Holiday Gift Guide: Children's Presents that Celebrate Chicago and the World

Friday marks the official start of the holiday shopping season and the beginning of the inevitable rush to find the perfect gift for everyone on your list. I always dread this time of year due to the insane amount of pressure I put on myself to come up with the ideal presents that will be enjoyed, appreciated and treasured by my family - especially our sons. I know it's just one gift for one holiday, but I can't help it. I don't want the presents my husband and I give our sons to be cast aside along with the balled up wrapping paper and ribbons or piled up on top of the already overflowing toy bins and bookshelves never to be looked at or played with again. No. I want them to ignite meaningful discussions, create new experiences, and help make lasting memories. Is that too much to ask? I sure hope not.

As you know from reading this blog, earlier this year my husband and I pledged to start to truly expose our sons to the world and provide them with an appreciation for the people who live in it. So far this has included visits to diverse neighborhoods around Chicago, a trip to Paris, attendance at cultural events and festivals, and conversations with people from a wide variety of cultures and ethnicities. And,this holiday season, it will include selecting gifts that help celebrate Chicago and the world.

So, as I look ahead to the start of the holiday shopping season and begin to deliberate about the gifts to purchase our sons this year, I've pulled together my list of toys, games, books and other items that fit the bill. Here are a few of my favorite holiday giftst:

Toys and Games:

- Origami Faces. The true beauty of this world come from the unique people in it. That's why I think Djeco's Introduction to Origami Faces is great for young children. The kit includes 24 pages printed with motifs to make fun faces of every color, shape and look imaginable, which to me, shows that everyone is different, unique and absolutely beautiful. I found them at Toys et Cetera on a visit we made to the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago one afternoon and quickly snatched one up as a gift.

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Photo Credit: Amazon

- Toy CTA Trains. I love when our sons reenact our travels when we're back at home. After we returned from our trip to Paris, they used airplanes and trains simulate our plane trip there and our side trip to Chantilly. To act out trips closer to home, they will love using Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) trains that can take them to and from Chicago's amazing neighborhoods. Visit the CTA's website to pick out trains from your favorite lines, which are available as individual pieces and in multi-packs too.

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Photo Credit: CTA

Books:

- Barefoot Books. I was lucky to stumble upon Barefoot Books at the Chicago's Book Festival in October - and I fell in love with its books right on the spot! Barefoot Books specializes in books that explore other countries and our planet, and offers a variety of bilingual children's books including one of my new favorites - Bear's Busy Family (La famille active de l'Ours) that I read to my sons in English and French. At the festival, I eyed the World Atlas, a hard cover, beautifully illustrated book that shows how communities across the globe have been influenced by their natural environments, and I can't wait to buy it for my sons.

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Photo Credit: Barefoot Books

- Not For Parents Travel Books. On a recent trip to Barnes & Noble, I came across a totally different, but very cool set of travel books written especially for kids titled - Not for Parents. Of course, as a parent who loves to travel, I was intrigued and had to flip through the book, which I guess, is off limits to an adult like me. The series of books by the folks at Lonely Planet aim to open up the world to a new generation of adventurers by sharing interesting insight about people, places, history and culture from countries across the globe. It includes The Travel Book with information every country in the world and four city books that provide kids with an insiders look at Paris, Rome, New York City and London. Maybe a Chicago book will be next?

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Photo Credit: Lonely Planet

And More!

- Little Passports. I can't say enough great things about Little Passports. I bought a three-month subscription for our sons last year and they absolutely loved it. Each month, they received a package from Sam and Sofia, who are off on an exciting adventure around the world. Our sons anxiously tore open each package to find out what country Sam and Sofia were visiting at that given time, to read about and see photos of their travel experiences, see what "gift" they sent them in this month's package, and enjoy related games and activities. Now, even several months after our subscription ended, our sons wonder aloud where Sam and Sofia are now and talk about what they may be doing in that country. Visit the Little Passports website to check out their World and USA editions and the various subscription plans.

