Awesome unschooling gift ideas

I can’t believe it, but we are celebrating the 18th birthday of our favorite unschooler in March 2018. She’s notoriously hard to buy for; while she’s got some interests and hobbies (hello yes please give her every tchotchke related to the Walking Dead and also she loves shirts so much her closet is scary), she’s never been into the traditional stuff that her in-school friends get for their birthdays and other holidays. So since the many parts of our own family are always asking, “But what does she need?” I figured there might be other unschoolers out there whose families want to find some great unschooling gift ideas.

Unschool Rules unschooling gift ideas guide: Games, toys, subscriptions, electronics and more

I’ve divided our list into categories, and while some of the games are specifically better for older kids or teens, and some of the toys are better for younger kids, most of the items here really span a wide variety of ages. That’s intentional – one of the best parts of unschooling is having interests that grow with your child, not things they outgrow each year!

All of these items are things we either currently own/subscribe to, or that we had in the past, and that we recommend as gifts for other unschoolers in your life! If you are a family member who saw this post and hoped I was telling you what Sarah actually wants, you can see her non-book wishlist and her book wishlist, and our family game wishlist as well.

Unschooling Gift Ideas: Games

Disclosure: This post has some affiliate links. I only link to things we legitimately use and recommend, so if you see such a link, it's because we really do believe in the book or item!
OK, this is probably the easiest one for me to start with. As a family, we love games – video, card, board, whatever. We almost always get a couple of new family games for Christmas, and lots in between as well.

I could easily list a few dozen of these, but I’m trying to limit myself to just a few favorites, and especially ones that have been interesting to us as unschoolers.


Why we like it: It’s hilarious, and it encourages reading, story-telling and yes, even some math. Also you can totally get killed by a duck. We also like this because it has some cooperative aspects, which we often prefer to straight competitive gaming. See more here.

Ticket to Ride

Why we like it: It’s geography, trains, strategy, and not hard to learn. We play Ticket to Ride Europe, because Sarah likes Europe, but we’d absolutely love to get some of the other versions as well. See more here.


Why we like it: The best way I can describe Lanterns is as a beautiful, calm way to spend your evening. It’s neat because it’s tied to another culture that we’ve gotten to talk about, and it’s super-pretty, too. See more here.


Why we like it: There are actually a whole set of Timeline games – American history, inventions, diversity, music and cinema, and more. We have most of them, and you can mix and match. It’s super-simple – you get a card with an event name on one side and the year it happened on the other, and you try to build a timeline by guessing where it goes between other events already played. Once you guess, you flip it over and see if you were right. You can play this competitively, but we also generally do it cooperatively, which we think is more fun. See more here.


Why we like it: This is a phenomenal game for creative people and those with a morbid sense of humor. The goal is to make your “family” of characters as miserable as possible and then kill them. Which, y’know, sounds horrible, but turns out to be hilarious. As you play modifier cards – “Was Terrified by Topiary,” for instance, you also get to tell a story about how that character came to be in such a situation. When we got it, I wasn’t sure our crew would be that into doing that, but we have all taken to it amazingly and have killed off our people in some very creative ways. See more here.

Escape Room games

Why we like it: We love doing in-person escape rooms, but they can get pretty expensive. When we realized you could get ones to play at home, we were hooked! They’re super-fun and a great way for everyone in the family to work together to solve a puzzle. See more here.

You can also see our current wishlist here – all the games we want but DON’T yet have!

Unschool Rules unschooling gift ideas - Escape Room game

We escaped the “prison break” edition of our Escape Room: The Game set! (The cats were actually no help at all.)

Unschooling Gift Ideas: Experiences

This is my absolute favorite kind of gift, because it doesn’t need to be stored in my house. No, seriously. I would take an experience over a physical item every day. Here are some of the ones we’ve loved most – and some of the ones we would love to give or get again!

