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Early STEM toys—those that help develop skills related to science, technology, engineering, and math—allow preschoolers to experiment with the strength, size, and shape of objects, and to explore cause and effect (hopefully without breaking too many things). Along with classic wooden blocks, building toys that feature magnets, gears, curves, and wheels often let 4-year-olds problem-solve independently.Jena Olson, president of the STEM educational nonprofit Kid Spark Education at the time of our interview, emphasizes other, lesser-known skills that STEM toys can help preschoolers develop: “Children learn language and cooperation,” she said. “They refine their physical skills, including fine motor skills, as they push and pull pieces apart.” Gifts that encourage art and creativity, as well as games and movement toys that allow for silly and energetic play, are also great choices for kids of this age.We relied on the advice of Olson and Ann Kienzle of Play toys in Chicago, as well as that of parents and other caregivers on our staff, to identify memorable and engaging gifts for 4-year-olds. Many gifts for kids are appropriate for a range of ages. 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, 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 $20A bouncy seat Photo: WalikiWaliki Hopper Ball ($15 at the time of publication)The Waliki Hopper offers joyful bouncing for kids who have energy to spare—and it doubles as a comfy seat for those who like or need to wiggle and rock even when they’re sitting still. For my oldest son, who has autism spectrum disorder and sensory processing disorder, the Waliki Hopper served as a sensory-friendly seat for story time and more, allowing him to rock and bounce to stay alert and focused well into his middle-school years. Constructed of thick rubber, the Hopper is more durable than a yoga ball, which is typically made from vinyl; our Hopper has withstood years of indoor and outdoor use. A hand pump is included. The Hopper comes in six colors as well as plush-covered versions, and there are four sizes (the 18-inch Hopper is best for 4-year-olds).—Kelly GlassDino rescue Photo: Peaceable KingdomPeaceable Kingdom Dinosaur Escape Game ($18 at the time of publication)We’ve noticed stock issues with this item. We’ll update this article once it’s available again. Four years old is around the age when kids can really listen to, understand, and follow most simple game instructions, said Keewa Nurullah, owner of the Chicago children’s shop Kido. To play Dinosaur Escape, players roll the die to reveal either a number or a volcano. The former moves the player’s dinosaur in any direction on the board, while the latter adds one piece to the five-piece volcano at the board’s center. As young dinosaur experts know, volcanoes are bad news for dinos. The object of the game is to get the dinosaurs to safety without completing the volcano—or being run back to the start by a T. rex token.—Kelly GlassClassics for reading aloud and learning to read Photo: HarperCollinsFrog and Toad Storybook Favorites by Arnold Lobel ($9 at the time of publication)Frog & Cast Frog and Toad Pattern Download ($15 at the time of publication)Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad have amused generations of early readers—and their parents—with the silly and profound nature of their enduring friendship (you can find all four of the original Frog and Toad stories, with Lobel’s beautifully expressive illustrations, in Frog and Toad Storybook Favorites). We can all recognize a little of ourselves in the anxious, innocent, and tantrum-prone Toad or the patient, cheerful, and always-reasonable Frog (or both!). Although they offer some useful life lessons, the stories are never didactic: Their appeal lies in the joy these opposites find in simple acts such as gardening, sledding, and doing kind things for each other—as well as in the ridiculous things that Toad does all on his own. The Lobel-narrated audio collection is as beloved in our household as the books, and someday I’ll find the time to knit absolutely perfect, little stuffed versions of my favorite amphibian friends with the Frog & Cast Frog and Toad Pattern Download.