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Kids who end up pursuing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers often start developing their interests by age 8, said Tamara Moore, a professor of engineering education at Purdue University and the director of Inspire, a research institute in the university’s School of Engineering Education that focuses on precollege programs. (The research group reviews numerous engineering toys, kits, and games for its annual gift guide.) Age 8 marks the time of “the first spark,” when kids see and understand that they can become scientists or engineers, Moore said. “So you want to capture their imagination.”Many engineering toys are recommended for kids age 8 and older specifically because they have the dexterity to manipulate small pieces, the logic and reasoning skills to follow instructions, and the ability to focus on a task for longer periods of time. Art supplies, craft kits, and creative games can also be an important part of the mix at this age (and some educational researchers call for expanding STEM to STEAM, to include art, design and humanities).We considered Moore’s advice on great engineering toys, and relied on input from other experts and members of our staff, to find all kinds of gifts that are likely to challenge and delight the 8-year-old in your life. If you’re looking for more kids gift ideas, check out our guides to the best gifts for 1-year-olds, 2-year-olds, 3-year-olds, 4-year-olds, 5-year-olds, 6-year-olds, 7-year-olds, 9-year-olds, and 10-year-olds, as well as wonderful stocking stuffers for kids. We also have guides to gifts for tweens and teens. And please share your own best ideas in the comments below.Under $20Learn a new trick Photo: KlutzJuggling for the Complete Klutz ($15 at the time of publication)We’ve noticed stock issues with this item. We’ll update this article once it’s available again. Juggling for the Complete Klutz, a set of three red beanbags and an easy-to-follow instruction booklet (first published in 1977!), appeared under my family’s tree one year when I was a kid. My three younger brothers and I tossed the cube-shaped bags around for months till we all became fairly proficient jugglers. To say it changed our lives is an overstatement, but I’m proud to say all four of us can still juggle with ease. (My dad, ever the sentimentalist, still has our original set.) Klutz still makes the classic kit, and although my 6-year-old isn’t quite ready to take on the challenge—the set is recommended for ages 8 and older—we’re gearing up for it. The cubes are easy to grip, and the clear-cut instructions lay out the steps to successful juggling (the toss, the drop) with expertise and a dash of humor. Juggling is great for hand-eye coordination, but more than that, it’s one of those hard-won skills that helps instill the joy (along with the inevitable frustration) of mastering something new—and it’s not a bad party trick, either.—Ingrid SkjongCode like a pirate Photo: ThinkFunThinkFun Potato Pirates ($16 at the time of publication)We’ve noticed stock issues with this item. We’ll update this article once it’s available again. This wacky card game may look like it’s just a battle between cute little potatoes, but it also introduces kids to the fundamentals of computer programming. Each player (between three and six) is the captain of a pirate ship with a crew of potatoes, represented by soft tan balls. Drawing cards, players search for the elusive “Potato King” cards and take turns “programming” their ships to execute a function—for instance, “roasting,” “frying,” or “mashing” (that is, destroying) another ship’s crew. Students who tested it “were laughing and hollering,” said Elizabeth Gajdzik, one of the educators responsible for Purdue’s Inspire Research Institute naming Potato Pirates its overall top-pick engineering toy of 2019.—Ellen LeeUltra-creative clay Photo: Hey ClayHey Clay Aliens ($17 at the time of publication)We’ve noticed stock issues with this item. We’ll update this article once it’s available again.We already recommend Hey Clay in our gift guide for 6-year-olds. But it’s become such a favorite, we added it here, too. Options include these aliens, monsters, animals, and more. The molding mania begins with 18 cans of delightfully textured clay. Kids can either sculpt on their own or create figures with the help of a fun instructional app. Burgeoning sculptors learn useful techniques (how to introduce texture, for instance), and the clay dries completely in 24 hours, resulting in a figure that can either be displayed or played with. Artistic expansion aside, we’ve also found the kits to be excellent travel companions. One word of warning: Once the individual pots of clay are open, it’s a good idea to use up the contents within a couple of weeks. We’ve found they dry out if left alone for much longer.—Ingrid SkjongA sticky challenge Photo: Melissa & DougMelissa & Doug Suspend Family Game ($13 at the time of publication)My kids and their friends love pulling out this easy-to-learn and easy-to-set-up game, which was also recommended by Lisa Regalla, head of on-site and digital experiences at the Bay Area Discovery Museum in Sausalito, California. Players take turns balancing thin, bent metal rods (which come in an assortment of colors and lengths; a roll of a die determines which rod a player must use) on a stand, creating a delicate wire sculpture. If you place too many rods at a precarious angle, the structure (or parts of it) comes crashing down—a satisfying end to the game.