For younger kids or grandkids
- A Wii2. Nintendo hit a home run 86 million systems ago with this gaming system. It's not for hard-core gamers, but keyed to families and — its genius — movement. If the first generation was a rocking horse, the second one is Secretariat. Activity and interactivity make the Wii a true electronic card table. You can buy a whole Wii system, console and all, for about $250, a 10-in-1 Sports Resort game (on an island playground, you can fence, bowl, fly a plane, play tennis, water-ski). Other games cost about $15 to $70 and offer all kinds of delights: Hasbro Family Game Night (all the old faves from Battleship to Sorry to Connect 4); the dance games now include Zumba; and my favorite, Just Dance: Summer Party, with tunes from "Mambo Number 5" to Katy Perry's "Firework." Brand-new is ActiVision's Skylanders, a story-driven adventure that lets young players bring real-world action figures directly into the game. It was written by Joel Cohen and Alex Solokow (Toy Story), and it shows.
- The best live theater experience you can afford: Be it Broadway's "Mary Poppins" at about $100 a ticket or a great community show for $25, introducing a child to the stage, and the original 3-D, is to create a convert.
- An iPod Nano. At $129, it's pricey. But be smart. Get the "watch band" (because kids are such losers, in the classic sense) for $24.95, and the Apple Care protection plan ($39) for when it encounters the pavement. And before you gift, load at least a dozen songs that you want the child of your life to know (Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring, Tony Bennett's "The Way You Look Tonight," Kristin Chenoweth singing "Popular.") They'll load it with music du jour, but someday you'll be riding in the car and someone will say, "Can we listen to 'Clair de Lune'?"
- Something of yours. Be it a book or a record, with the songs burned onto a disc, or a piece of jewelry, a doll, a game, even a teacup, include the written story of how and why you loved it, and how and why you love the recipient.
- Legos. As you know, they're back with a vengeance, and you can spend anything from $3 to $300 on anything from a bucket of Duplos for toddlers to the Lego Star Wars Death Star ($400 on Amazon). But that's not all. I recently gave my 12-year-old a set from the Architecture series. The Robie House was about $180 new, but I bought it on eBay for much less. (Bargains also turn up on Craigslist from collectors who need cash for new obsessions.) It's the model airplane of a new generation, but better, because there are endless combinations: Once Captain Jack Sparrow gets into the Lego City Fire Station, things get really interesting.