Silhouette of a dad lifting his kid in the air outside

IOU: 7 priceless gifts for kids

The best presents are often things that can’t be wrapped or put in a box. Yet amid the frenetic rush of holiday gift giving, last-minute birthday hunting, and the countless other celebrations that now demand some flashy token of our love (Halloween, Easter, etc.) it’s easy to forget that the greatest gifts we ever give our children are the ones that come for free: love, time and attention.

So this year, as you struggle to choose meaningful presents from amid reams of plastic and junk – something that will bring a smile to their face, something that aligns with your values, something that builds family bonds instead adding to a landfill heap – consider doing something revolutionary, and in lieu of more stuff (or at least, alongside stuff) give a piece of yourself too, in the form of a simple IOU note.

Dad and son in a canoe

Maybe you promise to teach your child a new skill, like how to light a fire in the rain or how to paddle a J-stroke. Perhaps you set a shared goal of biking a century ride together or learning to roll a kayak. Or plan a special weekend away where they navigate, with your help, to a distant camp. Such uninterrupted time, spent together outdoors, is invaluable for kindling curiosity, building confidence, teaching independence and perseverance, and imbuing respect for nature and an instinct for adventure.

What follows are a few simple suggestions to get your own ideas flowing. Think of these as small acts of defiance. Or perhaps, the greatest gifts of all.

Dad and child skating outdoors on a frozen lake

IOU a phone-free day

Our omnipresent phones may be the greatest attention-stealing devices ever invented. So why not provide your child with the antidote: a hand-written coupon, cashable at any time, requiring you to leave your mobile device behind for one entire day.

Could you do it? Sounds scary, that’s for sure. What’s really scary is that going without a phone, for just a day, can seem so daunting. Of course you can do it! No one is so important that they can’t unplug for a day. So give your precious kids 24-hours of straight up, unadulterated, undistracted you. They will love it.

IOU a night under the stars

Camping doesn’t have to be an ordeal. No need to pack the car and head for the hills, your little one will be just as thrilled to sleep out in the backyard. Perhaps aim for August, at the height of the prolific Perseid meteor shower (it runs annually from July 17 to August 24). Or instead, maybe a new moon, when the stars are their brightest and constellations easier to identify. Maybe make it your co-mission to see the northern lights together (keep an eye on online aurora trackers and set out when conditions look promising). Whether you spot the elusive aurora borealis or not, your child will enjoy free reign to unzip the tent door at any hour of the night to peek.

Mom and two young kids in a tent on a camping trip

IOU tickets (to something, anything)

The Best of Banff Mountain Film Festival is a great way to kindle a child’s interest in wild places and adventurous activities. Or perhaps you’ll choose tickets to the local theatre, live music or a public speaker. The important thing is that you’ve got something marked in the calendar, together.

IOU five bike rides

Maybe you teach them to ride. Maybe you set a goal of riding 50km together by the end of the summer, and train towards it.

IOU every run on the hill

Why not a pledge (or challenge) each other to ski every run at your local hill together, marking them off, one by one, on a trail map taped to a wall at home? It doesn’t matter how long it takes.

Mom and child cross-country skiing together

IOU how to light a fire (or another skill)

Promise to teach them a fundamental skill: how to light a fire, how to paddle the stern seat of a canoe, how to safely use a knife or axe or how to read a map and navigate in the wild. Such skills build confidence and last a lifetime.

IOU shared lessons

If you aren’t confident teaching a new skill, why not enroll in lessons and learn together? Learn to surf. Join a climbing gym. Take a photography course. Climb a mountain.

Of course the possibilities are endless. Promise to read a book under a tree. Or have a picnic beside the ocean. Go beachcombing. Or bungee jumping. Plan an overnight canoe trip. Or a month in the high Arctic. It doesn’t matter, as long as it’s time spent together.

If you want to impact your child’s life for the better, whenever possible, choose memories, not stuff.

MEC Ambassador Bruce Kirkby
Bruce Kirkby

Adventurer, MEC Ambassador, author, columnist, photographer, family man – Bruce’s talents roam about as wildly as his adventures do. Pronouns: he/him.