You know about New York Magazine’s “Approval Matrix.” Now, the Strategist has taken that model of what falls where on our taste hierarchies and applied it to toys. In this case, the four sides of the grid are “Educational” (say, a fantastically dressed coding doll), “Brain Candy” (a booty-shaking llama), “Reasonably Priced,” and “Splurgy.” Each toy in every quadrant comes highly recommended — click here to learn more about our sourcing process and the dozens of experts involved — and every age up to double digits is covered, all of which you can see by also clicking here.
Here, our assortment for the 7-year-olds. As Dr. Roberta Golinkoff told the Strategist in 2018, this age is all about finding a sense of independence. “When you go into first grade, you’re not sure of which end is up, and you’re still depending on everyone,” said Dr. Golinkoff, a professor of child psychology at the University of Delaware. “But by the time you go to second grade, you know the drill.” The toys that follow speak to that newfound bit of agency — and also just let them go crazy with Post-its. You can jump directly to the section that interests you most — “Educational/Reasonably Priced,” “Educational/Splurgy,” “Brain Candy/Reasonably Priced,” or “Brain Candy/Splurgy” — or read all the way through to get the full picture of what kids these days are into. Whether you’re shopping for a birthday or a holiday or any other day, it’s a list that keeps on giving.
When Ruka Curate, founder of the Tiny Treasures Nanny Agency, consulted her Facebook group of 50,000 women for help in recommending the best toys to us, Snap Circuit came out on top. Its color-coded, easy-to-assemble components can be combined to form working circuit boards like the ones inside a television or a radio (there’s even a music-integrated circuit and a speaker). “Of all the Manhattan families I know with kids between ages 7 and 10, most of them have at some point received Snap Circuit as a gift,” says Curate. Personally, she estimates she’s gifted six to eight of these over the past three years, because she’s seen how engaging it is for girls and boys alike, all while encouraging STEM and STEAM learning. (Incidentally, Dr. Golinkoff believes that while STEM toys are important — STEM of course stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — STEAM, which adds an A for the arts, is even better.) And, Curate adds, “It’s a great price point.”
With this kit, kids dig into a molded block of clay that appears to be straight out of the desert and use chisels and brushes and a magnifying glass to uncover highly realistic fossils — dinosaur bones, shark teeth, sea urchins, etc. “It makes kids feel like real scientists,” says Elizabeth S., a nanny for the New York–based SmartSitting agency. They can also classify the fossils using the accompanying learning booklet. “I gave this gift to a 7-year-old, and he and his 9-year-old sister were digging for the better part of a rainy day inside. Next time I saw them, they couldn’t wait to show me what they’d uncovered.”
“Talk to them about math,” Dr. Golinkoff stresses, whether it’s at the supermarket or at home. An exceptionally fun way to get that conversation going is with Mobi, a Bananagrams-like game that has kids creating simple math equations on the fly and connecting them in Scrabble-like grids. Put succinctly in an Amazon review: “A great game to get your kids excited about learning, because they don’t even realize they are.” Also, who doesn’t love a whale-shaped carrying pouch?
“It’s almost like chess,” says Curate, but in primary colors. Each player gets a set of red, blue, green, or yellow pieces, and the goal is to get as many of your color on the board (they have to be touching each other, but only at the corners) as possible. It requires the type of strategizing that can be a newly available skill at this age. “You have to think about your moves ahead of time,” Curate notes. “I recently played with a 7-year-old, and we had so much fun.”
Another in the STEAM realm encouraged by Dr. Golinkoff: This kit lets kids create erasers out of clay that are then popped in the oven to harden. The result is an array of adorable erasers — emoji, sushi — that actually work. It’s also the best-selling Klutz craft kit this year. And craft activities, in general, according to Golinkoff, promote further development of fine motor skills and spatial awareness.
“This chemistry lab is mesmerizing for those kids who like to mix potions,” says Lindsay Bell, founder of the Bell Family child-care company. It comes with beakers, test tubes, petri dishes, the works, and inside them you can combine mixtures of, say, phenol red and ammonia to create invisible vapors.
Unroll this rubbery keyboard to reveal 49 different keys. The preset tones can make it sound like a clarinet or violin or a whole orchestra, in addition to the standard piano option. And you can record your songs and play them back. As for Beth Beckman, a co-founder of the forthcoming site FOMOFeed Kids, what’s best about it is the space-saving design. “It’s great for apartments,” she says. That “and the fun rainbow design make it a crowd pleaser.”
