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

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

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Not yet preteens but definitely no longer little kids, 9-year-olds are entering their tween phase. By 9, “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. Additionally, kids moving into the fourth-grade zone are “able to focus for longer periods of time,” Sachs says, which translates to them being interested in playing with more complex games and toys. Laura Phillips, senior director of the Learning and Development Center at the Child Mind Institute, adds, “9-year-olds are increasingly fine-tuning areas of interest and of talent,” so “play” might look more like “practice” for their favorite activities — “like kicking a soccer ball around with their friends in the backyard, organizing a game of kickball, choreographing and practicing dance routines, or directing a play.”

With Sachs’s and Phillips’s guidelines in mind, we asked many other experts, discerning parents, and tween whisperers to tell us about the best toys and games for 9-year-olds, from catapult-building STEM kits to conversation-starting card games. Then we organized their favorites into this fourth-grader-centric version of New York Magazine’s “Approval Matrix,” a.k.a. the Toy Matrix, where the four sides of the grid are “Educational” (say, a Rubik’s Cube), “Brain Candy” (a burrito-throwing game), “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.

You can jump directly to the section that interests you most or read all the way through to get the full picture of what 9-year-olds these days are into. 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

According to Anya Kamenetz, a writer who has covered education for NPR, a mother of two, 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 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.

Maya Smart, a mom, literary expert, and the author of Reading for Our Lives: A Literacy Action Plan from Birth to Six, says this fast-paced 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,” Smart tells us. To start the game, each player grabs a set of ten dice and everyone rolls their whole set at once. The object 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 for and try to be the first player to get a matched set of ten.

Note: This toy arrives by Christmas with expedited shipping.

Considering this is an age when “many children begin to have best friends,” according to Sachs, this card game is a great choice for groups. Dr. Angelina Morales, a psychologist who specializes in children and adolescents, says it offers “a fun way to help children see things from another person’s perspective and promote prosocial interactions.” The original version is a Mensa award winner, but this junior iteration is more suitable for a grade-schooler’s vocabulary, and according to Phillips, it is more than just a fun way to interact with friends. “Apples to Apples Junior encourages kids to think about relationships between words and fosters their vocabulary and creativity,” she says.

Note: This toy arrives by Christmas.

“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 kit is a great entry point to learning about physics. In 2018, it 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 that 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 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 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.”

Note: Depending on your location, you can order this toy online at Target and pick up in-store by Christmas.

This tic-tac-toeiinspired 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 also something that the sitters enjoy just as much as the kids. What’s more, Sophia adds, “It’s well suited for gifted and special-needs children, as the colors stimulate kids who think visually.”

Although it may sound advanced, Colleen Russo, a children’s-tech and media expert, says, “Now that they’re competent readers and can understand complex rules, 9-year-olds have countless games to discover,” (plus they still love board games). This beginner-friendly version of chess is far less intimidating thanks to the deck of cards that prompts players to make random moves — helping them learn along the way.

Note: This toy arrives by Christmas.

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. (Since the kit is Star Wars–themed, those tricks and actions involve familiar faces like Baby Yoda.) “The child is learning to follow directions in order to build something with which they can then play,” says Dr. Sanam Hafeez, neuropsychologist and founder of Comprehensive Consultation Psychological Services. They get the educational and developmental benefits of coding work, Hafeez explains, along with “more fun and imagination on their monitor.”

Educational-Splurgy

“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, especially at this age. And it’s educational: “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, and 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 also 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.

For kids who haven’t jumped into the world of smartphones quite yet, 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 photogs and comes with everything they will need to jumpstart their new hobby, including the camera, a pocket-size photo album, batteries, and 40 sheets of film. Once they sharpen their artistic eye, the set comes with cute accessories for them to use to display their mini-pictures (like twine, clips, and magnets).

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 LEGO and block sets, crafts, etc. can also 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 set, the brand also makes a more intricate motorized version that has over 1,000 pieces.

$46

The classic world globe — that glossy, spinnable centerpiece of geography class and random shut-your-eyes-and-see-where-the-finger-lands games — has been upgraded here. Switch on an LED light to illuminate 88 constellations, stars, and navigational lines. And yet, even with these bells and whistles (and added layer of STEM learning), the orb still “has the feel and finish of the sort of globe I had in my classroom in elementary school,” as one Amazon reviewer put it. “This actually looks and feels like a nice globe, and so many of the others feel like toys.”

Kindle Paperwhite
$105

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 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.

Note: This e-reader arrive by Christmas.

Draw one of ten challenge cards included in this STEM kit and make a robot based on the prompt: “Build a creature with spinning arms,” say, or “Invent a robot that moves without wheels.” Or use your imagination and go off on your own. Each kit comes with more than 50 parts, including motors, wires, and safety glasses as well as various hardware, wooden components, and tools. And as an Amazon reviewer with a 9-year-old daughter noted: “I also like that this toy has introduced some new vocabulary and produced multiple in-depth discussions about how mechanical things work.”

Lego is well established as a perennial favorite across all age groups: “You can’t go wrong with Legos,” says Sachs. 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 fourth-grade teacher Courtney Caulfield says it’s a gift that you can be sure will be a hit “for literally everyone.”

Note: This toy arrives by Christmas.

Brain Candy–Reasonably Priced

“If they’re into a lot of video games, try board games” to give kids a break from screens, suggests Kamenetz. For family game nights, her kids love the Exploding Kittens game Throw Throw Burrito, “which is a fun combination of goofiness and actual strategy.” 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, adding that 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?” The fast-paced, card-based game only takes 15 minutes to play and is suitable for two to six players.

