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The Best Gifts for 12-Year-Olds, According to Experts

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While you may think the tween years all blend together, those who spend a lot of time with adolescents say that is not exactly the case. “In the library, we say that 12 is ‘young adult’: When you’re this age, you’re straddling that children’s and teen section in life,” explains Lisa Goldstein, a librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library. Not only do kids mature at different rates, but as they get deeper into puberty, they’re negotiating their freedom more. “Adolescence is all about the dialectic of freedom versus supervision,” says Matt Lundquist, a psychotherapist in private practice in Manhattan.

So when it comes to choosing gifts for these not-yet-teenagers, your best bet is to let their interests be your guide. For instance, while some 12-year-olds may still like playing with dolls and board games, it’s possible that a toy perceived as babyish may offend the recipient, according to psychotherapist Alyson Cohen. And Jennifer Lynch, content developer at the Toy Association, notes that for this age group, “although they’ve grown up digital natives, they still crave hands-on products that allow them to express their creativity and individuality.” That’s why Lundquist stresses the importance of taking the time “to get to know a young person and offer a gift that facilitates deeper exploration.” For those who may not have that time, though, we asked Goldstein, Lundquist, Cohen, Lynch, and 18 more experts (including actual 12-year-olds and parents of 12-year-olds) to recommend the best gifts for 12-year-olds. To make shopping easier, we organized the list by price point. So if you have a budget in mind, you can use the table of contents to jump ahead — or read on to see all of their picks.

And if you’re buying gifts for kids of different ages, don’t miss our meticulously curated Strategist Toy Store, which is full of greatest hits, or our other age-specific gift guides for 1-year-olds, 2-year-olds, 3-year-olds, 4-year-olds, 5-year-olds, 6-year-olds, 7-year-olds, 8-year-olds, 9-year-olds, 10-year-olds, and 11-year-olds as well as teenage girls and boys.

Under $25

From $20

Toy Insider senior editor Jackie Cucco says that toys from a few decades ago, like the Tamagotchi, are making a U-turn and trending again. This OG version features the same gameplay as it did when it launched in 1997, allowing tweens who have never heard of a Tamagotchi to enjoy feeding and caring for their new digital pet.

Pop Its, with their satisfying bubble-wrap-esque sensibility, are among the most ubiquitous fidget toys for kids (and adults) who need an outlet for releasing pent-up jitters. But Mary Couzin, founder and CEO of People of Play, recommends this “next level” edition for older kids who may have lost interest in more basic versions. It adds three game modes to the basic bubble-popping setup, with lights that dictate which bubbles to pop next and 20 levels of difficulty. The screen-free toy can also be an entertaining addition to a family road trip or plane ride.

Recommended by Books Are Magic bookseller Margaret Gill, The Tryout centers on Christina and Megan, two besties and self-professed nerds. But as they enter seventh grade, the pair are ready to climb their school’s social ladder — and decide to start by trying out for cheerleading. As the only two girls of color in their school, making the squad would transform their middle-school experience. Gill describes this cute, light-hearted tale as a “page-turner” and “a pitch-perfect coming-of-age story.”

If you think your 12-year-old would prefer a graphic novel that’s lighter in content, Goldstein suggests Fake Blood, which she describes as “kind of like Twilight meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” It’s about A.J., who has a huge crush on Nia, who is obsessed with vampires. In order to get her attention, he decides to become a vampire, but then he finds out that Nia is in fact a vampire slayer, putting his whole plan — and life — in jeopardy. “This book fits in with the idea of identity and speaks to kids who feel like they’re not enough and feel that they need to be more than who they are,” says Goldstein. “This actually tells them that you don’t have to pretend to be something you’re not; you’re actually great as you are.” Plus, “it’s also really, really funny.”

James Zahn, senior editor at the Toy Insider, says “escape rooms have been really popular,” and this version of Clue puts a cool twist on the famous board game to combine the trend with the traditional mystery gameplay. With the expected elements like figuring out who killed the victim with what weapon, players also have to work together to figure out how to get out of the mansion first.

A favorite of soon-to-be 12-year-old Maelle Hauck, this fast-paced series from the author of The Hunger Games is full of adventure, and tweens who like fantasy and action will zoom through the five-book series. Full of otherworldly creatures, mysteries, and missions, the complete box set is under $30, making it an especially robust and affordable gift.

With more than 1,500 characters to choose from, Squishmallows are tween-approved plushies that come in a range of sizes, from keychain to two-foot-tall giant. According to Lynch, the seemingly endless options mean “kids can use them to customize their space,” and their “collectibility” makes them a hot gift item year-round. They can act as décor or, since they are so squishy and soft, an actual, functional pillow.

