17 Best Gifts for Holiday Bonding 2020

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Solve a crisis with the whole fam

Pandemic board game in mid-play
Photo: Michael Hession

Pandemic ($35 at the time of publication)

This is the perfect board game for people who like to lean into their generalized anxieties instead of avoiding them. Pandemic (appropriate for ages 12 and older) is a cooperative board game that binds the players against the mechanics of the game itself—in this case, a pandemic ravaging the world—rather than pitting them against one another. Each player has a role uniquely suited to fighting an unseen pathogen: a medic who can treat the disease quickly, a scientist who can research a cure, a CDC-style contact tracer who moves these players around a map of the world. Working together, you make decisions about where to spend your resources while trying to stop the virus’s spread from city to city. The most valuable Pandemic lesson? You’re far more likely to win when you work together toward a common goal.

Irreverent fun for parents and preteens

Exploding Kittens board game.
Photo: Exploding Kittens

Exploding Kittens ($20 at the time of publication)

Exploding Kittens, a card game that’s sort of like a cross between Apples to Apples and Russian roulette, treads lightly between family fun and just-on-the-right-side of inappropriate. Pick up an “exploding kitten” card from the deck and you’re out—unless you have a “defuse” card, such as catnip or a laser pointer, that keeps your kitten safe from harm. We think it’s a silly romp, great for kids between the ages of 8 and 14 and easy enough to play that you can still keep an eye on your holiday dinner. In short, it’s the perfect game for picking up and putting down as you fill the little moments before and after meals and other family traditions.

A good ol’ whodunit

Codenames game mid-play.
Photo: Michael Hession

Codenames ($15 at the time of publication)

Codenames is among the best board games we’ve found for groups of adults (with or without young children). It’s an interactive word-guessing game played in teams, so you can pair parents with kids of different abilities to expose younger family members to new vocabulary words. It’s also easy to learn, so your family can spend less time getting everyone caught up on the rules and more time actually playing. Wirecutter senior staff writer Signe Brewster said it’s a perfect cross-generation game—just as entertaining for grandparents as it is for kids (it’s rated for ages 14 and up, but we think even 10-year-olds will enjoy it). If you have younger kids, child development and behavioral specialist Betsy Brown Braun recommends an old-fashioned game of Charades (here’s a refresher on the rules) because you can tailor it to topics (books, movies, or songs) that little kids understand. Bonus: It’s free!

Shoot your shot

Spalding NBA 54″ Portable Angled Basketball Hoop
Photo: Spalding

Spalding NBA 54″ Portable Angled Basketball Hoop ($220 at the time of publication)
We’ve noticed stock issues with this item. We’ll update this article once it’s available again.

An empty driveway is a missed opportunity. Any baller will go crazy over this Spalding NBA Basketball Hoop, and even less-eager family members will enjoy a low-key game of H-O-R-S-E on a balmy night. A basketball hoop is great for a solo player practicing three-pointers, but it’s also a chance for the whole family to team up and play together. (Child development and behavior specialist Betsy Brown Braun said teams are an especially great bonding tool for siblings.) This hoop has a solid base (which you’ll need to fill with water or sand for weight), and you can wheel it aside when you need to park the car. It’s regulation size, but it also lowers to 7.5 feet (from 10) so that younger kids won’t be left out. We saw cheaper hoops with plastic backboards, but this one is made from polycarbonate, which is stronger and bouncier—and makes for better rebounds.

A game that won’t shuck

AllCornhole board and GameChanger bags set in a grass-covered backyard.
Photo: Signe Brewster

AllCornhole Tournament Series Cornhole Boards ($200 at the time of publication)
AllCornhole GameChanger Cornhole Bags ($100 at the time of publication)

Cornhole, the all-American backyard pastime, is easy to set up, easy to play, and only as competitive as you and your family want to make it. A good cornhole set is durable enough to resist warping or degrading during extended stays in the garage or long days in the sun. After testing the best gear for the sport, we found that AllCornhole’s Tournament Series Cornhole Boards and GameChanger Cornhole Bags are the best combo for anyone who wants to push their game as far as it can go. The birch boards are regulation size, with a smooth finish that won’t snag your bag during a throw and legs that fold down for easy storage.