Note: This toy arrives by Christmas.

Connect 4 Spin Game
$16

Russo Johnson says, “At this age, friend groups are becoming increasingly important,” and while they won’t turn down a family game night, 9-year-olds also enjoy toys that allow them to play with their buddies. A remix of the original Connect 4 game, this spinning version requires more strategy and finesse to win. After placing each tile in an open slot, players must spin the corresponding column, adding an element of unpredictability about where it will stop.

Note: This toy arrives by Christmas.

Rat-a-Tat Cat is another card game that 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 children on either side of 9 years old. But he says this old-school Mensa winner is not like most games for kids. While there is some educational value, it’s perhaps more beloved for its straightforward entertainment — getting rid of high cards (rats) and keeping low cards (cats). Yes, it indeed focuses on strategy, memory, and basic math concepts. “Incredibly, though,” Alam adds, “it’s also … fun? My kid and I played it tournament style, and it’s possible I had even more fun than he did.”

Note: This toy arrives by Christmas.

‘Sorry!’
$20

“I was really surprised at how it held up,” says Sachs 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, Candy Land, and Chutes and Ladders). “They like it because they can play with friends,” she says, a big selling point for this age. “And it usually makes them think.” Russo Johnson adds that 9-year-olds “still enjoy spending time with family, so these types of card-slash-board games can serve a dual purpose” as a way for the entire gang to spend time together while encouraging kids to sharpen their strategy-building skills.

$18

“This is the age where anything that has to do with slime is huge,” says Sachs. Caulfield adds that her fourth-graders are always playing with this stuff, particularly the 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. YouTube star Jannie “pretend plays” with this kit in a video that has gotten nearly 21 million views.

Photo: Studio Freyja

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.” Mother of five Naomi Davis, who has two kids around 9 years old, says her children usually suggest pulling this game out at the dinner table. “The Poobah questions are thought-provoking and also hilarious,” she says, “which means they’ve given us prompts to have some wonderful deeper conversations with our children as well as some silly moments.” Considering how quality time is at a premium these days, she adds, “I am a big fan of any sort of game that helps us connect.”

If making seashell necklaces ever went out of style, they are definitely back right now. When a Strategist editor asked her fourth-grader niece what her friends are into these days, shell jewelry was at the top of the list. Mom Tara Maria Famiglietti, the jewelry designer behind Ondyn, highly recommends this kit as a gift: “It’s a bit nostalgic,” she says. Plus, 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 — “leaving much to the imagination.” And Jennie Monness, mom, educator, and co-founder of Union Square Play, adds 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.

$13

“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 gotten into this top-rated “hair chalk,” which, of course, is 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.

Note: This toy arrives by Christmas.

Kids can 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. “I think art, water, and paint are things that just bring a sense of relaxation and allow you to open up to share your feelings,” says Williams, who also runs a camp at the museum where she encourages kids to create emotion monsters to talk about their feelings. The meditative and virtually mess-free Buddha Board sets up in under a minute and lets artists of any age “paint” with just water: all you have to do is fill the reservoir, dip the bamboo paintbrush into the water, and create whatever comes to mind on the painting board. After a few seconds, the picture gently fades away, so your kiddo can start all over again.

Note: This toy arrives by Christmas.

Brain Candy–Splurgy

By this age, most kids have already learned to bike and scooter with some skill. To take their coordination and independence to the next level, Sachs recommends skateboarding. Nine-year-old skateboarder Abigale Meehan told the Strategist this 29-inch cruiser is on her wish list. Shoppers who may not want to just take a 9-year-old’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.

If your child wants something with a little more power, a light-up hoverboard is another popular option. “My daughter’s big ask for her 9th birthday is this hoverboard,” says Kamenetz. The rechargeable, battery-powered gadget features flashing LED lights and comes in six different colors, including pink, green, purple, and blue.

From $99

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, an activity like the Stair Slide, which Monness says reminds her of DIY’ing a slide, will help them combine movement and playing with their friends. “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 tells us. You can buy a single slide piece or up to eight pieces at once — each one covers three stairs — to customize your slide to fit your space.

It’s a singular sort of bonding experience — parents and kids teaming up in the kitchen, notes Davis. “Since our kids were toddlers, we’ve loved making meals together,” she says. This cooking kit — complete with a cutting board, mixing bowl, spoons, tongs, and apron — encourages older kids to keep at it. “My 9-year-old loves to play like she is Gordon Ramsay and cook for me,” wrote one Amazon reviewer. And even if they don’t watch the show, they can appreciate the particularly high-quality feel of this set with nonslip silicone grips and a modern orange-and-white color palette.

Spikeball combines elements of volleyball and four square and has made its way into elementary- and middle-school physical education classes across the country. The company writes that Spikeball encourages “camaraderie, energy, physical activity, and skill building.” PE teachers at Wood End Elementary School in Reading, Massachusetts, tweeted that they recently played Spikeball with third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders and “saw some great displays of teamwork and sportsmanship.” It’s also great to bring to the beach when summer comes around.

Note: This toy arrives by Christmas with same-day delivery.

American Girl dolls remain popular with the coolest of tweens — as twins Leah and Ava Clements, who have over 1 million Instagram followers, told the Strategist. (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 a beach BBQ grill, a real working pinball machine, a recording studio, and a first-class airplane set with a beverage cart.

Eastar Bongo Drums
$50
$50

Williams, whose son is approaching age 9, says he loves to pull out their family’s African drums and instruments during their annual Kwanza 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 and reintroduces 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.

Additional reporting by Lauren Ro and Trupti Rami.

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