When my 9-year-old daughter asked for a sewing machine last year, my instinct was to pick up a simple one for kids. It was inexpensive. It was easy. I could check it off my list and be done. But a good friend steered me away.
Her daughter had received something similar, but she hadn’t been able to do much with it and quickly lost interest in the hobby. That toy sewing machine ended up in their junk pile, destined for the landfill. I didn’t want my daughter’s present to meet the same fate.
Choosing a meaningful gift for a child — one they truly connect with and value — can be more challenging than it seems. At Wirecutter, we’ve spent dozens of hours considering hundreds of toys, games, and kits for inclusion in our gift guides for kids ages 1 through 10.
After getting advice from a dozen experts and reflecting on the hit gifts we’ve given to the young ones in our lives, we know that the best presents don’t have to be big or expensive, but merely used and loved over time. Here’s some advice to keep in mind as you shop.
For babies, consider keepsakes
Really little ones aren’t too picky about what they play with, and they may be just as entertained by the wrapping paper or box as they are by the gift itself. Use this time as an opportunity to give keepsake and sentimental gifts, such as a personalized board book (little kids often can’t get enough of looking at pictures of themselves and their families), an extra-cuddly stuffed animal, a personalized step stool, or a fun, whimsical clock to brighten their room. (All of these are included in our best gifts for 1-year-olds guide.) Gifts like these are likely to be used for years to come, something the family treasures even more as time goes on.
For young children, choose open-ended toys
Kids in preschool and early elementary school often have some sort of all-consuming obsession, perhaps a certain ice princess or a favorite superhero pup. But open-ended toys — those that can be played with in any number of ways — can outlast a child’s latest cartoon-character fixation, as well as tap into their curiosity, energy, and ingenuity.
For instance, Magna-Tiles, a pick in our guide to the best gifts for 4-year-olds, can be used to construct an ice castle or superhero lair, in addition to countless other creative projects in the years after those interests fade. The same applies to other modern building toys, from Legos to gear to circuit kits. Craft supplies, such as an easel, modeling clay, or watercolors, can foster a love of art and experimentation with different materials.
Gifts that channel a child’s boundless energy and get them outside are also likely to get a lot of use over time, and they may become cherished vehicles for early independence. Well-made trikes, bikes, and scooters are generally worth paying more for, as they provide a notably better riding experience and usually last much longer than cheaper alternatives.
For older kids, lean toward real tools
By age 8 or 9, many children begin to announce their hobbies and passions. If your child shows an interest in, say, baking or robotics, help them get serious about it by giving them their own set of adult gadgets, such as bakeware or a coding or tinkering kit. (We have recommendations for both cookie-baking gear and robotics kits for beginners).
Giving them real tools — rather than simplified kid versions — starts them on a path to developing lifelong skills, especially when paired with a class, book, or lesson. I opted for a real sewing machine for my daughter. It was pricier, but she still uses it a year later and now takes a textile arts class after school.
These types of gifts not only see a kid through their teenage years (and beyond) but can also help them build resilience and confidence as they learn, struggle, and ultimately master a skill or subject area.
“The more they’re tinkering and experimenting, the more they’re pushing their own development and advancing their own thinking,” said Hilary Conklin, an associate professor at DePaul University’s College of Education.
Many children who end up going into STEM careers first develop their interests in science and engineering at around age 8, according to Tamara Moore, an associate professor in engineering education at Purdue University.
”Imagining being a scientist or engineer all comes around that age, so you want to capture their imagination then,” she said. Toys that encourage kids to experiment, build, and think critically and logically (such as the ones found in our guides to the best electronics kits for beginners, as well as the learning and STEM toys we love) can be a fun way to develop programming and engineering skills they can use in the future.
Remember gifts that bring friends and family together
Board games are having a bit of a renaissance moment, with smart strategy games drawing both adults and kids to the table (and, often intentionally, away from their individual screens). If your idea of a children’s board game is a mind-numbing round of Candyland, know that there’s a whole crop of new options that are more thoughtful, challenging, and engaging than the typical “roll and move” games you probably remember from childhood. Many of these games encourage players to work together to win rather than knock out opponents. Others evolve over time so it’s never the same game twice.
“I’m a big fan of cooperative games that give the opportunity to explore and work together,” said Brian Mayer, a library technology and gaming specialist in New York. We worked with Mayer to help narrow down the testing pool for our guide to board games for kids.
From museum visits to theater tickets — whether it’s “The Nutcracker” or “Dog Man: The Musical” — experiences really are a gift for both children and adults. Annual memberships to local museums, botanical gardens, or nature centers make great gifts for young ones who already have a lot of stuff.
Enjoyed together, they can create lasting memories: Research published in a 2017 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research found that experiential gifts — presents that remind the recipient of an experience they had with the gift-giver — helps strengthen relationships, evoking powerful emotions and fostering closer ties.
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A version of this article appears at Wirecutter.com.