Jarrett Krosoczka may be known for his picture books and graphic novels for younger readers (like his popular Lunch Lady series), but this, his first book for older kids, is a little heavier: It’s a memoir about his life growing up with an addict mother. Goldstein recommends it, noting that while 12 is on the younger end of the book’s age range, the story will appeal to kids who may see themselves in it. “It’s written from his viewpoint as a teenager, and it definitely works for kids working on that idea of identity,” she says. “If you’re struggling, something you’re good at, like art, can be your way out.” It contains letters, drawings, and photographs from when Krosoczka grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, creating “a cool mixed-media” experience, she adds. “For kids who like graphic novels, the book is a way for them to move on to somewhat heavier work with heavier content. It is very serious but it’s also something that a lot of kids experience themselves.”

Goldstein calls The Prince and the Dressmaker “a frothy, fun, and joyful fairy tale that also deals with the subtlety of gender identities.” The way she explains it, the title sounds like a great choice for any kids who may be grappling with the complex social norms that middle school (and then high school) can bring. The story centers around Prince Sebastian, whose parents are searching for a bride for him. But he would rather wear dresses and be Lady Christalia, his alter ego. Luckily, his best friend and dressmaker Frances shares his secret, but that means putting her own dreams aside to protect her friend. “The book is full of acceptance and beautiful fashion, like frilly dresses, and colors that are like rainbow sherbet,” Goldstein adds.

‘5 Second Rule’

Cucco also suggests the quick-thinking party game 5 Second Rule. “Each player takes a turn in the hot seat with only five seconds to name three things based on a card prompt,” she explains. Those card prompts, she adds, can range from cereals to book series to items in grandma’s purse. While “it sounds easy, you never know what kind of wacky answers you’re going to spit out,” she says.

Recommended by Books Are Magic kids department supervisor Anna Milliken and bookseller Camryn Garrett, this nonfiction series debunks the most common misconceptions about real-life historical events, from the American Revolution to the sinking of the Titanic. Garrett calls it a “fun and educational series” that is “perfect for fans of Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales or the I Survived books.”

Jepsen says her 12-year-old niece and nephew got hooked on this game as soon as she introduced them to it. “Monopoly Deal packs all the competitiveness and strategy of the board game into a much shorter card game,” she explains, making it a great option for fidgety kids who can never sit through a marathon session of the classic. “Tweens love the scheming it takes to win,” she adds.

Gus, who had just turned 12 when we talked to him, told us that 12 is the age when kids really start getting into this ever-popular card game. If you think your giftee would prefer a strategy-based game that’s a little more complex and consuming than Monopoly Deal, Gus recommended a core set or any starter set, like this one, to provide an introduction to the game.

Richard Gottlieb, founder and CEO of Global Toy Experts, says this motorized dart blaster by NERF is a great choice for siblings to play with together or with friends. It can launch ten foam darts at a time, and it’s suitable for both indoor and outdoor play.

‘The Game of Life’

My family owns no less than 50 board games, and my tween son, a board-game fanatic, asks to play this one the most. The Game of Life has shorter gameplay than Monopoly but uses many of the same core concepts like counting money and decision-making. Despite losing many rounds over the years that we’ve owned it, it’s a treat to watch my son get excited about clearing out his “bank account” to buy a waterfront beach house or go to night school instead.

Under $50


While your preteen may initially scoff at Pindaloo, “once they get off the couch and try it, they’ll be addicted,” promises Lori Jepsen, who reviews and blogs about toys for Toysenberry. She says it’s always fun to pull out after a long day of studying, because the game “actually helps hone their focus, coordination, and balance skills.” Plus, it can be a great confidence booster. “They’ll love the sense of accomplishment they get once they master getting the ball to do a continuous loop through the tube.”

As our experts pointed out, this age is when kids start to look for more ways to freely express themselves and their interests. Which is exactly why Jepsen recommends this light box. “It has so many options for kids to express their creativity,” she says, including “colored letters, emojis, and a background light that changes color with a remote.” The fact that it doubles as bedroom décor will make it an even bigger hit.

For another spin on a retro toy, Zahn says Stranger Things has remained super-popular with tweens since its debut in 2016, and the throwback ’80s vibe of classic Lite-Brite lines up perfectly with the vintage aesthetic of the show. The set includes 16 templated designs for young fans to create, including a Demogorgon and a Hellfire Club logo, and four lighting options to bring their art to life.

Under $100

According to Cucco, “This is a great STEM item for children who like to build stuff.” Kids can use the kit to create a 3-D house or tower and brush up on their science skills in the process, because it includes “real circuits to learn about how electricity works,” she explains.