—Winnie YangSuperior sand Photo: Nathan EdwardsRelevant Play Mad Mattr 10 oz. Quantum Packs ($13 at the time of publication)Someone gave us a pack of Mad Mattr modeling compound, which has several advantages over Play-Doh for both kids and caretakers. It’s moldable like a dough and compresses into hard shapes, but it stretches out into a kind of soft sand. It’s not sticky, it doesn’t stain or get everywhere, and it doesn’t dry out, though it’s also less ductile than Play-Doh. You could probably increase playtime by getting some extruder molds to make the sand into bricks, though we’ve never bothered.—Nathan EdwardsA goofy game Photo: GamewrightGo Away Monster ($15 at the time of publication)We’ve noticed stock issues with this item. We’ll update this article once it’s available again. Go Away Monster is a silly, lightly competitive game that offers just the right challenge level for preschoolers. Players have individual game boards showing a bedroom scene, and each person takes a turn by reaching into a bag filled with cardboard pieces, selecting (by feel; no peeking!) either a bedroom item—a bed, a lamp, a teddy bear, or a picture for the wall—or a friendly-looking monster. The goal is to add all of the bedroom pieces to your game board without selecting a monster. But if you do grab one, you should say, “Go away, monster!” and fling it away. The game challenges 4-year-olds to recognize and remember shapes by touch and to make choices about which pieces they need. And since the game doesn’t end until everyone completes their bedroom, no one really loses. Go Away Monster is a pick in our guide to the best board games for kids, where we also recommend the slightly more challenging Max (the Cat) for the same age group. (In that cooperative board game, players work together to help a bird, a mouse, and a squirrel escape the prowling advances of a hungry cat named—you guessed it—Max.)—Courtney SchleyCaptivating crayons Photo: Kid Made ModernKid Made Modern Bento Box Crayon Set ($17 at the time of publication)A crayon is just a crayon, until it’s shaped like a 3D gemstone. From craft super-source Kid Made Modern, this set of 22 interestingly shaped crayons adds depth and texture to regular round wax. (Wirecutter supervising editor Winnie Yang is a big fan of Kid Made Modern’s crafty goods for her 4-year-old.) This set includes six of the aforementioned gems, 12 square sticks, and four multihued discs. Tactile and fun, they’re as inviting as they are inspiring.—Ingrid Skjong$20 to $50Curvy creations Photo: Alex ToysZoob BuilderZ 125 Piece Building 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. The Zoob kit is a building toy featuring connectable pieces with ball joints that kids can snap into U-shaped brackets. (We recommend Zoob sets in our guide to learning toys and STEM toys we love.) Instead of building static structures with traditional blocks or Duplo kits, this Zoob set allows 4-year-olds to experiment with hinges and joints, building open-ended creations with curves and bends that they can move, flex, and spin. There are Zoob kits for building robots or other projects, too. (Per the box, the Zoob kit is recommended for kids ages 6 and up, though we’ve seen younger kids gravitate to it the most. The pieces fall between Duplos and Legos in size, and they require some manual dexterity and strength to snap together.)—Courtney SchleyMagnetic make-believe Photo: Petit CollagePetit Collage Make Believe Animal Costume Magnetic Dress Up Box (about $25 at the time of publication) We’ve noticed stock issues with this item. We’ll update this article once it’s available again. Like a sturdier version of paper dolls, Petit Collage’s adorable magnetic animals come with 35 mix-and-match costume changes. Young kids can use their imaginations to invent new jobs and identities for the included bear and fox. It’s a particularly convenient toy for long car rides thanks to its magnetic box, which pulls double duty as both a backdrop for the dress-up fun and a container for all the small pieces. Once dressed, each animal can be displayed on a wooden stand to fully flaunt their new looks. Petit Collage also offers a selection of detailed play scenes, including outer space and a tree-house party.—Caitlin GiddingsTo the moon Photo: Born ToysBorn Toys Premium Deluxe Astronaut Costume ($35 at the time of publication)If your 4-year-old is obsessed with dress-up, make-believe, and all things space, this simple yet sturdy astronaut costume offers ample opportunities for imaginative play. The main suit is made of hefty material and has a front zipper and an adjustable belt buckle. Festooned with official-looking stickers, it comes with its own accessories, namely a NASA cap and a little backpack that can store the costume when it’s out of commission. The best part? Its durability. Several members of the Wirecutter staff can attest that the suit will survive years of space-themed playtime.