At 5 years old, children are learning how to play in groups and what it means to cooperate — two skills they’ll use on a daily basis as they start kindergarten. They may still struggle with sharing a favorite toy or reaching a consensus on which game to play. But they’re starting to have a better handle on their emotions and learning how to work through problems and conflicts, says George Sachs, a child psychologist and founder of the Sachs Center in Manhattan. You may even overhear them practicing their conflict-resolution skills via their dolls or while pretending to be a veterinarian who specializes in dragons and unicorns.
Meanwhile, they are also learning to write letters and simple words like their name, “dog,” and “cat,” and they are likely incorporating them into the drawings they make, says Jeannette Corey, director of the Bank Street Family Center. And giving them opportunities to practice these skills doesn’t have to feel like school, because there are tons of toys to support these milestones without them even knowing it.
The 29 gifts below have been recommended by pros like Sachs and Corey as well as toy buyers, trend experts, educators, and highly discerning parents. They include creative toys, toys that encourage a 5-year-old’s burgeoning social skills, and toys that will help them expend some of their seemingly endless energy.
We’ve organized the list by price, so if you have a specific budget in mind, you can use the table of contents to skip right to that section. Or if you’re more flexible on price, read all the way through for a full picture of what 5-year-olds are into.
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, 6-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.
Rebecca Calavan, mom and cofounder of Milk Teeth, recommends this geode-smashing kit with included safety goggles and magnifying glass. “As they get older, there’s a lot of interest in digging, excavating and so on,” she says. “I like to give things you get to crack open or break apart.”
According to Kelly Harris Smith, founder of Boston-based art center Minni, Ooly Chunkies tempera paint sticks are universal and great for every age but especially ideal for impatient kindergartners. “They dry quickly, are washable, and the artwork made from overlapping or blending colors is often surprisingly beautiful,” she says. They were also recommended to us by Natalie Ebel, co-founder of Backdrop, who tells us “they go on smooth and look almost like gouache.” The sticks are nontoxic and easy for little kids to hold.
Even if you’re unaware of the 1970s Brooklyn nostalgia surrounding the pink Spaldeen, don’t let the simplicity of this rubber bouncing ball fool you — possibilities abound, according to Dr. Roberta Golinkoff, a professor of child psychology at the University of Delaware and author of Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children: “There are all kinds of things you can do with a small pink bouncing ball and hand-clapping. I played with those for a long time when I was a kid.” And now, she adds, if you don’t know any such game off-hand, “look them up on YouTube.” After teaching your kids, “they’ll go and teach the other kids, which is really great.”
Kids go wild for stomp rockets — a fact well acknowledged by both Sachs and Strategist contributor Steven John, who saw his own son take to them as early as age 2. At that age, he was more of a spectator than a rocket launcher, though, and by age 5, kids have the balance and strength to send a rocket soaring skyward, something they will do repeatedly. Kids can take turns blasting them off, allowing their parents and other adults to actually talk for a bit.
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 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 Golinkoff. “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,” she adds.
Kiwi Crates, which are made for kids of all ages, were included in our 2-year-old guide and earned another spot here, as you can subscribe to monthly kits for the 5-to-8 age range too. Each kit has hands-on maker and art projects that are perfectly suited to the rapidly developing mind of the kindergartner and early-elementary-age child. “This subscription fosters collaboration, problem-solving, and independence,” says Halley Loeb Rossler, a special-education teacher from Tulsa, Oklahoma. Rossler notes that in her own home, her young boys look forward to the deliveries of their boxes every month, and the ongoing series of activities, and the discussions and engagement they foster, have “played a role in our family story.”
Longtime Manhattan nanny Kasia Dabrowska swears by this colorful modeling clay, which she prefers over Play-Doh because “it’s not as messy” and is nontoxic and unscented. “It’s soft and has a nice feeling to it when you squeeze it,” she adds. The same clay was recommended by Tze Chun, founder UPRISE ART, in our article about the best art supplies for kids. This set comes with an array of 24 shades, along with cutting tools and little accessories like googly eyes and key chains. There’s also an idea book included for making specific shapes, but, Dabrowska adds, “the boys and girls I’ve worked with like to make their own things, like planets, mixing together different colors. Five is a really creative age.”
