secondhand can also be a great resource for everything from an arts table to supplies. I work at an amazing secondhand art supply store (Seattle Recreative) and gems like these are popping up all over the place.

There are also green arts supplies out there.

For Crayons,  Crayolas don't use any recycled material as far as I can see, but their crayons (not everything) are still made in the US, so they beat all other mainstream brands. If you want some recycled crayons, you can make your own. If that is too DIY for you, try recycled crayons (try Crazy Crayons) on Etsy, colour blocks, or the Eco-star crayons.You can also get vegan crayons, veggie crayons, or honey sticks from New Zealand, which are made of beeswax.

For Paper- Look for recycled paper instead of fresh. They can go through a lot- my favorite is the eco-kids art pad, which is 100% recycled post-consumer material. That brand is a gem, so I would check their stuff out (they have great clay too).

I also highly recommend just getting a big old roll of paper. You can let them paint all over it (and then keep it and use it as wrapping paper), and you will have it for their whole childhood. You can get kraft paper or white butcher paper.

For Paint- My favorite combination is crayons and gouache painting- it always looks beautiful, no matter what they make. Gouache is expensive, but you only need a dot of it (and a lot of water) so it will last a surprising amount of time. Crayola has a set of simple washable tempera, but those are small bottles, so I would probably recommend Prang's big bottles instead.

Wiki Stix- When I am not blogging shopping lists, I work as an art teacher. I have seen more tiny people lose their shit over Wiki Stix than any other item. They speak directly to the toddler soul. They are wasteful, but they will be a big hit, so buy a bigger wet with cardboard (not plastic) packaging. And they are made in the US. So maybe worth it to you?

I highly recommend an easel or chalkboard; as they write and draw so much, something that you can wash off and reuse infinitely is pretty helpful. Keep an eye out for one used, because they get retired long before they aren't useful.

7. Books


If you aren't sure, buy books. They are magic. Here are some of our favorites for this age. Buy them used whenever you can! So many of these have plenty of copies out in the world already.

Big Book of Bugs
Wonderbly's The Boy/Girl Who Lost Her/His Name (perfect for planting seeds on spelling without being overbearing)
Ada Twist and Rosie Revere
Pete the Cat I love my White Shoes
A Family is a Family is a Family
When God Made You
The Book With No Pictures
Press Here
I Spy: A to Z

You can't go wrong with books- they are just so curious!


8. Something to Ride


Tricycles, Cars, and more things to Go On cannot go wrong. They are big and balanced enough to be able to do these things without hurting themselves immediately. Now, it might take a minute or two.

To be environmentally-conscious, you can't do better than buying secondhand. Ask around on Buy Nothing or check out your local thrift stores. We got our Radio-Flyer tricycle at Goodwill, and it had years of life left in it. My Nana got a secondhand Little Tikes car 20 years ago, and that thing is still going. Seriously, you can't do better for the Earth.

If you can't find it new, I recommend Little Tikes, which still make some things (but not nearly all- CHECK) in the US. Radio Flyer's plastic items (not metal) are partially made in the US as well. Big Wheels are made in the US as well. None of these are perfect (did I mention buying used?), but they are better than shipping something from China.

Encouraging time outside is one of the best things you can do for any kid, so this can be a great tool in getting them outside and moving!


9. Trains


Kids this age can lose themselves for hours making long, elaborate train set ups. It's not completely universal, but more kids than not seem to love building tracks or running trains on them.

Maple Landmark makes their trainsets in Vermont, and they fit with most of the wooden (see:Thomas) trainsets. I know you are looking for an affordable, ethical, and American-made train set. This is it. And you can get Thomas engines secondhand at your local shop, or on Ebay.


Alright! These are our best ideas- what do you think the best gift ideas for kids this age are?



Zero-Waste and Eco-Friendly Gift Ideas for a Three-Year-Old


Want more shopping ideas for the kid you love? Here is a list of 70 Stocking Stuffers that are easier on the environment. Want more gift ideas? We have thousands! Check out the Green and Easy Gifts Page for sustainable gift ideas for everyone on your list. If you want more holiday ideas, check out the Green Family page.


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5 comments

  1. I keep hoping to get class memberships for my kids as gifts. I don't think the grandparents think it is as fun.

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  2. I love all of these ideas! So much fun. :) Thanks for sharing.

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  3. My youngest is only two but these are good ideas even for him.

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  4. Oh, Mama, you are of my tribe! I have worked very hard to NOT encourage my kids to think that Christmas should be all about the newest, biggest thing that we don't have room for in our house (or money for in our budget). For Christmas, they get things they need like new (to them - usually bought secondhand) clothes, new (to them) books, and crafting supplies or games. I buy almost everything for them at the children's resale events where I shop and sell every fall and spring. Once or twice they asked why we rarely have big "friend" parties for the whole class at Chuck E Cheese for their birthdays, or why they never get "big" gifts at Christmas. And I pointed out that instead of spending our money on things like this, we take them on a nice vacation once a year to a place their classmates have never been and probably never will go. They've been across the country, to national parks in all corners of the U.S., to Canada, to Mexico, to Puerto Rico, and will add Hawaii to that list next year and London/Paris the year after that. Once we tell them that we'd be happy to NOT go on these trips if they'd really rather have all the "things" their peers have, they quickly realize that they'd much rather we make the sacrifices we do so they CAN have these amazing experiences.

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  5. These are such a great idea. My husband and I started our thing with the kids that instead of spending it on gifts why not just do something fun. My kids love going to the park, a night at the skating , bowling or movie night. We try to teach both of the girls that Christmas is not just about gifts but fun with the family. Thank you for sharing this post.

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