Tween boys (roughly ’tween the ages of 9 and 12) straddle a real middle ground. While they’re interested in a lot of the same things as 17-year-olds and even some adults, many of them still enjoy playing with LEGOs and plush toys. And because kids in this age range mature at different rates, picking out a great gift for a tween boy you don’t know very well can be a challenge.
Jennifer Lynch, a content developer and toy-trends specialist at the Toy Association, says that despite many assumptions that tween boys would rather read an encyclopedia than admit to playing with toys, that isn’t necessarily true. “We’re seeing that toys are aging up, and there’s even a cool factor to having a collection of items like Squishmallows taking over your room,” Lynch explains. Additionally, she says kids don’t actually play less as they enter their tween and teen years — “How they play is really what changes.” So instead of having a tea party with their dolls or role-playing their favorite movie or TV show characters with action figures, lots of tweens and teens will start to gravitate toward collecting and displaying their toys.
As the mom of a tween boy myself, I’ve noticed that my son’s most recent wishlists usually include collectible toys (like Funko Pops), tech products (like accessories for his beloved Nintendo Switch), and things that speak to his current interests (like drawing supplies and comic books). My gift-buying process has had to evolve and become more thoughtful as he’s gotten older, and I’ve had to truly consider what fits his personality and interests — all without straying too far from what feels age-appropriate.
So to get a good sense of the best electronics, video games, toys, books, and other gifts that tween boys (like my son) will love, we talked to tween boys as well as Lynch and other toy experts — from a bookstore owner to parents of tweens. The gifts we heard about run the gamut from Bluetooth speakers to BMX bikes to Pokémon cards — read on for the top recommendations.
Toys and games
If you want a traditional, simple board game, Jackie Cucco, senior editor at the Toy Insider, suggests 5 Second Rule. “Each player takes a turn in the hot seat with only five seconds to name three things based on a card prompt,” she explains. The prompts range from cereals to book series to items in Grandma’s purse. “You never know what kind of wacky answers you’re going to spit out,” she says.
According to Lynch, tweens who would love a 3-D printer as a gift but don’t have the skills to operate one will enjoy making smaller-scale creations with this newbie-friendly (and kid-safe) 3-D pen kit. Lynch says it allows kids to make just about anything they can think up — like a figurine for their desk or a tiny bowl to hold spare change.
According to Mary Couzin, founder and CEO of People of Play, “One of the best ways to hold a tween’s attention” and foster family connections is “when you are gathering around a board game.” She suggests the boxed version of the viral game Wordle. Unlike the online version, the board game is a group effort: One player writes down a secret five-letter word while the other players try to figure it out in as few attempts as possible.
For a less cerebral game, Couzin suggests Hand-to-Hand Wombat, which comes from the makers of two other Strat-approved games, Throw Throw Burrito and Exploding Kittens. Here’s how you play: Some people will act as good wombats and others are bad wombats. Players close their eyes and either construct or destroy towers before time runs out. When everyone opens their eyes again, you vote on who the tower-wrecking bad wombat is. The fast-paced, 15-minute play time is a nice bite-size activity that is easy enough to fit into otherwise busy days.
For budding engineers, Jayme Cellitioci, a creativity-and-innovation strategist for the National Inventors Hall of Fame, recommends gifting “STEM tools that allow them to express their ideas and creativity.” This kit from Kiwi Co. includes all of the tools, instructions, and doodads necessary to build a walking robot. The brand has a variety of affordable kits to choose from, like a machine that tumbles rows of dominoes and a bubble-maker. One tip Cellitioci shares when it comes to kits like these is to include time together to actually build it: “Sometimes, project-based kits sit on the shelf. When you give a kit that includes time to get together and create or build, perhaps even pre-watching resource videos that might come with the kit, it increases the odds of a young person gaining a meaningful STEM experience.”
A mix between volleyball and four square, Spikeball requires kids to use their individual physical skills while working together in order to win. When PE teachers at Wood End Elementary School in Reading, Massachusetts, introduced their kids to the game, they tweeted that they “saw some great displays of teamwork and sportsmanship” among the third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders.
