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 logic-based laser maze), “Brain Candy” (a waterproof monster truck), “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.
For those who are age 8, “there’s a tremendous growth spurt in physical, emotional, and cognitive development,” says child therapist Glenda Stoller, LCSW, co-founder of Village Parenting NYC. And so, in the interest of exposing them to new things that will challenge and entertain their exploding brains and bodies, we present the following 20-plus gifts, from those recommended by professionals like Stoller to those found in the hands of Kate Hudson’s son. 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 the holidays or a birthday or any other day, it’s a list that keeps on giving.
“Okay, maybe we’re intellectual nerds, but this occupied the kids for hours during long car and plane trips,” recalls Strategist tech columnist and dad David Pogue. “It’s a thinking game: You have to move one little plastic car or bus at a time to make a path for your little guy to escape the traffic jam.” A best seller for decades; the fact that its popularity has endured despite its being screen-free says a lot about the fun inherent in the challenge.
You might remember the feel of these rectangular decks in your hands as you fanned them out from their fastened corner (brilliant design detail — this way the cards never get lost) and revealed each of a thousand trivia questions, with their full-page illustrations, written by Chris Welles Fedder (eldest daughter of Orson Welles). They’ve modernized the look and updated the material since you were a kid — still based on school curriculums, with categories for the third-grade set including math, science, social studies, and language arts. But they don’t feel like an extension of school for kids — the quizzing, in this form, becomes a game. They can be played in the car or plane (and come with a convenient carrying pouch). “And even during dinnertime,” says Kate S., a nanny for the New York–based SmartSitting agency. She likes to buy sets for the level just above the child’s actual grade, “to challenge them and help them get ahead in school.” And the price of less than $10 for an educational gift like this, she says, can’t be beat.
For ages 8 and up, this is “an amazing logic and thinking game,” according to Dr. Taylor Chesney, Psy.D., director of the Feeling Good Institute NYC. The goal is to arrange the tokens on the board so that the flashing laser beam hits your target. And since it “comes with multilevel challenges,” Dr. Chesney notes, “it grows with your child.” To that end, an Amazon reviewer writes: “Fourth graders and engineers love this toy. Follow the cards, create your own, make it big, make it long — it’s all fun. It is the most sought after game in my classroom and it engaged two very serious young adults until they were told to put it away.”
This science kit comes with 11 hands-on activities that cover the basics of chemistry and more, with experiments like erupting underwater volcanoes and growing crystals. The ingredients are simple: As an Amazon reviewer puts it, “Sure, you can make your own red-cabbage extract … but if you are like me, you won’t. Because … you still remember what a horrible mess it was.” The point, the reviewer continues, is, “even though I have the equipment, the books, and the education to DIY the whole thing … the kit is easy, fun, and we actually DO it.” And that’s a great gift for a kid this age, who is learning about science in school, according to Stoller — “something that allows them to do a science experiment at home.”
“This is so fascinating to play with,” says Ruka Curate, founder of the Tiny Treasures Nanny Agency. The 12-inch-tall anatomical model of the human body has nine squishy versions of vital organs inside of it, which can be removed with forceps and tweezers, along with the rib cage and other skeletal and muscular systems. And as a five-star reviewer on Amazon noted: “There is an easy-to-follow book filled with facts and information about each organ, as well as an organizer to help you keep track of parts when you’re taking the body apart and putting it back together.”
“Shouldn’t every family have a chess board?” asks Naomi Davis of the NYC blog Love Taza and a mother of a 7-year-old and an 8-year-old. And this model is a particularly authentic one: This is the same board and pieces used in professional chess tournaments, she says. (It meets the proportion standards of the World Chess Federation.) “It’s fun to do together with kids and even more fun to watch them play each other and be good sports about it.”
Don’t worry: This kit appeals to non–Star Wars fans, too, according to Dr. Chesney. The magnetic “bits” snap together to let you build a droid that looks like R2-D2 — or a different-shaped sidekick that be customized to your liking — and then control with an app (the software also walks you through the steps of the building process) to wave at you, fist-bump you, draw on a sheet of paper, or just help you chase the dog around the room. All the while, Chesney says, it “fosters collaboration, critical thinking, coding skills, and fine motor skills.”
Dr. Chesney sees all kinds of educational benefits here. For one, the futuristic-looking marble run “gives kids a hands-on introduction to gravity, magnetism, and kinetic energy.” And the modular design can be assembled in various ways, allowing for curves, free falls, even a cannon situation. All of which is “a great way to practice trial and error and problem-solving skills,” says Dr. Chesney, who notes that kids can either follow the instructions or get creative and dream up a layout all their own. It “grows with a kid’s increasingly complex mind.”
