Science gifts for Christmas: 2000

Of all my Christmases as a small boy in Texas, the one I remember best is the one when I was seven, which is when my parents gave me my first microscope.

Asked what I would recommend in the way of holiday gifts for children, then, a microscope–or something similarly scientific–is always at the top of my list. To that end, I spent a little time this week cruising the malls and the Internet for some ideas.

And yes, you can still get a microscope, though it comes in a variety of different guises.  You can still get the kind of “starter” microscope I got, more than adequate for a youngster’s first explorations into the realm of the invisibly small, for just $20 or $30.

Or, you can shell out four or five times as much for the Intel Play QX3 Computer Microsocope, essentially a digital camera hooked up to a microscope.  Kids can examine and capture still, moving and time-lapsed images of tiny objects at magnifications ranging from 10X to 200X (on a 15-inch monitor; larger monitors provide larger magnifications). They can even remove the microscope from its base and use it to look at objects that wouldn’t otherwise fit under it, like the hairs (and maybe fleas) on their dog.

Electronics play a big part in a lot of interesting gift possibilities.  There are “toys” out there that have computing power that would have made NASA jealous a few years ago.  The Vtech Master Pad Deluxe, for instance, which looks a lot like a grown-up’s laptop computer, costs only $130 and features 63 computerized activities and games, everything from mathematics and trivia games to money management software.  It has a built-in word processor and can teach basic Spanish, French and German.  It even has e-mail capability (with an add-on kit).  And it runs on four ordinary C batteries, just like toys have for decades.  (A similar device, the Vtech Outdoor Trekker Laptop, includes science and geography activities, plus a wilderness survival guide…although it probably doesn’t tell you what to do when the four AA batteries run out just as you’re reading about how to make a fire!)

The Vtech Phusion, a kind of Palm Pilot for kids, includes 38 tools and activities, ranging from personal organizers to foreign language translators and a world clock. It even has a built-in digital camera and photo editing software–and it runs on only two AA batteries.

Not all electronic-based gifts are computer-centric.  A few old standbys are still around:  for instance, for $15 you can buy a kit that lets you build your own AM/FM radio receiver.  Then there are electronic labs which give you everything you need to complete a number of projects, ranging from a simple electronic organ to a burglar alarm.

I also saw inexpensive metal detectors for kids and even an inexpensive parabolic microphone, perfect for allowing your youngster to listen to the cry of a distant bird…or the conversation going on in your neighbour’s back yard.

Or you could go way out on an electronic limb and buy the second generation of Sony’s electronic pet, Aibo.  The new ERS-210 looks as much like a cat as a dog, recognizes 50 simple words, has a camera in its nose, more touch sensors, a wider range of movement and a more powerful internal computer, which the owner can program–perhaps to search for another $2,250 to replace what he spent on the ERS-210.

Not all gifts are electronic.  You can still buy a chemistry set, although I don’t remember my childhood chemistry set coming with protective goggles like today’s  (although I could really have used them a time or two…).  If you prefer, you can get a physics kit instead, and explore things like electricity, magnetism, motors, heat, sound, force, pressure and motion.

But I still think the very best scientific gifts are the ones that aren’t as structured as most activity kits.  I owned three things when I was growing up that did more than anything else to keep me interested in exploring the world around me–the basis of science.  One was the aforementioned microscope; the others were a telescope and binoculars.

Well, guess what?  You can buy a kit that contains all three, the Inspector Adventure three-Scope Set, for just $30 or so. (OK, so you wouldn’t want to set off for the Arctic with equipment of this quality–it should work great in Wascana Park!)

Give kids the tools they need to explore their world, and you just may ignite the curiosity of a budding scientist of your own.

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