Simple, Easy, and (Sometimes) Free Advent Calendar Ideas

Simple, Easy, and (Sometimes) Free Advent Calendar Ideas

I hadn’t planned to write a post about advent calendars this year as I randomly splurge at my local Costco when I found some pre-made LEGO-themed ones. That said I’ve since come across a post in one of my Facebook groups where a list of activities was asked for to fill an advent calendar and I’ve since been wondering if I should share what I’ve used to fill up my own in the past in case you’re looking for inspiration of your own. Whether you celebrate Christmas or not I hope the activities and ideas in this post helps you out.

Pinterest image showing a collage of eleven images all found below. Also shows the post's title and the main URL.

Normally before December comes around I try to create a list of potential ideas, activities, and items I want to include in our advent calendar that year. I don’t set it up ahead of time though. Instead I keep the physical items in a bag hidden away and fill in each day the night before so I don’t have to worry about the kids looking ahead. A benefit to this is if I’m giving an item larger than the drawer itself, which is often, I can easily hide the item the night before along with a small paper clue placed in the next day’s drawer. I end up hiding the items in only a couple of spots (normally under the couch or under the Christmas tree skirt) so I think the kids have learned to not peek before they have breakfast so if the surprise is hidden it’s not given away. As the month goes on I like to keep track of what we did over December by jotting them down in my advent calendar printable, that I shared back in 2017, so after Christmas I can easily look back and remember what we did. This also means that if plans change I can easily adjust my advent calendar plans without having to remove anything last second from the calendar. Plus after they’ve opened the day’s drawer there’s nothing stopping them from playing with the advent calendar by using the drawers and putting the puzzle back together.

If you're interested in writing out your own advent calendar you can download the file here:

Ada sitting on the bed building hte advent calendar laid out on her lap with a sock, a car, and a container of plastic dinosaurs beside her.
A couple years ago while I was sewing and Zoey was still napping I was able to entertain Ada by giving her the advent calendar, dumping the drawers out, and having her recreate the puzzle. When she had trouble I taught her to order the numbers, as each drawer is labelled, so she could use the number sequence to her advantage.
Image shows the back of Zoey in a Christmas red shirt as she builds the advent calendar puzzle. The calendar shows most of the left tree and the rest of the painted drawers sit on the table.
Last year Zoey was at the perfect age for playing with the advent calendar while Ada, mostly, ignored it… after building it once or twice.
Image shows a closeup of the inside of a drawer showing the advent calendar with an arrow to the back and a heart. Behind it sits the rest of the advent calendar with a tape covered shoe box behind it.
At the beginning of the month I kept hiding the items under the couch or the Christmas tree skirt. This time I decided to put the surprise in a shoe box we had and I left it behind the advent calendar on the table with a cute message for the kids in the drawer.
Image shows the advent calendar with all the drawers in place sitting on the table with white dotted fabric tossed behind it.
I wasn’t sure if I liked how it looked so I quickly added some scrap fabric to the top of the box to help hide it and make it prettier.

Here are many of the toys and activities we did over the years to fill both our December and our advent calendar’s drawers.

Christmas Books

My absolute favorite idea for advent calendars are books. Every year when Christmas is over I hide our Christmas books inside a gift bag and place it in the boxes with our Christmas stuff. Then the next year I can quickly hide the books away once they’re unpacked without the kids remembering what exactly they were. This way I’m able to dole the books out with our advent calendar. The kids absolutely love it when their surprise for the day are several new Christmas books. Over the years I’ve been buying cute Christmas books so whenever I eventually have 24 really good books we love I’m planning on wrapping them and putting them in a basket. Then each night leading up to Christmas the kids can take turns unwrapping a book to read that night.

Image take from above looking down at a white wicker basket filled with Christmas themed books sitting upright inside it.
Some of the Christmas books we have. That year I designated a Christmas book basket so every time the kids received more Christmas books there was a home for them to go to when they weren’t being read.

In case you’re looking for book ideas the one book I’m looking forward to reading the most each and every year is one I stumbled across at our library’s quarterly book sale and only bought because my kids were little and there was a touch and feel component to it. The book is called One Snowy Night by M. Christina Butler and it’s an adorable story about a little hat a hedgehog gets from Father Christmas. The hat then gets gifted to each animal in the story as it’s stretched and contorted until it finally makes it’s way back to the little hedgehog as the perfect blanket to keep warm him after his friends save him from the wintery wind outside.

