Thursday, December 1, 2011

Kid-friendly Advent calendar ideas

The holiday season is here! It's time to start marking the sleeps till the big day.

Here are some fun ways to incorporate your kids into the countdown. Most of these suggestions are for Christmas, but many also work with other holidays and even things like birthdays — whenever your kids have a hard time waiting!

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Paper chain

This is an easy craft everyone knows that can be done with quite young children: Simply make a chain that's as long as the days you have left, and pull one off per day.

Put kids to work decorating the paper you use to make the chain, or let them pick out ribbons and pipe cleaners and old wrapping paper or recycled paper — anything that can be made into a loop. Older kids could help you count to 24 or do the cutting of strips.

Don't worry if your little one gets bored partway through the project, though — mine did!

Cutting out the decorated links Taping the links; you could use staples or glue.

Concentrating on the task — until he got bored and wandered off to play with decorations.
How many Christmases will he have those deliciously chubby cheeks?

Stitchery calendar

My mom made us our legitimate Advent calendar, out of a lovely cross-stitch kit. We tie candy to the ribbons for every day from December 1 through Christmas Eve. She recommends Tootsie Rolls, which we do have up this year. Little candy canes are cute, too, or you can swap out the candy for something your family can agree on, like these chocolate-cranberry sweetmeats at Give an Earthly.

When I was growing up, we used a felt calendar my mom had put together when my older brother was still a baby: a large green felt tree with 24 felt ornaments with hook-and-loop backing that stuck to it one at a time. My brother and I used to tussle to see who got to put up evens and who got odds, because the person with number 24 got to place the golden star on top.

If you're in a stitching mood, you can find a kit or pattern or idea to spark your creativity and fashion a keepsake that will be passed down for generations, the way that felt tree is now being used by my niece.

I love the vibrancy of this Alex felt kit, the elegance of these cross-stitch options, the ease of this quilting-ready fabric panel, and the unique star-hanging design of this Santa appliqué kit.

Check out the gorgeous one Sarah at Parenting God's Children is making, based on this beauty at Homemade by Jill:

Now that I know there's a pattern online I can follow, I might just have to bust out my felt-making skills!

P.S. If you're not a sewer, you could also buy one ready-made and pretend!

Mikko at 1.5, unclear on the concept of eating the Advent candy

Mikko at 2.5, unclear on the concept of hanging up the Advent calendar

Commercial calendars

Last year, we made the mistake of seeing the German chocolate calendars at Ikea sometime in November and buying one — the real mistake was that Mikko saw us do so. That chocolate did not last until December. The subsequent three we bought also did not make it to become true one-a-day calendars. (One hint: This year we will buy them at the grocery store instead of Ikea, since they were half the price there.)

If you're not a fan of chocolate for kids, another option I fell for at the local toy store was a Playmobil calendar: At the end of the Advent time, the kids have a little Playmobil set. Sam once again pointed out that Mikko has too many toys already, so I resisted, but I still think it's a fun idea. You can even reuse it from year to year, as Kelly at The Homeschool Co-op does, if you steal all the pieces back from your kids and repackage it or have them help you tuck each part back in its box in preparation. There are also LEGO Advent calendars as well as calendars geared more toward girls' toys. If your kids have a favorite type of toy, you might as well search to see if there's an Advent calendar that matches — but check the reviews online first, because some sound like a better value than others.

Lighting candles

An accepted method of noting the passing days or weeks in multiple religions is lighting candles. Hanukkah, of course, celebrates with a menorah. In the Christian tradition, an Advent wreath with four candles around the perimeter and a Christ candle in the center marks the weeks of religious Advent.

I always loved seeing the first candle get smaller and smaller and the staggered effect of the pink and purple candles burning down in order as we lit each in turn. Lighting the Christ candle took place on Christmas Eve and indicated the birth of the baby in the manger. (Talk about unassisted natural birth!)

Since having children, I've gotten squeamish about lighting candles, for two reasons, both to do with safety. Fire safety is a big concern with an active and curious preschooler around, and air health is another one. I don't suppose lighting five candles a year is going to pollute our home's air supply beyond measure, but it's still something I'm conscious of.

Fortunately, there are plenty of fake but still pretty candle options out there now that use LED lights. I know there are electric and battery-operated menorahs, and this year I've found LED Advent candles in the traditional colors, in both taper and tea light configurations. It won't have the staggered effect of real candles burning down gradually each week — but for these early years, that still might be the best bet. We can light real candles again when our little pyros can enjoy them safely and I can source out some new pink and purple tapers with (at the very least) lead-free wicks.

Family celebration

Our church this year handed out Advent booklets for us to bring home that have two suggested songs for the week as well as a daily selection of Bible readings. One song is a Christmas or Advent hymn, and one is a well-known children's song. The idea is to incorporate your kids into the worship, so when we slept through church on Sunday (ahem), we had our own little service at home. We handed out shakers and other percussion instruments (even Alrik got one to rattle and gnaw!), sang our songs, read a very small portion of the Scripture readings (antsiness was a factor), and ate some "Jesus bread" Sam and Mikko had baked for us. (That's what Mikko calls the bread they have for Communion at church.)