—Caira BlackwellTea for four Photo: Green ToysGreen Toys Tea Set (about $25 at the time of publication)My daughter loves a good tea party (humans and stuffed animals are all invited). But when she started drinking out of the cheap, paint-chipped plastic set my sweet mother-in-law bought at a garage sale, I had to step in with an upgrade. The Green Toys Tea Set, made in the US from recycled plastic, meets FDA food-contact standards, so you can feel comfortable putting cakes on the plates and sipping from the adorable cups. The service for four comes in two color schemes (blue, red, and yellow; pink, purple, yellow, green, and blue) and is dishwasher safe, though I just give it a quick hand wash after use. In our house, a tea party is really just an excuse to drink sugar dissolved in water. The sugar bowl, oddly enough, has holes in the bottom that let the saccharine crystals fall onto the table. We quick-fixed that by adding a napkin liner before filling the bowl (and our bellies) with the sweet stuff.—Annemarie ConteTurrets and arches Photo: Doug MahoneyFAO Schwarz 150-Piece Wooden Castle Building Blocks Set ($45 at the time of publication)We’ve noticed stock issues with this item. We’ll update this article once it’s available again. My son got these cool castle-motif building blocks as a gift years ago. They came with instructions for building one fairly elaborate castle, which he enjoyed making. But after a week or two, the wooden blocks were added to our generic block basket. From then on, he just incorporated them into his other block creations. We now have three other kids who are old enough to build with these blocks, and this set has proved to be a well-loved, long-lasting toy in our house.—Doug MahoneyRainbows in their room Photo: Erin PriceKikkerland Solar Powered RainbowMaker With Swarovski Crystal (about $40 at the time of publication)We’ve noticed stock issues with this item. We’ll update this article once it’s available again. Most 4-year-olds are mastering colors, and many are mesmerized by the magic of rainbows. The Kikkerland RainbowMaker is a happy little contraption that uses a solar panel to power a colorful geared motor, which rotates a hanging Swarovski crystal and sends rainbows swooping across your room. You simply attach the RainbowMaker to a window (it affixes via suction cup, so there’s no need to worry about sticky residue) that gets some direct sunlight, and then wait for the optics to work their magic. It’s particularly fun when you forget the Rainbow Maker is there until the sun reaches just the right angle and sets it into motion. My niece calls this “rainbow time,” and she enjoys chasing the colors across the room and seeing them slide over different objects.—Erin PriceGreat gears Photo: Leigh Krietsch-BoernerLearning Resources Gears! Gears! Gears! Deluxe Building Set (about $20 at the time of publication)Lakeshore Turn & Learn Magnetic Gears ($50 at the time of publication)The Learning Resources Gears! Gears! Gears! building set is basically what you’d guess: a big box of colored gears that snap together with axles and extenders to create complex, movable structures. The challenge is figuring out how to align and order the gears so they’ll all turn in unison and not get jammed up. As preschoolers experiment with building spinning, whirring, gear-driven structures, they’re actually starting to understand the basics of complex machines. These gears have long been a pick in our guide to learning toys and STEM toys we love, and they’re a favorite among the kids of several parents on our staff.The Lakeshore Turn & Learn Magnetic Gears set includes magnetized gears that you can attach to the fridge. You can’t build complex structures like you can with Gears! Gears! Gears!, but this set is still an engaging way for little kids to experiment with mechanics (the pieces are also a bit larger, which may be easier for some little kids to handle). My 3-year-old son loves to align the colorful, interlocking pieces on our refrigerator and figure out how he can make them all spin. A bonus: The magnets themselves are really strong and will keep all of your child’s refrigerator-worthy artworks firmly in place.