the toy matrix

The Only Toy Gift Guide for a 5-Year-Old You’ll Ever Need

Photo: 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 robot safari), “Brain Candy” (colossal Hot Wheels), “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.

Here, we home in on the 5-year-olds. As children this age begin to control their emotions, they’re better equipped to work through problems and conflicts, according to Dr. George Sachs, a child psychologist and founder of the Sachs Center in Manhattan. With this in consideration, we present you with the following assortment of gift ideas, guided by professionals like Sachs as well as toy historians and Instagram parents. 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

Outfoxed! Board Game
$18

Outfoxed has more replay value than this writer has ever experienced in a child’s boardgame. Since getting the game months ago, rarely has a single day gone by without our 5-and-a-half-year-old requesting at least one round. The game is easy for kids to understand — you uncover a series of clues and a group of suspects, zeroing in on the guilty fox through a process of elimination — yet the choices to be made during each turn require critical thinking, planning, and teamwork. The collaborative nature of play minimizes conflict between siblings or friends, and allows parents to genuinely play as well, rather than the standard intentional mistake-making and losing.

Sector 7
$14

We’re calling this hardcover book a “toy” because this spectacular, Caldecott Honor–winning hardcover — originally published in 1999 — allows preliterate children to turn the book into a game. Its detailed, engaging story is told entirely in pictures; there is no text whatsoever, encouraging kids to narrate it in their own unique way and interpret the story with an open mind. There’s imagination, analysis, and a unique connection to the characters on the pages.

Perler Beads are great for honing the already advanced fine motor control of a 5-year-old, while also allowing for open-ended artistic creation — the thousands of rainbow colors can be put in endless combinations onto pegboards in all kinds of shapes. “These beads are fun and very creative, that’s for sure,” says 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. “By this age, they’re not going to eat the small pieces, so you don’t have to worry about that. My grandkids have a lot of fun with these.”

“Kids don’t fully understand how the veggies and fruits make it to their plates,” says Ashley Tyrner, a single mom and the founder and CEO of Farmbox Direct, the subscription-based organic-produce service (she also leads her now-8-year-old daughter’s healthy-meal-kit company, Harlow’s Harvest). Which is where this 17-piece gardening set — made from 100 percent recycled plastic milk jugs and featuring Abby from Sesame Street —comes in. It includes all the essentials for growing produce right on the windowsill: three planting pots, soil, and different kinds of seeds (basil, carrot, sunflower). “You can teach your kids how to plant and garden in your own home,” Tyrner says. And while some growing kits never end up actually sprouting seeds, this one actually works. In the words of one of many satisfied Amazon reviewers: “I am pleasantly surprised that all three of the varieties in the Abby’s Garden kit are growing nicely.”

“Age 5 is a difficult one to find science-related toys for that are actually any good,” says Holly Magelof, veteran toy buyer of the Dolphin Bookshop. Most “science” kits at this age are more silly than learning-centric and are often of middling quality with limited replay value. However, Holly says, the “kits from the Young Scientists Club come with multiple activities that are STEM-related and really are age appropriate. Also, they’re a great value for what you get in the box.” And who knew there were so many varieties of rainbows?

Editor’s Note: This rainbow kit from the Young Scientists Club is currently out of stock on Amazon, but this Bubbles Kit and this Animal Tracks Game are available on Amazon.

$27

With this kit, kids are building robots of a variety of animals and then actually getting to watch them move, explains Laurie Schacht, chief toy officer of The Toy Insider. A step-by-step manual makes the projects manageable with minimal adult assistance and involves steps like assembling LEGO-like blocks into the shape of, say, a sea otter or a fox, and then connecting them to a ready-made motor. Of course, Schacht suspects that more often than not, kids will be going for the unicorn and narwhal options — “the most popular creatures these days.”

