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.

Spiritual Barbie! You Go, Girl!
Barbie's no babe on the beach anymore. My, how a successful movie based on a Tolkien book can change things! Here is our old bosomy friend endowed with mystical powers and decked out in an exquisite Celtic stretch mesh gown. She's the Fairy Queen Galadriel from "Lord of the Rings," with long, flowing hair, elfin ears, and a bow-carrying, long-haired boyfriend (it's actually Ken in a costume that makes him look like Legolas!). "Don't feature anything affiliated with 'Lord of the Rings!'" a knowledgeable friend passionately advised us. "Those movies were just an excuse for lengthy, bloody, horrific battle scenes!" But as firm believers in the moral and imaginative genius of Tolkien's story, we're standing by our pick. This Barbie Doll is worth every bit of her $39.98 sticker price, though we haven't had a chance to check to see if she still has the same old high-heeled feet. Also at BarbieCollector.com.

A Contemplative Craft
Believe it or not, more and more schools are including knitting in their curriculum. Why? It teaches patience, self-control, and tranquility (and even boosts reading scores). This knitting kit for children is a nice starter set for any child nine and up. Assembled by the folks at Magic Cabin (a homestyle doll company that now features many sorts of uplifting children's gifts), the kit includes a knitting bag, size ten needles, a guidebook and yarns in your choice of cool or warm colors. $36.95.

Fit to Be Tied
For the non-knitter or boy who thinks knitting is for girls (not so!), here's a knot-tying kit that fosters the same type of calm concentration and demonstrates ways to tie 24 different knots. A great way to build confidence in the budding camper or mariner. Comes with rope in three different thicknesses. Nine and up. $30.00.

Riding Down the Oregon Trail

The Oregon Trail is a much-adored computer game classic that inventors at the Learning Company have just released in a new fifth edition. Join courageous pioneers and help them navigate their way through dangers and dilemmas out West. While the company claims this game is best for nine and up, reviews protest that actually the game is geared for those slightly younger. $19.99.

The Best of Classic Comics
My sons, now eight and ten, got interested in old comic books about two years ago, and my Ebay.com surfing soon led me to the marvelous vintage Classics Illustrated Comic Books, all published with memorable style during the 20-year period following World War II. Most of these comics are glorious art books, interpreting some of the greatest novels of the past 200 years: Ben Hur, Great Expectations, Jane Eyre, Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, Hunchback of Notre Dame, etc. The kids and I were happy to find that the Classics Illustrated rendition of Oliver Twist, for example, contained much more richness of plot and detail than any movie rendition we'd ever seen. And, of course, like the great books themselves, these comics depict some of the greatest morality tales of all time. There are vintage comic book shops all over the country that carry them, or you can browse online--just "google" the words "Classics Illustrated Comics," or glance at Classicscentral.com or Ebay.com, where there always seem to be quite a few on sale ranging in price between $4 and $15 each.

For Pre-Teens and Teens

Old-Fashioned Wood-burning Kit
This wood-burning kit offers a quick flashback to past summers at sleep-away camp. You can almost smell the pine needles. This gift also imparts a sense of responsibility to the receiver, since with it comes the assumption that "you're old enough to handle this now." The older child will be pleased to be trusted with it. Just as wood burning was etched in your memory, so it will be in your young adult's (directions say 12 and up). And one would hope you don't find any cute remarks burned into your stairway banister. Good luck. $29.95.

Lunar Timepiece
Here's a good way to get to know the moon, home of the green cheese, controller of the tides, milky, mystical, mercurial orb. This moon phase clock strikes us as a lovely present for the teenage boy or girl mired in homework and teen problems who needs to be reminded of larger time frames--and the beauty of most kids' first nocturnal friend. Battery operated. $78.00.

The Gift of Faith in a Surprising Place
There IS an uplifting, unaffiliated, reasonably spiritual teen magazine, and you already know of it: It's called Seventeen! What's surprising about this steady, nearly ancient Conde Nast publication is that in addition to offering the latest in teen fashion on its pages or lessons in how to manage blemishes the day before a big date, there is space provided for readers to engage in a discussion of matters of faith. Seventeen's monthly "Faith" section is causing other mags to now reflect: Are we missing out on a good topic by excluding open discussions of our readers' spiritual lives? This is a wonderful gift for any budding young lady who wants to be known as more than just a pretty face. Subscribe here.

"Judge for Yourself" Board Game
"Legitimate claim or frivolous waste of taxpayer's money? You be the judge," reads the game's promotional material. This is a swell offering for young adults 12 and up. A range of 500 court cases from embezzlement to trespassing are presented, and you and your teammates must guess the verdicts correctly to win. $29.95.

Ready for Your Closeup?
Rather than grumble "In my day, we didn't even have electricity," you can actually get teens to make things the old-fashioned way. Far from being punishment, kids will love the thrill of actually making a real old-style "pinhole" camera. While all cameras can help a child stop and really "see" the world, this little gem adds the pleasure of build-it-yourself and a link to the history of a great art form no digital minicam can provide. A wonderful gift for a special older child. $44.95.

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