Though it is an overused portmanteau, “tween” is an apt descriptor for 12-year-olds, who are in that liminal space between childhood and puberty-catalyzed young adulthood. They have peer groups and deal with peer pressure. They are starting to feel stress from the demands of school. They have moods. So many moods. These kids are also sophisticated, savvy to marketing, and driven by personal interests, which makes buying gifts for 12-year-olds a singularly difficult task. In fact, the best toys for 12-year-olds should look like anything but toys for them to make a real impact.
Birthday gift ideas can feel especially fraught. The very phrase “toys for 12-year-olds” can seem like an oxymoron. There are the old familiar paths of least resistance: gaming devices, video games, and Amazon gift cards always work. But that’s all a bit uninspired.
Toys that feel like they’re for little kids will be quickly discarded, and more grown-up gifts may prove too complicated (or expensive) to make practical sense. The best toys for 12-year-old boys and girls live between extremes. The art of finding the perfect gift is the art of feeling one’s way around a big old gray area.
The list below is long on gadgets and for good reason. Many 12-year-olds are gadget-obsessed, which makes sense given that gadgets are basically toys for adults and neatly balance a desire to play and a desire to play-act adulthood.
The Best Games and Toys for 12-Year-Olds
This 100 percent cotton, machine-washable shirt lets kids decorate (and redecorate) their T-shirts with ephemeral glowing art that fades after five minutes. Equipped with a luminescent ink panel on the front that retains any marks made with 'concentrated light source' (such as a phone flashlight or the included mini light pen), kids can endlessly reimagine their glow-in-the-dark wearable art/message board.
Kids can blast four darts in a row from this pump-action, hand-powered Nerf blaster. It was inspired by the blaster used in Fortnite, an obscure game that you've probably never heard of (we kid). And because it doesn't use batteries, kids — or you, let's be real — can use this thing for hours.
A well-crafted and colorful variation on the mind-bending geometric tile-and-shape-shifting games we all love, Katamino lets you change the size of the board (and the difficulty level) as you play. The objective, as ever, is to find the right pieces as quickly as possible. And unlike its digital cousins, this puzzle turns into a beautiful, tactile object while it's lying around the house between games. Includes 12 polygon pieces and slider, to change the scale of play, and offers 500 math-boosting creative challenges in all.
Twelve-year-old birthday gifts don't get much better than this drone. Generations of kids have loved remote-controlled cars, boats, and planes. This new generation of toy drones adds video to the mix, which means kids can capture and relive their aerial expeditions — or experience them in real-time with live-video monitoring using a phone or tablet. This model has a video game–like controller, altitude hold, and three skill settings, so it's perfect for beginners — but lets young pilots grow.
Is your tween working on his or her sarcasm skills? This stylish letter board will let her practice without a device. Add this to the top of your gifts for 12-year-olds list. Whether he or she wants to use it as a photo prop or a silent means of communication, this felt letter board, which is available in more than 30 different bright or neutral colors, will win big points. It comes with more than 300 letters, numbers and special characters like hashtags.
If it's getting harder and harder to communicate with your tween, perhaps it's time to play spymaster. This family-friendly word-clue game pits two teams against each other, each led by an all-knowing spymaster. The rules are simple — come up with clever one-word clues that will help teammates identify secret agents — but the possibilities are endless, and the team banter potentially frenzied and hilarious. Whoever makes contact with their agents (while avoiding the hidden assassin) wins.
A genius way for kids to practice soccer, and practice some more. You strap one end to the ball and the other end to the kid, and your Megan Rapinoe does drills for hours.
Sure, you can draw on the sidewalk with any old chalk — but drawing a rainbow on the sidewalk with chalk in the shape of a unicorn horn is just, well, magical. The set comes with unicorn horns and three narwhal horns, and all are a nontoxic mix of plaster of Paris, tempera, and acrylic paint.
This fully-assembled 16-inch rocket flies up to heights of 1,100 feet and is easily recovered with its 12-inch parachute. To launch this bad boy, you need the launch system, model rocket engines, igniters and recovery wadding. But damn, is the end result worth it.
Perfect for exploring the night sky this summer, the Cometron is a tabletop reflector telescope that's geared toward beginners but still strong enough to zoom in on the moon, capture the glow of distant planets, comets and meteor showers. There are two eyepieces — so you can gaze at 15x and 30x magnifications, depending on your target. Easy to set up and use.
