Beliefnet

Pundits everywhere seem to be defining what morality is. But for parents, the meaning of morality has always been pretty clear: We want our kids to be fair-minded, truthful, courageous, self-controlled, empathic, and stalwart defenders of all that is good.

Finding toys that reinforce rather than fight against the parental mission is not always easy. Well-meaning people often fall into the trap of selecting zany, noisy, high-tech toys as gifts because they're cool and can seem vaguely educational, plus, kids are exceedingly appreciative when given them. But wait. Let's think this out together: Wouldn't the world be nicer if our holiday gifts to children this December could be calming and inspiring, capable perhaps of offsetting the fear and cynicism that lurk everywhere these days?For the last three holiday seasons, Beliefnet has tried to help parents turn a moral spotlight on the gifts they give their children, and this year we've worked especially hard to define what a "character-building" or "spiritually uplifting" toy IS. We've asked ourselves funny questions like: Can any computer game be morally good? Can a Barbie doll impart spiritual meaning? What's wrong with empty fun? Are ethical toys always organic, sturdy, and old-fashioned? Or as one editor asked in a meeting, "Do moral toys always have to be made out of wood?"Our 2004 toys are not religious per se (though we've recommended some useful websites that can help you find those), but instead emphasize universal kinds of charm and values. They will help parents and kids break away from the hypnotic lure of the television set, encourage reflection about both the inner and outer world, and help kids savor the innocent pleasures of their fleeting young years. We chose toys that encourage honesty, perseverance, cooperation, a respect for the earth, self-control, originality, and humility.

Yes, frivolous gifts have their merit, and childhood is supposed to be fun. But if you're looking for toys that entertain and help build good character, foster peace and engage the imagination, consider the following in your mix of presents this year.


For Younger Kids (2-5)

Tree-top Awe for Dolls
Any dollhouse has the potential to be a character-building toy. Children get to play out the moral and psychological dilemmas in their lives (when they're not merely arranging the furniture). Here's a lovely Swiss-Family-Robinson-style house sized for dolls, with shade-producing leaves up top and three levels to furnish and enjoy. You can start small with the 36-inch-high basic set for $59.99, and then build on. The 44" high deluxe is $99.99, an additional crow's nest is $15.99, and a little trapdoor bridge is $7.99.

Portable Door-Frame Puppet Stage
One way to get kids away from brain-numbing and values-deadening TV is to get them to put on their own shows. Our family has used this clever puppet stage for more than eight years, and it looks as great as ever. And recently it was voted one of the Parents' Choice "best 25 toys in 25 years." A shower-stall-type tension rod holds the curtained stage within a doorframe. Your children's imaginations supply all the rest. $49.95.




Managed Care for Every Tot
Pricey at $138, but beautifully made, this wooden playset of a hospital ward gives children a chance to imagine how it feels to help others get well. The highs and lows of hospital life ("Yikes! Patient on the floor of 9C!") can be enacted nicely, since the set comes equipped with seven hospital staff members, eight patients (good ratio), an ambulance, and more.




Rescue Road Trip for Budding Heroes
Put out fires and save the world with the famous Rescue Heroes! The reviews of this interactive, TV-plug-in or computer game emphasize that the simulated, bumpy, action-packed fantasy trip is best for the four-and-under crowd (apparently older kids master it too quickly). We don't adore many automated games, but who can argue with one that teaches kids the importance of putting others first? $39.99.





Stargazing by Flashlight
We looked at a lot of home planetariums--because staring at the stars is a great way of helping children feel connected to something larger and put their lives in perspective. But at the end of the day, our vote was for this charming perforated card set. Turn out the lights, turn on the flashlight, create constellations on your wall, and stargaze together. It's about as low tech as you can get, but therein lies the sense of peace and quiet. Comes with a cute 39-page handbook. $14.95.

New Age "Twister"?
Spin the wheel, try a tree pose, and explore yoga--which not only stretches the muscles but helps teach discipline and self-control. This sweet, gentle "Yogateers" exercise game is getting picked up by all kinds of toy sellers and is destined to become a big hit. Before long, your child will be doing mountain pose and downward dog with gusto. $39.95.

Fly Away Home...

We've enjoyed our share of ant farms but found this domed ladybug habitat at InsectLore.com a more original way to teach children about the miracle of life on a child's scale. Set up the environment, mail in your pre-paid certificate, and get 15 to 20 ladybug larvae who'll eat, knit their own cocoons, and then blossom into rosy, gracious, spotted ladies. These are peace-loving insects, known for eating bad-guy aphids. And in time, weather permitting, you can release them into your garden. For kids ages four and up. $15.99.



For Older Kids (Ages 6 & up)

Don't Know Much About Chemistry?
School-age boys and girls love nothing more than goopy solids, and liquids that change color. And the experience of watching homemade crystals grow can both entertain and show the splendor of the natural world. We found a whole webpage of chemistry sets for sale at discoverthis.com. Our favorite is the "Oooh Aaah Chemistry Set" for $28.95, but you'll see several sets that address the abilities of different age levels, so shop around.




"I Cannot Tell a Lie"
Talking Fib Finder is a really fun question-and-answer board game that lets kids affirm how it feels to be truthful. For if you're not on the level, the game's battery-operated lie detector (which attaches through sensors to the player's body) will reveal your devious ways! Warning: Game results won't hold up in court. For 2 to 6 people ages eight and up. $20.99.

Let It Snow, Let It Snow
A gift set of snowshoes doesn't seem especially moral or spiritual until you imagine a happy child out in a yard fresh with powder, listening to that squashy, piffily snowshoe sound. The feeling of being buoyed by the wide latticed shoe platform provides a novel method of helping kids connect to the earth and even appreciate the ruggedness of life before snowmobiles and four-wheel drive vehicles. This Vermont retailer carries multiple kid snowshoe styles at a variety of price levels.

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