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 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

“Outfoxed has more replay value than I have ever experienced in a child’s board game,” says Steven John, a Strategist contributor, tech writer, and father of two (and one of the writers of this story). Months after first getting the game, rarely did a single day go by without John’s 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 get in on the action as well.

Editor’s Note: This game is available to buy but it won’t arrive before Christmas.

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,” Golinkoff says.

For kids frustrated by virtual school, quarantine, or both, Lori Caplan-Colon, a speech/language pathologist at Montclair Speech Therapy, recommends this set of six emojilike wooden eggs that helps children express their emotions when words fail them. The eggs are stackable and come with a storybook. “It encourages the development of emotional maturity and communication skills,” she says.

“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.”

Editor’s Note: This kit is available at Walmart but won’t arrive before Christmas but Green Toys also makes a non-Sesame Street version of the same gardening kit.

“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?

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


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.”


This microscope helps kids learn about the world around them, 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.