If you’re looking for other ways to present your Christmas books I quickly looked around online and found Jennifer Garry’s How to Create Your Own Book Advent Calendar on Brightly where she wrapped the books in four different types of wrapping paper and added a spinner, matching the paper, to determine which book needed to be opened each night. I also found a list of 24 of the Best Children’s Holiday Books for Advent Countdown on Kelle Hampton where she included treats and instructions like hot cocoa and a fort, popcorn under the stars, or a s’mores kit under their twinkle lights with some of the books.

Holiday Themed Outings

Do you have any Christmas traditions that you do every year? Why not surprise the kids by having them find out they’re going with a note in their advent calendar. I don’t know if our area is going to do it again this year but in the past we’ve attempted to go see the Christmas train when it stops in our city. The morning of the train I have the kids open their advent calendar’s drawer to find a drawing of a train, so they knew we were going later on, along with a mini candy cane or something.

Image shows part of a pink flowered post-it note with a blue inked train on tracks saying 'chug chug Choo Choo' underneath and snowflakes above.
For several years I’ve quickly written out a holiday train on a little piece of paper or post-it note the night before the event in our area.

Are there any places you normally go every year? With the COVID restrictions many things are being cancelled but that also means that some events are going virtual so there might be a virtual version of what your normally do. It’s not the same but in the case of the Christmas train I just found by searching online that the Canadian Pacific Holiday Train is creating a live concert on their Facebook page on December 12th at 6 p.m. MT. Other events, like Christmas light walk-throughs, might still be going on in a more socially distanced or stay in your vehicle way so you may still be able to attend based on your area and comfort levels.

Are you looking to go shopping for any specific Christmas decorations this year? The last couple years I included a Christmas ornament shopping day in our advent calendar. This way I was able to take the kids to the store to pick out their favorite ornament in person and then I got a Christmas ornament snapshot of who they were based on these yearly ornaments purchases. This year we’re going to skip this tradition but I did want to include it in case you’re comfortable having your kids go shopping with you. For a more COVID safe way you could always have your kids pick ornaments online (I’m surprising my kids with an adorable COVID-related one through Etsy) or create your own ornaments at home.

Image is take from above looking down at Ada hugging a blue unicorn Christmas tree ornament, from what I can remember, beside a row of Christmas ornaments.
Ada at Target saying goodbye to the runner up ornament after she picked her absolute favorite. This was last year so pre-COVID.

Any General Type of Outing

Two years I finally checked off an item on the wish list by taking the family out to check out the Arizona Cactus Garden. It wasn’t Christmas-themed at all but it was a fun break from our normal routine that, although planned a couple days before, the kids didn’t know about until they opened their advent calendar that morning. We had a blast checking out all the different cactus and even had a quick cold picnic beside the garden. That same year a popup at one of our nearby malls hosted Rachel Doorley from TinkerLab so we also got to add an outing to build DrawBots to our advent calendar. As a quick aside I just looked up DrawBots and found a blog post by Not Just Cute with Amanda Morgan showing videos of her version of the DrawBots from the TinkerLab book. Since we normally never really go to malls we had a blast afterwards simply wandering around exploring and split a cup of ice cream three ways. It reminded me of checking out the large lit up Christmas tree at the local mall with my sister and a Christmas coffee pre-kids. If COVID wasn’t around I could definitely see adding a wander around the mall with my kids to my list again this year… maybe next year it will be.

Image shows a pink flower post-it note on top of my diaper backpack. On it is drawn an arrow with a car mid-way to the destination at the tip of the arrow. On it is a cactus, the ground, and four figures of proper heights.
I drew a picture for the advent calendar saying that we’d drive as a family to see a cactus… and then had to translate it once the kids pulled it out.
Image shows Zoey turned away from the camera looking at the cactus behind her.
The kids loved the break from routine as we explored the many different cactus.
Image is take from above looking down at Ada and Zoey carrying the empty cup with spoons.
Even though it was spitting rain we ended up splitting a delicious cup of ice cream three ways.

Purchase Seasonal Food or Treats

Years before the kids were born I created an entire tea advent calendar for Matt and I to enjoy. I really wanted to use my new just painted advent calendar and had just realized how much tea we owned so I went through and created 24 little plastic wrapped bundles of tea, thoughtfully placed them in each drawer, and carefully recorded which teas went in which drawers. The plan was to drink each day’s tea together, record what we liked, and later look at the key I made so we knew which were our favorites and which we didn’t like as much. Being busy university students we ended up not keeping up with the calendar and were still going through them in January.

