The 20 Best Gifts for 3-Year-Olds – The New York Times


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Three-year-olds are ready for toys that foster lots of imaginative play, Singh says. So, open-ended playthings that inspire storytelling and creative engagement are better than one-trick ponies. Toys and costumes that allow for role-playing and board games that encourage group interaction nurture 3-year-olds’ developing social skills. And many kids at this age are ready for speedier, sleeker movement toys—like scooters and trikes—that reward their growing physical confidence.We included toy suggestions from Singh and other educators below; members of our staff added the kind of memory-making gifts that have gone over best with the 3-year-olds in their lives. If you’re looking for more kids gift ideas, check out our guides to the best gifts for 1-year-olds, 2-year-olds, 4-year-olds, 5-year-olds, 6-year-olds, 7-year-olds, 8-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 $20Pattern play Photo: Fat Brain ToysBugzzle ($20 at the time of publication)We’ve noticed stock issues with this item. We’ll update this article once it’s available again.Melissa & Doug Pattern Blocks and Boards Classic Toy ($20 at the time of publication)Bugzzle is essentially a tangram for toddlers. An early STEM toy that provides a soft introduction to fractions, Bugzzle includes one sturdy bug frame, 18 semicircular plastic puzzle pieces, and 40 cards with increasingly difficult patterns to recreate inside the bug. My 2½-year-old is a little young to match the cards; she mostly just enjoys inventing her own designs or coordinating the pieces into one solid color. A friend’s 3-year-old, however, is adept at remaking the patterns using the problem-solving skills and spatial reasoning Bugzzle is designed to foster. For a more traditional format, Melissa & Doug Pattern Blocks and Boards encourages the same critical-thinking skills as Bugzzle using colorful wooden shapes.—Caitlin GiddingsCooperative counting games Photo: Peaceable KingdomCount Your Chickens ($16 at the time of publication)We’ve noticed stock issues with this item. We’ll update this article once it’s available again.Cooperative board games, during which players work toward a common goal instead of competing against each other, are ideal for 3-year-olds who are learning to follow directions, take turns, and work as a group. Count Your Chickens is a hit with preschoolers and parents at Toybrary Austin, our local toy-lending library in Texas. Players team up to bring a mother hen’s chicks back to the coop. It’s simple and, just as importantly, fast—perfect for a 3-year-old’s attention span. (Once you’ve mastered the art of chicken reunions, check out The Sneaky, Snacky Squirrel Game, another great cooperative board game for beginners, or Go Away Monster, a goofy tactile game we recommend in our guide to the best board games for kids.)—Caitlin GiddingsDotty art supplies Photo: Do-A-Dot ArtDo-A-Dot Art Rainbow Markers ($17 at the time of publication)We’ve noticed stock issues with this item. We’ll update this article once it’s available again.It’s hard to go wrong with a gift of novel art supplies. My son got a set of these dot-making markers when he was 3 (and just embarking on a now-yearslong obsession with rainbows). The sticks are easy for little hands to grip, and the colors are vibrant enough to look bright on cardboard boxes as well as regular paper. I like that they have the special feel of paints but with less mess and effort. You may want to pair them with a ream of paper or some add-on art supplies—like the scissors and glue sticks we recommend in our guide to the best school supplies.—Kalee Thompson$20 to $50Clever cupcakes Photo: Learning ResourcesLearning Resources Smart Snacks Shape Sorting Cupcakes ($20 at the time of publication)Toys that pull double duty are my favorite for my two kids, and these eight colorful cupcakes deliver learning and fun in equal measure. Each confection pulls apart to reveal a different shape, with the tops matching the bottoms and the bottoms matching corresponding divots in the pan. My younger son enjoys the challenge of sorting shapes and identifying colors together; my preschooler works these pastries into pretend baking games, picnic scenarios, imaginative shopping trips, and more. The set is nearly indestructible, and I find myself retrieving it during room cleanup every night—a surefire sign that it’s in the rotation for good.