We have been huge fans of Hama beads and kits in this house for a couple of years now. My 7 year old makes bracelets and then melts down imaginative pendants for them. She has made picture frames, dolls for removable paper clothes and all sorts of peculiar looking monsters. One recent creation was a hama-bead charm bracelet! My 4 year old son makes pictures of cars, dinosaurs and traffic lights and then plays with them.
It is a simple concept. Put small plastic beads onto a plastic board to make a picture. Use some baking paper to iron (on a low setting) to melt the beads together, and then peel the picture off. The "midi" beads are suitable for about 3 and a half to 10 (or over. I'm addicted...) you can get much larger beads for smaller children, and much smaller beads for older children and adults. I haven't tried either, and we are sticking to "midi" beads for now.
There are also the kits with the instructions on how to create the intricate pattern to make really impressive pictures. It would be nice if the manufacturers had a website where they had a few more examples you can copy. I understand that you can get books and things, but we haven't looked at these yet.
The only downside is that these creations by their very nature cannot last forever if you play with them constantly or wear them a lot. But truly this toy is an all round winner. Hours of peace for parents, creative play for youngsters, and a praiseworthy creation at the end.
Okay, adults, you need to iron for a few seconds after the kids have finished their work, but it is not difficult and doesn't take any time. Also, I think it's fantastic that it doesn't (as yet anyway) have any big brand affiliation, like Disney princess, Barbie, Bob the Builder, ben 10 or whatnot, so proving that children CAN have fun without some random cynical branding stamped all over it.
My advice to a child who has it for the first time: Start simple, because it is rewarding and you see the point of it... a bit like jigsaws or crosswords. Then when you work your way up to the elaborate pictures suggested by the kit, it becomes a masterpiece.