After attending several birthday parties in a row, it’s often a struggle to come up with original gift ideas. The last thing most parents want around the house is another plastic toy that breaks or gets thrown aside after a few uses. So why not give a toy that stands out, not because of a series of useless bells and whistles, but because it encourages learning, creativity, and confidence.

Here are a few gift ideas, all under $25 and all gender neutral, that require hands-on exploration and learning:

4 and older
Alex Finger Crayons ($15.00)
These unusual crayons are shaped like ice cream cones and designed to fit over a child’s fingers. What kid wouldn’t feel creative with a set of these on their digits? The package includes 24 stackable crayons perfectly sized for little hands and fingertips. Go to

A Better Breed of Crayon ($21.95)
When is a crayon not really a crayon? When it’s almost a pastel. These better breeds, unlike regular crayons, go on paper “silky.” The colors mix like oil pastel and can be wet-brushed for watercolor-like effects. The twist-up tube means no mess or waste – which also means happy parents. Go to

Tip: Go to a local hardware store and buy a large fishing tackle box. Fill it full of art supplies such as those above, and paints, brushes, pens, stamps, stickers, glue, and anything else you can think of that encourages expression with art. Decorate the box with the child’s name; it will be a huge hit and useful for years to come.

6 and older
Discovery Rocks Alive ($19.95)
Twelve real rock samples and all kinds of fun activities to teach kids a mini-geology lesson. They’ll also learn how to generate electric sparks, grow real crystals, and break open geodes. This kit makes exploring rocks cool. Go to

How to Draw Ugly Dolls ($16.95)
This kit teaches children how to draw the ever-popular Ugly Dolls. Included are five markers, pencils, a sharpener, four erasers, and a drawing pad complete with simple step-by-step instructions. But even if they throw out the directions, they’ll be fine – the idea is that there is no wrong way to be creative. After all, these dolls are supposed to be ugly! Go to

Tip: Go to your local toy store (or and buy a plush Ugly Doll to include in the gift.

8 and older
Design Your Own Soccer Ball ($22.95)
Who says sporty kids can’t be artistic, too? This unique soccer ball kit combines a child’s love of soccer with a fantastic arts and crafts project. The kit includes a hand-sewn, all-weather regulation-size ball, recognized by the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO). Using the provided nontoxic-specialized paints, paintbrush, pump, needle, and instructions, a child can create a one-of-a-kind ball, and then take it out to play. Go to

Make Your Own Chocolate Kit ($10.50)
What kid doesn’t like chocolate? This kit combines cooking with chemistry, world culture, and history. Inside, you'll find: organic cocoa butter, cocoa powder, confectioner's sugar, starter crystals, a temperature indicator, paper candy liners, instructions, and the story of chocolate. Yum! Go to

Tip: Buy a child-sized apron and have it personalized with the birthday child's name (also available at Wrap it in a box filled with child-friendly cooking tools (OXO makes wonderful ones that are great for small hands; for a large selection, go to Combine it with a "make your own chocolate kit" or "make your own gummies kit." Even more fun, throw in a few of your child's favorite recipes – it might encourage a budding cook to start collecting his own. Go to

10 and older
Hole-On Ex Paper Camera Kit ($20.00)
It seems impossible: making a real camera out of nothing but paper. This gift is sure to impress a young photographer. It’s also a great way to learn about the fundamentals of light, optics, and photography. In short, the Hole-On Ex is a make-and-shoot 35mm pinhole camera kit that comes with all camera parts printed on heavy, durable cardstock. A metal pinhole aperture is included. Simple and easy assembly requires only glue, a ruler, and a pencil. Plus, it can be ready for shooting in less than two hours! Go to

Tip: Add a roll of film to the package and a monogrammed photo album ( or a gift certificate for free prints at a local photo shop.

Tie-Dye Kit ($24.50)
All you need to tie-dye up to 15 adult shirts, or color jeans, socks, shorts, ties, and more. Contents include red, blue, and yellow pre-measured dye, four squirt (mixing) bottles, rubber bands, dye fixer, soda ash, and a pair of rubber gloves. No heating or measuring involved. Go to

Tip: Add some plain white t-shirts to the package!

Gift giving should be fun for the recipient, but it should also be fun for the giver! Shake things up a bit, and get out of your rut.