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ALONG WITH THE TOYS, GIVE A GIFT WITH LASTING VALUE

Nothing is more fun than crashing into a mountain of toys on Christmas morning.

But . . . maybe we, as the adult gift givers, should step back and think about what will have the most lasting value. A gift that will start a hobby, a gift that will transport a child into the bigger world, a gift that will create memories.

"Gift giving is an act of kindness for the giver and the receiver" -- from the new book "It's Just What I've Always Wanted" -- reminds us of what it's all about.

Some examples?

For a whale of a gift, adopt a whale in the name of a child for one year ($18). The child receives a description of the whale, stickers and newsletters about the project, a certificate as an official protector, a migration map, and gets to choose his own whale from among 50 or 60. Call the International Wildlife Coalition at (508) 548-8328.

How about a night (or an afternoon) on the town? It could be at a dinner and fashion show of vintage evening gowns at the annual Victorian Christmas put on by the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site. The event ($20 a person) starts at 6 p.m. Dec. 7. Call 884-0095.

Or, "The Nutcracker" by the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, which will performed at the UB Center for the Arts from Dec. 4 to 6. Tickets ($20 to $29) can be charged at 852-5000.

For no cost (outside of a cup of hot chocolate), you can join the Candlelight Stroll through Niagara-on-the Lake in the early evening of Dec. 4. Choirs fill the streets with song as visitors carry candles through the enchanting town. Get there early -- it's a crowded event.

Gifts can be stretched out for year-long enjoyment. A magazine subscription will arrive 12 times a year, keeping the gift going right through next December. Remember this -- no matter how technology-hip children are, they still love to get mail the old-fashioned way.

Among popular choices: Sports Illustrated for Kids (800) 633-8628; Your Big Backyard, for younger children, and Ranger Rick, for ages 6 to 9, from National Wildlife Federation (800) 611-1599 and Stone Soup, a literary publication for ages 8 to 13, at (800) 447-4569.

If you are a doting grandparent, aunt or uncle, you might want to sponsor a year's worth of lessons -- swimming, skating, skiing, martial arts, gymnastics, music, dance, sports, art. For a teen-ager, the extended family could chip in for a season's lift tickets at a ski resort.

If not, the best bet for that age is a gift certificate for their favorite clothing, music or sports store. Then, they can spend Dec. 26 roaming shopping malls and getting the best buys.

Books remain a gift that's always the right size, always the right season.

For the youngest, start with "Pat the Bunny," "Good Night Moon," "The Little Fur Family" and the sweet series by Rosemary Wells about McDuff, a little white West Highland terrier. You can dress the gift up by including an object mentioned in the story; a rubber ducky pairs nicely with "Make Way for Ducklings," for example.

You can't miss with "The Polar Express," "A Visit From Saint Nicholas," "Madeline" and "Where the Wild Things Are," or for older children, "The Hardy Boys" and "The Nancy Drew Mysteries." The "I Spy" books by Walter Wick, with rhyming text and a collage, are popular books along the lines of "Where's Waldo."

"The Gifts of Kwanzaa" by Synthia Saint James (Albert Whitman and Co., $5.95) explains that holiday quite well to children. For Hannukah there's "Eight Days of Hanukkah" by Harriet Ziefert. (Book suggestions are from Christine Moesch, children's librarian at the Buffalo and Erie County Central Library.)

A cassette tape player makes a great gift for a toddler (and her parents at bedtime). Tapes that tots like are "Wee Sing Silly Songs," the music of Raffi and Sesame Street. For older children, consider books on tape such as "The Secret Garden," "Wind in the Willows" and "Black Beauty."

Consider sticking stocks into the Christmas stocking. Popular choices include companies that children know and love, including McDonald's Corp., Walt Disney Co. and Mattel Inc.

A young child, who is just beginning overnight visits or camping trips, will appreciate a sturdy duffel bag and a sleeping bag.

If a child is old enough to take care of a pet -- and this must be cleared with the parents first -- you might start with fish, America's second-most popular pet. You can design an aquarium in cyberspace at www.tetra-fish.com. In this virtual aquarium, after you add plants and fish, which include a Red-Tailed Black Shark and Comet Goldfish, you can watch them in motion. Next step: make a shopping list (it costs less than $100 to set up an aquarium.)

There are many ways to encourage a child to get involved in the world.

How about a point-and-shoot camera with a few rolls of film and money to have the photos developed? Konica has just introduced a single use 35mm camera with film; it's packaged with colorful Dr. Seuss characters and comes with a sheet of free stickers and an album mail-in offer, along with a $1 rebate.

Or a telescope, along with the promise of getting out to the Buffalo Museum of Science on Friday nights when its observatory is open?

Also, the U.S. Postal Service, (888) STAMP FUN, offers Stampers, a free magazine that's filled with facts and information. You could get the hobby going by adding interesting stamps and an album. Or you could present a coin set from the child's birth year as a personalized, long-lasting treasure and possible hobby.

For the would-be-carpenter, there are now child-sized tools that are smaller versions of the real thing. A perfectly sized saw, a solid hammer, a vise, two screwdrivers, all in a wood case, are offered in the Highlights Holiday Book of Gift Ideas at (800) 422-6202.

Another neat gift in the same catalog is the NASA Video collection of 10 tapes, which outlines America's space exploration, starting with Friendship 7, going into the walk on the moon and recounting the tension of Apollo 13. Each video lasts one hour.

For a first Christmas gift that can turn into a lifetime treasure, consider a set of tree ornaments that can start a collection. The Lillian Vernon catalog offers three German ornaments (a heart, a carriage and a rattle). They are packaged in a box engraved with the child's name and birth date for $29.95. Call (800) 285-5555.

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