Get scientific in the kitchen

Mozzarella and Ricotta cheesemaking kit.
Photo: Cultures for Health

Cultures for Health Mozzarella and Ricotta Cheese Making Kit ($25 at the time of publication)

If cooking at home with family has lost its charm after months of quarantine, inject new fun into meal prep with an alchemic adventure from Cultures for Health, which sells starter kits for everything from sourdough to kefir. Besides baking bread, cheese making is one of the best entries into this kind of cooking, offering quick results you can eat within the hour. Cultures for Health’s Mozzarella and Ricotta Cheese Making Kit comes with salt, citric acid, rennet tablets, cheesecloth, a thermometer, and fairly easy-to-follow instructions. All you need to add is good milk. You’ll probably mess up the first time you make mozzarella, but failing together is its own kind of fun—and if you do wind up with a clumpy mess, you can almost always salvage your work by claiming you meant to make ricotta.

Take in the night sky

Celestron NexStar 5SE telescope
Photo: Caleigh Waldman

Celestron NexStar 5SE ($700 at the time of publication)
Celestron SkyMaster Binoculars ($95 at the time of publication)
Night Sky app (free at the time of publication)
We’ve noticed stock issues with these items. We’ll update this article once they’re available again.

Few things in life are as awe-inspiring for kids or adults as peering up at the night sky, and a good telescope can make that experience even more powerful. For beginner astronomers, we recommend the Celestron NexStar 5SE, a computerized telescope that lets you program it to find objects in the night sky automatically, saving you the hassle of reading manuals and star charts. The NexStar 5SE and the included tripod together weigh about 27 pounds, and are relatively easy to set up and disassemble in a backyard. The primary 5-inch mirror offers a clear view of the moon and bright planets and, with a bit of focus, provides an entry into views of distant galaxies and star clusters.

For less-expensive sky peeping, the Celestron SkyMaster Binoculars are easy enough for kids to manage. One of our editors, who loves her Celestron binoculars, said they have “surprisingly good optics.” They’re also cheap enough that an accidental drop isn’t the end of the world (but still, use the included strap). If your arms tend to get tired, Celestron also sells a tripod adapter that can help you get a little closer to the true telescope experience.

For a completely free option, we like the Night Sky app, which acts as a personal planetarium that shows you constellations and other notable objects in the part of the sky at which you point your phone.

Watch the birds from a rear window

Birdscapes Clear Window Feeder
Photo: Perky-Pet

Birdscapes Clear Window Feeder ($11 at the time of publication)

You’re buying the birds dinner, but you get the show. This clear bird feeder mounts to the outside of a window with strong suction cups, giving you a close-up view of any hungry bird that stops by for a snack. It provides hours of entertainment for kids—and wouldn’t you rather have them glued to this real-life nature show than to the TV? (It’s surprisingly enjoyable for adults, too.) Add a bag of birdseed, and you’ve got an inexpensive gift nearly anyone will enjoy.

Gather ’round the fire

Landmann City Lights Memphis fire pit
Photo: Landmann

Landmann City Lights Memphis (about $145 at the time of publication)
Solo Stove Bonfire ($285 at the time of publication)
We’ve noticed stock issues with these items. We’ll update this article once they’re available again.

There are few things as good and simple as gathering around a fire. We think the Landmann City Lights Memphis stands out because it’s easy to assemble, it holds a lot of wood, and it should last a long time. But its partially exposed sides, which let everyone enjoy the view no matter where they’re sitting, are the fire pit’s best feature. If you don’t mind sacrificing a little bit of that view, the Solo Stove Bonfire is also a great choice. The Solo’s double-wall structure intensifies the heat of the fire, making it more efficient and far less smoky—and, hopefully, encouraging your family to stay out a while longer.

Creation station

IKEA Råskog Utility Cart in a living room
Photo: IKEA

IKEA Råskog Utility Cart ($30 at the time of publication)

Don’t overthink it! Child development and behavior specialist Betsy Brown Braun reminded us that some family gifts can be just a collection of things you may already have around the house. She recommends making a “creation station,” a basket full of stationery supplies, hole punches, markers, and ribbon. “They [kids] love stationery,” Brown Braun said. “Their store of choice is not Toys‘R’Us, it’s Staples.” Many Wirecutter staffers love using IKEA’s Råskog cart to keep supplies organized. (And we particularly like the look of this art-station setup from funwithmama on Instagram.) A gift like this is also an opportunity to teach kids about responsibility—Brown Braun suggests they be the ones in charge of maintaining the gift by putting the tops back on pens and packing up the supplies when playtime is over.

We love finding gifts that are unusual, thoughtful, and well vetted. See even more gift ideas we recommend.



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