Editor's Note: We're rolling out 10 Days of Indie Merchant Gifts, in our annual celebration of the artists, craftspeople, designers and other independent merchants who make one-of-a-kind products. See gifts in the categories of pets and jewelry.
Our entrepreneurial entrants ranged from parents to elementary-school teachers to even a 13-year-old (who made the final cut). Their inventions are clever, thoughtful and often adorable -- basically, all the things we look for ourselves when picking out gifts for the kiddos in our lives.
Take a peak at our slideshow of top picks. All items cost less than $50 and come from the minds of some imaginative independent merchants.
Carly Gloge of Boulder, Colo., says she and her husband created "Ubooly" -- a fluffy creature into which you insert your iPhone or iPod -- with the vision of merging mobile games with toys. Once you turn on the free app, your phone's screen becomes Ubooly's big-eyed face, making it "the perfect device to bring our cuddly critter to life," she says. The Ubooly then tells stories, games and jokes; plays music; and even says "Whee!" when thrown in the air. It's designed for kids ages 4 to 9, and parents can power it with their old iPhones, if they have them, Gloge says.
Editors' comment: We liked that the stuffed animal was bright orange, plush and well-made. While we're not crazy about too much electronics in children's lives, we liked that the app (when it came to life as the Ubooly creature) told fun stories and communicated interesting facts...a bit like a nerdy kid who won't shut up (but in a good way). We also liked that the app automatically delivers free new games and stories each week -- making this a gift that will last.
Peter Botherway says he and his better half, parents of four children, invented the BOX4BLOX, which is made in Alhambra, Calif., after a "light bulb" moment following a huge Lego spill in the kids' playroom. How it works: When you dump your Legos into the stackable box, and give the box a good shake, the pieces fall into trays based on their sizes. "Our simple invention effectively eliminates all the hassles involved with keeping Lego organized in the family home," he says. "No more lost Legos; no more trouble finding small bits and pieces; no more standing on stray Lego pieces; no more mess." Kids love it, but more importantly, Moms do even more, he says.
Editors' comment: This works well, as long as you take your Legos apart (which some kids don't like to do). Might be a good way to teach kids early about cleaning up and organization, too.
Product: Personalized box & crayons
Jennifer Rogers of Atlanta and her fiancé spend a lot of time with his niece and nephew. "Like most siblings they fight and argue over everything, especially crayons," she says. If there are three red crayons on the table, they'll both want the same one. "After a day of back-and-forth bickering, I thought of a way to end the madness," she says. Voila! The customized crayon box was born. Rogers now designs personalized crayon boxes based on a child's interests and favorite colors, and each crayon inside is customized with the child's name. "These are the perfect gift for the little artist in your life," she says.
Editors' comment: Ah, a nifty way to avoid all those "it's mine" fights! These make a nice stocking stuffer, especially for the price, and the personalization is cool.
White Sand Games
Product: "Fossil Island" board game
Bonnie Hemstad of Baxter, Minn., an elementary school teacher, was inspired to create this board game after she saw self-concious kids losing games, making them a target for teasing and bullying. Her "Fossil Island" game, which involves dinosaurs, was designed so all ages can easily play together. Because there are three color-coded levels on each card, players of differing ages and abilities can play together, and all stand an equal chance of winning. "This is the perfect gift for children that need motivation and inspiration," she says.
Editors' comment: We tried out the game, which has classic elements remiscent of childhood favorites like Chutes & Ladders. Sure, some of the math questions on the card made us think this would be a better game for school rather than home, but we thought it was fun.
TickleMe Plant Co.
Product: TickleMe Plant grow-your-own kit
As kids, Larry Chipkin of Pawling, N.Y., and his brother, Mark, would grow touch-sensitive plants (Latin name: mimosa pudica) whose leaves fold up when handled. (Watch a video here if you don't believe that.) Growing such plants "was then, and still is, a magical experience for us," he says. When Mark retired from a job as a science teacher, they decided to create the TickleMe Plant Co., providing seeds and kits for anyone interested in growing the unusual plants from seed. "We don’t want children and those young at heart, to lose 'touch' with our living world," he says.
Editors' comment: This is perfect for someone who wants to share a love of nature and gardening with kids.
Product: "Yummie Lunch Bag" gift pack
After becoming a mom, Julie Quinnan of El Segundo, Calif., teamed up with her college roommate to create an accessories company that allows girls to change the look of their bags. The bags feature exterior snaps, so you can attach any of the company's 40-plus decorative panels (which come in a range of colors and styles) to instantly change the look of a handbag, tech case or lunchbox. "Our vision is to encourage imagination, sustainability and individual expression for young ladies," she says.
Editors' comment: A nice gift for fickle tweens.
Greyson MacLean of Hartland, Wisc., came up with the idea for BrickStix when he was 9 years old. "I'm 13 now," he tells us. He loved everything about his Legos -- except for the stickers that came with the sets. "If I used them, I couldn't easily remove them to build something else," he sasys. That's how he came up with BrickStix, which are reusable, removable and restickable decals that work using static cling. "Now kids can add a watchdog to a city, stick an alien aboard their spaceship or put a dent in a car," he says.
Editor's comment: We're familiar with Greyson, having featured his story (and how his mom, dad, aunt and uncle make BrickStix a family affair) in our September issue. If you've got a tyke in your life who loves Legos, Greyson's invention could be just the ticket.
Product: Four-slot coin bank
Christine Douglas of Duarte, Calif., a former corporate executive, left her job to raise her kids -- and that's when she realized she'd been "blindly" putting money into her 401(k) with no clue what she was doing. "I wondered why I wasn't taught about finance in school," she says. After doing a little research, she realized that money matters still aren't part of most schools' curriculum -- and decided to create the Money Scholar coin bank with four slots, designed for kids under 10. "My banks feature all four things kids need to learn in order to be a successful money manager as an adult: saving, investing, giving and spending," she says.
Editors' comment: Ok, so maybe we selfishly hope the next generation will save us from the next financial crisis. But this is a smart gift for kids. Parents may learn something, too.
Haddon & Co.
Product: Baby cardigan onesie
After their son was born, Lauren Felker of Tampa, Fla., says she and her husband headed straight to the big-box stores to load up on cute baby gear. "After walking through the rows and rows of stylish, trendy girl clothes, we came to the back corner rack of clothes for boys," she says. But the selection was lacking. "You can only have so many 'Chicks Dig Me' and fire truck Onesies," she says. So Felker got to work on her 1940s Singer sewing machine and sewed her first green seersucker bow tie. After getting encouragement from family, friends and even strangers, she's whipping up more designs -- including this onesie cardigan, more than 50 of which sold in less than a month with no advertising, she says. "It is preppy and fun and the perfect piece for baby to wear to all those holiday parties and photo sessions," she says.
Editors' comment: Seriously, how adorable is this? The glasses are a nice touch, though they don't come with the outfit.
Beyond Jack and Jill
Product: Personalized storybooks
"I believe something magical happens when a child reads a book and thinks, 'Wow, that's just like me, that's my life!'" says Molly Agarwal of San Francisco. So she created Beyond Jack & Jill, a custom-book company that captures what an actual family looks like. In "The Most Special Delivery," a rhyming story about a baby's birth, you can choose one or two adults in any family configuration (single parent, mom/dad, mom/mom, dad/dad) as well as one baby, twins or triplets. Then you select each person's skin color, hair color, eye color and hair style. Agarwal then creates a handcrafted board book "that your loved ones will cherish for years," she says.
Editors' comment: As editors, we're a bit parital to gifts that involve books. But we also liked the ability to customize this gift, which might be especially nice for nontraditional and multicultural families.