gifts they might actually want

The Only Gift Guide for a 6-Year-Old You’ll Ever Need

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

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Six is the age when children typically enter first grade and, as play therapist Joseph Sacks notes, face a huge transition from a mostly play-based atmosphere to a much more work-based one. In other words, there’s less coloring and more reading and math. Because of this major life moment, 6-year-olds need space to play without constraint or the pressure of a set outcome. Abby Kerlin, program director of general education at Bank Street Graduate School of Education, puts it this way: “What we remember most from our own childhoods is the play experience when we were allowed to leave our pillow fort up for a few days and it became an animal hospital, a rocket ship, and a bunker.” Not only is this kind of play more memorable, she says, but it supports creative problem solving and other important brain functions.

To help you turn her advice into a gift that the first-grader in your life will covet, we asked child development experts, veteran toy buyers, elementary-school teachers, discerning parents, and toy-trend forecasters to recommend the best toys for 6-year-olds. We grouped their suggestions by price, so if you have a dollar range in mind, you can use the table of contents to jump directly to that section — or read all the way through to get the full picture of what 6-year-olds are into these days.

Meanwhile, if you’re also 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, 7-year-olds, 8-year-olds, 9-year-olds, 10-year-olds, 11-year-olds, and 12-year-olds — plus the meticulously curated Strategist Toy Store, filled with all our greatest hits.

Under $25

Like Squishmallows before them, these fuzzy friends (which are made by the same company as Squishmallows) are set to be one of the hottest toys of 2023, according to James Zahn, senior editor at the Toy Insider. Adorably floppy and weighted with beans at the bottom so they sit upright, the collectible figures call to mind the Beanie Baby craze of the ’90s — and come shaped like dozens of different plants, retro icons, animals, food items, and household objects, from a lava lamp to a hunk of blue cheese. They’re also quite economical, at $20 for a pack of 5.

At this age, stickers of all types are just as covetable as any other toy — and less expensive. According to Maria Dueñas Jacobs, founder of Super Smalls and a mom of three, they offer a mess-free way for kids to explore their creativity. This variety pack of different-size googly eyes can be used for craft projects or to decorate everything from a bike helmet to school supplies.

Lori Caplan-Colon, a speech-language pathologist at Monclair Speech Therapy, recommends this coloring book with a twist as a much-needed creative outlet for 6-year-olds. “All coloring books are great, but there’s something special about scratching off the pages with the wooden stylus and revealing these glittery foils,” she says.

For creating interesting drawings outside the bounds of a coloring book, but with the guidance of a nifty tool, I suggest this classic Spirograph drawing set. Inside the box you’ll find a set of plastic notched wheels and rings that, when combined with markers, pens, or colored pencils, create precise spiral geometric designs. It’s a great toy for kids who like drawing but don’t feel super-confident in their skills. And the sensory experience is just as mesmerizing as the resulting artwork.

From the outset, this wooden math game might seem a lot like work, but it is actually hilariously fun and even a little bit thrilling. To win, players have to lay down all of their ten tiles by matching numbers to the roll of their dice. I’ve played it many times, including with my then-6-year-old niece and 11-year-old nephew, and the tension builds as everyone races to finish first. According to Caitlin Meister, founder of the Greer Meister Group, a private-tutoring and educational-consulting practice in Brooklyn, it helps kids practice simple math like adding and subtracting but it also teaches grouping. “If I roll a two and a four, I can add them to get six, or I can subtract them to get two. So it’s teaching kids to notice different combinations with numbers,” she says.

I am a sucker for any toy with cool vintage illustrations or designs, so after I saw this card game at a friend’s all-ages engagement party a few months ago, I went and bought it for myself, to play with my nieces and nephews. Flip cards from the deck onto a central pile while looking out for “slamwiches” (two identical cards with a third in between) and “double deckers” (two identical cards back-to-back), as well as cards adorned with “sandwich thieves” and “munchers” that require you to turn over more cards. Whenever a slamwich, double decker, or thief appears, whoever slaps the pile fastest takes all the cards, and the first player to collect the whole deck wins. Strategist senior editor Jen Trolio says it’s a good game to keep stashed at the grandparents’ house and fun for families to all play together. And because it’s small, it would make a great Easter basket filler or game to take on vacation.

