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What to Buy a Preschooler: 7 Gifts They'll Really Use

As a mom and long-time preschool teacher, Ms. Meyers knows what toys get used and enjoyed and what ones wind up in the back of the closet.

Preschoolers don't need expensive STEM toys, but they do need plenty of art materials to stimulate their creativity: paints, brushes, paper, markers, chalk, colored pencils, and crayons.

Preschoolers don't need expensive STEM toys, but they do need plenty of art materials to stimulate their creativity: paints, brushes, paper, markers, chalk, colored pencils, and crayons.

The Best Gifts for Preschoolers Are Timeless

When shopping for preschoolers, keep in mind that the best toys are the same ones you had as a kid. In their simplicity and versatility, they've survived the test of time for very good reasons. You can't go wrong with these seven classic gifts for preschoolers:

  • wooden blocks
  • wooden puzzles
  • an easel
  • art supplies
  • kids' music
  • classic games
  • a water table

The Best Gifts Are Simple and Versatile

If you're shopping for a preschooler, resist the newest, flashiest playthings on the market and go simple. Otherwise, you'll wind up with something that brings instant glee when the gift is unwrapped but then goes unused. It gets tossed aside after a few days—money down the drain and more clutter in the home.

The latest tempting toys for tots are prominently labelled "STEM," which is an acronym for science, technology, engineering, and math. These toys, games, and kits are bought for preschoolers with the hope of fostering little geniuses who will one day attend MIT and land high-paying jobs in Silicon Valley. They're typically over-priced, cheaply made, overly complicated, and developmentally inappropriate. Kids get easily frustrated with them and parents do, too!

The 7 Best Gifts for Preschoolers

1. Wooden Blocks

Visit any preschool or childcare center and you'll see a group of children playing, building, and exploring with old-fashioned wooden blocks. Watch and listen for a while and you'll quickly understand all the benefits of owning a set. Wooden blocks stimulate conversation among kids, teach new vocabulary, and enhance social skills such as sharing, taking turns, and working together as a team. A youngster who owns a set of blocks has the ideal toy for hosting successful play dates or for keeping busy in their room by themselves for hours.

Children playing with blocks discuss measurement: How tall should we make it? How wide should we build it? Are these two square blocks as long as that rectangular one? They talk about engineering: Is this strong enough to support that? Can this block go under that one? Will this big, heavy block make the others collapse?

Wooden blocks kindle children's imaginations as they combine them with other toys: Hot Wheels to make a race track, dinosaurs to create a prehistoric playground, Little People to make a town. The possibilities are endless. When my boys were little, they spent hours making mazes out of wooden blocks so their pet hamster could crawl through them. Long before STEM became the latest thing in education, wooden blocks were the perfect toy for teaching those concepts.

The video below shows the infinite possibilities that wooden blocks provide for playing and learning.

2. Wooden Puzzles

Parents, grandparents, family, and friends love to hear the squeals of delight when presenting preschoolers with baby dolls, trains, tricycles, and stuffed animals. While other toys such as puzzles often receive low-key responses, they shouldn't be forgotten. After all, kids need quiet, cerebral toys as well as the flashier ones.

Puzzles are a must-have item, especially today when many youngsters start kindergarten with poor fine motor skills. They're fantastic for enhancing the pincer grasp, the skill of using one's index finger and thumb to pick up small items. This ability is necessary for preschoolers to have before starting elementary school so they can hold pencils, crayons, and scissors comfortably and correctly.

Wooden puzzles come in different shapes, colors, and styles. They usually have themes such as farm animals, fruits and vegetables, construction vehicles, the alphabet, and numbers. These themes teach children about the world around them. Puzzles also promote the following:

  • Reasoning skills and problem solving strategies
  • Fine motor development and hand-eye coordination
  • Visual discrimination
  • Sorting and classifying skills
  • Self-esteem for completing a task
  • Shape recognition
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The video below details why doing puzzles is so valuable for hand-eye coordination, problem solving, and fine motor skills.

3. An Easel

A sturdy easel makes a fabulous gift for preschoolers and will be enjoyed for years to come. Children can use it for painting as well as drawing, coloring, and writing. They can use it alone or with friends, indoors or out. Many have a chalkboard or magnetic board on the back that increases the creative possibilities.

Easel painting is open-ended art at its best as kids have the sheer joy of expressing themselves through their creations. They experience art as both empowering and soothing—something they want to continue throughout their lifetime because it makes them feel good.

