The Best Gifts for 3-Year-Olds, According to Child-Development Experts


The best gifts for 3-year-olds play to their existing strengths, while also helping them develop and master new ones. By age 3, kids are speaking in full sentences and thus are old enough to let you know if they like something — but too young to clearly and specifically articulate what they want. So that leaves the guesswork to you, as you try to decipher which gifts and toys will keep your 3-year-old challenged, entertained, and engrossed. The right educational toys for toddlers boost learning by rewarding discovery with delight.

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“Three-year-olds are eager to solve problems and will make their own if needed. That’s why blocks of all kinds are fun choices for 3-year-olds who want to explore, create, and figure things out,” says Rebecca Parlakian, the senior director of programs at Zero to Three.

Look into “pretend-play props that encourage feisty 3-year-olds to tell stories and act out roles, like puppets, pretend play costumes, and storybooks with simple storylines and vivid illustrations,” says Parlakian. “Finally, don’t forget that 3-year-olds like to move. Balls of all sizes, bowling sets, tunnels to crawl through, child-size rakes and shovels (so they can ‘help’ you), and wheeled toys to push and ride” all make great gifts for 3-year-olds.

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The Best Active Toys for 3-Year-Olds

The thoughtfully-crafted balance board is a boon for pretend play, as it becomes everything from a see-saw to a boat. Each of these beauties is handmade, but above and beyond that, the balance board help kids find their center of gravity and work their muscles.

Preschoolers work on their hand-eye coordination as they guide the beads with the magnetic wand, sending them through the fish to their ultimate destination. Looks easy? Not so fast. This takes focus and concentration.

A delightful building toy, this one has preschoolers building three different vehicles out of one set of colorful parts: A rocket, a train engine, and a helicopter. Great for kids just figuring out how those fine motor skills work, and needing a little practice.

Holding a toy train and learning how to push it around a track or along the floor requires hand and finger coordination, both crucial for kids this age to master.

The goal: Catch the fish by attaching it to the magnetic pole. The challenge: To concentrate and stay focused, while using those motor skills. Best of all, two kids can play together.

The goal: Knock the crazy monsters down by hurling a soft ball at them. The result: Total engagement of those developing motor skills.

A classic and beautiful climbing toy, this one is great for building motor skill development, developing balance control, and promoting muscle development and encouraging physical activity. The frame and rungs are made from bamboo; it folds flat for storage. The weight limit is 90 pounds.

Scooters are a great way for kids to be active and develop their motor skills. This one is stable, and has a padded T-bar that’s extra-supportive. It’s for beginners and supports riders up to 45 pounds.

Kids this age mimic what they see their parents doing, and chances are, they see you cleaning. So put them to ‘work’ with this child-sized set, which includes a play broom, mop, duster, brush, and organizing stand.

The Best Creative Toys for 3-Year-Olds

Maybe your kid is the next Springsteen. Find out with this sturdy yet fully functional harmonica, which has numbered notes to help beginners out.

The key to open-ended toys is that there’s no one way to play with them. These magnetic blocks can be anything that kids dream up.

It’s magic! Actually, it’s not, but it sure will seem like it to your 3 year old. These soft foam blocks are magnetic and rotate 360 degrees, allowing kids to engage in truly open-ended pretend play. Plus, they learn about shapes and colors, as they build weird buildings or bring bizarre creatures to life.

One of our favorite Lego sets, this one features a family that isn’t white. Which is refreshing in and of itself. And it’s actually three sets in one: Kids build a playhouse, a tower house, and then a residential house.

Little kids have been feelings. Make that very big feelings. And they don’t yet have the words to articulate why they’re upset. This pineapple helps them show you how they feel, using 26 face pieces ranging from smiles to frowns to grins to confused expressions.

The set has 60 pattern cards. Kids can either use the 36 wooden pieces to make what they see depicted on the card (thus learning about pattern recognition), or freestyle it and create a fish with a tail and a wand.

We also love these 33 chunky wooden blocks, all of which fit thanks to durable metal snaps. There are no rules governing what your kid can put together, be it a hippo-horse or a dragon-car.

Dress-up is something 3-year-olds absolutely adore, and these butterfly wings with elastic straps are so simple yet so mesmerizing when it comes to fantasy play. Kids run and soar and flap them around.

Yes, folks, this is a working scale. It has an integrated spring mechanism on the display board that shows the weight of the product on it. Not only is this great for pretend play at the supermarket, but it also teaches kids numbers, and cause and effect.