Mudpuppy puzzles are a favorite of multiple Strategist parents — we included their simpler mini-puzzles in our guides to the best kids’ stocking stuffers and the best toys for 3-year-olds. This larger, more complex puzzle from the brand is like two toys in one: Once they’ve put all of the 64 pieces together, kids can test their observational skills by searching, Where’s Waldo style, for over 40 different characters and objects in an Air and Space Museum scene. This puzzle also comes in African Safari, Ocean Life, Rainforest, and a handful of other designs, and for especially avid puzzlers, the brand makes 500-piece search-and-find puzzles that would be great for the whole family to help with.

Toy and play expert Chris Byrne says L.O.L. Surprise! dolls remain one of the best-selling toys in the United States. They’re also one of the most requested toys among elementary-school-age kids, and while the miniature blind-box versions are fun, he recommends the larger fashion dolls because they offer longer-lasting opportunities for play. This smoothie-themed set is also a nail-art set that comes with a doll and 15 surprise accessories, including press-on nails that look like popsicles, real nail polish, nail stickers, and nail glitter.

For those who prefer Barbie dolls to L.O.L. Surprise, there are literally thousands of variations and styles to choose from. And because Barbie dolls are usually a bit more affordable, you can potentially buy a few if you have a hard time deciding. Depending on what your giftee is into, you might buy them a color-changing Barbie mermaid, a soccer player Barbie, a Coachella-influencer Barbie, a Barbie disguised as a stuffed toucan, or even a Barbie version of tennis great Naomi Osaka. The Barbie mermaids are a favorite of Trolio’s daughters, who have played with them at their community swimming pool and regularly bring them into the bath. But no matter which doll you pick, they will all fit into one another’s clothing and each of the different Barbie Dreamhouses and play sets.

This colorful kinetic sand set comes with more than ten tools and molds, plus two pounds of colored sand, so playing with it is “very satisfying and really hands-on,” says Jennifer Lynch, a content developer at the Toy Association. It’s also a toy that doesn’t do just one thing, which Lizzie Assa, a play expert and founder of the Workspace for Children, says is one of the hallmarks of great open-ended toys. Fill the sand swirler and watch the colors mix, then layer your creations, squish them, and slice them to reveal surprising new designs.

“I think a lot of parents feel pressure that their kids need to be sitting in a quiet room playing with wooden blocks or their play isn’t valuable. I think there’s a lot of that on the internet, and that’s not really true,” Assa says. With that in mind, even a can of goo that farts can be considered developmentally valuable if it’s engaging for kids. Sacks recommends Flarp, a putty toy he says they’ll spend 45 minutes playing with. Flarp engages kids’ tactile sensations, plus it’s cool and slimy and gross.

$18

This Rainbow Loom Mega Set has everything kids need for making friendship bracelets out of tiny rubber bands, including alphabet beads and cute charms to personalize their creations. Trolio says her daughters first learned to make the bracelets on their fingers when they were around 4 years old; now, at 8 and 6, they like using this loom because it lets them try more advanced techniques. “The whole elementary school wears these by the armful,” Trolio says, adding that the loom and tools can also make it easier for younger or less dextrous kids to work with the rubber bands.

Speaking of dexterity, this addictive little fidget toy, which doubles as a keychain, will give their fingers a workout. We wrote about it in our roundup of the hottest holiday toys of 2022, and since then, the brand has come out with tons of new fun patterns like this neon splatter-paint design.

Bop It!
$16
$16

Millennial parents will recognize the original Bop It from their own childhood, says Strategist contributor Steven John. This is an updated version with more features that challenge kids (and adults) to perform a series of tasks ever more rapidly and in a precise order. It will take kids a minute to get the hang of it, learning how to follow commands such as “Whip it,” “Twist it,” and of course “Bop it!” But it’s a challenge that’s sure to produce a lot of laughs, especially when a parent keeps messing up. For younger kids, start with “Classic Mode” that features just three commands, though most 6-year-olds will soon be ready for greater difficulty.

Washi tape is an affordable gift that’ll encourage creativity without messing up your walls. It has almost infinite uses from decorating notebooks and crafts to making DIY wallpaper for a dollhouse living room. Trolio, who recommends buying a big assortment of patterns, says her kids go through a ton of it.

Under $50

This glamorous costume jewelry set comes recommended by two of the experts we spoke to about the best dress-up costumes: Natalie Ebel, co-founder of Backdrop, and Jocelyn Greene, founder of Child’s Play NY. The brand’s necklaces and headbands are among Ebel’s (and her daughter’s) favorite accessories.