Remember how much you loved it when your mom made you Mickey Mouse–shaped pancakes as a kid? Well, there’s a whole kit for this kind of breakfast art now. And according to Foodstir founders Galit Laibow, Greg Fleishman, and Sarah Michelle Gellar, their set of organic mixes, plant-based dyes, and squeeze bottles is particularly great for this age because it “helps kids with fractions, ratios, math, and, color theory, all while having fun in the kitchen,” says Laibow. And: “All kit ingredients are organic, no GMO, and made with the highest-quality products, so you can feel confident feeding the pancakes to your kids.” You can also make this a splurgier gift by adding a subscription to the Baker’s Club Kit for an additional $26 per month.
It was based on a centuries-old Chinese brain game, redesigned in varnished beechwood by a German artist in 2018, and now is a bona fide “hit” with kids this age, according to Beth Beckman, a co-founder of the forthcoming site FOMOFeed Kids. The challenge is to arrange the seven geometric pieces into a single shape — of which there are hundreds of possibilities and, within each, multiple ways to arrive at that configuration. Math concepts abound.
This is one of the most popular Kickstarter toy inventions, says Strategist contributor and dad Steven John. The award-winning MudWatt kit by Magical Microbes teaches kids how to build a battery using dirt, which kids can grab from their own yards or the park. Kansas State University geology professor Matthew Kirk recently used this kit to teach middle-schoolers about geobiology, specifically getting a charge out of microbes and mud. “They like to play with mud, and who doesn’t,” he says. “From my perspective, these MudWatt fuel cells offer a lot of potential learning opportunities — from environmental chemistry and microbiology to electricity and circuits. They could be used in a lot of ways.”
The half-pound of roughly textured rocks that come in this set are transformed into polished agate, amethyst, and seven other types of real gemstones when you put them through the motorized tumbling machine with some grit powder and water. “Any budding crystal or gemstone collector will get such a kick out of this,” says Tara Maria Famiglietti, jewelry designer of ONDYN (and mom of a 6-year-old). Famiglietti notes that you can also shine up any other rocks you happen upon, too: “There are even quartz rocks you can find in Central Park and throw in here to have your very own polished crystal stone,” she says. Of course, it’s not immediate gratification: The tumbling process involves multiple stages of running the rocks through the machine for days at a time. But that’s an “added bonus,” Famiglietti says. “It teaches patience.”
Brain Candy/Reasonably Priced
“Anything that can get them away from Fortnite for as long as this toy does is the greatest gift of all,” wrote Maria Tallarico, a mom of an 8-year-old and a 5-year-old, in this ode on the Strategist. The Zanimation Studio, as she described it, lets burgeoning filmmakers create stop-motion animation shorts with very little assembly involved: “Simply slot the cardboard tabs together to create the ‘screen’ and secure your smartphone to the tripod.” You set up LEGO-like things called Stikbots (two humans and a dog), take a picture of them, move them slightly, repeat. When you’re done, the “create movie” option on an accompanying app strings the photos together into an animated clip — which kids can save or share on YouTube or TikTok.
What 8-year-olds may not realize as they’re utterly absorbed in this balancing game is that it’s encouraging socialization: Up to four players can get involved, watching the tower wobble and shift and change shape with each piece that’s added on with every turn. Playing together in smaller groups is also a great way for kids to develop self-esteem, according to Glenda Stoller: “They’re more competitive at this age and love to play games together, so peer interaction is very important.”
Of course, if you prefer to give more classic gifts, the Ur-form of balancing games is Jenga — the socialization elements of which we were recently reminded of when watching the 8-year-old twins on Big Little Lies play it. Jenga is also a finalist for the 2019 Toy Hall of Fame, not to mention the
No. 8 best-selling game on Amazon.
Considering the “tremendous spurt” that 8-year-olds experience in their physical development, according to Stoller, and their increased coordination skills, now is a good time for them to have dance parties. And the music doesn’t need to come from your phone, if you want to give them a real break from screens: “One of the best gifts I recently bought was an old-school CD player,” says Brenda Bisner, SVP of content at Kidoodle.TV, a Safe Streaming channel for kids under 12 (her own child is age 6). “Not only did I find a use for all the dusty CDs from my youth, but I have my child dancing instead of sitting still with the TV or iPad. I even dance with her.”
An ideal stocking stuffer: “Here is a ‘Keep in your purse at all times’ one,” says Bisner. It’s a speedy dice game — one labeled L that you pass to the left, one marked C to put in the center, and an R to pass to the right — that comes with chips for the winner to collect. “You can make this a lot of fun without taking up a lot of space. I love to have this on hand for when the crayons and coloring become boring. I feel like the ‘cool mom’ when I pull it out.”