The 26-year-old Pokémon franchise is as popular as ever, and the trading cards still reign supreme. Ten-year-old Miles was gifted this trainer box for his birthday and, as a self-professed Pokémon megafan, he said it was his favorite present among his birthday loot. The box contains eight booster packs with cards featuring Pokémon from the Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield video games, 65 card sleeves, 45 Energy cards, and a handful of other accessories. Miles immediately added all of his new cards to his binder, because he prefers to collect cards instead of swapping them, but they can also be shuffled into your tween’s existing deck for trading and playing.
We’ve talked to parents, experts, and kids about the scooters they love, and the ones from Micro Kickboard are the most recommended. Vox Media senior engineer manager Ryan Freebern says that both of his kids, who are 8 and 13 years old, ride a Micro Kickboard, calling it “super sturdy and reliable.” This two-wheel model is a nice upgrade from the ubiquitous three-wheel scooters younger kids use for tweens who are ready to put their more developed balance skills to good use.
One item we’ve heard about from multiple tween boys is Funko Pop! figurines. “I like to collect Funko Pops! because they have lots of different characters to choose from my favorite shows, games, and comics,” says tween Peyton. Joshua, an 11-year-old in sixth grade, has his eye on a Dwight Schrute Funko Pop!, and Matthew, then a sixth-grader, said he wants Todoroki from the anime series My Hero Academia: “It’s like fire and the ice is coming off of him. It’s awesome.” James Zahn, senior editor at the Toy Insider, told us that Funko Pop! Gold Vinyl figurines are popular with tweens into sports and music. “They come in two sizes and are good options for collector tweens, teens, and adults,” Zahn says.
According to Cucco, “This is a great STEM item for children who like to build stuff.” Kids can use the kit to create a 3-D house or tower and brush up on their science skills in the process, as it includes “real circuits to learn about how electricity works,” she explains.
Lynch says emotional health has emerged as a prominent theme in the tween realm, which translates into stress-alleviating toys such as fidget putty becoming more popular. Charlie Stringer, 11, loves putty — like Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty — and plans on “bringing it to school for a fidget.” And as an anti-slime parent, I can say the texture of this putty is far less cumbersome and more rubbery compared with slime, making it easier to handle and less likely to leave behind a trail of residue.
Accessories, clothing, and decor
Along with those collectible Funko Pops! Matthew would like a set of color-changing LED lights. Like the string lights that topped our cool-teen poll and our dorm-room-décor stories, these LED lights are a long-standing trend that lets kids put their own spin on their space.
Miles, an established Pokémon fanatic, considers his 12-inch Eevee plush to be one of his most prized possessions (next to his Nintendo Switch). He says that, aside from Eevee being his favorite Pokémon, he likes to use this jumbo plush as décor and a cozy pillow.
Crocs have been trending with tweens and teens (and honestly adults, too) for a couple of years. Ten-year-old Rex D. says he wants a new pair and would personalize his by mismatching the colors. He particularly likes brights and neons.
When we talked to kids who were prepping to go back to school, they told us that ankle and no-show socks are out and tall socks are in. According to Rex D., this trend is still relevant. He would like tie-dyed or neon socks to go under his Crocs “because they’re comfortable, and I like the way they look.”
For tween boys who gravitate toward artsy endeavors, Cullen Gardepe, assistant director and lead teacher at A Spunky Little Arts Co., says offering them “real student-level art supplies in the particular medium they’re interested in, rather than toys” is essential to helping them lean into their craft. Gardepe says Posca paint markers are among the most popular art supplies in her classroom and would be a solid gift for a tween who’s interested in creating.
