the toy matrix

The Only Gift Guide for a 10-Year-Old You’ll Ever Need

Photo-Illustration: Photo-Illustration: Stevie Remsberg; Photos: Courtesy of the retailers

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By the time kids reach their first double-digit birthday, they “can think more abstractly” and have developed “the ability to gather information and formulate well-organized thoughts,” says Glenda Stoller, a psychotherapist in private practice in Manhattan. And with an increased “fluency in multiplication, division, and fractions,” Stoller adds that 10-year-olds’ math skills are expanding too. As for how that translates to the way they play, Kristin Morency Goldman, a senior editor at the Toy Association, explains that “kids around 10 years old are already playing independently” and that many are into collecting toys as much as they are into playing with them. All of which is to say they can get a lot out of the STEM and craft kits, word and math games, collectible dolls, and two dozen or so more suggestions that follow.

Acting as a kid-centric version of New York Magazine’s “Approval Matrix,” the Strategist’s Toy Matrix applies the model of what falls where on our taste hierarchies to the infinitely expanding toy universe. To assemble this list of the best toys and gifts for 10-year-olds, we talked to professionals such as Stoller and Morency Goldman and lots of discerning parents plus scoured the internet and our archives for a few celebrity favorites, including the classic game of Yahtzee beloved by Sarah Jessica Parker and her family. Then we mapped them onto a handy grid whose four sides are “Educational” (say, a crystal-growing kit), “Brain Candy” (an instant camera), “Reasonably Priced” (under $50), and “Splurgy” ($50 and up). Each toy in each 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.

If you already know what you’re looking for, you can jump directly to the section that interests you most in the table of contents or read all the way through to get the full picture of what kids are into these days. Whether you’re shopping for a birthday or the holidays or any other day, it’s a list that keeps on giving.

Note: A lot of these toys are already sold out or not expected to arrive by Christmas, and shipping windows are closing fast as the holiday nears. We’ve noted below which toys will arrive by Christmas as of press time, so if you see something you like below that will ship in time, you’ll want to order quickly. (And because the perfect present is always worth the wait, we left in toys that won’t arrive by December 25 but would still make great gifts.)

Educational–Reasonably Priced

‘Codenames’
$13

“This is the greatest game,” according to Strategist contributor and dad David Pogue, “and all ages can play.” Two “spymaster” players give their respective teammates one-word clues that can point to multiple words on the board. Their teammates try to guess which words the spymasters are hinting at while avoiding those that belong to the opposing team. For example, you might say “park” because you want your teammate to guess the cards that say “swing set” and “car.” Pogue calls it “truly hilarious and satisfying,” and though the manufacturer has it labeled for kids a bit older, Pogue points out that “Codenames is super-fun with younger kids because they make fantastically imaginative connections between the words.”

For a 10-year-old who’s already mastered the classic Rubik’s Cube — their fine-motor skills are improving at this age, according to Stoller — puzzle designer Adam G. Cowan presents a new challenge. Unlike the rainbow Rubik’s Cube, the steely toned Ghost Cube does not involve aligning colors but rather twisting up all kinds of shapes, after which you are faced with the task of returning the pieces to the original cube form. The puzzle, which was introduced in 2013 (a relative ingenue compared with Erno Rubik’s invention of 1974), is “hours of fun,” according to Beth Beckman, a co-founder of Little Kid Big City New York. “I came across it in a boutique toy store, and my son went crazy for it. He said it was a ‘way cooler’ version of a Rubik’s Cube that was dressed as a mummy.” In Amazon reviews, it has been called both “a thing of beauty” and “very spooky!”

Note: This toy arrives by Christmas.

Speaking of things of beauty: This crystal-growing kit is a hands-on way to teach kids about geology and experimentation (“10-year-olds enjoy science projects,” Stoller affirms). You dissolve powdery compounds in hot water and add seeds according to the instructions, then watch your faceted red, purple, blue, and white stones sprout under clear domes and live on and on and on.

Toy Insider senior editor James Zahn says puzzles are a mainstay for all ages, and this 3-D Batmobile puzzle is challenging enough to keep tweens interested. The thick pieces won’t bend or fold while your giftee is fitting them together, and the pieces are made to interlock and stay put without any glue. After they assemble the 255-piece puzzle, they can display the Batmobile in their room. (If they aren’t a fan of the Dark Knight, the brand also has a Harry Potter collection and the Ghostbuster Ectomobile.)

Zahn says this STEM kit, which helps kids pick up engineering skills by building their own foam-dart blaster, “is a prime example of a way that toy companies are connecting with older kids by merging play with learning.” Screen and battery free, the kit comes with an assembly guide, all of the pieces to put it together, and six darts. The brand notes that 10-year-olds may need some help to complete the build, but for kids who are interested in how things work, the challenge is part of the fun.