Museum/zoo/aquarium memberships

Why we like it: We love museums. Museums are expensive for a family of five. Ergo, museum memberships make a good gift. We especially love reciprocal memberships, where you join at one place and get free admission to others. We did this through the North Museum of Nature and Science in Lancaster and the Lehigh Valley Zoo. We didn’t get to use them as much as we hoped, but it was still a big savings and encouraged us to go more than we would otherwise. We’d love to do this again, maybe with aquariums or history museums! They also are a family gift, so while they might be of particular interest to one person, everyone gets to enjoy.


Why we like it: Because music and performance are awesome! We have been to tons of concerts; most recently, Sarah, Dan and I got to see my hero, David Byrne, in Hershey, PA, and last fall Mom, Sarah and I went to see Celtic Thunder, which is an annual tradition. We also try to make sure we get to a play or musical or ballet a couple of times a year, either to support friends performing or to check out a huge production, like when we went to see Phantom of the Opera on Broadway.


Why we like it: If you think unschoolers can’t enjoy formal classes, you’re totally wrong. Sarah has done Lego camps, robotics camps, music classes, instrument lessons, art lessons, tae kwon do classes… and that doesn’t count all the things the rest of us do, from paint nights to my own tae kwon do practice to scrapbooking workshops to cooking classes. And if your gift is to share in a class with someone you love, that’s even better. My mom and I had a blast painting Van Gogh-inspired wine glasses one time, for instance!


Why we like it: So, the best gift we ever gave Sarah was a ticket to Walker-Stalker Con, a convention for fans of The Walking Dead. Maybe your family is into Star Trek, or anime, or comics, or jewelry-making, or stamp-collecting, or scrapbooking, or… There are conventions for all of those things. In fact, I’ve personally BEEN to conventions for all of those things! These make great gifts. Even if you’re not into the topic of interest, it’s amazing to watch your loved one’s face light up because they’re interested.

Unschool Rules: Unschooling gift ideas - durable sets of blocks

Unschooling Gift Ideas: Toys

You might think that at almost 18, Sarah would be past the “toy” phase, and in a lot of ways she obviously is. But there are some things that lasted well into her teen years and that we still enjoy (yes, we still buy LEGO!)

High-quality blocks

Why we like it: We bought the Melissa and Doug 60-piece wood block set when Sarah was 9, and we just finally sold it (still in great shape despite years of use) when we moved to our new house last May! Sarah loves the feel of natural wood, and we liked having some larger blocks to build big structures with. We wanted real wood, and something that was easy to store, and this was perfect. Same goes for the 150-piece Imaginarium set, which includes some bright colors, too. Super for imaginative play. See more about the larger blocks here and the smaller blocks here.

LEGO sets

Why we like it: Sarah has had LEGO sets since she was born, literally, since she inherited many of mine, and in turn, I’d inherited some of mine from my (8-years-older-than-me) nephew. Minifigures are probably our biggest specific LEGO love. They’ve worked out great, because we can act out almost anything. Reading Percy Jackson and the Olympians’ The Lightning Thief and need a Minotaur? WE HAVE A MINOTAUR. Suddenly need to replicate Godzilla’s takeover of Japan? WE HAVE GODZILLA. It’s pretty cool. And maybe just a little scary. See more here.

Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars

Why we like it: Cars are cool for any age. (Dan’s brother, Dave, and Sarah regularly swap favorite Matchbox and LEGO car sets as gifts). Sarah used to have “stories” made up for each of her cars, like how they’re in car school, how some like ice cream, how some are good leaders and more. And that’s not counting the fact that she knows what make and model each is for real, as well. See more here.

Unschool Rules: Unschooling gift ideas - Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars

Unschooling Gift Ideas: Subscriptions

Subscriptions, like experiences, are especially great gifts in our family because they mean we don’t necessarily have to store a bunch of “stuff,” and they extend the joy from a one-time opening of a birthday gift to something special every month.

Streaming services

Why we like it: You can’t give a much better gift than the gift of unlimited TV- and movie-watching potential. We started out buying individual movies through Xfinity’s On Demand, then got Netflix, and now also have Amazon Prime and Hulu. (We probably won’t keep Hulu once we get through our current series, but you never know!)