—Ellen LeePom-pom projects Photo: April Chorba / KlutzKlutz Mini Pom-Pom Pets ($15 at the time of publication)We’ve noticed stock issues with this item. We’ll update this article once it’s available again. My boys can’t get enough of cute little stuffies. So they were pretty excited to unwrap the Klutz Mini Pom-Pom Pets kit, which lets kids create their own diminutive animal friends from yarn pom-poms. My husband and I had to help with the first couple of critters, but the instructions are clear. And once the “body” is created—you wrap the included yarn around a fork to form a sort of ball, then clip the string loops, tie it off, and voilà!—the rest of the job (gluing on eyes and other features) is simple. The kids seemed to find satisfaction in envisioning and creating their own little bunny or chick, and one even gifted the resulting poofball to a friend who was going through a rough time. We liked the set with a variety of animals, but you can also focus on just pom-pom pups or pom-pom kitties.—Kalee Thompson$20 to $50Circuit construction Photo: ElencoE-Blox Circuit Blox 120 ($40 at the time of publication)Elenco Snap Circuits Classic ($55 at the time of publication)From a working radio to a toy house that lights up, the E-Blox Circuit Blox 120 and Elenco Snap Circuits Classic building sets let kids explore the fundamentals of electronics and circuit design with easy-to-use pieces that snap together. Snap Circuits Classic, one of our recommended STEM toys, comes with basic components such as power sources, switches, and wires. E-Blox Circuit Blox pieces are similar to Snap Circuits but resemble—and are compatible with—Lego bricks. STEM education expert Elizabeth Gajdzik likes both sets for kids who are interested in exploring the basics of circuitry, though she found that E-Blox pieces can be easier to manipulate for kids with a little less dexterity.—Ellen LeeA book about differences Photo: The Colo(u)rism ProjectDifferent Differenter: An Activity Book About Skin Color by Jyoti Gupta, illustrated by Tarannum Pasricha ($20 at the time of publication)Few books are able to eloquently tackle the subject of race for kids while also offering something for adults. Different Differenter by Jyoti Gupta goes a step further, addressing a topic that, it turns out, is critical for kids to grasp before taking on racism: colorism. The beautifully illustrated Different Differenter introduces children—pictured with different skin colors, body types, and physical abilities—to terms like melanin and genes, as well as cultural differences among families and family traditions. Because it’s also an activity book, it’s full of instructions on how to learn and interact with children on these topics through play. My 5-year-old son, whom we call a chef for his love of playing with food, often asks to make the book’s recipe for laddoo, a popular Indian dessert. My teen took on one of Different Differenter’s more serious activities: making a one-minute anti-bullying video. Between the art activities and the theatrical prompts, it’s a book our family refers to often to kick off authentic conversations that are both warm and thoughtful.—Kelly GlassA storytelling game Photo: Rozette RagoDixit (about $25 at the time of publication)My daughter came home from a friend’s house one day raving about “a bunny game.” The bunnies turned out to be from Dixit (players are represented by bunny-shaped game pieces), one of Wirecutter’s favorite board games for both kids and adults and the winner of the 2010 Spiel des Jahres prize for general audience games. Dixit players are each dealt six wordless cards that bear provocative and interesting illustrations (though my daughter and I noticed that the humans represented in those illustrations could be more diverse). In each round, one “lead player” chooses one of their cards and makes a short statement—a sentence, poem, story, song, even a single word—about what’s on it (without revealing what it is). Each of the other players responds by selecting a card of their own that they think best fits with the statement, and then everyone votes on which card is the closest match. Rather than rewarding speed or dexterity, Dixit is all about creativity, provocation, and storytelling.—Ellen LeeBalls that keep the game going after dark Photo: Dan FrakesGlowCity’s Light Up LED Soccer Ball and Light Up LED Basketball ($25 each at the time of publication)Even if you live where winter nights are temperate enough that you can stay outdoors, it can be tough for kids to play their favorite sports once the afternoon grows short. A lit backyard or driveway helps, but it can still be difficult to see a ball well enough to avoid the occasional face shot. GlowCity’s regulation-size soccer ball and basketball solve this problem because they light up from the inside, allowing kids to play as late as they want to (or at least as late as you let them). The company also makes a football, but we haven’t tried it.