Prime Climb
$28
$28

Leaning on the math skills your 10-year-old is learning in school, Prime Club gives young players “meaningful practice with addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division as they move around the board making decisions about which operation will advance them or bump opponents back,” says Maya Smart, a mom, educator, and the author of Reading for Our Lives. The game is designed for two to four players, is fun for adults to play with their kids, and according to one Amazon reviewer, “because of the strategy involved, this isn’t just a game to help kids learn their math facts, but a game that helps develop deeper mathematical thinking and the ability to predict several moves ahead.”

Educational-Splurgy

This virtual-reality world-traveler kit exposes kids to foreign countries, different cultures, and historical monuments around the globe. “It combines reading in a traditional form with virtual reality to create a total immersive experience for exploration and discovery,” says Chris Byrne, who’s also known as the “Toy Guy.” With the help of a smartphone, VR goggles, and an app, the interactive augmented-reality atlas guides kids through games, activities, and videos that teach them about everything from the building of the Colosseum to digging up dinosaur bones.

Zahn says many 10-year-olds gravitate toward crafts and building sets like the ones from K’Nex, which allow them to flex both their construction skills and creativity. This K’Nex bundle contains two sets: one that comes with 480 pieces — including wheels, rods, and rotors, plus an instruction booklet that kids can use to build 35 models — and another that comes with 250 pieces and allows them to assemble a 3-D, battery-operated dinosaur.

Taking a screen-time break to head outdoors is essential for growing kids, and Adrienne Appell of the Toy Association says the SmartLab Outdoor Science Lab kit is a “great way to keep kids engaged outside while learning.” The kit contains 21 activities designed to introduce children to various sciences including botany, geology, entomology, and chemistry. “It’s easy and portable,” Appell adds, the latter being a plus should your kid want to bring it along to an outdoor playdate.

If your Lego-fanatic 10-year-old is more musically inclined, Appell says this is “an amazing splurge gift.” The kit for the 3,662-piece grand piano includes a motor along with keys, pedals, and dampers that actually move. After they construct it, kids can sync the piano to the Lego Powered Up app, which allows them to play actual music on it (or to simply have the piano auto-play one of ten available songs).

Novelist Rumaan Alam, a father of two children, says Snap Circuits “is one of a whole slew of toys meant to appeal to STEM true believers. I don’t know if it’ll ensure your kid grows up to be an engineer, but I do know my kids spent many a cooped-up winter day building an AM radio or figuring out how to turn a little motor.” Ruka Curate, the founder of the Tiny Treasures Nanny Agency, recommends this arcade-themed kit, which is a more advanced Snap Circuits version for 10-year-olds. Another option, according to Lindsay Bell, the founder and owner of the Bell Family child-care company, is Snap Circuits Extreme, though it’s a bit more expensive.

Brain Candy–Reasonably Priced

For those 10-year-olds who need to “burn off some energy” (so… all 10-year-olds?), Byrne loves the “fast-paced action” of this Nerf-like blaster, which he says is appropriate for both indoor or outdoor play. It comes with sticky targets that can adhere to any flat surface, allowing kids to customize games and challenges, he says. “This delivers all the gross-motor benefits of active play but in a compact size that’s not going to do any damage — and the focus is on the competition with the targets.”

This 3-D Tetris game comes recommended by Ali Mierzejewski, the editor-in-chief of the Toy Insider. It works like the original version of the game except you’re competing in real time against the other players and sharing one pot of game pieces. “You have to be strategic about what pieces you need and try to predict what the other players will need while playing. It’s a really fun way to update the classic video game,” she says.

According to Morency Goldman, while tweens may seem as if they are aging out of playing with toys, their interests are really just shifting. “Tweens and teens are tapping into their playful sides and either getting into board games and puzzles, fan collectibles, or artistic/building toys,” she says. This line of collectible dolls inspired by Marvel’s latest Black Panther movie, Wakanda Forever, is intricately designed and features highly detailed costumes that mirror those worn in the film. There are three characters available to collect — Okoye, Nakia, and Shuri — and each one comes with a signature accessory (like Okoye’s powerful spear). The dolls also have 11-point articulation so kids can re-create their onscreen fighting poses.

Strategist writer Latifah Miles, who has a 10-year-old son with an interest in art and a deep appreciation for comic books, says he really enjoyed this fill-in-the-blanks-style sketchbook. “He always talks about wanting to create his own comic but can get overwhelmed” trying to plan it out, she says. “This book has individual boxes, examples, and tips to encourage him to create.”

This fast-paced board game’s main objective is to be the first to help all your aliens escape into outer space using a drone. Appell recommends it, telling us, “It’s the first game I’ve ever seen with a real flying drone.” The game, which is suitable for up to four players, “combines different kinds of play for a lot of fun,” she promises.