Like Jenga for little kids, this game has kids racing one another to stack a variety of animals on top of one another. The game fosters hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills, and kids can play solo or together.

This six-piece kitchen set is perfect for anyone short on space. It comes with one pot lid, one frying pan, one spoon and one spatula. The knobs on the stove make clicking sounds, so kids feel like they’re making breakfast, for real.

With gorgeous pretend foods like this set, kids act out the same things they see their parents doing. Like serving dinner. Or making lunch. It’s pretend play that helps them understand the adult world around them.

A workbench perfectly sized for 3 year olds, this wooden one has five tools and 16 accessories, as kids embark on fixer-upper projects around the house.

This set helps your child be part of the food prep process, and it’s made from 100 percent recycled plastic. This 18-piece meal set inspires young chefs to whip up succulent pretend meals using a cheese stamp, a sauce cutter, dough tubs, and myriad other necessities. Fantasy play at its best.

These are blocks in name only — a set of 16 beautiful stacking shapes, with complex edges and multiple faces, giving kids a renewable challenge and bringing something beautiful into the playroom. And because every block manufactured is unique, you can rest assured no one will have a set quite like yours.

Increasingly verbal kids imagine and act out storylines that are increasingly detailed and vivid with this vibrant puppet theater; it comes with two sets of hand puppets for endless creativity and a ton of fun collaborative play.

This non-genderized dollhouse is tailor-made for collaborative play, as kids create their families and act out scenarios like making beds and walking the dog. It is also a perfect birthdy gift for a 3-year-old.

Truly, this is among the best open-ended play set you can buy. There’s no limit to what kids can build, from castles to flowers to cars to whatever they think up.

The Best STEM and Educational Toys for 3-Year-Olds

There’s absolutely no prescriptive way to play with this set. No stringent directions to follow. No way to do the wrong thing. And that’s absolutely perfect. Kids build whatever they want, using nuts, bolts, a hammer, and a screwdriver. The set is ideal for boosting fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, logical thinking, and task completion.

Kids learn about shapes as they use magnetic pieces to build elephants or rhinos or dogs or cats. They work with 43 magnetic geometric shapes, including triangles, squares, pentagons, and trapezoids, as well as 17 clip-in animal accessories.

A set that combines the magic of dress-up with the wonder of exploration: The vest and hat are cool, sure, but we absolutely dig the binoculars, magnifying glass, compass, and whistle. It turns every kid into an intrepid adventurer.

Going to the doctor can be scary. And this set puts kids in charge, empowering them to treat their four-legged patient, and understand that medical care is a good thing. The set includes a stethoscope, thermometer, syringe, ear scope, tweezers, clamp, cast, bandages, and ointments.

Normalize pediatrician visits by giving your preschooler this lovely medical kit. It promotes imaginary play, as kids pretend to be doctors, with a wooden stethoscope, blood pressure monitor, thermometer, syringe and reflex hammer.

The scale is adjustable. The overhead exam light really works. And this is a pretty standout pretend play vet clinic for aspiring animal caretakers. They can give their puppy an X-ray, use the stethoscope and blood pressure gauge to check the animal’s vitals, and finally, give the puppy a treat as a reward. Best of all, multiple kids can play together.

There’s absolutely no limits to what engineers and architects can build using the 42 colorful, oversized magnetic pieces. And that’s precisely the whole point of this open-ended STEM toy.

Preschoolers customize their own robot, which has a swiveling head, arms, and upper body. And they do so using a kid-safe mini-screwdriver, 15 bright bolts, and decorative sparkle stickers. It’s crafting, but STEM.

Not only is this a great sensory and tactile game, but it also teaches kids about numbers as they practice correct number formation.

This weirdly cute (or cutely weird) little bot is made up of mix-and-match pieces that kids put together, however they want, to build their very own little robotic creature. A great early STEM toy.

Speaking of scales, this one introduces kids to the concept of numbers and greater than/less than. Plus, preschoolers work on their fine motor skills as they place nine larger weights and 11 small soft weights on the kooky scale.

You don’t need a lab to learn about science. Just take your kids outdoors. Talk to them about sun and rain, wind and slush, humidity and cloudiness, and document weather changes on this station. It gives them a stake in what’s happening in the natural world around them.

Kids sort the products by color and put the veggies into the corresponding baskets. The set includes 25 foods, five baskets, and stickers to label them. The foods look like what actual people eat for actual meals, and it’s one great real-world toy to help kids understand what they see in their kitchen at home.

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