How to Have a Recycled Gift Exchange Your Kids Will Love

Looking for some light-hearted fun at your family festivities for the kids and the grownups?

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.”

Learn 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.

Call it what you want: White Elephant, Yankee Swap—or as it’s been called in the south around Christmastime, “Dirty Santa” (which just sounds wrong!).

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
  • Thanksgiving
  • 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.

opening gifts

Swapping makes this game exciting and keeps everyone paying attention as players open gifts.

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.

You Will Need

  • You can play this game with various-sized groups, with a minimum of 8 people. An ideal group size is 15-25
  • Each player brings a wrapped present (something they already own that’s still useable)
  • Host: Sheet of paper, cut into small rectangles; pen to number small slips of paper, one for each gift in the pile; basket, hat or bowl to hold the numbered paper slips

Preparation Time

The time it takes to wrap your family’s gifts, and 10 minutes for a child to cut and number the paper slips (one number for each gift)

Activity Time

Time varies according to the number of players; it probably will take about an hour for 15-20 people


A large, open room with chairs and floor space for people to sit, and a designated area for the gifts (fireplace hearth, table, corner, etc.)

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.

grandmothers hat

My grandmother’s formal hats were a standard gift for years. Each time one was received, it brought back memories of her. They continue to make wonderful dress-up accessories for the kids.

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.


The gifts start to pile up! When each person arrives, have a child add the gift to the pile.

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.

cutting paper slips

Kids love to be in charge of the activities. Letting them help will lighten your holiday planning load.

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.

number on paper

Be sure to write the numbers clearly—one for each player.

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!

put numbers in bowl

Make a number for each person who brought a gift to exchange.

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.

pick numbers

Hold the container over people’s heads so they can’t see the numbers.

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.
kids opening gifts

Got some unused camping equipment? Kids love flashlights, headlamps, lanterns and even lamps!

Alternate Rules

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.

opening a gift

Sometimes you open a gift that you really wanted. (Let’s hope no one swaps it!)

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!

funny gift

If you open a gift that, well, is just not your thing, you can always exchange it.

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.

boy with doll

My son with the doll he received. We display it proudly around the holidays because it helps us recall memories of our gift swap.

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.

man with tea hat

A tea hat was not on my husband’s wish list. Surprises like these make everyone smile and teach us that there’s more to Christmas with family and friends than the stuff we get.

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.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

About the Author, Robin Bermel

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 »

  • Jennifer Ballard

    Thanks, Robin! I never realized there were so many ways to play, or so many names for a gift swap. Thanks for sharing so many ways to get the kids involved and liven up the holidays.

  • Crystal Foth

    We’re doing one of these at work this week. I’d love to incorporate it into our family holidays – would take off some of the shopping stresses and keep it about fun and family!

  • Robin Bermel

    Crystal, Have fun at your work party. The first time I did this was at a holiday work party. It was a blast–sweet memories. I think you should try it with family too!

  • Robin Bermel

    Hi Jen, Lots of names–various ways to play it too. Pick your flavor and enjoy the memories. :)

  • Alison Caputo

    Robin, I laughed out loud with the picture of Char-char and the doll!! OMG so funny! I can just imagine the laughter when that came out & I love that you bring it out every year as a remembrance! We play this game every year but with a pie tin & dice and call it “The Dice Game”. Everyone brings something new ($5 limit) and then a white elephant gift if they want. We sit in a circle & put on the timer for 7-10 minutes depending on how many people are there. We pass the pie tin around & every shakes. If you get 7 or doubles, you get to pick a gift. No opening yet! If you get doubles, you get to shake again. We do this till all the gifts are gone. Once that happens, we open our gifts. Many get multiples gifts. Then the fun begins. We set the timer again for 3 minutes and pass the tin. Same thing but whoever gets 7 or doubles, gets to steal from another person so if someone didn’t get anything in the first go around, they have a chance to get something this time. It creates a lot of excitement for sure! But there is a chance that someone will go home empty handed. We always make sure the kids get something and generally the stealing is done from someone who has too much and can stand to lose something!

  • Robin Bermel

    Hey Stoney–I’d call that Vegas style! Too fun. I can almost hear the laughter. Thanks for adding to the mix. Let the games begin!!

Check out the Parenting Adventures podcast with Michael Stelzner
How to Have an Outdoor Photo Scavenger Hunt With Your Kids
How to Create Glow-In-The-Dark Bowling In Your Home
How to Create a Backyard Treasure Hunt, Minecraft Style
How to Make Slime: 5 Easy Recipes
How to Entertain Your Kids for Hours With Adventure Tubs