Appell says this game is “great for older kids because it’s wacky, silly, and good to play together.” Play is as easy as popping on the included goggles and trying to complete challenges like writing your name and giving high fives with your vision flipped upside down. While that may sound simple, she assures it results in lots of fun.

Pokémon will surely remain popular with 10-year-olds as long as its star (and Pokémon master) Ash remains 10 years old himself. Any Pokémon-related gifts have real staying power, and this, a board-game adaptation of the Pokémon trading-card game, is no exception, according to Jackie Cucco, a senior editor at the Toy Insider. “It’s easy to learn and understand, and there are ways to make the game more challenging so it doesn’t lose its play value over time,” she says. “It’s also screen free, which gives kids an alternative to video games and smartphones.”

If this nostalgic family rolling-and-shouting activity didn’t already have a special place in your heart, consider how it’s being passed down through generations in famous households like Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick’s. A highlight of SJP’s Instagram in the past couple years was when she called out her then 10-year-old daughter for her skills: “Tabitha Broderick, Yahtzee shark. She’s got hot dice. Always. And yes, she shellacked me.”

$18

Zahn, who is a dad to two tween girls, says DIY friendship-style jewelry is making a comeback. This set by Rainbow Loom comes with a colorful assortment of all the doodads and rubber bands a crafty 10-year-old will need to make bracelets they can trade with their friends. Zahn also told us that, while kids generally enjoy creating just for fun, he’s noticed that especially entrepreneurial kids have been using kits like this one to make designs they can sell.

Note: This toy arrives by Christmas.

$11

This version of Monopoly is for cheaters, specifically; the object is to see what you can get away with. “Isn’t that the way every kid plays all the time anyway?” says Zibby Owens, an author, mother of four (all early teens and younger), and host of Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books. The game, in Owens’s description, “encourages secret bank thefts, secret property swipes, and serious consequences if caught.” (It comes with a plastic set of handcuffs.) One of her kids “saw this advertised on TV, grabbed my iPad, and before I knew it had added it to his wish list. Now the whole family plays.”

Brain Candy–Splurgy

In addition to topping our list of the best roller skates for beginners, these skates from Impala were recommended by almost-10-year-old actress Quinn Copeland as a “really cool” gift for tween girls. “It would be so fun to pick up my skates, put them on, and go for a spin around the street,” she says.

Squishmallows are popular with kids of all ages, says Jennifer Lynch, a content developer at the Toy Association. But according to her, the large plush characters resonate most with older kids and even some teenagers. We’ve also heard from camp counselors and directors that Squishmallows are a common sight in older kids’ cabins. This 14-inch cheeseburger Squishmallow doubles as a throw pillow that kids can lean against or cuddle with in bed. “It’s sort of like a comfort toy or a security blanket but shaped like a unicorn, an octopus, a burrito,” or other cute animals or foods, he says.

When we talked to parents and experts about the best scooters for kids, the Micro Kickboard brand was the most mentioned by a long shot. Vox Media senior engineering manager and father of two Ryan Freebern says this two-wheeled model — which most kids are ready for by age 10 — is very well made and incredibly sturdy, and his eldest regularly rides it to school and back.

Although cornhole is a highly popular outdoors activity for all three of her children, New York deputy photo editor Emily Denniston says her 12-year-old was “especially competitive about it” at age 10. Considering how much use she knew it would get, she found this collapsible version that conveniently zips up into an 11-by-11-inch bag and weighs less than five pounds. It’s also a great gift for other people’s kids — the kind of thing parents might not think to buy themselves but will be very glad to have.

Appell told us about this LED version of the popular beach and yard game Spikeball. “This gives the ability to play in the dark,” she explains. The primary objective is to bounce the ball onto the net in such a way that the opposite team cannot return it. Like volleyball, a team is allowed three touches before it must be returned. If the ball isn’t returned, the opposing team scores one point. Once a team scores the designated number of points — and are ahead by a margin of at least two — they win.

Cameras in general are a great gift for this age, according to child therapists, but this version stands out: “The Instax Mini cameras are the simplest in Fujifilm’s instant-camera line, making them the kid-friendliest,” says instant-camera expert and New York city editor Chris Bonanos (he’s written two books, one about the history of Polaroid and another about the photographer Weegee, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for the best biography of the year). Bonanos continues, “They also use the least-expensive instant film Fuji makes, which can be important when kids don’t think about the economics of their party snapshots. My own 10-year-old took his to camp with the idea of photographing new friends and sending them home with souvenirs.”

This smart soccer ball is an innovative upgrade from the typical ball and comes with a stand to hold a smartphone. Download the DribbleUp Soccer app, sync your ball, and choose a warm-up or workout exercise. Says Denniston, “My son practices for hours with this ball and app and tracks his progress. People always stop him and ask what he is doing.”

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The Only Toy Gift Guide for a 10-Year-Old You’ll Ever Need