Since then I haven’t made another food-specific calendar although I have bought a David’s Tea advent calendar one year for me and a Costco beer calendar for Matt last year. Both took longer than expected to finish but we still loved them. For the kids’ I’ve started adding holiday treats to some of their advent calendar days. This could include a simple candy cane, some special chocolate, or a special melting hot cocoa snowman  from Trader Joe’s.

Image is taken looking up at the top of the cabinet showing two advent calendar, a berry strainer, and some Christmas decorations.
Two years ago I splurged on a tea advent calendar from David’s Tea. I still have some of the tea so I wouldn’t justify buying it again but the kids and I enjoyed checking on it every morning after the kids’ advent drawer had been opened.
Image shows a kitchen table with a kindergarten Thanksgiving candle and a mug with a chocolate snowman being held inside it.
Last year I discovered through Instagram that Trader Joe’s had a snowman that melted in a hot mug of water to become hot cocoa with marshmallows. I was able to get my hands on some so I pivoted one of the following advent calendar days to be melting snowmen and saved the extra ones to go in their Christmas stockings.

Do you do holiday baking? Whether it’s cookies or something else for you or some friends why not include it in your advent calendar especially if it’s something your kids help you with and would be excited to do. If you don’t like making baked treats from scratch there’s tons of kits out there that you can buy whether it’s pre-made cookies to decorate or a gingerbread house. Last year I bought pre-made cookies with icing at the grocery store for a playdate and then added some extra sprinkles I had on hand so everyone had more than enough sugar to decorate their cookies with. Two years ago I found a gingerbread volcano that I couldn’t pass up at Michael’s Arts and Crafts which I added some graham cookies, a container of icing, and some more candy decorations to so the kids got a long decorating session making their special treats. Additionally, over the last several years, I’ve been baking a three ingredient shortbread cookie that Matt’s been loving and has become a mid-December tradition. If you’re trying to watch your calories there’s always the junction between food and decorations if you want to make salt dough Christmas tree ornaments or other decorations using other food stuff like cloves or orange peels.

Image shows a table with a gingerbread volcano spouting colorful sugar paper lava. Behind and to the side of it the kids are seated with a graham cookie and icing house and candy to decorate it with.
Matt helped them make the volcano and then they went to town making a house out of graham cookies and extra icing. They then got to decorate their creations with extra candy.

Small Themed Crafts

If you’re looking for small activities for your kids I’ve found so many small seasonal kits at Michael’s Arts and Crafts and Joann’s Fabrics. I actually have a foam jack-o-lantern kit I bought from Michael’s at Halloween that I’ve been hiding and saving so the kids, especially Zoey, can make some pumpkin Christmas tree ornaments for our tree this year.

Image is looking down from above of some black shaped ornaments with scratches showing the colorful designs underneath.
Last year I had bought some scratch art ornaments for the kids. I had pictured designs being carved into it but they were more interested in scratching all of the black off to reveal the store-designed artwork below.

This year I decided not go shopping with the kids so they’re unable to pick their own ornaments in person. I instead purchased some small hollow plastic ornaments so they can design their own Christmas tree ornaments to mark this year. Years ago I bought large plastic Dollar Tree ornaments and had the kids fill it with glittery pipe-cleaners and assorted pompoms so I’m curious what we’ll end up doing with these ornaments this year now that they’re so much older.

Image shows the pompom and pipe-cleaner filled plastic orbs on the Christmas treed with a kid blurred out in the background playing with their kitchen set.
Homemade Christmas ornaments using Dollar Tree items.

I don’t know if you’re ordering parcels right now and what they’re packed with but if you received anything with packing peanuts you should definitely check to see if they’re biodegradable by seeing if they can dissolve in water. If so you can make snowy sculptures by getting the packing peanuts slightly damp and sticking them together. We haven’t done this at home but our local discovery museum normally sets this up once a year for the kids to create and the last time we kept it going at home by painting them with tempura paint. If you want more information I found a post about it on Kid Activities Blog.

Image shows a table that two kids are sitting at making a biodegradable packing peanut sculpture on a piece of cardboard. In the middle sits a tray of more packing peanuts and beside them sits a bowl with a damp sponge inside.
They were each given a piece of cardstock and a bowl with a damp sponge. They then grabbed some packing peanuts, dampened where they wanted it to stick, and stuck them together.