Tech and electronics
Most of the boys we talked to said they either wanted to get a Nintendo Switch or already owned one. Joshua called it “the coolest gift I could imagine getting.” Rajan, a 10-year-old who already has an Xbox, says the problem with the Xbox is that “you can only play it at your house.” He has played the Switch at friends’ houses and likes that it’s portable. “You can play Nintendo Switch anywhere, and you can get the same games as you can get on Xbox — and maybe even more,” he says. Two of the boys who already own the console told us they would like to receive more games and new controllers. Miles has had his Switch for three years, and for every birthday and gift-giving holiday, he requests a game, an accessory, or a controller.
If your tween prefers a classic system, give the Xbox Series X, according to Rex D. While it comes at a higher price point compared with the compact Nintendo Switch, Tom Warren, a writer for our sister site The Verge, says it’s well worth it. “Microsoft’s next-gen Xbox comes the closest I’ve ever witnessed to re-creating the superior PC experience of playing games,” Warren told us.
Rex D. also told us one of his favorite things to do post-practice is hop on his Xbox and play games with friends. To connect, he says, “we all have mic headsets so we can all talk to each other.” This one has a built-in battery for 15 hours of use and comes highly recommended by Kahlief Adams, host of the gaming podcast Spawn on Me — who described it as having “stunning, immersive sound at a fantastic price.” When you’re purchasing a gaming headset, make sure to choose one that’s compatible with your system.
While many tween boys would love to unwrap high-tech virtual-reality headsets like the Oculus, Lynch says these often aren’t age-appropriate. But that doesn’t mean diving into virtual reality is totally off the table. “Luckily, there are some more kid-friendly options on the market that pack in some educational value,” she says, recommending the Bill Nye VR Science Kit from Abacus Brands, which uses a kid-safe headset for doing science experiments alongside Nye.
Tobey Grumet Segal, a tech writer and mother of two tween boys, recommends the UE Boom 3 Bluetooth speaker. It gives kids “the freedom to play their own tunes in their own space,” she says. “That’s why we adore this waterproof and dustproof Bluetooth speaker. It weighs only 1.3 pounds and works as far as 150 feet from its source. The boys can perch it in the shower or throw it in a beach bag, and we never have to worry about it breaking.”
Half of the boys we talked to said they wanted a pair of AirPods or AirPods Pro, which cost about $100 more than the originals but seem to fit some ears better and have the added benefit of noise cancelation. Grant, 13, wants AirPods, because “I like listening to music, and I don’t have good headphones.” Sasha, 12, wants them for listening to podcasts and Drake — and because they look cool. “I think they’re nicer than over-ears because they’re not as bulky, so I can just put ’em in my pocket,” he says.
“Whatever you do, don’t call it a night-light,” Segal says. “The Echo Glow is an Amazon Alexa–connected LED smart light that gives our boys ambient light without making them feel like little kids.” It’s roughly the size of a softball, and it can be set to a certain color, “cycle through a rainbow timer, or light up with fun patterns called things like Campfire, Disco, and Underwater.” And if your tweens have a hard time waking up for school, “the Echo Glow gradually brightens until it’s time for the alarm to go off,” Segal adds.
Several boys we spoke to said they would like to receive books from a favorite series. George specifically asked for the Fullmetal Alchemist graphic novels. And Joshua is looking forward to reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
A fusion of adventure, otherworldly mystics, and traditional African folklore, this series follows seventh-grader Tristan Strong as he fights to save the world with a cast of heroic characters. Shereen Rahming says her 10-year-old son, Ian, immediately took to the main character, because “he can actually relate to Tristan. He looks like him, he speaks like him, and his family looks like our family.” There are three books in the series, so if they fall in love with the story, you can buy them the entire set.
Kazz Alexander Pinkard, executive director of Hit the Books, an after-school nonprofit in Harlem, suggested The Stars Beneath Our Feet as a title to read during Black History Month — but it’s a fitting choice for tweens any time of year. Pinkard told us the book “deals with making wise choices in an otherwise complicated environment” and that its themes of “trying to search for answers, figure things out, and make sense of the world around you” are pretty universal for tweens.
Additional reporting by Liza Corsillo and Jordan Bowman.
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