We live in a world so harsh and overwhelming, it can be hard to be a kid. So wouldn't it be nice if the stuff we gave the children we love could be calming and inspiring, capable perhaps of offsetting any cynical or inconsiderate thinking that might seep into their minds when we’re not looking?

Frivolity has its merits, and childhood is obviously supposed to be fun. But before you spend your hard-earned cash on something zippy, cute, and empty this holiday season, take a peek at the following toys and web sites that more deliberately promote good values. We feel the following items have a stick-to-the-ribs quality that make them extra special and make you, the giver, feel as though you’ve gone that extra mile.

For Younger Kids (2-5)

Little Buddies for Times of Need
These pocket-sized pixies recall to us the comforts of friendship. Some years back, our two young sons were bussed to school in a van that, by a fluke of schedules, transported them alone. To some parents’ minds, this would be a dream situation: no foul language to worry about exposing them to, no older children pouring soft drinks out the bus window. But imagine the terror if one boy was sick and staying home while the other was obliged to set out on the bus for such a solitary sojourn. How bad was it? Frankly, such mornings turned out pretty well thanks to our pocket pals from Hearthsong.com. Each pocket-sized pouch contains three 2-1/2 inch pixie dolls, enough company for a lonely bus ride, doctor’s visit, or other scary time. $10.95 for a silk sack of three.

Cleaning Up Is Fun to Do
You’ll laugh and say, oh this isn’t a gift, this is a ploy. A kid-sized mop, broom, brush, and dustpan for Christmas? Fact is, children love to help clean up as soon as they are able to walk, so why not load them up with this stuff? Magic Cabin’s set is especially lovely; three of the four components have wooden handles. It’s 24.95. And a wooden stand for the rig is an extra $19.95.

Healers in the Making
Lord knows, we’re going to need dedicated doctors in the years to come. With malpractice insurance, managed care, and other hardships, doctors of tomorrow should be fortified today for the healing of the future. Lillian Vernon is out of scrubs, but you can still get the doctor’s coat and medical case with 16 essentials for $34.98.

Beeswax Angels
Pure beeswax ornaments hold up awfully well and these you can make with children four years old and up. Color, ribbon, molds are all provided for $24.95.

For Older Kids (Ages 6 & up)

Wooden Russian Blocks
Inspire your kids to strive for excellence by giving them this especially gorgeous set of 55 hardwood blocks with which they can build an onion-domed cathedral and other lovely structures. Reasonably priced at $36.00.

Mandala Stencil Set
Way to go, Lillian Vernon! With her candles and infectious holiday spirit, she’s been spreading cheer for decades. Here’s an art project toy that we appreciated. A stencil set that encourages a child to duplicate and color the ancient mandala’s sacred form. $9.98

Moral Master Potter
Harry Potter consistently makes choices that would make morality coach Bill Bennett proud, so we endorse almost anything that spins off J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. Believe us, there’s lots of it. We found two lunchboxes that Harry might carry if meals weren’t already provided at Hogwart’s. $7.99 and $14.99.

And here’s a stained glass craft project that puts Harry up in lights for $4.99.

Homemade Brick Construction Set
Lego is cool, but this construction set is more unusual with terra cotta bricks children eight and up can mix and make themselves. Each kit comes with mortar mix, mini wheelbarrow, doors and windows that open and shut, architectural diagrams as well as complete instructions. Choose the 520-brick one-story house in reddish-tan terra cotta brick, or the 449-brick two-story house in white. $39.95.

Noah's Ark Puzzle

Billed as the perfect family puzzle, this 750 piece set would be one good way to spend the winter Ned Flanders-style. Measures 20X27 inches. $15.99.

Quilting Kit
For the child nine and up, this quilting kit teaches how to cut, piece and finish a patchwork quilt. Fabrics will vary. But the price is right at $19.95.

Boats of Character
Building a model is a lesson in planning, pacing, and staying calm. This Viking Ship from ZebraHall.com is appropriate for kids ten and up. $20. A model of the Santa Maria is also available.

You can cut out the historic ships in this paperback book kit to make waterproof vessels that will withstand the waves of any bathtub. For kids ten and up. $18.95.

Rock Polishers
Kids love to make stuff out of glossy rocks: jewelry, mosaics, charms. A rock tumbler that polishes everything from common rocks to semi-precious gems is an expensive gift, but your kid will have new purpose in life! Plus, you'll be the only one in your neighborhood with a rock tumbler! We found two nice models for the hobbyist, at two prices. Both, apparently, are best for basement use, since they do make a grating noise when in use. Back to Basics Toys sells its model for $89.99 and carries all the right accessories.

The Rock Shed carries a heartier model with bigger motor that costs $139. Grit and stones are sold in nice large quantites.

Listen Up
Boomerang audio tapes

Brainy Boomerang audio tapes bring a saavy sensibility to this clever children's audio magazine. Time travel through history, wander the world with Boomerang's kid reporters, or take an elevator ride you won't forget with Dave Schmave the Elevator Man who loves nothing more than to share his wisdom with his captive passengers. For ages six to twelve, four and a half hours of happy listening for $27.95.

For Pre-Teens and Teenagers

The Wright's Stuff
This build-it-yourself model of the original Wright Brother’s plane will actually fly but you might want to settle for hanging your hard work from the ceiling. $34.95

Goddess Bracelets
For $15.95, you get a kit with fixings for approximately three dozen stretchy bracelets. Hearthsong.com claims to have gathered the beads from all over the world.

Spiritual Sealing Wax and Stamps
I loved sealing wax and used it often as a teen. Flaxart carries the best variety of stamps we've seen. Styles include the Star of David, Celtic cross, sun, moon, even the Beliefnet.com swirl! Stamps are 10.00 each, sealing wax is 12.95.

A Place for Private Thoughts
This gorgeous leather-bound journal embossed on the cover with the tree of life is featured in a spiritual gift catalog for grown-ups. But we felt this would be an appreciated, attractive gift for any teenaged girl who loves to write. Measuring nine by six inches, the leather binding covers blank notebooks easily available at art supply houses. $59.95.

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