As a busy mom, I am constantly amazed how many clothes, books, and toys accumulate in our house. And of course, my picky toddler is ridiculously discerning, with his favorites that he's completely devoted to -- his red cardigan, Richard Scarry's What Do People Do All Day, and stuffed penguin. So I'm often donating or (thoughtfully) re-gifting the excess.
Not into a cluttered house and a floor full of toys? Here are some gift ideas for families that place experiences over objects, and which might even help to relieve stress.
Botanical Gardens Membership
Science has shown that being in nature, even in an urban environment, reduces stress. A membership to a nearby botanical garden is an easy way for families to escape the bustle of daily life without making a huge time commitment.
San Francisco Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park is a family-friendly choice, with a children’s garden and oodles of family programming, including crafts, story time, walks, and a summer reading club. The 55 acres and extensive collection of 8,000 plants create an oasis of calm. The daily 7:30am opening time is ideal for early birds — you can take in a few hours of greenery and still make it home for lunch and nap time without having to rush.
Admission to SF Botanical Garden is free for residents of the city, but a family membership includes children's book borrowing privileges and invitations to members parties that include live music and refreshments. My three-year-old son absolutely loves the summer Flower Piano event, in which pianos are placed throughout the garden for anyone to play, with scheduled performances as well.
In the East Bay there's the UC Botanical Garden in Berkeley, which has a large and diverse collection of plants that includes endangered species. The Japanese Pool with its waterfalls and waterlilies is especially serene, though oddly enough, in the early spring there are a lot of newts getting busy at this spot. I'm also a big fan of the Tropical House, home of the Corpse Flower and a bee colony.
For those in the North Bay, there's Quarryhill Botanical Garden in the Sonoma Valley, which just barely escaped the recent fires in October. In the South Bay sits Filioli, a country estate dating from 1915 with a formal garden in Woodside. On Sundays the road between Filioli’s entrance and north to Highway 92 is closed to cars so that you can peacefully bicycle, hike, or roller-skate. Further south is Hakone, another estate of the same period, but in the Japanese style where those as young as five can take part in zen meditation. There’s also origami and storytelling for the little ones.
Children's Museum Membership
While a membership to a museum filled with little kids might not seem the most tranquil gift, inspiring curiosity in children is definitely a wonderful thing. Aunts, uncles, or grandparents could also use the memberships to take the kiddies themselves, giving parents a break. It’s an opportunity to bond and learn through play.
One of the best children’s museums in the world is certainly the Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose. Housed in a very purple 52,000-sq.-ft. building designed by Ricardo Legorreta (known for his bright cubist architecture), the museum has over 100 exhibits and a new outdoor play space, giving kids a chance to explore outdoors and learn about nature.
San Francisco has the Children’s Creativity Museum in Yerba Buena Gardens. The hands-on museum has both animation and music studios and emphasizes media creation over consumption. The museum also has the gorgeous LeRoy King carousel from 1906 that was once part of Playland-at-the-Beach.
In the East Bay is Habitot in downtown Berkeley, which is great for very little children. Waterworks, the ongoing water exhibit, gives kids a chance to explore and splash, and the infant and toddler garden, a mural of plants next to foam structures for climbing, gives those under 20 months a place to safely explore.
The Children’s Museum of Sonoma County in Santa Rosa opened recently in 2014, but is quite the attraction for the 10 and under set. The museum has an outdoor playground and a crawler and toddler-only space (and for Peanuts fans, the Schulz Museum is next door). Sunday mornings are reserved for members only.
Yoga for Children
Yoga is a great way for anyone to relax and de-stress, as I’ve learned from my 94 year-old grandma, who has done yoga everyday for over 40 years — and from my six-month-old daughter, who loves our regular mom and baby classes at Yoga Alameda and Leela Yoga Studio.
I have a regular routine a couple mornings a week over at Zazen in Cow Hollow, which also offers flotation, meditation, and retreats. You can always book a class or treatment for your loved one online or simply opt for a gift card. They have a cozy fire in the studio.
For those who would like to introduce yoga to their little ones, there's It's Yoga, Kids over in the Presidio. Unlike many yoga classes aimed at the young that are for moms with their pre-walkers in tow, this studio has classes for newborns to teens and can include fathers and other caregivers. There are drop-in classes, class packages, and memberships.
Established in 1975, Yogalayam in Berkeley is well known for having postnatal and toddler yoga with childcare. They also offer classes for children up to 12.
Up north, Vibe Yoga Studios in Santa Rosa has two children’s classes, one for tweens (9-14 year olds) and another for kids as young as 4 years old. To the south is Mindful Ways in San Jose, which has parent and child yoga classes in addition to classes for those 4 to 7 years old and 8 to 12 years old.
A surefire way to improve your mood is to take a walk — even a short stroll around the block can give you a boost. Planning a hike with friends or family in the new year gives you a jump start on your resolutions too. There are plenty of family-friendly Bay Area hikes you can do with a stroller or baby carrier; I’m always taking my baby out to between Crown Memorial State Beach and the Elsie Roemer Bird Sanctuary. In the East Bay we love to go to Tilden Regional Park, which also has a small farm, pony rides, steam trains, and a carousel. Lake Elizabeth in Fremont is also a popular destination for us.
In San Francisco, there are flat trails and sidewalks at Crissy Field, plus beautiful views. Further north, Phoenix Lake in the Mount Tamalpais Watershed is easy to get to and has lots to look at, including ducks and turtles. To the south, Rancho San Antonio, a nature preserve in Cupertino, offers easy access trails for those with strollers or wheelchairs. There's also a small working farm and an educational nature center.
So where’s the gift in hiking? Besides making a donation to a local park in someone’s honor, you could go with the very practical, like getting the right permits for a particular hike, or printing out a map and figuring out a route beforehand. You could also get kids sun protection like a Sunday Afternoons Play Hat, which protects the back of the neck and has a sturdy brim, or Babiators, super cute sunglasses for infants, toddlers, and young kids.
Attractions for Train and Animal Lovers
For those who enjoy fauna more than flora, tickets to the zoo or a membership can be a good way of getting out. Contemplating the elephants or giraffes at the Oakland Zoo is a favorite pastime of many toddlers I know, as is riding the train in Adventure Landing, the amusement park portion of the zoo. Both being around animals and taking a quiet ride on a tiny train can be soothing. The San Francisco Zoo has no elephants, but it does have giraffes and rhinos. There's also a miniature steam train that you can buy tickets for online.
Many other places with trains for kids seem also to have petting zoos or farms. My son is enamored of Children's Fairyland over by Lake Merritt (though honestly, I find the attractions, based on children's stories, a little creepy). The colorful Jolly Trolly from 1954 is always popular, as is the Beatrix Potter display that includes enormous rabbits.
Another East Bay spot with animals and a real train is Ardenwood Historic Farm in Fremont. The train runs on Thursdays, Fridays, and Sundays from April 1 to the weekend before Thanksgiving, and uses open-air picnic cars.
There are excellent things to be said about Sonoma TrainTown Railroad, which was not damaged by the recent fires. On 10 acres, this minutely detailed miniature steam train from the 1950s takes 20 minutes to ride. They also have a petting zoo, a carousel, a roller coaster and a ferris wheel.