Ones to try:

Subscription boxes

Why we like it: Subscription boxes are one of my favorite things ever. Basically, it comes in the mail, it isn’t a bill, and I get to feel like I’m opening a present every month. How can you go wrong? (Also sometimes they contain food.)

Ones to try:

  • Artsnacks – New art supplies. You can’t go wrong. (This is one of the best gifts I’ve ever received.)
  • Universal Yums – Snacks from a different country around the world each month, with accompanying trivia and stories about the companies who make the foods.
  • Awesome Pack – New board and table games and a bunch more cool goodies.
  • Comic Bento – Comic books and graphic novels, including many that are great that would otherwise be hard to discover unless you live near a high-end comic store.
  • Any cheese of the month club – Because… cheese? (Seriously, this is the gift I keep wishing for!)

Unschool Rules unschooling gift ideas: Subscription boxes like Universal Yums

Unschooling Gift Ideas: Technology

Technology powers almost all of our explorations of any subject we can dream up. Some of these are big-deal gifts – like the Chromebook Sarah will be getting as an 18th-birthday present from her dad, Chris – and others are unschooling gift ideas that are super-simple and anyone can give.


Why we like it: Sarah is SUPER excited to get this as her 18th birthday gift. She loves to edit videos for Instagram, but she can’t post to Instagram from her computer and can’t type long captions on her phone. Enter the best of both worlds: A 2-in-1 Chromebook that can be folded and touchscreened for use like a tablet (and that runs any Google Play apps), but that can also work with a keyboard and mouse. See more here.


Why we like it: This awesome little robot is cute and smart, and feels like part of the family. (When he says my name I kind of melt.) He’s great for a variety of ages – our friends’ 7- and 10-year-olds like him, Sarah thinks he’s great, and the rest of us adults have fun with him too. See more here.


Why we like it: These were one of the first things Sarah got into when we started homeschooling, because she was adamant about pursuing an interest in robots and $20 was about the limit of my robot price range. They’re cute, fun, and give you a good chance to talk about how sensors work, as the different kinds have different “skills” like avoiding (or moving toward) noise or light, or avoiding table edges. See more here.


Why we like it: Something that promotes family activity, and that we can enjoy together? That’s a big win. Right now, Dan, Sarah and I all have Fitbit Charges (Sarah the original Charge HR, and Dan and I the Charge 2). We do weekly step goal challenges and can sometimes be found walking in circles around our house, affectionately called “NASCARing,” to get steps. See more here.


Why we like it: Seriously, if you want to give a great gift, give earbuds. We go through them like underwear in our house. Well, maybe not quite that bad, but it’s close. Sarah had really good Beats wireless headphones for a while, but when those met their end, we went back to SkullCandy earbuds, which are good and a lot cheaper. See more here.

Unschool Rules unschooling gift ideas: A Cozmo robot is fun for a bunch of ages

Gaming time

Why we like it: Video games are great, but many of the ones we like the most require ongoing subscriptions. Having the cost of those covered as a gift is awesome!

Ones to try:

  • World of Warcraft (Blizzard/ – This is easily Sarah’s favorite computer-based game, but it requires a monthly subscription in addition to the software purchase. The good news is, you can let it lapse any time and pick back up where your character left off when you renew.
  • PlayStation Plus – This is what allows you to play online multiplayer games like one of Sarah’s favorites, Destiny, on PS4. This is actually what she is saving up for herself right now!
  • Steam – Not officially a subscription, but if you give credit, your gift recipient can download whatever game they like from this great PC gaming platform.
  • Club Penguin Island – Subscription fun for the slightly younger set. Sarah was a member of the earlier iterations of Club Penguin for almost nine years and loved it the whole time.

Unschool Rules unschooling gift ideas: Fun things related to favorite TV shows (like The Walking Dead)

Unschooling Gift Ideas: Special Interests

This is my favorite gift idea, because it’s my favorite part of unschooling: helping my kid pursue her passions.