—Ingrid SkjongA musical book Photo: Workman Publishing CompanyWelcome to Jazz: A Swing-Along Celebration of America’s Music, Featuring “When the Saints Go Marching In” by Carolyn Sloan, illustrated by Jessica Gibson ($25 at the time of publication)I can do without children’s books that blare sounds, but I make an exception for Welcome to Jazz by Carolyn Sloan. My 2-year-old (who I initially thought might be a tad young for a jazz primer) took to this book immediately—from the vivid illustrations featuring a trio of cats learning the genesis of jazz to the 12 buttons that, when pressed, play the different musical parts of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” (A 3-year-old might be in an even better position to enjoy it.) My son loves hearing the deep double bass, the jangly rhythm section, the free-spirited scatting—and he’s learning the names of jazz legends like Billie Holiday and King Oliver. It’s a musical introduction we can all get behind.—Ingrid SkjongMagnetic letters Photo: Kid OKid O Magnatab A to Z Uppercase ($25 at the time of publication)At age 3, some kids begin showing interest in gripping a pencil and trying to form letters or numbers. This magnetic writing board is an early-handwriting tool that’s fun, sensory, and even semi-addictive. Kids use the thick magnetic stylus to trace letters, pulling the tiny metal balls into place. The balls are encased, so they can’t fall out or get lost. Directional arrows help budding writers visualize where to start and end each letter. Kid O also makes a Magnatab for practicing numbers; for free-form magnetic drawing and writing, it offers this simple slate. (Kid O sells replacement styluses, too, in case yours goes missing.) We also like the Boogie Board Scribble n’ Play, which has an LCD surface that fosters colorful, mess-free doodling you can erase with the push of a button.—Caitlin GiddingsCoding for kids Photo: Fisher-PriceFisher-Price Think & Learn Code-a-pillar Twist (about $25 at the time of publication)Dana Mahoney, associate director of community engagement at the Thinkery in Austin, Texas, recommends the motorized Code-a-pillar Twist STEM toy for an early introduction to coding. A screen-free outlet for toddlers to experiment with robotics and programming concepts, the caterpillar is a hit with Mahoney’s kids, who are 2 and 4. Here’s how it works: Five body segments, each with a dial, are attached to the motorized head. Kids can turn each dial to a different direction, programming a path for the toy. Trial and error lets them practice planning, sequencing, and problem-solving.—Caitlin GiddingsCreative crafts Photo: Alex DiscoverAlex Discover My Giant Busy Box ($35 at the time of publication)Kids will love opening up this box, which is jam-packed with an enormous variety of crafting supplies and instructions to make 16 projects. They can turn the included tissue paper, crayons, googly eyes, pipe cleaners, dough, stickers, and more into critters, puppets, collages, and pictures, or use the materials and ideas as a starting point for their own creations. I like that the creature shapes are sturdy enough to use as templates for tracing and cutting out paper versions—to make the fun last even longer.—Winnie YangA little big top Photo: Nathan EdwardsIKEA Cirkustält ($20 at the time of publication)IKEA’s colorful polyester play tents offer long-lasting fun for a low price. The littlest kids may enjoy playing hide-and-seek inside, or peekaboo from behind the curtains. Three-year-olds might like loading them up with mounds of stuffed animals, using them as a private place to play or turning them into rocket ships. I can attest to their durability: We had one that lasted for at least five years, and there were many catastrophic rocket crashes during that time. IKEA’s Busa Play Tunnel, which we recommend in our guide to the best gifts for 2-year-olds, pairs nicely with the circus tent and was another hit with my kids.—Kalee ThompsonCostume kits Photo: Melissa & DougMelissa & Doug Fire Chief Role Play Costume Set ($25 at the time of publication)We’ve noticed stock issues with this item. We’ll update this article once it’s available again.My child’s peer group is obsessed with dramatic play and dress-up. One minute they’re doctors, the next firefighters, and at some point they all splinter off into different versions of Spider-Man on a group mission to destroy the house. Although these costume sets from Melissa & Doug don’t offer any caped-superhero options, they do let kids take on lots of heroic, real-world career roles, like veterinarian or pediatric nurse. Each costume comes with accessories—hard hat, hammer, and saw for the construction worker; fedora, pair of sunglasses, and decoder lens for the spy—that help set the scene for freewheeling imaginative play. If your kid is, in fact, particularly obsessed with playing superhero, they might also love a set of silky capes with Velcro closures and matching felt masks; if they’re more inclined toward royalty, try these sumptuous velour ones.