Strategist contributor Youngna Park pointed me toward this pair of kid-friendly binoculars that her 6-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter enjoy taking along on nature walks, adding that the kids like them as much as a fashion statement as an actual bird- and squirrel-watching tool.

$46

Meister recommends this set of climbing holds as a perfect antidote to screen time that gets kids outside. Attach them to any tree in your yard with tension bands to create your very own climbing wall.

HEXBUG Nano Zone
$30
$30

According to Dr. Roberta Golinkoff, a professor of child psychology at the University of Delaware and co-author of Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children, Hexbugs are still very much a thing. “Because they don’t have control of these types of vehicles or robots in everyday life, it’s exciting for kids to use the toys as part of their imagination and develop different scenarios,” Golinkoff says of the insect-inspired robots. This Hexbug Nano Zone building set lets children create playgrounds for their bugs to run around in. It comes with over 60 pieces, including merry-go-rounds and connectible walls.

Kids this age “love to create, and we should be building on that,” Golinkoff explains. This kit comes with all kinds of rainbow-colored felt, beads, pipe cleaners, and beyond — all in a handy carrying case. Both the brand and this set in particular were recommended by the parents and educators we spoke to about the best art supplies for kids.

$37

This box comes complete with 150 magic tricks like classic locking rings, magic coins, and of course plenty of card tricks. Holly Magelof, veteran toy buyer for the Dolphin Bookshop, is partial to the pretty packaging and says kids as young as 6 will love what’s inside. “Some tricks might need a bit of adult help,” she notes, “but the set has great staying power — it will hold their interest for years to come. And it makes a good hand-me-down toy, too.”

FireStar Roller Derby Roller Skates
From $30
From $30

Roller skates are a classic way to get exercise and enjoy the outdoors — or, if you have one nearby, an old-school roller rink. This pair from FireStar is “supercool and retro in eye-popping colors,” says Jennifer Cattaui, owner of New York City kids’ shop Babesta. But they’re more than just good-looking; parents will appreciate being able to tighten the wheels, keeping the skates on the slower side until their kid has them mastered.

Kids this age love playing games where they pretend to blast away at each other. And this two-player laser-tag kit makes the blasting all the more exciting. “These are consistently a great seller, and I love that Laser X gets kids active and moving around and playing together,” says Magelof. The blasters in this set can “hit” an opponent up to 500 feet away and work inside or outside, in darkness or bright sunlight. Kids can choose from more than 20 colors to light up their blaster and no matter which set you buy, they all work together so you can play with unlimited friends or foes.

$40

LEGOs teach children about cause and effect, problem-solving, and even engineering. This set comes recommended by Anna Golson, the editor of LEGO blog theBrickBlogger, whom we spoke to for our guide to the best LEGO kits. It’s based on the workings of an ocean-rescue center and was designed in collaboration with National Geographic, making it perfect for animal- or ocean-loving children.

Under $100

The elegant simplicity of this precision-milled wooden assortment is almost never seen in the STEM-related toys of the moment. And maybe for that very reason, “it is one of my consistent best sellers,” says Magelof, who has sold it in her store for years. The kit challenges young builders to create everything from a marble run to a geometric tower using nothing more than identically sized slabs.

$48

Over the last few years, Magic Mixies have dominated the toy world with their interactive fog-filled toy reveals. Now the creator of Magic Mixies, Moose Toys, has come out with a similar toy for the action-figure aisle. Instead of a magical cauldron or a genie’s lamp, kids follow instructions to conduct an experiment — complete with “bio-mist” — and create a world-saving shark.

This bubblegum-pink RC Barbie Corvette is perfect for cruising. It’s an exact replica of the one Barbie drives in the hit movie, with room for two dolls and a trunk that opens to store a few pairs of tiny Rollerblades — Indigo Girls music not included. It also operates on a 2.4 GHz frequency, so kids can play with multiple remote-control cars at once without interference. Trolio’s 6-year-old received one for Christmas, and Trolio says that while there is a bit of a learning curve to steering it, her daughter has been thrilled with how fast it can speed through the living room. Plus, even though the car was a hot-ticket item during this past holiday season and stock can still be a bit volatile, it has definitely stabilized — so the car is now much easier to find for the MSRP, which is about $55. Or you can buy a non-RC mini-version of the pink Corvette that is also made by Hot Wheels for less than 10 bucks.