An easel allows for tremendous versatility. Parents can change it up so the children never get bored: using tempera paints one day and watercolors the next, helping the child mix primary colors to make secondary colors, letting them add white to make pastels, putting out certain color combinations near the holidays (orange and black for Halloween/ pink, red, and white for Valentine's Day, having them add shapes, glitter, yarn, fabric, etc. to their artwork). With easel painting, the possibilities are endless!

4. Open-Ended Art Supplies

One of the best possible gifts for preschoolers is a basket of high quality art supplies. It could include a watercolor kit, tempera paints, brushes of various sizes, white and colored paper, crayons, markers, colored pencils, colored chalk, play-dough with a mat and tools, stamps, stickers, glitter pens, craft scissors, a bottle of glue, and a glue stick. When I taught preschool and kindergarten, I was shocked at the number of kids who didn't have these supplies at home. They would ask me if they could take art materials from the classroom so they could create at their houses. A collection of art supplies can also be put in a suitcase or carrying tote so kids can take it in the car, to the park, or for sleepovers.

5. Kids' Music

Giving the gift of music to a preschooler will bring loads of happiness. Plus, the songs teach so much: the alphabet, counting, rhyming words, shapes, manners, left/right, and movement. Here are some favorites that have stood the test of time and always put a smile on the faces of adults as well as kids.

*Learning Basic Skills Through Music Volumes 1 & 2 by Hap Palmer—Hap Palmer has been around a long time and with good reason. He's the quintessential singer of kids' music and a favorite of preschool and kindergarten teachers.

*Kids in Motion by Greg and Steve—These songs will get you and your child up and moving. They're high-energy fun and get kids exercising without even realizing their exercising!

*Happiness Cake by Linda ArnoldThese are terrific songs for listening to in the car. Some are soft and sentimental and other are just crazy good fun.

*10 Carrot Diamond by Charlotte DiamondKids adore this collection of songs, especially Looking for Dracula and I Wanna be a Dog.

*Dr. Jean Sings Silly Songs by Dr. Jean—While her voice may not sound pleasing to everyone, Dr. Jean has the ability to choose songs that kids love and want to hear again and again.

*Late Last Night by Joe Scruggs—Sing along with these entertaining songs that make kids squeal with delight.

*The Singable Songs Collection by RaffiMany adults will remember listening to Raffi when they were kids. The music stands the test of time with classics such as Down By the Bay and Willoughby Wallaby Woo.

In the video below, a superstar of children's music, Raffi, sings his classic, "Down by the Bay."

6. Games

Sadly, many preschoolers today only play games on the computer, iPhone, and iPad, which deprives them of opportunities to build their fine motor skills. Kindergarten teachers lament that children now enter elementary school with weak hands and fingers. This makes it hard for them to hold a pencil correctly, cut with scissors, tie shoelaces, and string beads.

Giving preschoolers one of these classic games promotes their fine motor development. It will also enhance their social skills, improve their communication abilities, and enlarge their vocabularies. Playing games encourages good sportsmanship and gives everyone in the family a much-needed break from technology.

Don't Break the IceThis simple game has been around a long time. Holding a mallet, the players lightly strike the blocks of ice. If the player causes the polar bear on the block of ice to fall, he loses. When using the mallet, children are learning about proper grip and are building muscles in their hands and fingers.

Hi Ho! Cherry-OThis is the quintessential game for preschoolers. It teachers math concepts such as adding, subtracting, and counting. Children use the pincer grasp (holding an item between the thumb and index or middle finger) to pick up the cherries. This is excellent practice because they'll need a developed pincer grasp for handwriting in kindergarten.

Pop-Up PirateIn this game, children slide plastic swords into the barrel. If the player makes the pirate pop up from the barrel, he's out. It's fun, suspenseful, and promotes fine motor dexterity.

7. Water Table

If you really want to make a splash with your gift, a water table is the way to go! Like wooden blocks, it encourages the 3 C's: conversation, community, and cooperation. A group of children can gather around a water table for hours, never getting bored and always finding new things to explore. Some days the water table can serve as a bathing station for baby dolls or stuffed dogs. Other days it can become a pond, filled with rubber ducks, frogs, and fish.

By playing with cups and spoons in the table, children learn about measurement. Water bottles, funnels, and plant misters enhance eye-hand coordination and fine motor skills. Children learn math concepts such as full and empty, before and after, heavy and light, shallow and deep as well as science concepts such as float and sink. Best of all, the water table is versatile and can also be filled with sand, beans, or rice. Investing in a sturdy water table is definitely worth the expense.

A water table can also be filled with sand, beans, or rice. Children have fun and learn about measurement while playing at a water table.

A water table can also be filled with sand, beans, or rice. Children have fun and learn about measurement while playing at a water table.

What Mattered Most When You Were a Preschooler?

© 2015 McKenna Meyers

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