If an unschooler in your life loves something specific – whether it’s, like Sarah, a TV show like The Walking Dead, or whether they’re really into science, or they love drawing… whatever it is, if you can find a gift related to that interest, you’re golden.

It absolutely does not matter to Sarah that she has gotten three blankets featuring different Walking Dead characters, because she sleeps with all of them. She has a larger collection of Pop! vinyls than most mall stores, and it’s still growing. When you can give a gift that ties into a special interest, you’ll get a great reaction!

Your Unschooling Gift Ideas

I’d love to be able to expand this list! If you have great ideas for gifts you’ve received as an unschooling family, or that you’d like to receive, please comment!

Family Arizona field trip (via Pennsylvania, by road trip)

Note from Joan: This post comes completely courtesy of my fiance, Dan, who embarked upon an epic Arizona field trip adventure with Sarah, made notes about the whole thing and then wrote them up for Unschool Rules. He’s a keeper.

Unschool Rules: Family Arizona field trip for homeschoolers

Most of America’s really flat. In case you didn’t know. But some parts are nice and pointy.

Disclosure: This post has some affiliate links. I only link to things we legitimately use and recommend, so if you see such a link, it's because we really do believe in the book or item!
Originally, the plan was for Joan, Sarah and me (Dan) to head to Arizona to see my parents and my brother, Dave. When Joan’s mom, Sarah’s “Mommom,” fell and broke her hip in December, it meant that she needed to have some help at home, and Joan graciously volunteered to stay behind.

So Sarah and I spent the last half of December and the first part of January driving across the country, barely beating the snow one way and getting through a light dusting coming back.

We saw some cool things, we saw some weird things, and you’d better believe we stopped at Uranus, because everyone knows the best fudge comes from Uranus.

Driving from Pennsylvania to Arizona

Unschool Rules: Family Arizona field trip included a new stuffed wizard friend.

That’s Rivers the bear holding Merlin.

On the way West, we tried to keep a decent pace so it wouldn’t take us too long but weren’t rushing through by any means.

I think we made it all the way to Friendsville, MD, before we stopped at a roadside store that sold all sorts of knickknacks, and we picked up a wizard for the journey (his name’s Merlin, obvs).

Our very first night out we just about made it to Lexington, KY, and at the time there was a wee bit of a blizzard on the way. We just saw some snow blow across the road for about a mile, but the snapshot Joan took of the weather shows just how close we were.

Unschool Rules: Family Arizona field trip included a near-miss on some truly bad weather.

In a previous post, Joan mentioned what we found in Lexington:

In one cool story from their travels, while in Lexington, Kentucky, they found a bag of clothes and a blanket, probably left out for someone homeless. But no one was around, and the weather was bad, and they didn’t want it all to get wet. So they put it in the car, and then, when they made it to St. Louis, Missouri, they found a man asking for help on a median near a Starbucks and were able to give it all to him. So, if you’re reading this and you left such a gift in Lexington, know that it still helped, many miles away!

We tried listening to some podcasts to break up the monotony, but we didn’t really have any that were jazzing us up all that much, so at some point we switched to listening to The Walking Dead: Rise of the Governor. Sarah, of course, is a huge Walking Dead fan, so she really enjoyed the background information provided. I thought the story was interesting and really gave you something to think about, although the writing left something to be desired.

We went out of our way find interesting things along the way, though we also kept in mind that every five minutes we spent not driving directly west was 10 more minutes we’d have to spend driving to get to Arizona. We, however, could not resist Uranus.

Unschool Rules: Family Arizona field trip included a stop in Uranus, Missouri.

Welcome to Uranus.

It’s a Route 66 stop in Missouri that’s designed to make sure everyone in the family can find something fun to do. There’s a big store with all manner of tchotchkes and gewgaws to buy, but they also have a full candy store (hard candy and fudge). They also have a bunch of neat things on the walls, from legitimate taxidermy to oddities like a two-headed goat and a “real” mermaid skeleton. A big ol’ model train ran around the top of the inside of the store to keep your eyes moving and looking at everything on display.