If you don't have a handily prepared booklet, you can actually buy one. But you could also just wing your own mini-celebration of the season, either weekly or perhaps over dinner or afterwards each evening. You can gear it toward your own family's belief system, whether that means Yule meditations, or inspirational readings for Kwanzaa, or simply a sharing of cheery winter songs and good wishes.

Other religious countdowns

You might wish to include other faith-based elements into your countdown.

I have to say, this KidKraft Chanuka Set
is so cool it makes me want to incorporate it into our celebrations! It features a toy menorah, dreidel, six coins, and potato latkes that are cooking. Add a board book and you have a Montessori-inspired and still respectful way to experience Hanukkah hands-on with little kids.

A Jesse Tree uses Christian symbols that correspond with Bible stories or verses. Here are the traditional ornaments to hang, which you can simply print out and then have your kids color. Cut them out, paste them onto cardstock, punch a hole, thread a ribbon, and hang one each day. You could prepare them all in advance, or one a day as you go. The tree itself can be a small real or artificial tree (the grocery stores often have miniature trees for sale at this time of year), a nice tree branch, or simply a swath of paper or fabric tacked to the wall. If you want to freehand your own symbols, here's a list of suggestions for each day along with related Bible readings. Here's Ann Voskamp's downloadable version. There's also an Advent ebook ($4.99) for families with young kids called Truth in the Tinsel. I've heard enough about it (but not yet read it!) that I've signed up to be an affiliate, because I'm like that. It's supposed to have an ornament craft and Christmas story reading for each day. {Edit for 2012: I have a coupon to pass along: Use code HOBO for 20% off!}

If you want to count down to Yule or Solstice, here's an online Advent calendar with pictures of Pagan holy places, educational tidbits, and inspiring poetry.

If your family has no particular faith, you could create your own celebration. Maybe you'll simply mark down the days till the (scientific) winter solstice and enjoy the promise of days growing longer (if you're adamant about no religious celebrations, here's a book your kids might enjoy!), or maybe you'll make a point to have a family movie night once a week in December to watch a holiday DVD. (May I recommend The Muppet Christmas Carol? We watch it every year, and now Mikko loves it, too!)


When Sam and I were still newlyweds, we had a tiny fake tree from Sam's high school days. One year, I decided to make an interactive Advent calendar, so I made 24 little baggies of surprises. Each day contained a card I'd printed out with a Christmas-themed Bible verse (because I am a dork) and a special prize for us to share. Mostly, it was just candy that we had languishing in a drawer, but it was still fun to divide it up for all the days.


Run DMT's amazing Advent calendar of surprises
I've been mightily inspired by Denise at Run DMT's Advent calendar as she's shown it off in Wordless Wednesdays (examples: Day 1, Day 7). She has a beautiful wooden calendar with tiny doors to open for each day, and inside is candy and a slip of paper with that day's surprise printed: Some are recipes to bake or special holiday treats to share (for you it might be hot cocoa or a favorite dessert); some are activities to do as a family (visit the holiday lights, celebrate the first night of Hanukkah); others are crafts for the children to enjoy. She plans most of them in advance by cross-checking the dates with their family's calendar (for instance, including scheduled parties as the activity for that day), and some she leaves blank to fill in with appropriate ideas as they come up. I'm so impressed with her ingenuity and the sense of wonder this very family-specific calendar must hold for her children. Wouldn't it be fun to open the door each morning and find out what fun new thing lay in store for the day?

This year Dionna at Code Name: Mama made it easier on the rest of us. She came up with a list of possibilities you can adapt for your own use!


Darcel at The Mahogany Way is doing a daily craft, inspired by a challenge over at the Nest. You can follow along and copy their ideas or come up with your own, geared to your kids' abilities and interests.

Christy at Adventures in Mommyhood has an idea to make 24 ornaments from homemade clay. If you poke a hole in the top and let them dry out, presumably you could hang them, too!

Container calendars

If you need a calendar that allows you to pop in little slips of notepaper with that day's activity, supplies for a craft, a sweet treat, or even a teensy gift, there are many options you can buy or make.

Some of the wooden calendars are gorgeous but pricey, but if you have a crafty touch, you can make your own from a base of MDF, such as this 25-drawer stack or this border of boxes around a central square, where both the boxes and the center could be brought into the decorating. You could even magnetize the central area and place magnetic figures in each drawer so that your kids can make a scene with each item as it emerges from its box, much like this magnetic Nativity calendar, or paint a tree and attach little hooks — each box could contain an ornament that hangs on the tree, such as in this calendar. You can see a crafty way to transform these cardboard beginnings at The Homeschool Co-op:

I also quite like the idea of combining magnets with little boxes, as in this tutorial on Buzzings of a Queen Bee:

It doesn't need to be boxes, either. This garland is unfortunately out of stock, but you could figure out how to craft your own:

I'm really curious to see the tutorial for this one from Emily at Embrita Blogging. It looks like a series of pockets, too:

Your pockets or garlands could be out of paper, envelopes, buckets, drawstring cloth bags, boxes with string, paper bags — anything that can hold something! And to hang them up, how about clothespins à la Sunday in bed?

