Kids typically start first grade when they’re 6 years old. And according to play therapist Joseph Sacks, they face a huge challenge: transitioning from a play-based preschool atmosphere to a work-based school atmosphere. “They really have to learn to control themselves,” says Sacks. “So a lot of times, they come up with a problem with self-determination. Now all of a sudden, they feel like they’re being bossed around, to sit and do work, for instance, instead of running around and playing all day.” Sacks uses play therapy to help kids during this stage. “When they come into my playroom, I don’t tell them what to do. They make all of their own decisions and I follow them. I give them so much honor, respect, and celebration about all the decisions they make in the playroom, and this gives them an exhilarating sense of control over their own life.”
To learn more about which toys best suit the needs of this major life moment, we talked to Sacks and Dr. Roberta Golinkoff, co-author of Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children, for their recommendations. We’ve also got gift guides for kids of all ages, including 1-year-olds, 2-year-olds, 3-year-olds, 4-year-olds, 5-year-olds, 7-year-olds, 8-year-olds, 9-year-olds, 10-year-olds, and 11-year-olds.
And if you’re looking for holiday toys, don’t miss the top kids’ toys to buy before they sell out — we talked to experts to find 2018’s hottest toys. Don’t miss all of the Strategist’s holiday gift coverage right here, too.
Best books for 6-year-olds
Six is also the age when they learn how to read. As this happens, their world expands and almost totally reshapes itself. They’re now recognizing and interacting with what was previously hidden, and starting to question the world all over again. “Even if kids can’t read just yet, they know what reading is and they’re trying,” says Golinkoff. “That’s another level of functioning. Once you start to read, you can take in the world in new ways that you couldn’t understand before. While you read and discuss story books, ask them questions where they have to make inferences, like, ‘Why do you think he did that?’ Or ‘How does that make the character feel?’ You’ll also want to keep reading to them at a higher level than they’re at, so that they can continue picking up new things and just learn to love reading and books in general.” Charlotte’s Web is a classic that parents and kids alike will enjoy together.
According to Sacks, there’s a secret to getting kids to read. “A lot of parents want their kids to read, so they pressure them to read. That’s a very common mistake,” he says. “When the kid feels pressure, that is unpleasant for them, and that teaches a kid that reading is unpleasant, and then they never want to read.” Instead, parents should start reading to their children at a young age and let them look at the pictures over your shoulders and enjoy the experience. “The pleasure and attention he gets from the parent while reading stories creates a positive association to the reading process. [Eventually] he starts to go, ‘I love reading!’ and before you know it, he’ll start to grab books on his own and read on his own.” Try this twist on the fairy-tale fable about the three little pigs that is itself a classic by now.
This book about Lexie, a cowgirl with a talent for wrangling words and their meanings, would be great for the developing reader as she joins the protagonist in tracking down a meddler who seems to be rearranging all the letters and causing a mess.
A 2018 Caldecott Honor Book, A Different Pond is a graphic novel that tells the story of a father and son on a fishing trip in Minneapolis that brings up memories of the father’s past fishing expedition with his own brother in Vietnam.
The first picture book written by Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, Malala’s Magic Pencil is an autobiographical account of her childhood in Pakistan. Read it with your 6-year-old and then discuss what other children’s lives around the world could be like.
“Now’s a great time to get them interested in science, when they’re becoming observant and curious about how the world works. But you don’t want to force kids, like, “You have to do this science project.” If it’s fun and the parent wants to do it, great, but it’s got to be fun. That’s how they’ll get the most from it. It’s about asking kids and getting them interested. It’s about playful learning and having fun.”
Best toys for 6-year-olds
In Sacks’s play-therapy practice, the emphasis is on the individual child. “Child-centered play therapy is about empowering the child, so letting the child be the boss and develop his own emotions,” says Sacks. “In other words, I don’t evaluate, judge, or criticize him. I don’t praise him either. I let him draw his own conclusions about himself. That creates what’s called self-esteem.” To implement some of these practices at home, Sacks has a quick tip: “Play with your kid where you completely let him control the action. Whatever he wants to do, let’s say for half an hour a day, you say okay and you do it. Let the kid be the boss, and no matter what he says, you follow him. That will be extremely exhilarating for him.” Sacks recommends this magnetic cube made up of 216 smaller magnetic pieces: “You can make all kinds of different shapes out of these magnetic little cubes. It’s really amazing. Kids play with it for hours.”