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Photo Credit: Little Passports

- Map of the World. The best way to showcase the world to children is to show them the world with a map or globe. eeBoo makes a great, jumbo-sized (35" x 25") Children's World Map that is packed with great facts and illustrations. It's laminated to help prevent the otherwise inevitable rips and tears, and can be hung on the wall for easy reference whenever the urge strikes for your children to really see the world. Another great, desk-sized option is the I've Got the Whole Illuminated World in My Hands globe from Land of Nod. The globe features a raised-relief map - and it can be turned on to light up the world and your child's imagination.

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Photo Credit: eeboo

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Photo Credit: Land of Nod

- Language Stars. I believe the gift of language is one of the greatest gifts you can give your children - and it's one that my husband and I are working hard to give our sons right now. A variety of language products, classes and more are available in Chicago and online - and they come with varying price tags too. Both of our sons have taken classes at Language Stars and loved learning Spanish and later French in a fun, educational environment. For the holidays, you can purchase a Language Stars gift certificate for one of their many language classes, or you can opt for the Language Stars Holiday Pack that includes a DVD, CD and flashcards in Spanish, French or Mandarin. You can find out more information on the Language Stars website.

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- Museum of Science and Industry's Christmas Around the World Exhibit. My family loves going to the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) at any time of the year. But, it's always fun to visit the museum during the holiday season to get a look at its special Christmas Around the World exhibit. The 70-year-old exhibit features more than 50 trees decorated by volunteers from Chicago's ethnic communities to represent each of their respective cultures and holiday traditions. It's the perfect excuse to make a trip to MSI a special gift you give your entire family this holiday season.

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Photo Credit: Museum of Science and Industry

- Chicago Neighborhood Visits. Each visit we make to one of Chicago's neighborhoods yields a new adventure. Just one trip can expose you to new cultural, language or culinary experience - without leaving the city limits. As a holiday treat, you can't go wrong with hopping a CTA bus or "L" and heading to the neighborhood of your choice. So, why not print out "tickets" to take your children on a trip around Chicago? You can find suggestions for spending an afternoon in the Pilen and Andersonville neighborhoods on my blog. And, be sure to keep an eye out for highlights of more neighborhoods coming soon.

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One of the many murals that vividly decorate the streets, alleys and buildings of Pilsen.

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A plate of the "Svea Tease" at Svea Restaurant in Andersonville.

I know I'm lucky that my children already have more toys, books and other items than they could possibly need, and I do question the need for any more. For that reason I am also going to try to do three things this holiday season:

1) Think good and hard about if our sons really need any potential item. If I think it will be enjoyed, appreciated and used, then it's a go. But, if it stands to be forgotten and neglected, then it's just not worth it. I am going to be painfully prudent this year in choosing our final holiday gifts.

2) Go through our old toys, books and other kid items to see what we can stand to donate or give away. I feel like our sons move on from things so quickly as they get older and into other things. I know it's only natural and it can't or shouldn't be stopped, so I'm accepting it and choosing to donate any unused items to charity this year.

3) Give new items to charities like Toys for Tots. Each year through my husband's company, we donate new toys to Toys for Tots. Why do we do it? Because it's a tangible way for our entire family to feel like we're spreading the holiday joy to others - and that's pretty priceless. You can find a list of toy drop-off locations here.

So there you have it. My list of children's gifts that will help us celebrate Chicago and the world this holiday season - and a few additional thoughts as well. I know there are quite a few gifts on my list and I need to work to cull it down a bit, but I hope it helps spark a few ideas for you too.

Happy shopping! May we all remember it's about the holidays, the experiences, and the time spent together - and not just the gifts. But, be sure to have fun and enjoy it all - no matter what you choose to do or buy. And, as always, feel free to share your thoughts with me in the comments below.

Here's to world citizens!

Aimee

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