gifts they might actually want

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

Photo-Illustration: Photo-Illustration: Stevie Remsberg; Photos: Courtesy of the retailers

Jump to section

As children turn the corner from 4 to 5 years old, they begin to have a better handle on their emotions and are better equipped to work through problems and conflicts, says George Sachs, a child psychologist and founder of the Sachs Center in Manhattan. But how does that help you pick a gift for the kindergartner in your life? The child-development experts we’ve consulted suggest buying toys that encourage problem-solving, like Kiwi Crate building kits, and board games that teach children about competition and collaboration.

The 29 options, below, all meet the the criteria outlined by pros like Sachs as well as toy buyers, nannies, and highly discerning parents. They include creative toys, toys that challenge a 5-year-old’s fine motor 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 and want a full picture of what 5-year-olds are into, read all the way through. Whether you’re shopping for a birthday or the holidays or any other day, it’s a list that keeps on giving.

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.

Under $25

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 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, a subscription-based organic-produce service. That’s where this 16-piece gardening set comes in. It’s a 100 percent zero-waste gift comprised of all the essentials for growing organic tomatoes and watermelon: two garden pots, a watering can, a hand rake, shovel, organic seed packets, expandable soil pucks, and two eco-friendly seed starter pots. “You can teach your kids how to plant and garden in your own home,” Tyrner says.


“Outfoxed has more replay value than I have ever experienced in a child’s board game,” says Strategist contributor and father of two Steven John. For months after first getting the game, his then 5-and-a-half-year-old requested a round nearly every single day. 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.

Here’s a brilliant idea from Lesley Suter, travel editor at Eater and mom of two. “The best gift my daughter ever received (and one which I’ve copied a lot) was this mini waffle maker,” she says. Her daughter received it when she turned 5, and years later, it’s still a hit. “It requires help, but it’s the one thing she actually cared about long after her birthday.” And the fact that the waffles are heart-shaped — and mini — added extra cuteness. When Suter gives it as a gift, she likes to include syrup, a jar of “magic” waffle mix, and a handwritten recipe to make it extra special. As far as the waffle maker itself goes, Suter says it’s easy to clean and convenient to store since it’s small. But she cautions that it gets really hot, so adult supervision is definitely required.

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.

Kids go wild for stomp rockets — a fact well acknowledged by both Sachs and 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. John has watched with gratitude as his son and his cousins of a similar age take turns blasting them off for the better part of an hour, leaving dad and the 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 the 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. In her own home, Rossler notes that 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 is the “safe, gluten-free Play-Doh substitute” of choice for mother of four and gluten-free coach and podcast host 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.” For these reasons, Mad Mattr is not only great for imaginative play, but also helping with dexterity and fine motor control. It’s also a toy that lets kids of varied ages play together.


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. While definitely oriented toward girls, 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.

Sago Brothers Magic Clay

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.”

Under $50


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.”

Crazy Forts!

After John’s son got a Crazy Forts kit for Christmas one year, few days went by without a fort built or played in. 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 are building robots of a variety of animals and then actually getting to watch them move, explains Schacht. A step-by-step manual makes the projects manageable with minimal adult assistance required. After assembling the LEGO-like blocks into the shape of, say, a sea otter or a fox, they connect their structure 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.”


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).

This game manages the all-but-impossible: It makes learning math genuinely fun. It requires an iPad or an Amazon Fire tablet 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.” Just be sure to check the specs to make sure it’s compatible with your tablet.

No one can deny the joy of jumping up and down — especially if it’s on a super-bouncy pogo stick, like this one that Figueras-Daniel recommends. “The pogo stick is a great balancing toy that will definitely require a bit of practice,” she says. But that’s a good thing: “I think toys that are just slightly above ability levels are great as they encourage persistence and also avoid becoming boring too quickly.” This model, which comes in a bunch of colors including blue, red, and yellow, features non-slip pedals and a safety foam handle. As with any other playthings, they could potentially fall off of, it’s recommended that children wear a helmet and other protective gear when using pogo sticks.

Under $100

VTech KidiZoom Creator Cam

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

“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.

$235 for 17

As with most open-ended toys, Sarah’s Silks grow with your child and are developmentally appropriate for a range of ages. 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.

If you’re willing to splurge on a STEM toy, Eater’s editor-in-chief, Amanda Kludt, recommends this screenless coding set, which she calls “the best kid gift I’ve received.” As she explains it, “Basically, you’re a robot on a grid, and you have to program where you want it to go. It’s a very rudimentary introduction to coding with some bonus lessons on learning to tell your left from your right in a way that’s special and fun.” While it’s designed for children 3 and up, it wasn’t until her son turned 5 that it started to click. “There’s a lot of trial and error. Right now, he does one to two moves at a time (turn right, move one step forward), but as he learns he’ll be able to do more complex ‘codes’ (turn right, move one step forward, turn left, go four steps forward, etc.).” In addition to the rolling robot cube and control board, the kit comes with a storybook, a world map, and colorful blocks that act as the “codes.”

The Strategist is designed to surface the most useful, expert recommendations for things to buy across the vast e-commerce landscape. Some of our latest conquests include the best women’s jeans, rolling luggage, pillows for side sleepers, ultra-flattering pants, and bath towels. We update links when possible, but note that deals can expire and all prices are subject to change.

Every editorial product is independently selected. If you buy something through our links, New York may earn an affiliate commission.

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