Educational/Splurgy

$31

This Plus Plus set — which has won all kinds of awards and develops engineering, design, and fine motor skills — is the all-time favorite of New York psychiatrist and mother of twin boys Vanessa Carroll; she says it’s held her kids’ attention more than any other toy. “Normally, when the boys get home from school, the first thing they want to do is eat a snack,” Carroll says. “Then they got this as a birthday gift. All of a sudden, I’d be waiting and waiting for them in the kitchen, calling their names to come eat, and 30 minutes later they were still on the floor of the playroom, making these intricate mosaic designs and building 3-D shapes like UFOs. The pieces require hand-eye coordination,” Carroll says, “so 5 is definitely a good starting age; I wish we’d had them in our lives a little sooner.”

Augmented reality like the kind you get here is hard to find for this age group. The coding kit involves using physical robots that kids build themselves and then interact with both in digital space via tablet app and in the real world, controlling a Botzee via tablet or with built-in motion sensors. Mark Rollins, writer and creator of TheGeekChurch.com, who’s written books on what he calls “programmable building toys,” notes how both “the young or old” can appreciate bringing creations to life thanks to motorized pieces. These kits, in particular, according to Rollins, “are very popular for STEM programs for teenagers,” but at the same time, “Botzees are made for the littlest of hands. We live in a world where children grasp technology easily, and those that can play with Duplo blocks can do a lot more with Botzees.”

Kiwi Crates, which are made for all kinds of ages, were included in our 2-year-old guide and deserve to be brought up yet again as the monthly kits you can subscribe to for the 5-to-8 age range; they are perfectly suited to the rapidly developing mind of the kindergartner and early-elementary-age child. Kiwi Kits always have hands-on maker and art projects, and they feature reading materials and integration with online activities. “This subscription fosters collaboration, problem solving, and independence,” says Halley Loeb Rossler, a special-education teacher from Tulsa, Oklahoma. In her own home, Rossler says, her young boys look forward to the deliveries of their boxes every month, and she even says that the ongoing series of activities, and the discussions and engagement they foster, have “played a role in our family story.”

This space-themed circuit-building kit has more than 50 pieces and comes with 20 activities to challenge young makers, plus the possibility for endless self-directed activities. It is “a new take on a classic from Educational Insights,” says Magelof. (The classic to which she refers is a simpler albeit beloved kit in which kids merely drill colorful plastic screws into a board.) “It takes the fine motor practice up a level and incorporates STEM.”

This is the “safe, gluten-free Play-Doh substitute” of choice for mother of four and noted Instagrammer Coral Barajas. (Similar Play-Doh kits, it should be noted, are typically a good $20 cheaper.) “But it is not just a substitute; it’s an upgrade,” according to Barajas. “We love the texture, it is not as messy as Play-Doh or kinetic sand, and it is just magical that it doesn’t dry out!” This set is great for imaginative play, it helps with dexterity and fine motor control, and it lets kids of varied ages play together.

Pizza Co. Game
$40

This game manages the all but impossible: It makes learning math genuinely fun. It requires an iPad and the Osmo base kit (not included), so, yes, definitely a splurge, but the payoff is big. “It’s a favorite in my classroom,” says Heidi J. Trudel, an elementary-school teacher from Seattle. “The game incorporates math concepts” — there is counting out change, measuring ingredients, saving up for purchases, and more — “and you can adjust the level of complexity to match a child’s needs. They love working for the customers and setting goals for their work.”

Brain Candy/Reasonably Priced

Parents these days tend to appreciate being able to keep in touch with their kids when they’re down the street or off in the woods, and these high-quality walkie-talkies — one Amazon reviewer who bought them for 5- and 6-year-old kids wrote, “I’d recommend them for grown-ups, too” — might just put off the inevitable first cell phone. They have three different channels, allowing for multiple lines of communication, and have a range of nearly two miles, making them ideal for use during visits to the zoo or amusement park (the quite-crisp audio quality is especially helpful in such noisy environments). And, in general, Dr. Golinkoff likes how walkie-talkies encourage “collabroation, communication, and creativity.”