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

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.

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.

Perler Sunny Days Bead Bucket

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.

Kids First: Robot Safari

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 Insights GeoSafari Jr. My First Telescope

“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 with the Toy Insider. She recommends this 10x magnification telescope, which kids can use to see close-ups of things like the moon (with it, you’ll get a guide to the lunar phases) or a backyard bird building a nest.

Osmo Pizza Co. Game

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.”

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