—Caitlin GiddingsA creativity station Photo: Melissa & DougMelissa & Doug Deluxe Double-Sided Tabletop Easel ($20 at the time of publication)This sturdy wooden Melissa & Doug tabletop easel gives toddlers dozens of creative options for when they’re seated at the table or on the floor. On one side there’s a chalkboard; flip the whole thing over and you’ll find a magnetic dry-erase board. The set includes a 50-foot roll of paper for painting and drawing, five sticks of colored chalk, a dry-erase marker and felt eraser, and 36 letter and number magnets that can be stored in the wooden base tray. It all packs down easily, so you can stow it anywhere or take it on a trip. (My toddler loves to sit outside on the ground with it and paint.) If you’re looking for a full-sized easel, we like the KidKraft Storage Easel or the Melissa & Doug Deluxe Wooden Standing Art Easel, both of which we recommend in our guide to the best gifts for 4-year-olds.—Caitlin GiddingsPlush puppets Photo: FolkmanisFolkmanis Snowy Owl Hand Puppet ($30 at the time of publication)Puppets can be a great outlet for preschoolers to explore storytelling. My kids have a dedicated puppet basket, as well as this puppet theater, though I find that the individual puppets get way more use than the theater itself—they’re more interested in private, imaginative play than performing for an audience. Folkmanis makes a range of plush animal puppets: We’ve been gifted the tiny praying mantis and a scaly three-headed dragon, but I think this snowy owl is the most special puppet in our bin. It’s extra-soft and structured, with a head you can rotate using a plastic knob inside. After my older son got dive-bombed by a nesting owl last winter—for real, and he was fine—we were able to embark on some extra-dramatic play with this thing.—Kalee ThompsonInstructive instruments Photo: MugigMugig Button Accordion ($30 at the time of publication)We’ve noticed stock issues with this item. We’ll update this article once it’s available again.Liza Wilson, owner of the Toybrary lending library in Austin, Texas, says playing musical instruments—even when they’re just playing with them—helps preschoolers explore sensory input in a way that’s creative and self-directed. The resulting sounds may be chaotic, but 3-year-olds can learn much more from real instruments than from simply pushing buttons or tapping screens to play prerecorded songs. For 3-year-olds, small pianos and drums might be good choices. But Wilson said Toybrary’s little accordion gets the most play. Kids love pulling on the bellows and pushing the vocal keys and buttons for harmony and bass. It’s a toy that can grow with a child as they progress from making creative sounds to learning actual songs—and heck, even adults can have some fun fiddling with it.—Caitlin GiddingsWe scream for ice cream Photo: Melissa & DougMelissa & Doug Scoop & Stack Ice Cream Cone Playset ($25 at the time of publication)We’ve noticed stock issues with this item. We’ll update this article once it’s available again.According to the International Dairy Foods Association, the average American devours 23 pounds of ice cream a year. The love of the stuff starts early, as illustrated by this ice-cream cone playset. Kids can spoon and serve with two magnetized scoopers, which have a satisfyingly realistic feel when doling out one of the four scoops of ice cream (vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, and mint chocolate chip) to top off the two wooden cones. The flavors may be well edited, but the playful possibilities are nearly endless.—Ingrid SkjongOver $50Tools for toddlers Photo: Black + DeckerBlack+Decker Junior Power Tool Workshop ($75 at the time of publication)Play kitchens are all the rage for their encouragement of imaginative play and social-development skills. (See our guide to the best gifts for 2-year-olds for our no-holds-barred favorite.) But play workbenches deserve the same amount of love. A friend has the Black+Decker Junior Power Tool Workshop, and my toddler can’t get enough. She collects all the small accessories, such as nuts, screws, and bolts, and loads them into the toolbox. But the attention to detail on the power tools is the coolest part: In addition to a working vise, the Junior Power Tool Workshop comes with a miter saw and a drill, which function realistically and emit battery-powered sounds. The entire thing has more than 50 parts, including a flashlight, a phone, and everything else a kid needs to fall in love with home repair.—Caitlin GiddingsA modern dollhouse Photo: HapeHape All Season House (Furnished) ($155 at the time of publication)We’ve noticed stock issues with this item. We’ll update this article once it’s available again.Hape’s three-story All Season House is bright, gender neutral, and open on all sides. My daughter loved that she could reach into any room from almost any spot to adjust the furniture and play with the wooden people (sold separately). I liked the extra furniture sets and accessories we could buy (like these pets). This was a staple toy during her toddler and preschool years—until we got a puppy who eventually devoured everything in the dollhouse, including the two families who lived there.