Bargain gifts for kids

Simple pleasures that are inexpensive but endlessly entertaining.

Published December 2, 2008 11:03AM (EST)

Firetrucks, bugs, the planets. You can cater to your child's current obsession, whatever it is, with this flexible fill-in-the-blank stainless steel photo mobile ($14). Clip on some baseball cards, Pokémon cards or alphabet flashcards. Stock it with family pictures or snaps of friends in faraway places. Your children can curate their own rotating collection and never tire of their decor. Neither will you.

The perfect cure for "nature deficit disorder," "I Love Dirt! 52 Activities to Help You and Your Kids Discover the Wonders of Nature" ($10.36), by Jennifer Ward from Shambhala Publications, will help get the littlest couch potatoes (and you) away from the DVD player and the computer screen. Covering topics from stargazing to roly-polies, from rain to rocks, the book asks questions to engage children and their parents with their environment without assuming that they own a lot of gear or supplies, or live next door to a national park. It shows kids that "nature" isn't a place you go on a class trip or a summer vacation; it's all around you during any season, even if you live on the 30th floor of a high-rise. And the time you'll spend outside with your kids because of this book is a gift in itself.

Long after most holiday gifts have been broken or discarded, this present will be arriving in the mailbox, month after month -- a magazine subscription from the National Wildlife Federation ($19.95 per magazine for a one-year subscription, plus free gift). Wild Animal Baby magazine, for 12 months to four years, will enchant the youngest wildlife watcher with images and interactive information about cuddly polar bears, scurrying squirrels and fuzzy, big-eyed baby harp seals. For kids 3 to 7, Your Big Backyard magazine stirs up lots of wild fun with games, puzzles, crafts and fun facts about lions, prairie dogs and other animals you might not find in your own backyard (no matter how big). Ranger Rick magazine will engage the 7 and up crowd with animal activities, stories, do-it-yourself projects and gorgeous nature photos. And it's a lot cheaper than a trip to Yellowstone or Antarctica.

What is it about watching a brightly colored marble roll from plastic part to plastic part, down shoots, around bends and past twirly things, that is so entrancing? Who can say, really? But the Super Marble Run ($29.99) can quietly occupy children (and adults) for hours. Construct your own elaborate tower by fitting the doohickies and thingamabobs together and let it roll. Then switch things around and do it again.

Remember those great classic board games from your childhood: Battleship, Trouble, Life, Yahtzee? They're still around, and they may be just the way to lure your kid away from the Wii for a little old-fashioned family time. They also come cheap enough (many retail on Amazon for around $10) that you could affordably pull together a game-packed gift box, organize a winter weekend game-a-palooza and still stay within your holiday spending budget. Sure, Sorry, Monopoly, Clue, Connect Four and Twister have never really gone out of style. But add a little retro flavor with Operation, Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots, Ker Plunk or Gnip Gnop, throw in some Jiffy Pop Popcorn, and you're taking a walk down memory lane on a snowy day. Fun!

Who doesn't love a kazoo? Even the word is fun to say. This great stocking stuffer from Melissa and Doug ($2.99) will get the humming started. No assembly required, which is music to parents' ears.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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