Alas, even the folks in the business of making those annual "best toy" lists overlook or can't seem to locate gifts that foster goodness, cooperation, and a sense of being inspired by the divine or warmed by the human spirit -- things the holidays are all about. Instead, they recommend non-violent toys (okay, that's a start), clever toys, or amusements and games that will help kids make impressive academic gains. These things are all well and good. But something's missing: a moral core and. well, is it too much to ask for a sense of non-automated awe or wonder?
We went shopping for gifts with a special something -- toys that promote good values, encourage creativity, or provide inspiration beyond instant gratification -- without sacrificing fun. Check out our editor's picks for 2002.
For Younger Kids (Ages 2-6)
Every three-year-old should have an ark, a durable wooden one, if possible, with pairs of animals and Noah's family on board. The flood story appears in many of the world's religious traditions, and the story of Noah's journey from peril to safety is one that touches young children deeply. We've found several arks, ranging in price from affordable to heirloom quality. Wooden arks can be expensive presents, but we've known kids who've continued playing with them until they're six. This lovely, small ark has a partially removable roof, 12 pairs of animals, Noah, and wife. $30 at Naturalplay.com.
FAO Schwarz stocks this brightly painted, three-tiered, 20-inch long wooden ark. Item 16230156. $85
The ultimate heirloom ark is expertly crafted of European hardwood and designed for years of hard play. It includes larger animal pairs and a four-inch-high Noah and wife. The ark can stay on in your living room as folk art long after your children have put the animals away. $395 at Novanatural.com. Additional biblical characters and animal pairs are available and individually priced.
Cooperative Board Games
These games created by a Canadian company called Family Pastimes can really enhance your child's rainy day play. And you can start playing them early since kids as young as three or four can get engaged. Nobody - and everybody - wins. Players brainstorm on how to best collaborate to obtain each game's objective: saving the princess, getting a cute dog named Harley home. We've personally had great success playing "Harley," "Harvest Time," "Sleeping Grump," "Round-Up," and "Princess" with the young kids we've known. Older childrens' games involve more strategy and are sure to enthrall. $18-$30
Note: should you go to the site and find no retailer in your immediate area (as often happens, since this is not a large company with a big distribution network) the games can be ordered direct.
Rescue Heroes Action Figures
As fans of their TV show already know, these "cool guys who are good guys" are nonviolent, courageous, and environmentally aware. Their action teams include girl and boy medics, firefighters, police officers, lifeguards -- even a rescue dolphin. And their adventures involve saving (rather than smashing) irresponsible kids, poachers, and other unsavory types before giving them a little lesson about being good.
Our favorite item from CatholicChild.com could be given to a youngster of any faith. Choose from B.B. Angel, Gracie or Faith-all friendly, stuffed teddies with an astonishing ability to inspire, even pray! When squeezed, B.B. Angel recites, "Angel of God, my guardian dear, to whom God's love commits me here." in a lovely, clear child's voice. But Gracie and Faith can be programmed to say or sing anything you wish! Additionally, pre-recorded voice boxes come ready to recite your choice of six famous prayers and creeds. $25-$49
There are may be more imaginative children's story tellers out there on the circuit, but Jim Weiss wins many parents' loyalty because he tells stories straight and looks for themes that are universal. Weiss's whole story tape collection is available on Chinaberry.com, a marvelous company that mostly specializes in marketing thoughtful, uplifting books. One classic in the Weiss cassette collection is "Tales From the Old Testament" (item 8175) for kids five and up that includes the stories of Abraham and the Idols, Ruth, David and Goliath, King Solomon, and Queen Esther. $10.95 Also of interest to children seven and up is "Heroes in Mythology: Theseus, Prometheus, and Odin" (item 8602). Compact Disc versions are also available. Only a few years ago, Chinaberry was debating whether online outreach would be appropriate for their warm, personable company. Today, the site is up and it's lovely.
Window Star Kits
Kids love light and translucence, and HearthSong.com's festive window star kits for children six and up will provide you with all the fixin's to make beautiful, luminous folded paper stars on windows at home. $9.95 kit includes paper and book. Ten additional transparency paper sheets are an additional $4.95.
If you want to raise children invested in the preservation of God's creation, here's a gift that allows them to witness one of the most delicate and beautiful transformations in all of nature. There's a side-lesson in responsibility (and creativity for parents): Once the butterflies hatch, you'll have to take care of them until it's warm enough outside to let them fly free. The kit comes with a certificate to redeem for 10 healthy caterpillars that subsequently arrive by mail, ready to demonstrate their dramatic metamorphosis. $21.95 Check out Insectlore.com for this and other cool insect habitats.