—Dan FrakesFriendly reminders Photo: LoopdedooLoopdedoo Friendship Bracelet Making Kit ($30 at the time of publication)Friendship bracelets are a nostalgic craft that have made a big comeback. “It’s a nice gesture for kids to be able to give something that’s homemade and that lasts,” said Debbie Imperatore, manager and buyer of Funky Monkey Toys & Books in Greenvale, New York, and Greenwich, Connecticut. The Loopdedoo Friendship Bracelet Making Kit includes a spinning loom that twists the brightly colored threads into bracelets that, according to Imperatore, are not like the ones you might remember braiding in the ’80s or ’90s. “It makes these gorgeous, multidimensional designs that are truly gift worthy,” she said. In 10 minutes, kids can weave bracelets, headbands, necklaces, and other accessories into designs as simple or as intricate as they want, thanks to a set of online step-by-step Loopdedoo video tutorials.—Kelly GlassFabulous watercolors Photo: Kyle FitzgeraldKuretake Gansai Tambi Watercolors ($40 at the time of publication)Kuretake watercolors are a step up from most watercolors, and they make a special and likely unexpected gift for a kid (or an adult) who’s interested in graduating to next-level artistry. Made by a 117-year-old sumi-ink manufacturer in Nara, Japan, this set features an array of bright colors to experiment with, and the large pans and quick-dissolving formulation make the paints easy to use, even for kids.—Michael HessionRobotic animals Photo: Thames & KosmosThames & Kosmos Engineering Makerspace Terrain Walkers Science Kit ($30 at the time of publication)This kit comes with 138 pieces—including gear trains, linkages, and a motor box—that allow kids to assemble eight different robotic animals, such as a kangaroo that hops and a mouse that scurries across the floor. Kids can follow the instructions animal by animal or use their imaginations to build their own designs. Terrain Walkers is part of the Engineering Makerspace series, which has kits of different levels of complexity that allow kids to build various robotic structures. STEM education expert Elizabeth Gajdzik named the Engineering Makerspace Terrain Walkers one of Inspire Research Institute’s 10 best engineering toys for 2019, calling it a fun way to learn about mechanical design. Plus, the animal robots move the way they’re supposed to, from a wriggling shrimp to a monkey that can crawl along a string.—Ellen LeeFinishing touches for projects Photo: Kid Made ModernKid Made Modern Arts and Crafts Supply Library ($40 at the time of publication)We’ve noticed stock issues with this item. We’ll update this article once it’s available again. Whether or not your kid is ultra-arty, the Kid Made Modern Arts and Crafts Supply Library is an appealing tool kit for finishing off any creative endeavor. According to senior staff writer Lauren Dragan, whose young son routinely dives into this collection of fun stuff, it’s the finishing touches like those found here—googly eyes, beads, stick-on jewels, pom-poms—that take a project from good to great. (We recommend the 300-piece Kid Made Modern craft kit in our guide to the best gifts for 7-year-olds.) And when the treasure trove of supplies begins to dwindle, the cardboard box itself can be used as a space to store miscellaneous arts and crafts items your kid already owns.—Caira Blackwell$50 and overA doll to pass along Photo: American GirlAmerican Girl Truly Me Doll + Accessories ($140 at the time of publication)I can think of no single toy I coveted more fiercely as a child than an American Girl doll. They were expensive then (around $80 in the early ’90s), and they’re still expensive now. But for my sister and me, they were a long-term investment in imagination and love, in more ways than I could have realized at the time. We cherished and played with our dolls through adolescence, amassing a collection of outfits and high-quality accessories. Years later, my stepmother rescued our dolls and their belongings from the attic and sent them off for a restorative stay at the Doll Hospital. A quarter century after we first got them, the spiffed-up American Girls were presented to my two daughters when they were right around the same age. They now love their dolls, just as I remember my sister and I having loved ours.When I was a kid, American Girl offered just five dolls, each from a different time period. Those historically themed dolls are still available, but nowadays the company has a much wider, more diverse, and more inclusive slate of dolls, allowing your child to choose one that looks like them. To my delight (and awe at the march of time), American Girl introduced a new historical doll in 2020: an ’80s girl named Courtney.—Courtney SchleyA classic pirate ship Photo: Michael MurtaughLego Creator 3-in-1 Pirate Ship ($100 at the time of publication)We’ve noticed stock issues with this item. We’ll update this article once it’s available again. Many people have memories of building a Lego pirate ship as a kid, and the Lego Creator 3-in-1 Pirate Ship is both a worthy modern update and a recommendation in our guide to the best Lego sets for kids. This ship is large and sturdy, with interactive elements like an openable captain’s quarters, cannons, and movable sails. With over 1,200 pieces, it’s challenging enough for an 8-year-old with some Lego experience under their belt. Lego’s Creator 3-in-1 kits come with instructions for making three different projects with the same pieces, so after they build the pirate ship, kids can repurpose the bricks into a dollhouse-style inn or a spooky-looking Skull Island. For a kid who likes a combination of guided building and imaginative play, this themed Lego set offers a lot of hours of creating and interaction.