The New York Times had a nice set of articles yesterday about a chemistry sets: that is, Chemistry Kits for kids. What's nice about this is that the set of articles covers all the bases: one recognizes the Harry-Potter-ish origin of the sets, another shows how the old experiments inspired today's scientists, a third explains why they can't explode so much anymore (and yet also describes the current sets' advantages), and at last there's a slideshow of old sets so you can see what's changed.
I agree that there's a bit of a sepia-tinged nostalgia about how dangerous the old sets used to be, but I agree even more that most of the sets sold today are not worth buying because they can be recreated with stuff you already have on hand. Why spend ten bucks when you can spend two? (For example: the typical red-blue acid-base indicator can be easily extracted from red cabbage for pennies on the dollar.) But recently I did find a set worth buying: the Thames and Kosmos CHEM C1000 and related sets.
The Thames and Kosmos sets have real chemicals, some of which are actually slightly dangerous, and real equipment like what I'd use in the lab. Although the reactions aren't too exothermic (i.e., no explosions) they do teach chemistry and safety with colorful, quick experiments. And if you really need explosions there's some gas-expanding experiments that come close. There's some little points of ingenuity, such as the way the chemical vials are opened, which is simple yet child-safe enough that it took this Ph.D. chemist an embarrassingly long time to figure out how to do it. So it's ingenious, real, and safe. If you're going to spend money on a chemistry set, I'd recommend this one. And Merry Christmas everyone!