Sarah was a big fan of the saloon building (the complex was made of interconnected buildings, and each was designed to look like a building in a Western — the saloon, the burlesque house, you name it), and we both liked the “funkyard,” which was a play area with cool old cars, a double-decker bus, and OH YEAH it was 15 degrees out so we didn’t do much by way of playing.

We stopped in Kansas City long enough to go see the new Jumanji, which was pretty dang funny. In Oklahoma City, we hit up a few antique stores, both to poke around and find some late Christmas gifts for my parents.

Arizona sights: Superstition Serpenterium

We were pretty wiped out by the time we made it to Arizona, but we had lots of fun once we rested up. My parents know all the good spots, so we went to the Goldfield Ghost Town in Apache Junction. It’s a campy little place with “authentic” Old West buildings, but what Sarah REALLY loved was the Superstition Serpenterium (which is a fantastic name, by the way).

Unschool Rules: Family Arizona field trip included a stop at the Superstition Serpenterium, owned by Calleen Dunbar.

At the Superstition Serpenterium, Sarah got to talk with owner Calleen Dunbar about her awesome collection of snakes, spiders and more.

The woman who runs the place, Calleen Dunbar, owns and takes care of all the animals by herself, along with her husband. She has dozens of snakes, lizards and other reptiles on displays, in addition to Sarah’s all-time favorite, the spider. Calleen was very gracious, and talked with Sarah for nearly half an hour all about different facts about spiders and hers in particular. Both Sarah and I were mindblown to find out that when the spider sheds its carapace after molting, it basically leaves most of what we consider a spider behind!

Unschool Rules: Family Arizona field trip included a stop at the Superstition Serpenterium, owned by Calleen Dunbar.

Nope. Nope nope nope. But Sarah loves spiders, so this was super-cool for her.

So we were both super interested in the spider’s exoskeleton, and spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to make one for humans (spoiler alert: didn’t work). So a big thanks to Calleen, and a big recommendation from us if you’re ever in the area!

Arizona sights: Tombstone

Another highlight of the trip was going to see Tombstone, Arizona. Tombstone has been made famous by the Gunfight at the OK Corral, and while there were lots of cool gunfight reenactments and such, the place we spent the most time at was the Birdcage Theatre. It’s the only building still standing from when Tombstone was a boomtown, having been built in the 1880s.

I think it’s hard for East Coast people to understand, but I still totally geek out whenever I get the chance to see something that’s been around for a hundred or more years. It seems kind of odd (since, on the East Coast, there are plenty of buildings that were around during the Revolutionary War some 200-plus years ago), but I lived on the West Coast until I was 25. On the West Coast, there really aren’t that many permanent structures still standing, since proper buildings that could stand up to the weather/earthquakes/time weren’t constructed until just shy of 100 years ago.

Unschool Rules: Family Arizona field trip included sightseeing at the Birdcage Theater in Tombstone, Arizona.

At the Birdcage Theater in Tombstone.

So I was suitably fascinated to see the booths that had the original curtains still hanging in them, as well as all of the old stuff. The Birdcage’s history is really interesting — they shut the place down and locked it up tight in 1889, expecting to come back in a few years … but it stayed closed until the 1930s, when someone else bought it. Luckily, enough time had passed that they realized the historical value of the place, so it’s been operating a museum basically since it shut down. That means there’s lots of detritus, clothes, furniture and the like from the original period.

Sarah, Dave and I went on a “ghost tour” of the place, where they take you around for a tour at night and then you sit in the backstage area for 20 minutes with the lights off. Our tour guide was very good, but I personally didn’t hear much that sounded like anything other than timbers creaking.