You may recall this pile-on-the-jewels dress-up game from the ’90s — and it’s been rereleased. “Everyone who sees it remembers it so positively,” says Holly Magelof, veteran toy buyer for the Dolphin Bookshop who is now witnessing its magnetism to the current generation of kids. Any 5-year-old can enjoy the gameplay, which doesn’t require any reading and is cooperative rather than competitive. It involves using the included spinner, board, and costume pieces like cocktail rings, sorbet-colored necklaces, and an understated tiara.
Ebel also recommended these colored pencils, which her 5-year-old loves because they are so “soft” and easy to draw with. “Nothing is more frustrating than a colored pencil that doesn’t really work,” Ebel says, “but these Prismacolor ones go on so smoothly.” They’re a great gift for for budding illustrators.
Every summer, toy trend experts begin their annual search for the “It” toys of upcoming holiday season. Not only do they look at popular movies and TV shows and pay attention to related merch, they also take note of toys that will fuel parent nostalgia — and this Ninja Turtles Pizza Fire Delivery Van checks both boxes. It can fit all four Turtle action figures and even Splinter inside and has an adjustable motorized pizza launcher that lets you fire up to eight pizzas at your enemies. According to James Zahn, senior editor at the Toy Insider, it’s slated to become one of the hardest-to-find toys of 2023.
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, who 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 to 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 explains, “so 5 is definitely a good starting age; I wish we’d had them in our lives a little sooner.”
It’s a simple fact that 5-year-olds love forts. As a base toy, these tubes and balls make fun tunnels, cubes, and other structures, but when you add your own blankets and sheets, the fun goes up a notch or three. Sachs thinks the free-building involved here is pretty instructive, but your 5-year-old will just think it’s cool.
“The best toys are those with an educational component that are so much fun, kids never know they are learning,” says Laurie Schacht, chief toy officer of The Toy Insider. She recommends this 10x magnification telescope, which kids can use to see close-ups of things like the moon (it even comes with a guide to the lunar phases) or a backyard bird building a nest.
With this kit, kids can build a variety of wacky robots and then actually get to watch them move, explains Schacht. A step-by-step storybook manual (reading is required) follows Ty and Karlie, two young engineers, as they help fix the robots at the robot factory. The manual makes everything manageable with minimal adult assistance required. After assembling the Lego-like blocks, kids will connect their structure to a ready-made motor.
Golinkoff likes how walkie-talkies encourage “collaboration, communication, and creativity.” And Dr. Alexandra Figueras-Daniel, an assistant research professor at the National Institute for Early Education Research, is a fan because they “encourage turn-taking” and are a “really fun way to practice and develop language and communication skills.” This high-quality pair has three different channels, allowing for multiple lines of communication and a range of nearly two miles, making them ideal for use all over the neighborhood or even during visits to the zoo or amusement park (the quiet-crisp audio quality is especially helpful in such noisy environments).
For New York Magazine features writer and mom of two Kathryn VanArendonk, the Yoto Mini, a kid-friendly audio player, is one of a few kids’ essentials she would immediately repurchase if it got lost or somehow destroyed. In VanArendonk’s eyes, the Yoto is a superior choice for older kids compared to the younger-skewing Toniebox, because it can hold longer tracks of audio and it lets you skip ahead to exactly the track you are looking for. She also loves how much freedom it gives her kids to listen to the books and podcasts they like.
Magna-Tiles have been recommended by almost every parent and development expert we’ve talked to in the last few years. That’s because they support a wide range of developmental skills, keep kids engaged in independent play, and are fun for the whole family. Lizzie Assa, a play expert and founder of the Workspace for Children, says they are a great investment because they are durable and grow with your child. We mentioned the basic starter set of Magna-Tiles in our gift guide for 3-year-olds. For more enthusiastic builders and kids who love things with wheels, this set of downhill road tiles, extra road pieces, and corresponding cars is a wonderful addition to a collection. They are also poised to be one of the hottest toys of 2023, so if you’re thinking about buying them for the holidays, don’t dillydally.
The Vtech Kidizoom creator cam might look more like a toy than a real camera, and in some ways it is, thanks to its 20-plus animated backgrounds and special effects. But it is indeed a genuine camera with a built-in microphone that records videos that kids can upload to a computer via the included USB cable. Golinkoff calls using a kid’s camera “so fun,” especially when you take the time to teach the child about moviemaking and photography.
