gifts they might actually want

The Best Gifts for 12-Year-Olds, According to Experts

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While you may think the tween years all blend together, those who spend a lot of time with adolescents say that is not exactly the case. “In the library, we say that 12 is ‘young adult’: When you’re this age, you’re straddling that children’s and teen section in life,” explains Lisa Goldstein, a librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library. Not only do kids mature at different rates, but as they get deeper into puberty, they’re negotiating their freedom more. “Adolescence is all about the dialectic of freedom versus supervision,” says Matt Lundquist, a psychotherapist in private practice in Manhattan.

So when it comes to choosing gifts for these not-yet-teenagers, your best bet is to let their interests be your guide. For instance, while some 12-year-olds may still like playing with dolls and board games, it’s possible that a toy perceived as babyish may offend your giftee, according to psychotherapist Alyson Cohen. And Jennifer Lynch, content developer at the Toy Association, notes that for this age group, “although they’ve grown up digital natives, they still crave hands-on products that allow them to express their creativity and individuality.” That’s why Lundquist stresses the importance of taking the time “to get to know a young person and offer a gift that facilitates deeper exploration.” For those who may not have that time, though, we asked Goldstein, Lundquist, Cohen, Lynch, and 18 more experts (including actual 12-year-olds and parents of 12-year-olds) to recommend the best gifts for 12-year-olds. Then we organized the list by price, so if you have a specific budget in mind, you can use the table of contents to jump ahead — or read on to see all of their picks.

And if you’re buying gifts for kids of different ages, don’t miss our meticulously curated Strategist Toy Store, which is full of greatest hits, or our other age-specific gift guides for 1-year-olds, 2-year-olds, 3-year-olds, 4-year-olds, 5-year-olds, 6-year-olds, 7-year-olds, 8-year-olds, 9-year-olds, 10-year-olds, and 11-year-olds as well as teenage girls and boys.

Under $25

Toy Insider senior editor Jackie Cucco says all kinds of toys from the ’90s, including the Tamagotchi, have made a U-turn and are trending again. The OG version features the same gameplay as it did when it launched in 1997, allowing tweens who’ve never heard of Tamagotchis to enjoy feeding and caring for their new digital pets. But there are also a host of newer models, like this Harry Potter–themed Nano and the new wearable Uni, that offer more games, ways to connect with friends’ Tamagotchi, and the option to play with dozens of different pets.

Nearly every parent, teacher, and toy-store owner we’ve talked to over the years has recommended buying Legos for kids. And while the open-ended, free build version of the toy is preferred by many child-development experts, the creator series sets make excellent gifts for older kids. This set comes recommended by sixth grader Benny, who likes that you get three builds in one, all of which “would look really cool displayed on a desk,” she says.

‘Pop It!’ Pro Game
$19
$19

Pop Its, with their satisfying bubble-wrap-esque sensibility, are among the most ubiquitous fidget toys for kids (and adults) who need an outlet for releasing pent-up jitters. But Mary Couzin, founder and CEO of People of Play, recommends this “next level” edition for older kids who may have lost interest in more basic versions. It adds three game modes to the basic bubble-popping setup, with lights that dictate which bubbles to pop next and 20 levels of difficulty. The screen-free toy can also be an entertaining addition to a family road trip or plane ride.

Like many middle-schoolers, Brooklyn seventh-grader Isky, who spoke with us last year about back-to-school essentials, is a big fan of the anime series Naruto. In addition to his Naruto-themed watchband and lunch bag, Isky says this fully articulated action figure is among his favorite merch. I got a chance to see it myself at the New York Toy Fair this fall and was impressed by its level of detail and relatively low price.

James Zahn, senior editor at the Toy Insider, noted that escape rooms have been really popular and highlighted this version of Clue, which puts a cool twist on the famous board game. In addition to navigating the expected elements like figuring out who killed the victim with what weapon, players also have to work together to figure out how to get out of the mansion first.

Recommended by Books Are Magic bookseller Margaret Gill, The Tryout centers on Christina and Megan, two besties and self-professed nerds. As they enter seventh grade, the pair are ready to climb their school’s social ladder — and decide to start by trying out for cheerleading. Gill describes the light-hearted page-turner as “a pitch-perfect coming-of-age story.”

As we noted in our gift guide for 11-year-olds, Squishmallows remain popular even among tweens who aren’t as interested in stuffed animals as they used to be. According to Lynch, the seemingly endless options mean “kids can use them to customize their space,” and their “collectibility” makes them a hot gift item year-round. They come in over 1,000 styles and range in size, from small enough to dangle from a backpack to two-foot-tall giants. This dragon in a bandana gets the seal of approval from 12-year-old Benny for its “grandma-ish hair style.”