Instant cameras (and film cameras) have become extremely popular among teens and tweens in the past few years. For kids who may not be ready for a Polaroid or Fujifilm Instax camera, the PrintCam from VTech, recommended by Byrne, is a perfect alternative. It’s both a digital camera and an instant picture printer, and the lens flips up and backwards for taking selfies. The camera also promotes creativity because kids can explore over 100 templates and create comic strips, design greeting cards, and even make custom play money with their faces on it.

If your favorite 6-year-old is a budding Pokémon stan, they’ll love this “battle figure” ten-pack that includes Pikachu, Jigglypuff, Charmander, and Squirtle.

Dr. Alexandra Figueras-Daniel, an assistant research professor at the National Institute for Early Education Research, says blocks should have a place in every child’s life, all the way up through third grade. Their open-ended design encourages imagination and creativity while teaching kids about cause and effect and balance. “I usually give people sets of blocks as gifts, even if they already have some, because the more you have, the bigger, more interesting stuff you can build, like ramps and bridges,” she says. In the education world, she explains, there’s a whole trajectory for block play — at around 6 years old, kids can actually start designing buildings and more sophisticated structures like forts and whole cities.

$100 and up

If you have the space for it — it’s almost four feet tall and a sprawling five feet wide when assembled — this three-story Barbie Dreamhouse (a Trolio and Zahn recommendation) is a great gift. The 360-degree open-plan layout means multiple Barbie fans can play with multiple Barbies simultaneously. And the spacious rooms and giant slide allow for tons of group get-togethers including pool parties, sleepovers, outfit try-ons, brunches, movie nights, and more. It comes with a real working elevator and over 75 accessories too.

Again, if you have the space for it, a geometric jungle gym like this one is a great investment. According to child psychologist Dr. Nicole Beurkens, who we spoke to about the best outdoor toys, the dome encourages the kind of rough-and-tumble play that lots of kids don’t get enough of these days. Kids love climbing the powder-coated steel bars and swinging from them — often upside down. But it can also function as a fort or secret clubhouse by covering it with a tarp or large blanket.

“Both of my kids love — which means, ‘both kids fight over’ — this four-foot psychedelic-colored stuffed dinosaur from Melissa & Doug they call Billiesaurus Rex,” says Joshua David Stein, author of several books including To Me, He Was Just Dad: Stories of Growing Up With Famous Fathers. Yes, this is just a simple stuffed animal, but because of its imposing height, it can add a nice pop of color to a room corner. Notes Stein: “It’s one of those stuffed animals so gargantuan it doubles as furniture. In our case, furniture and also a weapon with which each child batters the other.”

How to choose a scooter from all the scooters? Cattaui does indeed have a favorite (and it’s an overwhelming favorite on Amazon and with many other experts we’ve talked to): the Micro Kickboard series. This stable three-wheeled scooter is an ideal way for active kids to have fun, get exercise, and to avoid getting hurt in the process. Available in Micro for ages 2 through 5 (it’s featured in our 5-year-old gift guide too) and the Maxi for 5 to 12, Cattaui finds them to be “the perfect way for little kids to get around.”

At this age, kids are still fine-tuning their motor skills and self-regulation. So games like Connect 4 that involve dexterity and luck are particularly well-suited, says Deb Vilas, director of the Child Life program at the Bank Street Graduate School of Education. What’s more fun than Connect 4? A giant weatherproof version of the game that is sure to impress your friends.

At a certain point, no board game or building toy will cure a kid of rainy-day malaise. For something more active, Trolio recommends the Stairslide. It only takes a few minutes to assemble the self-anchoring segments, which transform most staircases into a speedy playground-esque slide. Though it can get a bit loud, “My kids freaking love it,” she says, adding that it goes quite fast so you’ll want to have a fair amount of space and cushioning at the bottom to serve as a crash pad. (Trolio’s family sets up their Nugget play couch at the bottom.)

Once you’re done using it, the segments nest together for closet or under-the-bed storage. This price is for four segments, which will cover between 8 and 12 stairs and which Trolio says should be plenty sufficient to thrill most 6-year-olds.

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The Only Gift Guide for a 6-Year-Old You’ll Ever Need