More Arizona sights

Sarah and Dave also spent a good amount of time just driving around looking at cars. Both of them are big fans of cool cars, and certain parts of Phoenix have pretty good spots for checking out expensive/exotic cars. (My favorite car story with Dave is when Joan and I went on a cruise with him and my parents and aunts last year, we drove through Laguna Beach, which has a few blocks just packed with exotic car dealerships that sell Ferraris, Bugatis, MacLarens, Lambos, you name it. We legitimately thought Dave, who had a heart attack a few months earlier, was having another one for a minute until we realized he was just struck speechless.)

Dave, Sarah and I also went out in the desert in my parents’ Jeep. (Sarah says going out in the “boneyard,” as it’s called, was her favorite part of the trip.) There’s a lot of off-road driving opportunities, even right next to the retirement community where they live. We even found some old bones (we assume cow) that we got to take home.

My mom, Sarah and I also took the time to go see Kartchner Caverns in the southern part of the state (coincidentally like half an hour away from Tombstone).

That’s another place with a really interesting backstory: Two guys were just out in the hills, looking for caves, when they stumbled upon this amazing cave system in the ’70s. They were able to keep it secret long enough to have the land owner sell to the state, so the state could step in and preserve the caverns while still giving tourists access. There are lots of rules, like not being able to bring cameras or even coats (because of the lint!), as the cave system is still “alive” and they don’t want to mess with the ecosystem.

Arizona sights: Bearizona

But all good things must come to an end, so eventually we had to pack up and head home. But first! Sarah and I wanted to stop just outside of Flagstaff at a place called BEARIZONA.

Unschool Rules: Family Arizona field trip included a stop at Bearizona in Williams, Arizona.

As the name implies, Bearizona is a wildlife refuge. There are two parts of the park — the first (and my favorite) allows you to drive your car through areas where different types of animals live. They have wolves, bears, bison and all manner of creatures (including some of the biggest crows I’ve ever seen. I would NOT have been surprised to see one swoop down and take off with one of the wolves).

It’s a little bit terrifying-and-awesome to see animals that large and dangerous that close. Some of the signs warned that the wolves and bears sometimes like to take souvenirs off cars (pieces of the bumper and what-not), so not to let them too close. DON’T WORRY, SIGN. We weren’t exactly planning on going for a stroll.

Unschool Rules: Family Arizona field trip included a stop at Bearizona in Williams, Arizona, home to some timber wolves.

They just wanted to sniff the car…

The second part of the park was a more traditional zoo-type experience. They had lots of animals (despite it being the middle of winter with snow on the ground) that were for the most part out and active. There also were two peacocks just roaming the grounds, doing whatever they pleased (mostly hanging out by the food court area hoping for food. Joke was on them, since it was closed).

The coolest and probably most unexpected part of Bearizona was the PANTHER exhibit.

Unschool Rules: Family Arizona field trip included a stop at Bearizona in Williams, Arizona, home to this amazingly large panther.

Bearizona is also home to this amazingly large panther.

That is a MASSIVE cat. It just looked so powerful strolling around its enclosure. Sarah and I were both surprised to see that you could actually see spots on its coat — despite looking all black, you can see slightly lighter black lines that outline its spots. You totally can’t see it in the photo of course, but it’s really neat.

Driving from Arizona to Pennsylvania

On the way back, we mostly just drove through, as we were in kind of a hurry to get home. We did switch off the Walking Dead (because, honestly, there was only so much murder I could stomach) and listen to Forging Haephestus, by Drew Hayes. Drew’s one of my favorite authors (mostly because of his Super-Powereds series, which just concluded).

This story gave Sarah and I the chance to talk about what it means to be evil, or a bad guy, and how sometimes being a good guy doesn’t stop you from doing bad things, and some bad guys are bad just because of how they’re perceived rather than who they are or what they do. Lots of opportunities to explore gray areas!

Also one of the main characters’ super power is he can summon items from video games and use them in the real world. So that’s pretty neat.

We managed to get home a day earlier than planned (though at about 12:30 in the morning), and it was nice to sleep in our own beds again. Sarah’s summation of the trip pretty much does it for me as well: “It was a lot of fun, we saw a lot of cool things and went to a lot of cool places.”