After wrapping up my holiday gift ideas for this year, I’m looking forward to getting back to food. I don’t know about you, but since we finished our glorious Thanksgiving leftovers, we’ve been eating a lot of nothing around here. We’re building up anticipation – or slimming down, depending on how you look at it – for Christmas, which starts with a quadruple batch of egg, cheese and sausage strata and a triple batch of gooey cinnamon rolls, and generally ends with some sort of roast beast (as Cindy Lou Who would say), my dear neighbor Libbie’s nutty, chocolatey and bourbon-y derby pie and my mother-in-law’s hot fudge sauce drizzled over peppermint or cinnamon ice cream.
I’m hungry now. Let’s finish up this gift craziness and get back to the kitchen.
No Stress Chess ($15) – This guided game is a fantastic way for kids to learn chess, or for eager young Bobby Fischers to be able to play with clueless or rusty parents/grandparents. This is also a good setup for kids to teach siblings or friends the game.
Bananagrams ($15) – A great way to train future Scrabble players, this simple set of letter tiles is a fun, fast-moving game for kids and adults. With no bulky playing board, the game stores and travels easily in a compact pouch.
SET ($11) – I’ve been obsessed with this visual perception game since I was a teen. On the surface it’s a simple card game about shapes, but it challenges your brain to think about what it’s seeing in different ways. It can be a bit of a struggle to start “seeing” the sets, but once you do, it becomes a game of instinct even more than thought. It’s a great family game, as a nimble-minded kids have a real advantage over adults.
Fashion Design Portfolio ($10) – I can see my second grader spending hours with this sketch pad and stencil sheets to create and draw endless outfits and accessories. There are other versions, including interior design and makeup, hair and nails.
Kuhn Rikon Kinderkitchen knife ($12) – My preschool-aged son and his little sister fight to use this kid-friendly knife, which I bought last christmas to go with a Playful Kitchen apron-and-baking-tools set. With serrated “teeth” and a cushioned point, it cuts without hurting little fingers.
Make a Plate ($17) – Like grade school projects, this gift inevitably involves some parental nudging to get it completed. But the kids really love the end result, and it’s a wonderful time capsule and keepsake. This classic activity has been around since 1969, and my mother-in-law has handed down ones that my husband made when he was seven (Our kids love using them and criticizing his handiwork, e.g. “Dad, those reindeer don’t even have antlers!”). Make a Plate is a pretty easy assignment (color a cicle of paper and send it in for production) compared to Illustory, which makes a hardbound book.
Shrinky Dinks ($22) – First sold in 1973, Shrinky Dinks are the toys of my youth. But they’re just as much fun today. My kids love peeping through the oven window to watch their artwork shrink down, and they love the permanence of the objects they create. This kit has 10 sheets of shrinky dink film as well as accessories for making jewelry, hair clips and keys chains.
Magic color-changing beads ($5/$14) – It’s amazing to watch these translucent white beads magically change colors in the sun. With a bit of elastic cord, kids of all ages enjoy making and playing with color-changing creations. A pack of 170 is $5-6 (some reviewers say the colors in these packs are limited to pink, orange and purple), or a pack of 500 is $14.
Art supplies ($28) – I love the idea of an all-in-one art set, but quality is generally better if you buy supplies separately. Last year I had a plastic shoebox with a low-temperature glue gun, wooden craft sticks, pipe cleaners, pom poms and googly eyes. This year it’s pastels, washable watercolors, brushes and sketch books.
Ed Emberley’s Drawing Book of Animals ($7) – The simplicity and whimsy of Ed Emberley‘s drawing style really appeals to kids. I think this animal one is the best one for younger artists. The densely-packed Make a World will appeal to 9-12 year olds.
Level Up! The Guide to Great Video Game Design ($28) – For video game addicts, this new guide written by an industry veteran is a well-written and amusingly illustrated tour through the history of video games, the process of video game creation and what makes a truly great game. My 10-year-old will read this cover to cover and learn more than he would learn in a lifetime of video game camp.
Cool Stuff and How it Works ($14) – Full of photography and illustrations, this book explains the inner workings of cell phones, MP3 players, fireworks, MRI scans, cars, laptops and cameras, among many others. This is the kind of kids book that adults will want to read too. There’s also a Cool Suff 2.0 for more.
Sonic Boom vibration alarm clock ($37) – For sleepyheads, this sound, light and mattress-vibrating alarm clock should do the trick. A vibration pad attaches from the alarm clock to the bed and saves parents from having to shake kids awake themselves. It’s awfully cute too. The Sonic Bomb boy version is round, black and slightly cheaper ($30) at Amazon.
Teen cookbooks ($13) – I bought two teen cookbooks, Teens Cook: How to Cook What You Want to Eat and Teens Cook Dessert, for my niece and nephew, who still use them four years later. Engaging and accessible, these books written by two sisters help teens develop good food skills in preparation for college and beyond.
College preparation ($10) – Aside from test prep, the real preparation for seniors is for life after graduation. This book, The Naked Roommate: And 107 Other Issues You Might Run Into in College, is an amusing and informative read for teens getting ready for the excitement and challenges of college life.
Oriental Trading is undoubtedly the place online for school-party crafts or holiday trinkets for classmates. The site’s customer rating system gives buyers some confidence in buying ultra-cheap stuff from China online.
For classroom holiday activities, I bought Christmas tree ornaments ($6.25 for 24), which the kids decorate by scratching off the black wax to reveal bright colors beneath. At the time, I thought trees were safely secular, but I suppose I could have bought mittens instead.
For the last few years I’ve filled the stockings at my in-laws’ house for the 13 grandchildren, which now range from toddlers to college-age. This year I loaded up at Oriental Trading with jingle bell necklaces ($4/dozen), wooden back scratchers ($6/dozen), holiday notepads ($8 for 24) and holiday tattoos ($5 for 72). I also bought indoor foam boomerangs ($2) from Office Playground. Depending on how they work (or don’t), I may get fired from Santa duty.
Good local resources for trinkets include Michaels and World Market. For Midwesterners, Meijer has a surprisingly excellent selection of stocking stuffers. Look for toys from Schylling and Toysmith, two reliable manufacturers of inexpensive classic toys.
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