—Courtney SchleyA wild ride Photo: Kalee ThompsonRadio Flyer Cyclone ($45 at the time of publication)We’ve noticed stock issues with this item. We’ll update this article once it’s available again. I was extremely skeptical about this unusual-looking contraption after my son received it as a gift when he was about 4. But over several years of use, the Cyclone—which you “pedal” with your arms, somewhat like you would a racing wheelchair—has become one of my kids’ favorite outdoor toys, and it has held up well to miles of rough rolling. From age 4 or 5, my older son was an ace on the Cyclone, speeding it down the sidewalk to a local park and performing spins and skids for littler kids once there. They tended to line up to give it a whirl, and I’ve found that kids as young as 3 can learn to maneuver the Cyclone in the dizzying circles that no doubt inspired its name.—Kalee ThompsonOver $50A monthly craft-box subscription KiwiCo Koala CrateKiwiCo Koala Crate ($60 for a three-month subscription at the time of publication)The KiwiCo Koala Crate is our favorite subscription box for preschool-age kids. We tested five such subscriptions for this age group and liked this one the best for its thoughtful design, appealing themes, and fun, unique, and age-appropriate projects. Each month you receive a box with instructions and all the materials to make two or three different craft projects, which challenge 4-year-olds to explore skills like stitching, gluing, and arranging pieces. I tested these subscriptions when my daughter was 4, and she loved the projects we tried: dyeing a tote bag with tissue paper and water, sewing and stuffing a felt rainbow, and making a tissue-paper campfire. She could do most steps by herself with just some guidance. Each box’s projects are organized around a theme, such as reptiles, ocean animals, or doctor visits. A helpful booklet contains clear directions for the “grown-up assistant,” and notes how messy the project will be and what developmental skills it uses.KiwiCo, the company that makes Koala Crate, develops its projects with input from educators and child-development experts. Although children’s individual skills vary, many 4-year-olds will be able to complete some or all of each month’s projects independently, giving them a sense of accomplishment—and providing a reliable arsenal of rainy-day activities.—Jackie ReeveMarble madness Photo: Marble GeniusMarble Genius Marble Run Extreme Set ($60 at the time of publication)We’ve noticed stock issues with this item. We’ll update this article once it’s available again. My sisters and I played marbles as kids, shooting our balls across the finish line to see who could knock the most marbles out of the circle. Shooting marbles lost its novelty eventually, and we outgrew the game. Marble runs like Marble Genius Marble Run Extreme introduce new energy to a childhood classic. This 125-piece set includes funnels, spinning wheels, tubes that snap together easily on three large bases, and parts that are translucent, allowing kids to see the marbles move from the top to the bottom and through all the spins and twists. In addition to giving kids the creative challenge of constructing a track—and the fun of watching the marbles spin and clatter through the turns—marble runs let kids observe the effects of gravity, speed, and direction. “Adults can help kids make predictions about how fast the marble will move and where it will go,” said Jena Olson, president of Kid Spark Education at the time of our interview.The set comes with 20 glass marbles but also accommodates the standard-size marbles you might already have. Some 4-year-olds may need adult help to get the hang of building the marble run, but it’s pretty irresistible even for grown-ups. (Note: The marbles in this set could pose a choking hazard for younger children.)—Kelly GlassAn excellent easel Photo: KidKraftKidKraft Storage Easel ($95 at the time of publication)Melissa & Doug Deluxe Wooden Standing Art Easel ($65 at the time of publication)IKEA Måla Easel ($20 at the time of publication)We’ve noticed stock issues with this item. We’ll update this article once it’s available again. My son received the KidKraft Storage Easel from his grandparents for Christmas when he was 4. He’s serious about his artwork, and he would be happy to paint every day. But setting up for—and cleaning up after—a painting session on the kitchen table can be a bit of a project. I like that the KidKraft easel comes with an attached roll of art paper and built-in storage bins underneath that can be used to hold paints, brushes, and other supplies (three paint cups are also included). Though this easel requires assembly, it’s sturdier and has more features than less-expensive easels we’ve used in the past. And since we keep it in the kitchen and see it all the time, I appreciate the glossy, dark-wood finish.Wirecutter kids have also created countless masterpieces with simpler wooden easels made by Melissa & Doug and IKEA. The cheap rolls of craft paper you can buy at IKEA or local art-supply stores should work with any of them. And if your kid goes through a ton of paint, you’ll save money in the long run by stocking up on bigger bottles of washable tempera, rather than buying tiny individual cups of paint from Crayola and the like.