What is it about wax? Even the most inattentive child seems relaxed by its softness in warm hands. And, of course, light is a theme that links the Christian, Jewish, Kwanzaa, and other holidays. Candles can be dipped or rolled from tinted wax sheets, then decorated with cut out or pinched off bits of contrasting beeswax. Naturalplay.com stocks a candle making kit that introduces young people to this enjoyable craft. You can give away the pillars, tapers, and votives they make as gifts. $17
NovaNatural.com sells the highest quality German beeswax in thin, colorful sheets for $10.95 a box. The stuff is so gorgeous, you'll want to just sit in a chair stroking your cheek with these smooth, sweet-smelling sheets until your kids demand you decorate.
Older children can pinch off and roll the wax between their fingers to make flower petals or stems with which to turn a common dinner candle into a beautiful thing. Our favorite way to get young children involved is through the use of these clever wax punchers which let little hands make stars, flowers, or hearts they can then apply to the candle with the warmth of their hands. Three punches for $6.95
Gardening Set With Flower Press
You can always pick up gardening tools for children at your local garden shop, but this $11 kit comes with pumpkin and forget-me-not seed packets and for another $8, you get a wooden flower press that presses ten layers of flowers between corrugated dividers.
Experienced flower pressers say that heating blossoms in a specially produced microwave press is a great way to preserve the flower's full color and get pressed flowers quicker! We can't say this gift is environmentally correct, but in the spirit of great man-made advancements, we've included it. $19.95
The spectacular Meccano Airship is a BRIO/Erector collaboration that comes complete with many separate pieces including articulated wooden wings, a 6v motor, wooden deck, working gears and an inflatable balloon for flight! For children eight and up, it speaks to something lofty within all of us, but is also something children can build as they sit beside a calm and patient parent. This hot product appears in many current toy catalogues and is selling out on Amazon.com. You can find it now for $99 through Imaginarium.com.
Crystal Cave Dome
After studying hanging window crystal websites, and considering a new product that makes rainbows dance on walls, this desk ornament got our attention and held it more than the others. For eight and ups, this promises to be more fun than a snow dome. You don't do anything more than stare into it. Stalactites dissolve into crystals until you turn the dome over and the stalactites regrow with time and temperature variation. Price is right at $15.
Yoga for Kids
Music for Little People features an assortment of yoga-related products this year including a Yoga Fitness tape (from Gaiam) for 7 to 12 year olds (item 8095, $31.98) that goes beyond the simple postures taught in the highly successful, original "YogaKids."
Singer and yoga instructor Jennifer Durant has created a "Yoga Garden" game that has one of the prettiest board designs we've ever seen. Land on a yoga space, try a pose! $19.95 plus shipping.
Skipping Stones Magazine
$35 for five issues. Now in its fourteenth year, Skipping Stones magazine for youngsters seven to seventeen and up is an award-winning multicultural resource that encourages ethical conduct and creativity while celebrating our planet's cultural and environmental riches. In every issue you'll find wonderful personal narratives, poems and photographs from children all over the world, as well as book reviews, folk tales and cartoons. Sample articles are provided on the web site.
Other magazines that make great gifts for kids include: Highlights ("Fun with purpose"), Ranger Ric (from the National Wildlife Federation), National Geographic for Kids, Ask (a science and arts magazine), Ladybug (ages 2-6), or the full range of wonderful Cobblestone magazines.
Heart-Warming Films and Shows of Yesteryear
Sure, you can buy a copy of "Spy Kids" at your local Blockbuster, but have you been found yourself wondering whatever happened to those influential, morally uplifting films of your childhood? Some gorgeous feature films like The Yearling, Song of Bernadette, Our Vines Have Tender Grapes, and How Green was My Valley are not consistently found at your local video store. Been looking for the original Christmas Carol with British actor Alistair Simm, or Gary Cooper in Sargeant York? You name it, if it came out before 1970, Roger Hill's got it at Nothing's New Video. Additionally, he carries stellar vintage television programs like the debut of Gian Carlo Menotti's "Amahl and the Night Visitors" and numerous old Andy Griffith episodes. Email Roger now and he'll personally correspond with you, reproduce the film or program of your choice and send it to you for $18, including postage.
For more gift ideas for kids, check out these websites.