Christmas Gifts: Turn choosing presents into child's play

Selecting gifts for kids shouldn't always be about buying into the latest craze. Fiona Campbell looks at books and toys that will fire children's imaginations

The year that I vowed never to buy another children's toy (a vow that has since been broken many times) was the year that my nieces came for Christmas and got bored before they had finished opening the presents I'd bought them. Loving parents and relatives bombard their children with wonderful gifts at Christmas, and yet kids are often content with very little.

Crazes and peer pressure appear to suggest that children are becoming more materialistic, with money and material gifts being equated with love. But Angela Underdown of the Children's Society says that the one gift that is at a premium now is time. She advises parents and relatives to put aside more time for their children. "We need to listen to children and hear what they want, but also be aware that children often don't say what they really want, which is love, affection and attention."

Thea Backhouse, an expert in education, recommends inventing stories for children, or reading to them. Adults unsure of their powers of invention may be inspired by Keith Johnstone's book, Impro for Storytellers (pounds 9.99, Faber & Faber) which explores a variety of games based on the principle of saying yes to every idea. Players invent a story by taking turns to add the first idea that occurs to them. Other useful imagination tools include The Anti-Colouring Book, by Susan Striker and Edward Kimmel (pounds 3.99, Scholastic).

Good books to read to your children include illustrator/author Carolyn Dinan's books, for example Goodnight Monster (for five- to eight-year- olds, pounds 3.99, Puffin) and her magical tale, Donkey Magic, (pounds 3.99 Puffin). These books have a sense of playful exploration that will appeal to children (and to the adults reading them).

Other kids books this Christmas include Susan Laughs, by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross, which aims to encourage understanding towards disabled children (pounds 9.99, Andersen Press); Holly, by Ruth Brown, the story of an orphaned kitten (pounds 9.99, Andersen Press); and The Polar Express, by Chris Van Allsburg (pounds 9.99 Andersen Press), which is a thrilling tale of a journey by train to Santa's kingdom and the adventures of a small boy there. Finally, Humphrey's Corner, by Sally Hunter (pounds 9.99, Viking), for pre-schoolers, comes with its own Humphrey toy.

For new babies, try some luxuriously cosy winter warmers (they're also washable!): soft fleece baby bunting (pounds 39.95), baby pillow (pounds 24.95) and blanket (pounds 39.95, all from Jenny Blanc Designs, 0181 943 4440).Tartine & Chocolat cosmetics are specially designed for baby skin. Its Ptisenbon Eau de Senteur (pounds 27.50) is available from department stores.

Toys that involve both adults and children include the Manhattan puppet theatre, with its own finger puppets (pictured below, pounds 37.50 for theatre plus puppets). Manhattan also makes other soft toys, such as Lizzie the Lizard, designed in soft velvet, with its own name-tag (pounds 12.50 from toy stores nationwide, or mail order from Manhattan 08700 129090).

Millennium Mallets supply both adult- and child-sized croquet sets for all the family, and part of the proceeds go to support Kenyan wildlife and local Kenyan groups.(pounds 300, adult set; pounds 150 child set, 01289 388210). Escor's hand-made traditional toys (made by the disabled) include a set of skittles, which should provide fun for all the family (available from toyshops nationwide or 01202 591081). Alternatively, cook with your children with a set of "make and bake" Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer cookies (pounds 5.50, Boots).

One surpise gift that should go down well is the Chocolate Labrador, which comes with its own sack of chocolates (pounds 29.50 plus p&p, ChocExpress, tel 01763 257744). Still on the pets theme, the motorised Harry Hamster (pounds 5, Boots) has fine comedy value

Dressing-up is always popular, and among the best costumes available are the George range from Asda (from pounds 8.99).

Teenage girls will love the No 17 Manicure Kit (pounds 13, Boots), while any kids who enjoy following the adventures of Ross, Rachel and co will appreciate a Friends alarm clock (pounds 15, Boots).

Finally, the more technically minded child will enjoy the Science Museum's innovative aerial camera, which can be attached to their favourtie kite and sent up on reconnaissance missions (pounds 36.99 plus p&p from the Science Museum catalogue, order no 95209, 01623 724515).

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