Toys that spark the imagination

Curiouser and curiouser

Time for the challenges of holiday giving 2010, or, as I like to think of it, "You can't wrap an iPad app." My young friend Jackson, age 5, likes playing Plants vs. Zombies and PuzzleQuest on his dad's iPad, but it's a little early for him to be getting his own tablet -- or even an e-reader. (FYI, aside from its problematic status as an actual something you could stuff in a sock, the amusing, addictive Plants vs. Zombies game, at $10, would make a nice stocking stuffer for a lot of people, ages 1 to 92. Well, maybe more like 5 to 50.)

Mercifully, Jackson adores playing with Legos, always a safe choice (and something that Nana will think she understands when it is written on a list). But he's also interested in making his own stop-motion animations with his Lego creations, like he's seen on YouTube and the site Brickfilms, devoted entirely to user-generated Legos animations.

So maybe he'll need an entry-level point-and-shoot digital (eschew the kiddie versions for an adult model like the Kodak EasyShare C142, $80, or the Canon Powershot A 490, $100), a simple tabletop tripod, software like iStopMotion, and probably help from Mom and Dad.

Get instructions and inspiration for a variety of simple stop-motion projects from The Klutz Book of Animation ($20), which comes with access to simple downloadable animation software and a piece of (nontoxic) clay to help get your budding Tim Burton started on a Gumby-and-Pokey-style video. (This is another gift that needn't be limited to kids.)

Of course the basis of any stop-motion Lego blockbuster is Legos. Beyond the basic building-block pieces, there are Lego action figures and scenery. You will already know if you are a Star Wars Legos household, an Indiana Jones Legos household, a Harry Potter Legos household or some ecumenical fusion of the umpteen other themes available. For younger kids, there's even SpongeBob.

The new Harry Potter sets, like "The Quidditch Match" ($20) and "The Burrow" ($60), are properly wizardly, and may seem more appealing to parents than Plo Koon's Jedi Starfighter ($25) and the million other flying craft in the Star Wars series, but is that really up to you?

Legos pop-culture themes also make the transformation back into video in the form of Lego gaming software; the platform of choice for many parents with younger kids is the Wii. While Nana may be flummoxed when this year's gift request is for "Lego Indiana Jones Wii" ($20) -- a concept with so many levels of pop culture at play that one despairs of being able to explain it to her -- you can always buy it yourself and give it to her to wrap it up. Still, Nana may be more comfortable buying gifts that she understands, like a copy of Curious George -- better yet, this year's The Complete Adventures of Curious George: 70th Anniversary Edition ($30)

If you already have the Wii, it's a nice strategy for dodging the occasional wish for a toy you think will be complicated or dangerous or too time-consuming for you, like a skateboard or a snowboard. The skateboard-snowboard accessory for the Wii ($35, but it requires you also own the Fit Plus balance-board accessory, $100) is a way to get started with less physical peril. Advance with programs like Shaun White Snowboarding Road Trip ($20). Bonus -- you can have fun with it too. Are you sensing a theme here?

After all that action, it's time for a snack. Reinforce healthy eating early with a market bag full of play fruits and vegetables from Iplay ($23) that can be peeled, sliced and pulled apart.

Play eating that may more closely mirror dinner at your house is available with the Melissa & Doug Pizza Party ($20), with a wooden deep-dish pizza, removable wooden toppings with Velcro for attaching, and a wooden pizza cutter (not sharp).

Tea parties never go out of style. Green Toy's tea set ($27.50) is a complete four-piece place setting, with the cups, saucers, teapot, etc. all made from recycled milk jugs, in pretty pastels. Schylling's Children's Tin Tea Set ($28) is decorated with a very traditional English-looking flower pattern.

The Tea Party Game from eeBoo ($18.50) teaches patience and categorization skills as young players have to build place settings and pick their teatime treats as well.

For slightly older kids, get them into the kitchen and teach some culinary chemistry with various kits that steer you through slightly offbeat cooking projects. Make your own chocolate, chewing gum or gummies (by Verve, each $13), or make soft pretzels with the Scientific Explorer Pretzel Activity Kit (Scientific Explorer, $15).

The best toys, digital or analog, enhance a child's imagination. These can be quite simple. Three entries in the "really giant drawing book" series -- Squiggles, Scribbles and Doodles (all by Taro Gomi, $20) -- allow for plenty of modern coloring and options for going outside the proverbial lines.

The "My Little Sandbox" series (from Be Good, about $30) does offer some potential problems from spilled sand and lost pieces. (You know the Zen garden with the little rake that your co-worker has? It's like that, but with somewhat higher sides.)

Sandbox themes include those geared probably to boys (big builder, pirates, dino world), probably to girls (princess dreams, kitty tea party, mermaid and friends) or a less stereotypical appeal (doggie day camp, farm).

For the kid who lives for goofing around in the sandbox in the summer, the toy offers a winter facsimile and plenty of fodder for daydreaming and story-creation.

Or some woolgathering moments for the adult who wishes she still had a sandbox.

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