the toy matrix

The Only Toy Gift Guide for a 9-Year-Old You’ll Ever Need

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

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 smart ukulele), “Brain Candy” (a slime factory), “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, we tackle the 9-year-olds — not yet preteens, definitely no longer little kids. This is a time when “children begin to form real social relationships and friendships,” says Dr. George Sachs, a clinical child psychologist who specializes in ADD and ADHD treatment on the Upper West Side in Manhattan. Another distinguishing factor of those in the fourth-grade zone is that they are “able to focus for longer periods of time,” Sachs adds. With such social and attention skills in mind, we homed in on the following conversation card games, catapult-building STEM kits, and 20 or so other gift ideas, which we surfaced with the help of professionals like Sachs, along with many other discerning parents and tween whisperers. 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.

Educational/Reasonably Priced

According to mother of two Anya Kamenetz, an education blogger at NPR and the 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 her kids, one of whom is approaching 9-years-old, love these 3-D puzzles of architectural marvels, telling us they are “easier than they look — they take about an hour to put together.” This means you don’t have to worry about your child getting frustrated or bored and abandoning the puzzle halfway through. There are models of the Taj Mahal, Notre Dame, the Colosseum, and more.

It’s hard to attach any particular age to magic sand like this, as it’s equally entrancing for kids and adults alike. But this is a favorite of Strategist tech columnist and dad David Pogue. “It’s sand to play with, sculpt, squish — but it sticks only to itself! No loose grains … No mess … Nothing left behind on your hands! Kind of amazing.” And speaking of sculpting, according to an Amazon reviewer: “National Geographic gets bonus points for using molds of famous structures — for example, Taj Mahal, the pyramids at Giza, and Chichen Itza.” So for the grade-schooler studying world geography, this specific magic-sand set is a nifty companion.

It’s an enticing concept — your avatar traveling to an exotic land to collect “power crystals.” First you have to write a program for yourself using the included Guide Scroll to set out your pathways along the map (this mimics the step-by-step sequences that need to be followed in computer programming). Once you snatch up all of the crystals on your designed route, collecting “action” tokens along the way, you win. What might not be noticed in all the intensity, though, is just how many fundamentals of programming you’re learning (even “conditional loops” and “branches”), which is why this game is a favorite of Lindsay Bell, founder and owner of Bell Family child-care company. Plus there are progressive levels of difficulty: An Amazon reviewer whose husband is an engineer wrote that even he enjoys the harder ones.


Considering the newly enhanced social lives of this group — an age when “many children even begin to have best friends,” Sachs says — this card game is a great choice for groups. Dr. Angelina Morales, a psychologist who specializes in children and adolescents, agrees: “Games like Apples to Apples Junior offer a fun way to help children see things from another person’s perspective and promote prosocial interactions.” The original version is a Mensa winner, but this junior iteration is more suitable for a grade-schooler’s vocabulary, according to Amazon reviewers. “Each card describes the word and helps players learn new vocabulary and the type of word it is (adverb, noun, etc.),” one reviewer explained. “I purchased it for my 9-year-old niece for her birthday, and she was very excited to receive it. Funny enough, she has no idea she’ll be learning the entire time she plays it.”

“I am always in favor of promoting STEM toys, especially for girls, as their interest in science and technology is frequently overlooked,” says Morales. With instructions on how to build a catapult, a crane, a ladder, scales, and swings, this STEM kit is a great entry point to learning about physics. In 2018, the kit was included in the extensively researched “Engineering Gift Guide” from Purdue University’s INSPIRE Research Institute, which lists toys, games, books, and applications that successfully engage children in engineering thinking and design. “Children have the opportunity to practice spatial-reasoning skills and develop an understanding of how design is important in the construction of linkages,” says the guide’s review. “The levers-and-linkages kit offers young children a good amount of play possibilities and the tools to learn more about these fundamental mechanics concepts.” For parents, multiple five-star Amazon reviewers boasted, this kit keeps kids occupied (and away from video games) for hours. As one put it, the kit meant “less time on Xbox and more on using brain and building.”


The challenge in this celebrated logic and puzzle game is in using spatial reasoning and problem-solving skills to visualize, build, then run marbles through a maze of towers to a specific target. The Toy Association named it the Specialty Toy of the Year in 2015, and it was included in Purdue’s “Engineering Gift Guide” in 2016. Children’s-book authors Adam and Allison Grant are also fans of marble runs and say, “This is a toy that our kids come back to time and again. It’s great for building and playing independently, in pairs, or in a group.”

Rubik’s Cube

The 3x3x3 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 levels in the process. Ruka Curate, founder of the Tiny Treasures Nanny Agency, recommends this 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 just went into high school and “still asks for one for Christmas every year.”