If you need more crafty eye candy, feast on Pinterest.

If that's intimidating, you could go much simpler as well: You could make up twenty-four slips of paper with activities in advance and put the slips in a jar to have your kids pull one out at random each day. Or you could print them on little cards and tape them facing down to a big poster board calendar to remove one by one. Or punch holes in the tops, thread ribbon through, and hang them from the tree like I did!

You're also not limited to candy and pieces of paper. You could wrap 24 little presents and have a feast of gift opening all month long. Maybe one could be a CD of holiday music; one could be festive novelty socks; one could be supplies for that day's craft; and one could be the (shelf-stable) ingredients for a favorite recipe. They wouldn't even need to be new items, just lovingly wrapped and carefully doled out to enjoy afresh.

Another plus for putting together your own calendar — or spinning off one that you've found — is that you can add in enough little treats per day for each child (or child-at-heart), so there's no bickering over who gets the prize.

Basket of books

Someone last year mentioned that she puts out a basket of wrapped holiday-themed books, and she and her child open one to read each day. (Who were you? I'm way too forgetful!) At the time, I was thinking, I don't have 24 Christmas books! But maybe I could check some out of the library to supplement what I have at home. It's a cuddly idea for those dark winter days!

Monthlong buildup

Instead of taking away something each day, you could add on. Maybe you could come up with 24 holiday songs you love or want to learn, and sing one each day. Or you could pick a saying or Scripture reading (according to your family's beliefs) and learn a small portion each day, until at the end of the countdown, you have the whole portion memorized.

You could even decorate your Christmas tree this way, by picking out 24 ornaments (or per child or per person in your family, depending on the sizes of your tree and your ornament collection) to set aside and placing one decoration on the tree each day — perhaps finishing with the crowning angel or star.

Another fun idea would be to buy or make a Christmas puzzle with 24 pieces (or maybe 48, and give out two a day), and then slowly put it together. (Here's one that's not Christmas-themed but a nice big size, or you could craft one from wood and an actual jigsaw or simply laminated paper and scissors.) You might want to parcel out the pieces carefully beforehand to make sure they interconnect each day.

Using holiday-themed magnets or a magnetized Nativity-set on a baking sheet or the fridge, or felt figures on a flannel board, can be a great way to build a scene over the 24 days. You could also set up your child-friendly Nativity set by one piece a day if you have a big one, or one piece every other day or once a week if it's smaller.

Monthlong kindness

Along the lines of the activity-a-day, you could make all your activities outwardly focused, in the spirit of giving. You could each look for one small act of kindness to do for someone else every day, and you could prepare some charitable family activities in advance to support that, such as collecting coats for a clothing drive, cleaning out toys to give to Toys for Tots, purchasing a present from an Angel Tree, or preparing gift baskets for a local shelter.

If you want to pitch in to help someone else's project, how about Joni Rae at Tales of a Kitchen Witch? She's putting together baskets for the teen mom shelter who took her in when she was pregnant with her firstborn (the picture of her so scared in labor makes me cry!), and she could use some super-fast contributions. You and your kids could go shopping or crafting together to make some pretty things for these young ladies who are feeling very much alone this time of year.

I know I want to put some thought into what sort of Advent calendars I might create for future Christmases, now that we have two little kidlets to count down with! I'm already blueprinting a felt calendar in my head, and I'd love to decide on some activity-centric things to do as well.

Does your family have an Advent calendar? What's your favorite kind of countdown technique with kids?

If you have other fun Advent-theme links to share, leave them in the comments!

This post has been extensively edited from a previous version.
Amazon, Melissa & Doug, & Truth in the Tinsel links are affiliate links.
See my full disclosure policy here.


Hippie Housewife said...

What great ideas!

Instead of candy or gifts, we do a daily activity during Advent - some big, some small, some fun for us, some blessings for others, some indoors, some outdoors. Each activity is recorded on a sheet of paper, then folded into an envelope and hung, side-by-side with the rest, on a string on the wall. One envelope is opened each morning, and when the envelopes are gone, it will be Christmas. I blogged about it last year here:

Alicia @LactationNarration said...

We did a simple paper chain this year. Since we celebrate Channukah, Solstice, and Christmas in our house, I made different colors to represent the different holidays, so my kids can see when each will fall, and how they overlap.

Christy said...

I love all of these ideas and I feel SO HONORED to be included in it!! I love Advent/Christmas countdown activities, they are so fun. I want to try them all, ok well probably NOT the Stitchery calendar since my sewing skills are pitiful at best.
All of my kids except my oldest lost interest about halfway through our paper chain this year too lol.

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