When it comes to choosing toys, Sacks emphasizes the importance of choosing ones that require no assembly or preparation and are easy to manipulate. “It shouldn’t be frustrating for her age level,” says Sacks. For simplicity and novelty alone, Sacks recommends the Spinsation, a wand made up of iridescent ribbons that, when manipulated, creates the illusion of a bubble. “Kids love it,” he says.
“All the toys that I use are simple toys that completely capture a child’s heart,” says Sacks. He recommends the Flarp, a putty toy that “they’ll spend 45 minutes playing with.” Not only does it stay clean and last a long time, “when you put it back in the jar it makes a fart noise. The Flarp engages their tactile sensations. It’s cool, slimy, and they can make anything they want out of it,” says Sacks. Plus, kids love fart noises.
“The other really good toy that stimulates their tactile sensations and engages their senses is the Splat Ball,” says Sacks. Available in all kinds of shapes, including tomatoes and animals like frogs and pigs, Splat Balls can be thrown at the wall and will stick for a brief period before sliding down. “It’s extremely enjoyable for a kid to throw something at the wall and not have it bounce off,” according to Sacks. It’s also a useful device for relieving stress and for fidgeting.
Here’s another simple gadget that will keep kids occupied for a while: “It’s not really a toy, but kids love it,” says Sacks. He’s talking about a grabber, which kids can use to grab things and arrange all their toys around them.
Golinkoff agrees: “Not everything needs to be a learning toy. This is fun, as long as parents tell kids that they’ll be going around picking up all the pieces of the broken balloons. With this, kids can play among themselves and don’t necessarily need a parent to fill up the balloons for them.”
“Kids start collecting things around this time and a little before,” says Golinkoff. “My personal bias would be to collect things from nature, like seashells and rocks. You can show them off in nice boxes.” The jewel-toned containers would look great on a bedroom shelf.
“Kids can also collect stuffed animals and other little collectible dolls. With those, they can play school, have them go on a trip — use their imagination,” says Golinkoff. “While this kind of thing may seem kind of ordinary to us, there are benefits to a child’s imagination. Also, with these, parents don’t want to be a director. They should follow the child’s lead. That’s how they learn about roles in the world and what people do.” Allow your child to be the tour guide as she takes her doll friends on a ride through town.
“These remote-controlled robots are very much in fashion,” says Golinkoff. “They’re really fun for kids because they don’t have control of these types of vehicles or robots in everyday life. They can also use it as part of their imagination and develop scenarios of cops and robbers and different chases. The stronger a child’s imagination, the more creative they’ll be in life and school, and that’s a wonderful thing.” Even though it may look a little complicated to assemble, kids can work with an adult to put it together.
Try this interactive game to stimulate their senses. “This sounds fun, challenging, and physically active,” says Golinkoff. “It’s actually similar to a game the colonials created, where you have a ball on a string attached to a cup, and you try to catch it in a cup. It’s funny how these things just keep getting reinvented.”
“All kinds of arts and crafts, paper, paints, colored pencils, and clay” are great for 6-year-olds, according to Golinkoff. “Kids love to create, and we should be building on that. There are these kits where you make bracelets, and boys like them, too. Kids love this.”
Don’t underestimate the fun of cooking in the kitchen together. “How about baking a cake or cookies with your kids? That’s a wonderful thing,” says Golinkoff. “You get to talk and you also get to measure, which is math, and you get science by asking questions like, ‘How does the cake go up? Why does a cake rise? What is happening?’ Open yourself to including your child in everyday activities.”
Instead of relinquishing your iPhone to your kids, get them their very own video camera. “Now you can think about getting a little movie camera and talking about what kinds of things would be fun to film,” Golinkoff says.
The Strategist is designed to surface the most useful, expert recommendations for things to buy across the vast e-commerce landscape. Some of our latest conquests include the best women’s jeans, rolling luggage, pillows for side sleepers, ultra-flattering pants, and bath towels. We update links when possible, but note that deals can expire and all prices are subject to change.
Every editorial product is independently selected. If you buy something through our links, New York may earn an affiliate commission.