—Signe BrewsterCozy comforter Photo: Pottery Barn KidsPottery Barn Kids Solar System Glow-in-the-Dark Duvet Cover (twin) ($90 at the time of publication)Utopia Bedding Comforter Duvet Insert (twin) ($25 at the time of publication)If your 8-year-old is still sleeping with a comforter from their preschool days, they may be ready for an upgrade. Pottery Barn Kids duvet covers are a nice middle ground between little-kid bedding and adult linens. The covers come in more than a hundred colors, prints, and patterns, including glow-in-the-dark solar systems and unicorns. The more classic options, like checkered, floral, or solids, could grow with a kid through their teenage years. We chose a pastel, watercolor-like rainbow print for our three kids’ beds, and I’ve often remarked to my husband that the silky cotton fabric feels softer and finer than that of our own duvet cover. The Pottery Barn Kids covers have handy corner ties that attach to a comforter insert to keep it from shifting around. Pair your cover of choice with the inexpensive but ultra-fluffy Utopia Bedding Comforter Duvet Insert, our pick for the best down-alternative comforter.—Courtney SchleyMarvelous marbles Photo: RavensburgerRavensburger GraviTrax Starter Set ($60 at the time of publication)My then-8-year old spotted this next-level, build-it-yourself marble run at a local toy store and requested it from his grandparents for the holidays that year. The toy, which has you stack and arrange plastic disks to build complex marble-racing routes, incorporates concepts of gravity, magnetics, and kinetics, and it feels far more refined overall than the taller, tubular plastic marble runs we encountered when my son was younger. (This GraviTrax set was one of the top picks in Inspire Research Institute’s 2019 gift guide.) I’ve found that it’s the sort of thing he pulls out and obsesses over for a few days, then doesn’t play with again until a number of months later. But each time my son rediscovers GraviTrax in the game closet, he seems ready to take his marble chutes to the next level of complexity.—Kalee ThompsonAn invention kit from MIT Photo: JoyLabzJoyLabz Makey Makey Classic ($50 at the time of publication)Developed at the MIT Media Lab, Makey Makey is an “invention kit” that connects to a computer via USB and lets kids turn household objects—like bananas or Play-Doh—into a keyboard, controller, or touchpad. (If this is hard to visualize, check out this video, which shows some of the things kids can create with Makey Makey, including a banana piano and a Play-Doh gaming controller.) The possibilities are endless, which is why Makey Makey is recommended by Lisa Regalla, head of on-site and digital experiences at the Bay Area Discovery Museum in Sausalito, California. “You can hook up fruits, vegetables, flowers, anything that mildly conducts electricity,” Regalla said.—Ellen LeeSleek headphones that sound as they should Photo: Rozette RagoPuro BT2200 ($85 at the time of publication)Though a lot of headphones for kids claim to limit the volume to safe levels for developing ears (under 85 decibels), many fail to do so. The Puro BT2200 headphones, our pick for the best kids headphones, remain within safer listening levels when used properly—and were the favorite of all of our kid panelists. While other kids headphones are made of breakable cheap plastic, the BT2200 has a well-constructed aluminum frame. The Bluetooth connection lets kids use them wirelessly or with a cord. (Puro also makes a version of these headphones with active noise cancelling, called the PuroQuiet). The BT2200 headphones come in blue, black, pink, and purple (among other colors), and they’re sleek and fun without looking like a toy.—Lauren DraganA fun watch that’s just smart enough Photo: Sarah KobosVerizon GizmoWatch 2 ($100 at the time of publication, plus a monthly service fee)Relay ($50 at the time of publication, plus a $10 monthly service fee)Both Verizon’s GizmoWatch 2 and the Relay are fun smartphone alternatives for kids who are ready to venture out on their own a little bit—both are picks in our guide to choosing the best smartwatch (or dumb phone) for your kid. The GizmoWatch 2 can make phone calls, send simple, preset text messages (such as “Where are you?”), and produce silly fart sounds, in addition to telling time. My kids also got a kick out of communicating walkie-talkie–style with the brightly colored Relay, which is shaped like a small wireless speaker. In addition to making calls, the Relay lets kids switch to other channels, such as Daily Joke and Music. The GizmoWatch 2 and the Relay are tools that allow school-aged kids to communicate simply but easily with their parents or other caregivers, potentially contributing to their own growing independence. (Both also use GPS to track a kid’s location, which parents can see on a smartphone app; this may help some feel better about their kids’ first solo ventures.)—Ellen LeeWe love finding gifts that are unusual, thoughtful, and well vetted. See even more gift ideas we recommend.
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