Kids gifts go back to basics, with a few twists

This holiday season, it's food and shelter...and robots

If the theme for this year's holiday giving for many families will be "make do," then there's one company that definitely has a leg up. Makedo sells kits with a variety of reusable nylon fasteners and hinges (and a plastic cutter called a safe saw) that encourage kids to transform cardboard boxes, plastic bottles, packaging or anything discarded into feats of imagination, from robots to dollhouses to cars to full-size playhouses.

Available in open-ended free-play or project-specific versions (about $15), Makedo's projects will satisfy little homebodies wanting to make dollhouse after dollhouse or any nascent speedster who wants to make a series of jalopies. But a look at Makedo's "gallery" pages on its website shows that dollhouses are just the beginning. Do you need a kit to make play structures out of discarded boxes and cups? Probably, literally, no, but there are limits to what duct tape can accomplish, and the safe and reusable fasteners come in handy. Some kits come with stickers to decorate the final product. Cup Critters are the latest from Makedo - eco-friendly toys born from your daily caffeine habit.

The Box Robot from 4M ($10.50) shares a similar waste-not philosophy; this make-your-own-robot kit utilizes the box it comes in as the body of the robot. Inside are the guts of the little science project - motor, wires, axle and so forth - that will make your personal R2D2 go mobile.

The Walking Robot pencil sharpener from Kikkerland ($9.25) is also mobile, but it provides less of a teachable moment, as it doesn't need to be put together. It does, however, accomplish a task, as a proper robot should. Stick a pencil in it to not only sharpen the pencil, but power Robby up so he can walk.

Legos may be the best known, but they do not have the monopoly on the small-pieces-of-plastic-that-connect-to-make-things corner of the toy market. There are countless entries in the connector field, and from the point of view of the person who cleans the play area, those that feature larger pieces (e.g. Magna Tiles) may be preferable over the smaller (e.g. Pixel Blocks). Zoob, by Infinitoy, falls on the smaller end of the spectrum, but the pieces, when snapped together, have joints so the object that's made can move: bikes, birds, balls…indescribable creations. (Available in kits varying by number of pieces; the set of 250 costs about $50.)

On the very-much-larger end of the spectrum is Fortamajig ($55), a 21st-century take on the fort-made-out-of-a-blanket. Why not just make a fort out of a blanket? Well, remember how the fort would always fall apart because it was heavy and awkwardly tucked into a drawer and held onto the bed with a clothespin? Fortamajig is more like a real tent, although one that can be configured multiple ways, with a door and a window and a series of elastic loops for fastening to stable objects as a frame. It's perfect for when the kids want to play "Occupy" in the den. Fortamajig Connectables are a variation on the same idea, a series of square panels that connect with fabric tabs ($70).

Whether it's a cardboard box playhouse or a fantasy fort tent, once kids have their own pads, they need their own set of wheels. Simple and not too intimidating is the Skuut ($70-$100), a wooden balance bike for kids 2-5 that splits the difference between a scooter and a two-wheeler, jettisoning the tricycle altogether. It's meant to enhance balance, steering and coordination skills better than a trike or training wheels.

>The other thing kids like to do independently is learn to bake. Witness the survival, after all these years, of the Easy-Bake Oven. The expensive refill mixes have long been a thorn in parents' sides, but scads of Internet sites publish scaled-down versions of from-scratch recipes that can be cooked with a light bulb. Now the problem is the doomed-to-be-obsolete incandescent light bulb.

Hasbro jettisoned the incandescent this year and introduced a new Easy-Bake "Ultimate" version, but at almost triple the cost of the original. Better to buy one of the raft of mini-cupcake makers, fashioned on the lines of the George Foreman grill, which are much less expensive yet still safe for kids. Babycakes, Smart Planet, Bella Cucina and Sunbeam are all in on the act ($20-$30); mini-doughnuts, mini-cake pops and mini-whoopie pies all have their own gadgets, too.

A trial run for the younger set can be found with the CakeDoodle app (99 cents, for iPhone and iPad) that virtually walks kids through the process of mixing flour and sugar, cracking the eggs, adding vanilla and so forth, stirring the batter and pouring it into the pan. From then on, it's all about the decorating, with a rainbow of frostings, a garden of rosette tips and a zoo full of topper figures to festoon the cake with. It's probably a good thing these cakes can't actually be eaten.

The Play and Freeze Ice Cream Maker, a.k.a. the ice cream ball ($25), is another fun way for kids to make actual food that they may believe only comes out of a carton. In addition to your ice cream base, you'll just need ice, rock salt and some eager eaters to toss the ball back and forth for 15 minutes.

While the family is kicking back with ice cream and mini-cakes, pull out Rory's Story Cubes ($9), an imaginative story-generating game played with nine dice emblazoned with 54 different images. These are the starting point for tales and games that can aid in speaking and listening skills, creativity and problem solving.

Because half the fun of eating is talking with your mouth full.

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