Age 9 marks the beginning of the tween years, a developmental phase situated in be“tween” childhood and adolescence. At the youngest end of the tween range, 9-year-olds might act like teenagers-in-training one minute and little kids the next. But they are moving in the direction of independence both where play and learning are concerned. Laura Phillips, senior director of the Learning and Development Center at the Child Mind Institute, says 9-year-olds are increasingly “fine-tuning areas of interest and of talent,” so “play” might look more like “practice” for their favorite activities — kicking a soccer ball around with friends, organizing a game of kickball, choreographing and practicing dance routines, or directing a play. Kelly Harris Smith, founder of children’s art space Minni and mom to a 9-year-old boy and and 11-year-old girl, says her kids have just started to move away from a lot of their toys in favor of new creative endeavors. “They still love to construct things together and now they are filming stop-motion scenes of their creations. It takes long time to set up and photograph each shot — sometimes hundreds of frames — but they are very into it,” she says.
Whatever hobby your particular 9-year-old is into, there is an age-appropriate gift to encourage, entertain, and delight them. We asked Phillips, Harris Smith, and other child development experts, as well as discerning parents and tween whisperers, to tell us about the best toys and games for kids this age — from catapult-building STEM kits to washable hair chalk. We’ve organized their suggestions by price, so if you have a specific budget in mind, you can use the table of contents to jump right to that section. Otherwise, you can browse through all of their picks to get an idea of what the 9-year-olds in your life are probably into right now.
And if you’re shopping for kids in other age groups, we have 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, 10-year-olds, 11-year-olds, and 12-year-olds — plus the meticulously curated Strategist Toy Store, which is filled with all of our greatest hits.
Puzzles are an easy gift to make personal, because they come in a million different designs featuring animals, food, sports, you name it. And they’re a fun way to connect as a family. “We do some really big puzzles — 500 to 1,000 pieces — especially when we have a long weekend,” says Harris Smith, who recommends Galison puzzles for their superior quality.
According to Anya Kamenetz, a writer who has covered education for NPR, mother of two, and author of The Art of Screen Time, “Kids this age are developing pretty specific interests and are growing in manual dexterity and independence.” She says that her kids love these 3-D puzzles of architectural marvels — including the Empire State Building, Taj Mahal, Notre-Dame, and the Colosseum.
“I came out of my office after doing a podcast and realized my 6-year-old and 12-year-old both had purple hair,” says Zibby Owens, author, mom of four, and host of Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books. That was because they’d been playing with this “hair chalk,” which appeals to many age groups and is, of course, only temporary. “It packs quite a punch but quickly and effortlessly comes out in the next shower,” Owens notes. It comes in ten different shades and can double as face paint.
The card game Rat-a-Tat Cat is great for the whole family. “Let’s just admit that most games for kids are boring for adults,” says Rumaan Alam, a novelist and father of two. This old-school Mensa winner does have some educational value in the form of strategy, memory, and basic math concepts, but it’s perhaps more beloved for its straightforward entertainment — getting rid of high cards (rats) and keeping low cards (cats). “My kid and I played it tournament style,” Alam says, “and it’s possible I had even more fun than he did.”
Harris Smith counts Plus-Plus as one of her personal favorite toys. “Similar to a lot of the toys my kids are currently into, it has to do with building and creating,” she says, adding that the possibilities to build both 2D and 3D shapes are endless. “My kids love them because they get to build without limits and can easily take them on the go. I love them because they’re a sustainability conscious brand, made in Denmark in a 100 percent wind-generated factory,” she says.
“This is the age where anything that has to do with slime is huge,” says Sachs. Fourth-grade teacher Courtney Caulfield adds that her students are always playing with the stuff, particularly glittery and neon varieties: “They love the feeling in their hands, and they insist that it helps them concentrate when they’ve been doing homework for a long time,” she says. This unicorn themed set from Elmer’s includes three pre-made slimes with special mix-in elements that change the look and feel of each one.
When we talked to parents, artists, and teachers about the best art supplies for kids, several of them said you can’t go wrong with colorful tape. And we think an assortment of Washi tape would be just right for this age group. It’s slightly thinner than masking tape and comes in all sorts of colors and patterns including geometric prints, glitter, animals, galaxy prints, plants, and more. It’d be an especially nice gift for a 9-year-old who likes to journal or write letters, or who likes to display their artwork at home, since it won’t damage your walls.
“I was really surprised at how it held up,” Sachs told us after revisiting this classic. He recommends it as “a very simple game that kids can get right away.” Caulfield says the kids in her class love it (along with other throwbacks like Monopoly, Trouble, and Chutes and Ladders). “They like it because they can play with friends,” she says, a big selling point for this age. These types of card-slash-board games can serve a dual purpose, providing both a fun activity and a way for kids to spend time with family.