It may look just like a stylish doll riding a Segway, but as you may have seen on Shark Tank, these Smartgurlz are meant for programming — the movements they make, the distance they travel — which you do by following the prompts of an easy-to-use app. Which, in turn, is teaching them how to code (the coding-blocks software was developed by MIT, apparently, and there are more than a hundred coding combinations to be tried in the missions and stories that kids create when prompted by the app). “It fosters coding skills and programming language,” says Dr. Taylor Chesney, Psy.D., director of the Feeling Good Institute NYC. “It’s a great way to integrate the power of play and the power of technology.” An Amazon reviewer agrees, noting, “My daughter has some coding programs that she plays around with online, but it has been really gratifying to see her make the connection between coding and tangible results that she can see and play with.”
This microscope comes with a host of science-lab accessories including blank and prepared slides, a petri dish, stains, forceps, dissecting needle, etc. Amazon reviewers were especially impressed with the microscope’s dual lights and three magnification levels (40x, 100x, 400x). One Amazon such reviewer, a self-identified microbiologist, called it “a good working microscope” (which would seem to mean a lot coming from a microbiologist). Another five-star reviewer raved that their son “decided to keep it near his bed in order to ‘keep exploring’ when he woke up.”
“I got a stand-up keyboard like this for my grandson when he was about 7 years old, and I’m convinced this is why he’s turned into a self-taught musician who now, at 16, is releasing his own albums on iTunes!” says Annamarie Mazzella, a retired kindergarten teacher and grandmother of six kids ranging in age from 8 to 16. “The keys are full size, like a real piano.” In general, since this is made for beginners both young and grown-up, there’s nothing juvenile-looking about it (this being an age when kids are starting to become less and less interested in things that appear to be made for kids). And it has a lesson-function button that teaches you different built-in songs (like ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’) with listening and timing modes — and overall great sound.
According to the data, Dr. Golinkoff notes, “the more puzzlelike games kids play, the better their math skills are.” She adds that “spatial games are important, too,” because we navigate spaces all the time. And so here you have a game that hits both notes: The magnetic tiles can be arranged on the steel board to form several different kinds of puzzles, or you can use repeating and nonrepeating patterns to create all kinds of designs — be it a starburst or a spaceship. And the instruction booklet explains different types of symmetry. In other words, a lot here for the child to grow with. As an Amazon reviewer put it: “Wonderful gift for my 6- and 7-year-old granddaughters and also enjoyed by an older sister. They stuck with suggested patterns at first but then began to create their own.”
“It’s never too early to start teaching good fiscal policy,” says Zibby Owens, author, mom of four, and host of Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books. This battery-operated ATM-meets-piggy-bank helps kids learn how to budget and save money; they use their pretend debit card and pin code to deposit bills or coins in the designated slots and can look to the digital screen to see their savings accumulate (or dwindle as they make withdrawals). It can be serious business, adds Owens: “My 5-year-old son started charging me to enter our pantry!”
Brain Candy/Reasonably Priced
The Blume Doll by Skyrocket brings the excitement of “unboxing,” a phenomenon among YouTube’s younger influencers, right into the hands of any kid. The dolls come hidden within a plastic flower pot. Add a little water and dolls “bloom,” specifically the doll’s brightly colored and whimsically shaped hair, right out of the pot — revealing which of the 22 collectible dolls you have. Blume Dolls are the latest standout for this holiday season, according to Adrienne Appell of the Toy Association. And Skyrocket told us Blume Dolls — each one comes with hair, accessories, and stickers can be mixed and matched across the collection — are most popular with kids ages 4 to 8 years. “We are also encouraging kids to [create] DIY artwork [with] their pots and create something that is long-lasting for their rooms,” Lindsey Schenfiti, VP of marketing at Skyrocket, told The Toy Book this summer.
“Kids this age are geniuses at improvisation,” says Rumaan Alam, a novelist and father of a 7-year-old and a 10-year-old. “A pad of Post-its is a flip book; it’s a storybook; it’s a wall mosaic that won’t cost your security deposit; it’s two-dozen very small paper airplanes. It doesn’t sound like much of a gift, but trust me: Kids love office supplies.”
“The boys and girls I’ve worked with over the years have always loved origami, especially once they’ve gotten a little bit older, like 7 or so, because it’s an age when they really start using their imagination in new ways,” says Kasia Dabrowska, a longtime Manhattan nanny. “There’s an instruction book to follow, but they don’t have to follow the instruction book; it’s not just about following instructions. They can just come up with their own animal shapes with these bright colors and patterns, then create pretend scenes with them.” And in addition to being high quality (and complete with craft string and stickers), this set by Creativity Kids stands out because, as one very satisfied Amazon customer noted after considering several other origami options and ultimately landing on this one: “The best part is that they have YouTube videos for each one” of the many different designs you can fold in 3-D.