If you think your 12-year-old would prefer a graphic novel that’s lighter in content, Goldstein suggests Fake Blood, which she describes as “kind of like Twilight meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” It’s about A.J., who has a huge crush on Nia, who is obsessed with vampires. In order to get her attention, he decides to become a vampire, but then he finds out that Nia is in fact a vampire slayer, putting his whole plan — and life — in jeopardy. “This book fits in with the idea of identity and speaks to kids who feel like they’re not enough,” says Goldstein. “This actually tells them that you don’t have to pretend to be something you’re not; you’re actually great as you are,” she explains, adding that “it’s also really, really funny.”

A favorite of 12-year-old Maelle Hauck, this fast-paced series from the author of The Hunger Games is full of otherworldly creatures, adventure, and mystery. Tweens who like fantasy and action will zoom through the five-book series, and the complete box set is under $30, making it an especially robust and affordable gift.

Jarrett Krosoczka may be known for his picture books and graphic novels for younger readers (like his popular Lunch Lady series), but this, the first book he wrote for older kids, is a little heavier: It’s a memoir about his life growing up with an addict mother. While 12 is on the younger end of the book’s age range, Goldstein says the story will appeal to kids who may see themselves in it. “It’s written from his viewpoint as a teenager, and it definitely works for kids working on that idea of identity,” she says. “If you’re struggling, something you’re good at, like art, can be your way out.” The book contains letters, drawings, and photographs from when Krosoczka grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, creating “a cool mixed-media” experience, she adds. “For kids who like graphic novels, the book is a way for them to move on to somewhat heavier work with heavier content. It is very serious but it’s also something that a lot of kids experience themselves.”

Goldstein calls The Prince and the Dressmaker “a frothy, fun, and joyful fairy tale that also deals with the subtlety of gender identities.” The story centers on Prince Sebastian, whose parents are searching for a bride for him. But he would rather wear dresses and be Lady Christalia, his alter ego. Luckily, his best friend and dressmaker Frances shares his secret, but that means putting her own dreams aside to protect her friend. “The book is full of acceptance and beautiful fashion, like frilly dresses, and colors that are like rainbow sherbet,” Goldstein adds.

Recommended by Books Are Magic kids department supervisor Anna Milliken and bookseller Camryn Garrett, this nonfiction series debunks the most common misconceptions about real-life historical events, from the American Revolution to the sinking of the Titanic. Garrett calls it a “fun and educational series” that is “perfect for fans of Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales or the I Survived books.”

$21

Strategist writer Latifah Miles and her family own no less than 50 board games, and her tween son, a board-game fanatic, asks to play this one the most. The Game of Life moves faster than Monopoly but uses many of the same core concepts like counting money and decision-making. Despite losing many rounds over the years that they’ve owned it, Miles says it’s a treat to watch her son get excited about clearing out his “bank account” to buy a waterfront beach house or go to night school instead.

Gus, who had just turned 12 when we talked to him, told us that 12 is the age when kids really start getting into this ever-popular card game. If you think your giftee would prefer a strategy-based game that’s a little more complex and consuming than Clue or Life, Gus recommended a core set or any starter set, like this one, to provide an introduction to the game.

Under $50

When we asked her about her favorite art supplies for kids, writer and mom Alexandra Lange suggested this Paint by Numbers kit she recently gave to her tween son. “I got the ranch house, and he got the succulent array from the same company. I have his painting on my bureau because he did what the kit said and then gave it something extra,” she says.

Bonnyco Cinema Light Box
$25
$25

As our experts pointed out, this age is when kids start to look for more ways to freely express themselves and their interests. Which is exactly why Lori Jepsen, who reviews and blogs about toys for Toysenberry, recommends this light box. “It has so many options for kids to express their creativity,” she says, including “colored letters, emojis, and a background light that changes color with a remote.” The fact that it doubles as bedroom décor will make it an even bigger hit.

$32

While your preteen may initially scoff at Pindaloo, “once they get off the couch and try it, they’ll be addicted,” promises Jepsen. She says it’s always fun to pull out after a long day of studying, because the game “actually helps hone their focus, coordination, and balance skills.” Plus, it can be a great confidence booster. “They’ll love the sense of accomplishment they get once they master getting the ball to do a continuous loop through the tube.”

Gem-collecting is a hobby beloved by both kids and adults, and National Geographic’s gemstone advent calendar provides 24 different stones to discover one by one, then trade, display, and turn into jewelry.

Under $100

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, because it includes “real circuits to learn about how electricity works,” she explains.

If your 12-year-old is looking to pick up a new hobby, Chris Byrne, who also goes by the Toy Guy, says he has several friends who are magicians “and they all started learning and performing around this age.” This VR Magic Kit from Abacus, he explains, “really helps kids learn to do tricks. It’s a great jumping-off place (even if the kids don’t end up on America’s Got Talent).”

For kids with an interest in travel, Cucco says the K’NEX Architecture series will let them experience world views without leaving home. The series includes buildable versions of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Eiffel Tower, the London Eye, and the Empire State Building. Eighth-grader Kellen says he would love one of the above K’NEX sets: “It’s cool because you can build it like a LEGO.”