Holiday Cards

Are you looking to create holiday cards for your friends and/or family? This year we’re taking it easy by ordering photo cards online but when the kids were much younger I tried to find ways to incorporate them into designing the cards with me. One year I used paint and my children’s feet and fingers to make winter scenes on the cards. Another year I used masking tape to create negative spaces on cards so they could scribble away and once done I peeled up the tape to make a sense from the chaotic scribbles. Finally I also once carved some simple shapes onto some potatoes so the kids could stamp their own cards themselves.

The various cards we’ve made over the years when the kids were little.

Holiday-Themed Art

Whether you have the paint out already for a previous craft or are simply looking for some way to record how small your kids’ hands and feet are there’s always art. I made mine while doing a series of seasonal signs for our front door so I used canvas, acrylic paint, an oil-based pen, and eventually mod podge so it would last awhile but this could be so much simpler to accomplish with just stamps and pens on paper.

Image shows a canvas hanging by multicolored yarn in front of a Christmas tree. On the canvas it says "Wishing your family a peaceful and joyful holiday season from our family!". Below the words are fingerprint snowmen, two footprint decorated trees, and a handprint reindeer on snow.
I grabbed a canvas and used my daughters’ fingers, hand, and foot to make a winter scene with acrylic paint.

Holiday Sensory Play

Do your kids love sensory activities? My kids love sensory activities although we’ve been doing less of them since Ada started school. The kids love getting a new custom batch of playdough, mixing some oobleck up, or squishing some slime. It’s not necessarily holiday themed but back in March I created a summary post of all the sensory activities I’ve posted about in the past that would work inside or in your backyard. Feel free to check it out if you’re looking for more fun activities to do with your kids. And if you want to make it more Christmas-y you could always add food dye (for red and green) or some Christmas related toys to the activity. Just a couple weeks ago I came across a Fisher-Price Little People® nativity set at my local Target and if my kids were younger I would’ve definitely purchased it as I was looking for something like that for the last several years.

Collage of nine different images showing several different sensory play ideas.
Several of the sensory play activities we did that are mentioned in the summary post.

Don’t want to make a mess? Why not keep it simple with water and some water-safe toys… maybe make it funner by adding a couple drops of food dye, bathtub colors, and/or some soap for bubbles. Do you have a Christmas mould you never use and copious amounts of broken crayons… why not melt them down and make some cool shaped crayons.


If you have Christmas clothing set aside for the kids from either previous years or something new it’s awesome to throw it in the advent calendar so they have time to wear it before Christmas is over and done. Now is the time to get it out.

Image shows the two shirts laid out on the table on top of fabric gift bags. On the center sits a pink post-it note with a person's face drawn on with closed eyes.
I ended up putting a post-it note in the advent calendar telling them to close their eyes so I could hand each shirt to them in a fabric gift bag.

Random Gifts

The advent calendar is also the perfect excuse to hand out those small items you would’ve given the kids anyway any other month. Also this way they can use them before they open their Christmas stocking. Do you have anything hanging around your home that you meant to give them and kept forgetting about or are waiting until the perfect time?

Image is showing a small section of the counter with a pink post-it not with two drawn toothbrushes. Slightly overlapping is a small tube of toothpaste with a dinosaur on it.
A couple years ago the kids were super excited to get new toothbrushes in their advent calendar. I wasn’t sure how it would go over so I think I picked a day we already had other fun plans for.

Small Cheap Seasonal Items

Are there any small items you want to buy from the local dollar store or somewhere else? Advent calendars and stocking stuffers are the perfect justification to buy these although with advent calendars you can better justify Christmas decorations. This could be something small like splitting up a package of magic grow capsules to watch the sponges expand and then play with in the bathtub until they come apart. My absolute favorite seasonal item are the window clings from the local Dollar Tree that stick really well and for a dollar I end up with a window puzzle if I keep the outer layer of the cling along with the individual stickers. I haven’t visited my local Dollar Tree yet this year but I normally keep the items I bought in one place, dole them out with the advent calendar, and any leftover ones on Christmas Eve get put in the Christmas stockings. Back in 2017 my advent calendar ended up mostly being small items from local Target and Dollar Store.