—Kalee ThompsonInteractive trains Photo: BrioBrio 33873 Smart Tech Engine Set with Action Tunnels ($85 at the time of publication)Brio’s classic wooden trains and tracks are a childhood staple, and my older son was a pretty serious train conductor when he was little. He played almost endlessly with his train system, carefully ordering cars and determining where, when, and how the trains moved under and over bridges and through imaginary towns. Those bins of wooden tracks we’d been storing for years were passed down to our younger son when he was 4. The analogue trains are wonderful, but Ann Kienzle of Play toys in Chicago got me interested in the newer Brio 33873 Smart Tech Engine Set with Action Tunnels, which uses simple smart technology to allow kids to automate the trains. The Brio set includes one battery-powered train and three tunnels that can interact with one another wirelessly (via radio-frequency identification embedded in the pieces; you don’t need a separate controller or an app). One tunnel makes the train whistle when it passes through, another makes the train light up, and the third one makes it stop. Kids can also control the train’s movement by changing a simple knob on the traffic light at the main station. The wireless controls are intuitive and don’t require a remote control or interacting with a screen; to change the train’s actions, you simply need to pick up a tunnel and move it to a new spot on the tracks.The set, which comes with some basic track pieces, is compatible with all wooden Brio tracks, so if you haven’t inherited any or don’t have tracks lying around the house, you may also want to get an expansion pack or two to really start off your beginner’s train collection.—Kelly GlassMagnificent magnets Photo: Michael HessionMagna-Tiles Clear Colors 37-Piece Set ($60 at the time of publication)“If there is one constant of what preschool-age children are interested in, it may be magnets,” said John Dimit III, owner of the toy-and-game store Dr. G’s BrainWorks in Champaign, Illinois. Colorful Magna-Tiles, a pick in our guide to learning toys and STEM toys we love, combine the mesmerizing snap-together magic of magnets with open-ended block play. When my son was 4, castles were his go-to. Now 5, he’s always coming up with new creations, such as a robot or an oven to bake his toy cupcakes in. Classic Magna-Tiles include a variety of basic shapes. We also like Magna-Qubix, a 29-piece set of three-dimensional pyramids, prisms, and cubes. My son uses the Magna-Qubix to add more detail to his structures, and he’s working on making dinosaurs using the small pyramids and cube shapes.—Kelly GlassA family membership to a zoo or nature center Photo: Squam Lakes Natural Science CenterSquam Lakes Natural Science Center ($90 for a four-person membership at the time of publication)A family membership to a zoo or a nature center makes a great gift for families with preschool-age kids (especially now, when many indoor facilities are closed or operating with more restrictions). Like many kids his age, my younger son, who’s now 4, is obsessed with animals. When we lived in Los Angeles, we had a membership to the LA Zoo (and once made a pilgrimage to the famous San Diego Zoo). When we moved to rural New Hampshire, we found a very different type of animal experience at the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center, where a lovely wooded footpath winds through exhibits that hold local native animals (many of them rescued after an injury). I like how smaller, local nature centers like this one can give kids a deeper knowledge of the creatures and ecosystems they encounter every day near their own homes. And similar to many of the best zoos, animal parks, and nature centers, Squam Lakes also has plenty of room—including fun outdoor play areas—for kids to run and use up energy.—Kalee ThompsonWe love finding gifts that are unusual, thoughtful, and well vetted. See even more gift ideas we recommend.
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