Budding scientists will be obsessed with this USB microscope, which delivers up to 250x magnification. You simply pick what you want to look at, put it under the scope, and see it on your computer screen. It's magnificent. The perfect gift for an aspiring NASA employee, the microscope is compatible with Windows and Apple operating systems. But more importantly, it recently captivated a group of area 12-year-olds, who spent hours checking out detailed leaves and other objects, while ignoring their gaming consoles.
This won't come as a surprise, but the game selection — Mario Kart, Super Smash, and a bunch of others — and control styles have convinced us that the Nintendo Switch is the best console for most kids. There's a reason that the Switch is such a popular kids’ toy. Switch is a major winner, with its unique control scheme options and flexibility that means your kids can play the same games on the go and on your TV. Which is either a bonus, or a major issue.
This is the more portable and more affordable little brother (or sister) of the original Nintendo Switch. It won't connect to your TV and has no detachable controllers, but this Switch Lite is cheaper than the original version, designed specifically for handheld play, has a really long lasting battery life, and has fully integrated controls and a built-in control pad. It's great for gaming on the go — and for the clumsy gamer who might drop their handheld devices a little too often.
Quite often, retro gifts make the best gifts, and this Lego building set pays tribute to one of the most iconically silly cartoons ever. Wilma! Fred! Kids build the Flintstones' home, which features a removable roof, a sofa, TV, buildable palm tree and postbox, plus a family car with an attachable dinosaur rib.
What's better than whacking the hell out of a piñata? Getting one filled with Fortnite loot, that's what. This specific llama comes loaded with one figure, 10 weapons, four pieces of back bling, and eight pieces of exclusive building materials. The Fortnite lover in your home will be thrilled, to say the least.
Even if your kid doesn't find any hidden treasure, they will love sweeping the backyard, the park, and wherever else they wander with this metal detector. Although it's made for kids, this metal detector is plenty powerful and can detect metal objects more than a foot underground. It also weighs less than 2 pounds and telescopes from 39 to 24 inches for easy transport.
Make like James Corden and turn any road trip into a musical fantasy (or nightmare). Toys for 12-year-olds should encourage them to let loose, and this thing offers a hell of a good time. Just pair your mobile device to the mic using Bluetooth, and you can sing along to your favorite song from your karaoke or music app of choice through a connected speaker.
Kids love slime and unicorns, so this unicorn-themed make-your-own slime kit is sure to be a hit. The kit comes with a diverse array of materials — glitters, scents, inks, powders, foam balls, beads, pearls, and more — that kids can combine to create their own special blend.
Your aspiring DJ will be (almost) ready to go pro with this set. This easy-to-use controller teaches kids to mix and is actually almost quasi-professional. Once you connect this to the app, it shows kids how to transition between tracks and switch between songs, plus how to work special effects.
LifeProof boasts that their cases meet U.S. military standards for drop and shock protection — and hit the highest international ratings for waterproofness (this case is designed to keep a phone safe and dry for an hour under six feet of water). If this case is tough enough for commercial fisherman, soldiers, and sailors, it's probably tough enough for your 12-year-old. There are tons of sizes, colors, and designs to choose from, and in our experience, this case makes phones nearly indestructible.
Instant gratification takes on a whole new meaning with this Polaroid camera, which lets you take 16-megapixel photographs and print instantly on 2x3-inch sticky-back paper. It has a vertical design that matches the way smartphone photos are taken, and produces detailed prints. This is a really cool toy for kids who are interested in photography and art but also don't want a super high barrier of entry.
This bow-and-arrow set launches arrows a stunning 125 feet. It’s also secretly genius: The arrows make a noise when they're headed your way, so kids can duck.
Kids who are into art will dig this 3D pen, which lets them doodle flat or draw up. If kids can think it up, they can create it, using this drawing tool. It extrudes soft, malleable plastic that stays suspended in place as it cools, bringing cats and cars and unicorns to life.
It's like a DIY lava lamp, only much better. Kids can put on their own light show with this projector, but what’s even cooler: Kids can create light-up illustrations from scratch or by tracing from a template. The kit includes the projector, two wooden styluses, a plastic stencil sheet, and film.
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