Similar to the standard Kindle Paperwhite, the kids’ version can hold all of your young reader’s favorite titles. As the mom of a tween who is trying to find his preferred genre (which oftentimes means he’s just not reading at all), I appreciate the parental dashboard that lets me check in on his progress, keep track of what he’s reading, and manage the age filters. Each purchase includes a free one-year Amazon Kids+ subscription, which provides access to age-appropriate games, books, and educational content (games and apps can be viewed on Fire devices and Fire TV). If the 12-year-old in your life is an avid reader, they’ll like the press-to-define feature (so they can just click a word to show the definition) and the ability to access books on the go.

Chris Byrne, who also goes by the Toy Guy, says “remote-controlled cars and other vehicles are always good ideas for this age group.” Of the many out there, he particularly likes the “hilarious” Megalodon, which he describes as “a high performance shark-slash-vehicle.” It can drive on both land and water, so “there’s lots of great play in this,” Byrne adds.

If your 12-year-old is looking to pick up a new hobby, Byrne says he has several friends who are magicians “and they all started learning and performing around this age.” This VR Magic Ket from Abacus, he explains, “really helps kids learn to do tricks. It’s a great jumping-off place (even if the kids don’t end up on America’s Got Talent).”

For kids with an interest in travel, Cucco says the K’NEX Architecture series will let them experience world views without leaving home. The series includes buildable versions of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, and the London Eye, with the latter “even including a motorized component that makes it spin like the real thing,” Cucco says. Eighth-grader Kellen saw the London Eye on his favorite cartoon show and says he would love the K’NEX version: “It’s cool because you can build it like a LEGO.”

According to Zahn, tweens don’t age out of their toy phase as quickly as a lot of adults might assume. “What we’re seeing more of is a movement toward thoughtful expansion of the doll category as kids move from playing with dolls to collecting them instead,” Zahn says. For tween Harry Potter fans who already have a beloved American Girl doll, this wizard uniform will let them switch up the doll’s style with Hogwarts-ready flair. Zahn says that by this age, kids have likely moved away from imaginative role-playing with dolls, but “they can re-dress them for display in the tween, teen, and adult years.”

Couzin suggested this outdoor toy as an alternative for kids “who are not quite ready for the full impact that comes along with paintball” — though it’s still crucial to wear the safety goggles that come in the box. It shoots gel beads called Gellets, which ship dry but expand when you soak them in water. Over time, the Gellets dry out and are biodegradable, so you don’t need to clean them up post-battle.

While AirPods are eternally popular, they’re not the only tween-approved headphones. Gus also called out this traditional over-ear pair from Strategist-approved Sennheiser, which has a velour-lined headband and an “open back” design for added comfort. They’re also quite a bit cheaper than AirPods, making them a good choice if you have a tighter budget.

If the 12-year-old in your life has a preferred gaming system, 12-year-old Mateus recommends the latest edition of Madden NFL. “As soon as they release the new game, they stop updating the old one,” he explains. Madden NFL ’24 will debut in August 2023 for PlayStation and Xbox. In the latest iteration, players can jump into Superstar mode — a feature popular in the mid-aughts that’s coming back and allows players to dive into the full professional-football-player lifestyle and build a career. You can preorder the game in the meantime.

When we talked to Pokémon fans of all ages, many were impatiently awaiting the release of the two newest Pokémon games for Nintendo Switch: Pokémon Scarlet and Pokémon Violet. Both are out now with new creatures to discover and a reformatted, open-exploration style of gameplay that lets players trot around freely. You can buy the games separately or opt for a combination pack for $89 to satisfy all the fans who want both — which is most of them since each game offers different characters and regions to explore.

$100 and up

Part of the freedom 12-year-olds seek of course includes the ability to tune people out (especially parents), so it’s not surprising that one of the most popular ways to do that — Apple’s AirPod headphones — comes suggested by kids themselves. Twelve-year-old Sasha told us, “I think they’re nicer than over-ears because they’re not as bulky, so I can just put them in my pocket.” You can save a little more than $100 on the earlier second-generation set or splurge on the AirPods Pro, which have active noise canceling and touch volume control.

Byrne, who told us that the Xbox Series X would be at the top of many 11-year-olds’ gift lists, says it will be equally popular among 12-year-olds. It’s definitely expensive, but as we pointed out in our 11-year-old gift guide, Tom Warren, a writer for our sister site the Verge, says the console is worth the price. “Microsoft’s next-gen Xbox comes the closest I’ve ever witnessed to re-creating the superior PC experience of playing games,” Warren says, adding that “this is quieter and far easier to use and maintain than the $3,000 gaming PC I built.”

In our gift guide for tween boys, 12-year-old Joshua told us that receiving this 3-D printer would allow him to further hone the skills he’s learned in his after-school robotics club (where he uses a similar machine). “You never know what you can make out of your ideas, especially with Tinkercad (a free app that lets you 3-D print your own designs),” he says of the imagination-expanding power of 3-D printers.

Additional reporting by Lauren Ro and Dominique Pariso.

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The Best Gifts for 12-Year-Olds, According to Experts