The three-by-three-by-three Rubik’s Cube and its 43 quintillion combinations has celebrity fans like Will Smith, Chris Pratt, Justin Bieber, and Logic, who have all solved the puzzle on-camera — improving their memory skills, dexterity, and patience in the process. Ruka Curate, founder of the Tiny Treasures Nanny Agency, recommends it as a great exercise for the 9-year-old brain. “It’s a classic, and people still buy them! Super-affordable,” she says. And Westchester grandma and retired kindergarten teacher Annamarie Mazzella says her grandchildren have never outgrown it — one who is now in high school “still asks for one for Christmas every year.”
This STEM coding kit includes all the components and guides needed to build a very special motion sensor — when connected to an app on their tablet, it allows kids to perform their own tricks and actions that get translated to the screen. And since the kit is Star Wars–themed, those tricks and actions involve familiar faces like Baby Yoda. Dr. Sanam Hafeez, neuropsychologist and founder of Comprehensive Consultation Psychological Services, likes that after kids finish building, they have something new to play with: They get the educational and developmental benefits of coding work, Hafeez explains, along with “more fun and imagination.”
Making friendship bracelets and other jewelry is an activity that transcends generations, but it’s been especially on-trend this year thanks to one Taylor Swift and her dazzling Eras tour. Tara Maria Famiglietti, a mom and the jewelry designer behind Ondyn, highly recommends this jewelry making kit in particular. “It’s a bit nostalgic,” she says of its mermaid- and sea-life themed findings and notions, which nonetheless speak to another zeitgeisty pop culture moment: the recent release of the new live action Little Mermaid. Your child can “create beautiful necklaces and bracelets with many different options” — the beads and charms include seahorses, starfish, shells, and pearls, plus enough ribbon for four necklaces. Jennie Monness, a mom, educator, and co-founder of Union Square Play, says that although we tend to think “that with a 9-year-old who loves jewelry, we must just get them jewelry,” a kit like this one can actually pique and play into that same interest.
This cute and affordable kit from Target’s in-house brand Mondo Llama lets kids make colorful beaded bracelets, necklaces, and even key chains. It’s been a hit with Strategist senior editor Jen Trolio’s daughters, though she recommends buying the extra set of letter beads so kids don’t get frustrated when the included ones inevitably run out.
“I am always in favor of promoting STEM toys, especially for girls as their interest in science and technology is frequently overlooked,” says Dr. Angelina Morales, a psychologist who specializes in children and adolescents. With instructions on how to build a catapult, a crane, a ladder, scales, and swings, this kit is a great entry point to learning about physics.
Kamenetz’s kids love the game Throw Throw Burrito, “which is a fun combination of goofiness and actual strategy.” The fast-paced, card-based game only takes 15 minutes to play and is suitable for two to six players. Toy blogger and reviewer Lori Jepsen of Toysenberry is also a fan. “It’s a fun way to get tweens off their screens and moving around,” she says, and older brothers and sisters and parents can enjoy it too. “I mean, what’s not to love about throwing burritos at your siblings or parents or spouse?”
Kids this age have big emotions that can be tricky to regulate. Natalie Williams, director of education at the Miami Children’s Museum, says activities like painting can help relax and redirect their emotional energy. “Art, water, and paint bring a sense of relaxation and allow you to open up.” The meditative and virtually mess-free Buddha Board sets up in under a minute: all you have to do is fill the reservoir with water, dip in the bamboo paintbrush, and create whatever comes to mind on the painting board. After a few seconds, the picture gently fades away, so your young artist can start all over again.
As the name suggests, this card game is all about having conversations. Each card asks questions like “What small thing brings you happiness?” or gives funny prompts such as “Pretend you are a vibrating cell phone on a countertop ledge.” The questions are thought-provoking and hilarious, which means they will open up some wonderful deep conversations with kids as well as some silly moments.
This tic-tac-toe inspired board game is “visually appealing” and “complex,” according to Sophia W., a nanny for the New York–based SmartSitting agency. Involving multiple players and many ways to win, it’s something that adults enjoy just as much as kids. What’s more, Sophia says, “It’s well suited for gifted and special-needs children, as the colors stimulate kids who think visually.”
Maya Smart, a mom, literary expert, and author of Reading for Our Lives: A Literacy Action Plan from Birth to Six, says this dice game combines rapid number recognition with “silly competitiveness” to make learning fun: “For 9-year-olds, numerous variations on the game can build in meaningful math practice without the boredom of worksheets.” To start the game, each player grabs a set of ten dice and everyone rolls their whole set at once. The objective is for all of your dice to eventually land on the same number. Kids will have to quickly identify the number they want to keep rolling and try to be the first player to get a matched set of ten.
Lego is well established as a perennial favorite across all age groups. Aside from the fact that developmentally speaking, kids at this age can use their advancing problem-solving skills to build greater masterpieces than ever, they may even have more fun letting their creativity run wild with this classic, simple 790-piece set in 33 different colors. Which is why Caulfield says it’s a gift that you can be sure will be a hit “for literally everyone.”