If they’re making movies or acting out skits, they’re going to need some costumes and dress-up clothes. Jocelyn Greene, founder of Child’s Play NY, suggests mixing and matching different capes, wings, hats, wands, and other accessories because they allow kids to create unique characters — a firefighting cat, for example. Meri Meri makes high-quality cape-and-mask sets that are often animal-themed and feature elaborate uses of fringe, glitter, and tulle.
“Major building blocks of productive, immersive play” is how Christopher Byrne, an author, toy historian, and independent industry analyst defines toys from Playmobil. This kit includes a whole lot of stuff that’ll allow kids to revel in self-directed, open-ended engagement: The fire truck has moving parts, an extendable hose and a water-dart sprayer, and includes two firefighters, traffic cones, flames, a gas can, storage containers, a fire axe, and lots of other accessories they can use to enact all sorts of scenarios.
One of the most essential toys for any kid is a scooter, and Carrie Wren of Two Wheeling Tots agrees with most of the parents and experts we have talked to that Micro Kickboard makes the best scooters on the market. “Their attention to detail, quality of design, and precision of build just can’t be beat,” she says. “No one really comes close, even though everyone tries to copy them.” The brand’s scooters are known for being lightweight and easy to use for toddlers all the way up to tweens. While this one is designed for children from 2 to 5 years old, it can support up to 110 pounds. Plus the handlebars are adjustable so it can grow with your child. Note that this scooter comes in a larger Maxi size that is rated for kids from 5 to 12 years old, if you want it to last even longer (and this wonderfully thorough guide from the brand can help you determine which size to choose).
“Dramatic play at this age can be more sophisticated,” says Figueras-Daniel, who adds that “having detailed accessories” like those in this riding-center set “adds to the play.” The set comes with a horse stable, an Arabian mare and foal, a rider, and accessories like a saddle, bridle, blanket, hay feeder, drinking trough — in other words, everything a 5-year-old might need to recreate a true-to-life scene. “Given the vast selection of options from the brand, which is among my favorites because of the toys’ detail, it is also a gift that can be built upon over time,” Figueras-Daniel adds. Playing with an adult or friend can do even more to grow young minds: As she explains, it will “help build vocabulary as children create scenarios and dialogue among the animals.”
This microscope helps kids learn about everything from the ants in their backyard to the snowflakes on their front stoop. “It’s a microscope, but it’s also a camera, so you can take it on the go and magnify objects indoors and outdoors,” says Adrienne Appel, senior director of communications at the Toy Association. If you turn off the zoom, it also works as a standard camera, letting kids take pictures and videos that they can upload to the computer.
When selecting a doll for any child, Kristin Morency Goldman, senior adviser of strategic communications at The Toy Association, says representation is key and helps children of all races understand and feel included in the world around them. Goldman recommends this 18-inch Zoe doll, whose textured hair can be washed and styled.
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’s the newer version of a simpler predecessor that “takes the fine-motor practice up a level and incorporates STEM,” says Magelof.
$100 and up
Corey likes to give gifts that are open-ended and versatile. This art easel from KiwiCo — sold separately from the brand’s monthly subscription boxes — also functions as a modular marble run. Kids can experiment with where to place the multicolored tracks and spinners on the pegboard, creating new paths each time. And the other side of the easel has a reversible whiteboard/chalkboard and a tray with cup holders for paint.
“I usually give people blocks because I think it’s kind of like a lost art,” says Figueras-Daniel. She notes that blocks continue to be powerful educational tools for children as old as 9. Blocks like this NYC set teach kids cause and effect, spatial awareness, and fine motor skills while preparing them for learning math. This set from Areaware will inspire conversations about city life and let New Yorker kids build block versions of their own backyard.
“I absolutely, absolutely love a large play silk,” says Assa, recommending Sarah’s Silks as her top pick despite their high price tag. She loves that they are a truly open-ended toy that will grow with your child and are developmentally appropriate for a range of ages. Plus she says the quality of Sarah’s Silks makes them last for years and years. We included the brand’s mini-set in our toy guide for 1-year-olds, but as kids get bigger they will need bigger play scarves to use as capes, dresses, ocean or sky backdrops, blankets for dolls, or props for magic tricks. This set includes 17 primary- and pastel-colored scarves that each measure 17 by 35 inches.
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