How to Have a Recycled Gift Exchange Your Kids Will Love
Trying to keep holiday spending in check, despite a long list of loved ones?
Wondering what to do with that misguided gift or regrettable impulse purchase?
Dig it out of the closet and get ready to regift! Don’t let the kids have ALL the fun at your holiday gathering. Liven things up for everyone with a good, old-fashioned recycled gift exchange.
In this article I’ll show you how to wrap a great party, open laughter from people of all ages, get rid of the old and leave with something “new.”
Why Have a Recycled Gift Exchange?
Got STUFF? A recycled gift exchange will help you get rid of some unwanted things and have a blast in the process. True, you’ll exchange your items for other stuff, but you may end up with something you like better.
By any name, a recycled gift exchange is a fun and memorable event for everyone at your holiday gathering—young and old—and is a great way to exchange gifts without spending any money.
Our family has enjoyed this game for years. We play it every Christmas Eve.
Consider it for other parties too:
- Family reunion
- Holiday party at your workplace
- Neighborhood get-together
- Children’s party
In the past, our family holiday parties lacked magic. Sure, it was fun for some—typically for the kids. The adults would buy presents and the kids would tear them open. The adults made conversation and overate. The kids laughed and played. Occasionally, an adult would take pictures of cousins engaged in a game or new toy.
Does this sound familiar?
One year, I’d had enough of the children having all the fun, and decided to mix it up with a “Yankee Swap”—a game I’d learned about in New Hampshire.
The first year, only the adults played the game. We were surprised by the gifts, shocked by the swapping and in the process, we stirred up hollering and laughs that practically raised the roof.
Soon, the children dropped their new treasures to join the excitement.
Now we continue the tradition year after year. Adults and children enjoy the excitement of opening presents together.
A recycled gift exchange will bring families and friends together for a good reason—to truly enjoy each other and celebrate the moment.
It’s easy to organize and lots of fun, especially if you get the kids involved in the planning.
It’s easy to plan a recycled gift swap for your family gathering. Here’s how:
#1: Find a Gift to Swap
Be sure to tell everyone invited to your gathering about the recycled gift exchange. Give plenty of advance notice, so they’ll know not to spend time and money shopping for gifts.
You probably have potential gifts lurking all over your house. Let the kids help hunt for things to give away. It’s fun to find the gifts your family will contribute. It can also help build excitement for the party and show your children that parting with old stuff makes way for new.
Here are a few recycled gift ideas:
- Duplicates of anything you already have
- Gadgets or body care sets you received last holiday
- CDs or DVDs that you’ve tired of or aren’t to your taste
- Kitchen gadgets for foods you don’t prepare
- Tools for projects you don’t use
- Serving pieces, teacups, etc., you don’t have space for
- Gently used toys your kids don’t play with
- Vases, picture frames or other décor that doesn’t match your home
- Anything that’s nice, but just isn’t “you”
We often joke that the best gifts come from newlyweds. Often they receive wedding gifts that aren’t their style or simply won’t fit in a small apartment.
Keep your audience in mind when choosing gifts. Be careful not to regift something you received from someone who will be at the party!
Other gifts that don’t work well are clothing and shoes that only fit a specific size.
As the host or organizer, you may want to wrap an extra gift or two in case someone forgets to bring one or invites an extra guest.
#2: Pile Up the Presents
As guests arrive, choose a couple of children to receive gifts and deliver them to the designated space. This is a fun way to include the children at the beginning of your party.
Keep the givers of each gift anonymous. This will increase the surprise when it’s time to play.
#3: Draw Numbers
Once everyone has arrived, count the number of gifts. The number of gifts should equal the number of players.
If you prepared any spare presents, keep them out of the pile unless there’s an extra (giftless) person who needs one.
Cut paper into small pieces. Number the slips according to the number of gifts and fold to hide the numbers. This role can be delegated to an older child.
Tip: Draw a line under the numbers “6” and “9” to differentiate between the two.
Place the numbers in bowl or hat. Gather the players around the presents. Fill up refreshments and make sure everyone has a comfortable place to sit. The game is about to begin!