—Jackie ReeveThe swiftest scooter Photo: Courtney SchleyMicro Kickboard Mini Deluxe ($90 at the time of publication)When she was 3, my second daughter received a Micro Kickboard Mini Deluxe scooter for Hanukkah. It’s Wirecutter’s pick for the best scooter for kids under 5, and any doubts I had about the value of such a pricey scooter for a preschooler were blown away once I saw how my daughter handled the Micro Mini compared with the cheaper scooters she’d borrowed from friends at the park. Other models were wobbly, clanky, difficult to steer, and laborious to propel. She zips and glides around on the Micro Mini with ease, deftly navigating turns by shifting her weight, and using the foot brake on the back wheel to slow down and stop. She still has lots of room to grow with this super-durable scooter; thanks to the easily adjustable handlebar, the Micro Mini can comfortably fit kids up to age 5, which also means multiple kids can use it. (Tip: Extending the scooter’s handlebar to full height makes it convenient for an adult to tow a tuckered-out kid home.)—Courtney SchleyA classic red trike Photo: Rozette RagoSchwinn Roadster Tricycle ($110 at the time of publication)We’ve noticed stock issues with this item. We’ll update this article once it’s available again.The Schwinn Roadster, Wirecutter’s recommendation for the best low-rider tricycle, is built for confident pedalers who are ready to tear up some ground. Unlike other trikes that have plastic or foam tires, the Schwinn’s are air-filled like a bicycle’s, making it a grippier and faster ride. The trike’s heftier build and low center of gravity (it’s a riff on the classic Big Wheel) give it the stability needed to handle faster, tighter turns, making it a thrilling ride for a 3-year-old. And with its shiny red-and-silver metal body, black tassels on the handlebars, a bell, and a wooden deck in back (a platform where a friend can hitch a ride), you can’t beat the Schwinn for style.—Kate GammonA gorgeous glider Photo: Quinn DixonWoom 1 Balance Bike ($200 at the time of publication)We’ve noticed stock issues with this item. We’ll update this article once it’s available again.Austin, Texas–based Woom Bikes is one of the few US companies making high-quality bikes for kids, and there’s a certain level of passion for them in local parent circles. Woom’s concept is fairly simple: Start kids on a bike that’s beautifully made and thoughtfully designed just for them, and they’ll fall in love with riding bikes for life. To see it actually work on the little ones in my life is pretty cool. The Woom 1 is the line’s entry point, designed for kids ranging in age from 18 months to 4. (It’s the former upgrade pick in our guide to the best balance bikes; we removed it from our picks because it was out of stock for a while, but we’re still fans.) The Woom 1 offers advanced features like a super-lightweight frame and mountain-bike-style handlebars. The ultra-low step-through frame is easy to mount and dismount without snagging a leg, something my dress-wearing child appreciates. It also has a hand brake—a rarity in the world of balance bikes—that helps kids better transition to higher-end pedal bikes. The Woom 1 is currently available for preorder and should be delivered in early December, according to the company’s website.—Caitlin GiddingsAdoptable animals Photo: AmazonWorld Wildlife Fund Symbolic Species Adoption Kit ($55 at the time of publication)Wild Republic Squirrel Monkey Stuffed Animal ($10 at the time of publication)Like many kids, my second daughter developed a full-blown animal obsession that began around age 3. In her case, it was monkeys, monkeys, and more monkeys. After amassing a sizable collection of monkey stuffed animals, a monkey necklace, and other monkey swag, she informed me she was ready for a real, live one. Instead, for a $50 sponsorship we “adopted” a squirrel monkey named Chestnut at our local zoo in Philadelphia. We printed and framed the accompanying adoption certificate that states my daughter is now Chestnut’s “zoo parent,” and paired it with a stuffed squirrel monkey from Wild Republic (which offers dozens of stuffed creatures in both small and extra-large sizes, as well as these beautiful birds that make authentic bird calls and were produced in partnership with the National Audubon Society). If you don’t have a similar program at your local zoo, the World Wildlife Fund offers adoptions for more than a hundred species, so it’s likely you’ll find whatever animal your kid adores, whether it’s a three-toed sloth, a dugong, or a pangolin. Each adoption comes with a stuffed animal, an adoption certificate, a photo, an information card about the species, and a reusable WWF tote bag.—Courtney SchleyWe love finding gifts that are unusual, thoughtful, and well vetted. See even more gift ideas we recommend.
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