Image shows a small illegible piece of paper for the advent calendar drawer laid on the car mat. It's surrounded by four half pieces of window cling stickers.
I absolutely love window clings and find the Dollar Tree ones stick much better than the Walmart ones. The last year I bought two sheets but then split them in half so both kids would get some of the candy and some of the cupcakes and there would be less fighting over them.
Image shows two sheets of Holiday gel clings laying on the table.
I was super excited about the gel clings as I saw them mixing and matching pieces to make new things.
Image shows a window gel cling Santa being held up in front of Ada's face. Behind her is the patio door with some of the other window gel clings already attached on.
Unfortunately after the first adorably cute day the gel clings ended up being a ripped up pile on the rug.

Large Toy to Cover Multiple Days

If you have a larger item that can be split up and you want them to play with it sooner rather than later you can easily add it to your advent calendar over multiple days. Two years ago I bought Ada a LEGO® set and Zoey a playdough kit from Costco and ended up splitting the kits into ten days worth of advent calendar surprises for both kids. I started out pacing how often they got the next installment and then realized that I was running out of time to give it to them. I considered saving some for Christmas and then instead just gave them out on back to back days so they got it all in time. The kids loved the toys and I felt better buying one larger item rather than so many little items like I did the year before.

Image shows a collage of four photos. The leftmost one shows the advent calendar bags and hint. The two rightmost ones shows Zoey with her playdough kit while the middle image shows Ada building her LEGO® set.
After getting one or two days worth of their new toys I had to hunt down two empty boxes so they each had somewhere to store their toy as they waited for the rest of it.

Last Minute Printables

Do you have a printer or have access to a printer? There are tons of simple activity pages or booklets online you can find and print out to surprise your kids with. If you think they’ll use a printed page multiple times you can save time printing multiple copies by putting it in a protective binder sheet or laminate it beforehand. At the beginning of the school year I created a double-sided printable PDF from images I found online for free and shared how I did it. If you’re looking for more printable activities I’ve found some free activities (although they also have paid ones I haven’t tried) through Teachers Pay Teachers, Twinkl, and 1+1+1=1. I absolutely adore the custom worksheets you can generate through Create Printables if your child is working on their writing. I also love the printables on the LEGO® website although I’ve previously found them separated by how they’re categorized so if you’re looking for something specific it might be best to go through a search engine instead of the website itself. I’ve gone into this before when I created LEGO® themed clothing for my kids. I’ve also just looked for more and found these printable coloring pages and activities through here and here that I’m definitely going to check out for my kids later on.

Image shows a number bond and ten frame worksheet laminated in the foreground. In the background are the laminating sheets, chalk markers, Zoey tracing letters, and her custom name worksheet almost hidden in the back.
Zoey tracing her letters right after I made her and Ada new laminated worksheets.

A printable is also fun if you have an activity planned for later in the day and you want something for the kids to do while they wait. For example say you’re going on a zoo walk that afternoon so you find a coloring page online for your kids favorite animal so they can get excited for the zoo while they color it. Planning on going for a drive to see the Christmas lights? Give them a printed paper filled with blank Christmas lights (A to Z Teacher Stuff), color them, cut them out, create a scene on a blank piece of paper, and glue the lights down… if gluing maybe skip the crayons. Or are you planning on decorating your Christmas tree later on? Find a blank tree printable (Print.Color.Fun!) and have them decorate it however they want while getting excited for later.

Virtual Events

With COVID the lead-up to our Christmas is going to look different this year. That said there are also positives. There are so many events that are going online instead. You could lookup your favorite events and see if they’ve gone virtual in some way and whether you can somehow still go to it. I’m currently super excited for the Trans-Siberian Orchestra livestream event on December 18th that we’ve just bought tickets for ($30 U.S.) to stream from our living room. I already mentioned it to the kids so it won’t come as a complete surprise but as it airs around suppertime I’m debating surprising the kids with a picnic in the living room while we watch it. As November ends I’m curious what other events I’ll hear about.

Other years we filled our Christmas advent calendar with fun seasonal outings, playdates or family outings at children’s museums or zoos, and, last year, Matt had a fun holiday party through work and we experienced the magic of LEGOLAND® at Christmas. Although this year will feel different from previous years I’m still excited what we’ll end up filling our December calendar with this year. I’ll probably choose several of the ideas listed above including, maybe, going to the Dollar Tree as writing these ideas made me really want window clings again this year.

I hope this post helps you come up with something fun to do with your kids whether you’re planning your advent calendar in advance or you’re midway through the month and you’re trying to think of something fun to do. Feel free to share how you made the holidays special or what fun activity you came up with in the comments below. I hope you have a very Merry Christmas if you celebrate and if not that you’re having a great December.

If you want to create your own advent calendar you can download my printable from my 2017 post here:

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