Ask a teenager or tall adolescent to walk the bowl of numbers around. Each person who brought a gift should choose a numbered slip. Hold the bowl high so no one can see a hint of the number before it’s selected.
There’s no harm in telling others your number. But keep your slip with you. This may seem obvious, but in the chaos of big gatherings, people sometimes lose their numbers and then forget them.
#4: Explain the Rules
There are many, many ways to play this game. Decide before the party which rules your group will follow. If there’s a dispute, honor the “house rules.” In other words, the host decides the rules of play.
When everyone has gathered, take a few minutes to explain the rules.
Review them quickly—people will be eager to play! But it’s important that everyone plays the same version of the game, so make the rules clear and decisive.
Here’s a list of rules we use in our family exchange:
- The player with slip #1 picks any gift from the pile and opens it.
- Once the first gift is opened, the player with slip #2 chooses a gift from the pile and opens it.
- #2 may keep the gift or exchange it for the first gift. (The person with #1 has no say in whether the exchange can be made.)
- Continue in numerical order until all of the gifts have been opened. Each time a gift is opened, the player may choose to exchange for any of the previous gifts.
- Once all of the gifts have been opened, player #1 (who didn’t get an opportunity to exchange in the beginning) plays last. That person may exchange with anyone. And the game ends.
There are many variations of play. Here are ways to mix it up:
- Set a dollar limit on gifts. You might ask people to bring gifts worth approximately $20.
- Use newly purchased gifts or gifts that follow a theme (ornaments, something handmade, etc.) instead of recycled gifts.
- Exchange before opening gift: Players can choose to steal any of the gifts previously opened or to open a new gift from the pile. Then the player who was stolen from chooses a new gift from the pile (or the person who stole the gift can select a new gift for the person who is now empty-handed—decide in advance how your group will play).
- Set a maximum number of exchanges per gift. A gift can only be exchanged one time (or three times, or whatever number you decide) and then it’s frozen to future exchanges.
- Instead of wrapping in nice paper, wrap in newspaper. This is helpful if you will also exchange store-bought gifts, as this makes it harder to distinguish between the two.
#5: Ready, Set, Swap!
Check your number and get ready to swap some funny old stuff.
Kids may surprise you with what they like. We have wrapped toys and kid-friendly gifts before, but found that they preferred that dated painting or bulky flashlight that was meant for an adult.
Hint: Small children enjoy this game, but their attention spans can wear out quickly. Select a number to play together with your little one. They can enjoy the fun during your turn but won’t have to sit still and wait for everyone else’s. And you won’t get annoyed when they get squirmy and distracted from the game!
This game is about the presence of family and friends. The beauty of this gift exchange isn’t about what you get rid of or what you get. This activity will create lasting memories.
Our family likes to take photos, but surprisingly, I couldn’t find pictures from nearly two decades of playing our Yankee Swap! I surmise that we were too engaged to fumble with a camera. We were fully consumed in the moment, so many of those moments are only etched in our minds as happy memories.
Some Final Thoughts…
You won’t always open a treasure when playing this game—and that’s usually what brings on the laughs. This game can help kids learn how to deal with disappointment.
A few years ago, my three-year-old son was excited to open a gift in a Batman bag. To his shock and dismay, it wasn’t something he expected or liked, so he sulked.
My aunt took pity on him and exchanged his gift for an unopened one (the rules of play at that house). His reaction when he opened the second gift and found a doll—a DOLL!—had everyone in our group roaring with laughter.
We have many stories from parties where we played this game that spring laughter. It has become a cherished part of our family tradition.
I hope it becomes a special tradition for your family, too.
What do you think? Does this activity spur special memories of times with family and friends? Have you played this game with a different twist? I would love to hear how you have enjoyed this game, and anything you did to make it extra-fun for everyone. Post a comment or picture of a gift you have received below.
Robin Bermel socially markets small businesses and serves in various children’s ministries. She especially enjoys feeding and goofing off with her husband and three, school-age children. Other posts by Robin Bermel »