And for young Pokémon fans who have a soft spot for the electrified OG character Pikachu, this 825-piece poseable figure can be fun to assemble while challenging their developing fine motor skills. According to Phillips, increasingly complex building sets “can encourage children to practice following directions, sustaining attention, and persevering.” This set is designed for kids around 9 years old, but if your child is ready to level up to a more challenging build, the brand also makes a more intricate motorized version that has over 1,000 pieces.
Fourth-grade teacher Jacob Cohen says the graphic novels in his classroom library are always the most popular. And while the best graphic novels for 9-year-olds will depend on their individual reading level, he universally recommends the newly adapted Babysitters Club graphic novels and Investi Gators, a New York Times-bestselling series about a pair of crime fighting sewer gators, as they get the most traffic with his students.
The pickleball craze isn’t slowing down anytime soon. In fact more and more universities are adding the sport to their official lineups. So it makes sense that the sport would become popular with school-aged kids too. This kid-sized pickleball net is projected to be one of 2023’s most popular holiday toys, says James Zahn, senior editor at Toy Insider. It can be set up in a backyard, on a driveway, or in a playroom and includes two balls and two racquets.
Monness says that getting kids active while flexing their gross motor skills should always be a priority. And as 9-year-olds start to really value their friendships, something like the StairSlide will help them combine movement and social interaction. “When friends are over, instead of sitting in front of a TV or a video game, this experience encourages them to move their bodies,” Monness says. You can buy a single slide piece or up to eight pieces at once — each one covers three stairs — to customize a slide for your space.
“Every magician I’ve known over the years — and it’s actually been quite a few — has begun their career because somebody gave them a magic set,” says Chris Byrne, a.k.a. “the Toy Guy.” He recommends this virtual-reality magic set because it teaches magic in a totally immersive way and helps kids master the performative part of magic tricks, something he says is very empowering for them. “It activates the brain on so many different levels. You’re not just passively watching, you’re reading and learning how to do a trick, then you’re mastering how to do that trick,” he says. The kit comes with a deck of cards, cups and balls, a fake thumb and hanky, ropes, a magic wand and hat, and more. It includes lessons for 34 classic step-by-step magic tricks brought to life via VR performances and an instruction book that comes to life. Download the app, place your phone in the included VR goggles, and get ready to play.
When Williams’s son was approaching 9 years old, she says he loved to pull out their family’s African drums and instruments during their annual Kwanzaa celebration. Outside of the holidays, Williams says that instruments and music exploration will “never go out of style” and this type of play “reconnects them with music” in a hands-on way. This beginner set of bongos can introduce a cool and unique-sounding instrument that your child can freestyle on as they improve their playing skills.
$100 and up
Smart says that “instant cameras provide a great way to capture fun moments with friends and have a printed memento to decorate their rooms or lockers.” This easy-to-load camera is a good starting point for new photographers and this set comes with the camera, a pocket-size photo album, batteries, and 40 sheets of film. Once they sharpen their artistic eye, they can use the included twine, magnets, and other accessories to display their mini-pictures.
By age 9, children can read fiction and nonfiction and often begin to read independently: “They have a better grasp of grammar, contain higher vocabulary, and can formulate longer sentences,” says Sachs. The Kids Kindle Paperwhite is waterproof and lets kids carry a whole library in their backpacks — even though what you’re giving them just feels like a fun toy. The kids’ version also has extra features like a parent dashboard that lets you track reading progress and add books to your child’s library. It comes with a one-year subscription to Amazon Kids+, which includes access to thousands of titles.
Most young tweens have already learned to bike and scooter with some skill. To take their coordination and independence to the next level, Sachs recommends skateboarding. Now 10-year-old skateboarder Abigale Meehan covets this 29-inch cruiser. Plus, shoppers who may not want to just take a tween’s advice should know Z-Flex’s boards came highly recommended by (adult) experts when we talked to them about everything a beginner needs for skateboarding. (Just don’t forget a helmet and other protective gear, like kneepads and wristguards.)
American Girl dolls remain popular with the coolest of tweens — as twins Leah and Ava Clements, who have over 1 million Instagram followers, told us. (Their exact quote: “We absolutely love American Girl!”) This ’70s-inspired egg chair with a real working internal speaker is technically meant as an accessory for Julie, a historical doll whose life is set in 1974, but it will fit any of the 18-inch American Girl dolls. Some of the other play sets that would make a great gift include an ice cream truck, a basketball court, a recording studio, a first-class airplane set with a beverage cart, and a Hogwarts Express train car.
Additional reporting by Latifah Miles, Lauren Ro, Trupti Rami, and Dominique Pariso
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 acne treatments, rolling luggage, pillows for side sleepers, natural anxiety remedies, 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.