According to Zahn, tweens don’t age out of their toy phase as quickly as a lot of adults might assume. “What we’re seeing more of is a thoughtful expansion of the doll category as kids move from playing with dolls to collecting them instead,” Zahn says — and even kids who have moved away from imaginative role-playing with their dolls can re-dress them and put them on display. For tween Harry Potter fans who already have a beloved American Girl doll, this wizard uniform will let them switch up the doll’s style with Hogwarts-ready flair.

Couzin suggested this outdoor toy as an alternative for kids “who are not quite ready for the full impact that comes along with paintball” — though it’s still crucial to wear the safety goggles that come in the box. It shoots gel beads called Gellets, which ship dry but expand when you soak them in water. Over time, the Gellets dry out and are biodegradable, so you don’t need to clean them up post-battle.

‘Madden NFL 24’
$41
$41

For young gamers, 12-year-old Mateus recommends the latest edition of Madden NFL. “As soon as they release the new game, they stop updating the old one,” he explains. Madden NFL ’24 debuted back in August for PlayStation and Xbox. When they need a break from the field, players can jump into Superstar mode — a feature popular in the mid-aughts that was recently reintroduced — to cosplay the full pro-football-player lifestyle and build a career.

When we talked to Pokémon fans of all ages, many were impatiently awaiting the release of two Pokémon games for Nintendo Switch: Pokémon Scarlet and Pokémon Violet. Both have been out for a while now and are well-loved for the open-exploration style of gameplay that lets players trot around freely. New for 2023 is something just as fun and much more adorable: Detective Pikachu Returns. Rather than centering on battles, like in Scarlet and Violet, Detective Pikachu is a mystery game that hinges on a player’s knowledge of different Pokémon to help advance and solve the puzzle.

Super Mario Bros. Wonder
$52
$52

Our friends over at Polygon have christened the newest iteration of Super Mario Bros. “a kaleidoscopic festival of innovation that chucks new ideas at the player incessantly.” Included in those innovations is the absence of a time limit for each level — a literal game changer. For 12-year-olds who saw and loved this year’s Super Mario movie or for those who appreciate taking their time getting to the big boss, Super Mario Bros. Wonder is a gift that can’t miss.

$100 and up

Similar to the standard Kindle Paperwhite, the kids’ version can hold all of your young reader’s favorite titles. As the mom of a tween who is trying to find his preferred genre (which oftentimes means he’s just not reading at all), Miles appreciates the parental dashboard that lets her check in on his progress, keep track of what he’s reading, and manage age filters. The device comes with a free one-year Amazon Kids+ subscription, which provides access to age-appropriate games, books, and educational content (games and apps can be viewed on other Fire devices and Fire TV). Extra avid readers will like the press-to-define feature (so they can just click a word to show the definition) and the ability to access their books on the go.

Byrne says remote-control cars and other vehicles are “always good ideas for this age group.” Of the hundreds of options available, this extra-large all-terrain model is our pick for 12-year-olds. I got to test one out at the Toy Fair, driving it over the body of a public-relations person and eventually crashing it into a nearby wall. It’s incredibly rugged and fun to drive with a tight turning radius and massive grippy wheels. It even comes with working LED headlights so you can drive it at night.

Part of the freedom 12-year-olds seek of course includes the ability to tune people out (especially parents), so it’s not surprising that one of the most popular ways to do that — Apple’s AirPod headphones — comes suggested by kids themselves. Twelve-year-old Sasha told us, “I think they’re nicer than over-ears because they’re not as bulky, so I can just put them in my pocket.” You can save on the earlier second-generation set or splurge on the AirPods Pro, which have active noise canceling and touch volume control.

While AirPods are eternally popular, they’re not the only tween-approved headphones. Gus also called out this traditional over-ear pair from Strategist-approved Sennheiser, which has a velour-lined headband and an “open back” design for added comfort. They’re also cheaper than AirPods, making them a good choice if you have a tighter budget.

In our gift guide for tween boys, 12-year-old Joshua told us that receiving this 3-D printer would allow him to further hone the skills he’s learned in his after-school robotics club, where he uses a similar machine. “You never know what you can make out of your ideas,” he says — especially with free apps like Tinkercad, which lets you 3-D print your own designs.

They may not officially be teenagers yet, but 12-year-olds need a cozy place to lounge, read, play video games, and occasionally sulk just as much as any high-schooler does. This lilac beanbag chair from Yogibo took one of the top spots on our list of the very best beanbag chairs; in addition to being satisfyingly squishy yet supportive, the Pod X comes in over a dozen colors and has a convenient handle so kids can easily drag it around the house.

Additional reporting by Latifah Miles, Lauren Ro, and Dominique Pariso.

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The Best Gifts for 12-Year-Olds, According to Experts