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What Are the Best Toys for Preschoolers? 7 Timeless Gift Ideas

Updated on May 31, 2017
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I love being a mom and teacher and sharing what I've learned about raising confident, creative, and compassionate kids.

When Choosing Toys for Preschoolers, Think Simplicity and Versatility

When parents of preschoolers shop for toys, they're easily tempted by the newest, flashiest playthings on the market. It might be an item their children have seen dozens of times on commercials, becoming convinced they can't live without it. But, inevitably, it gets tossed aside after a few days – money down the drain and more clutter in the home.

The latest rage is buying STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) toys for young children with the hope of fostering little geniuses who will one day attend MIT and land high-paying jobs in Silicon Valley. But these toys are often over-priced and developmentally inappropriate. Kids get easily frustrated with them and parents do, too!

When shopping for preschoolers, moms and dads should keep in mind that the best toys are the same ones they had when they were kids. Those toys – in all their simplicity and versatility – have survived the test of time for very good reasons. Here are 7 picks for a preschooler's play room:

Don't Get Fooled by Toys Labeled "STEM." A Simple Set of Blocks Is Best for Teaching Many Skills.

Every youngster needs a good set of wooden blocks.
Every youngster needs a good set of wooden blocks. | Source

1. Wooden Blocks – They Never Go Out of Style!

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 them. Wooden blocks stimulate conversation among kids, teach new vocabulary, and enhance social skills such as sharing, taking turns, and working together as a team.

Children 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!

Parents Don't Need to Buy Pricey STEM Toys. Blocks Are Perfect and Last Forever!

A quality set of wooden blocks is a smart investment and will provide hours of creative fun for children.
A quality set of wooden blocks is a smart investment and will provide hours of creative fun for children. | Source

Blocks Promote Creativity, Conversation, and Team Work

Melissa and Doug are names you can trust when it comes to high-quality toys made from wood. As a mom and teacher, I always felt confident using their products. My sons spent hours playing with their set of blocks -- building, talking, and compromising. There was no other toy we owned that brought them together as a team like blocks did.

2. Wooden Puzzles -- Preschoolers Need Quiet, Cerebral Toys, Too!

Parents love to hear the squeals of delight when presenting their preschoolers with baby dolls, trains, and stuffed animals. While other toys such as puzzles receive a low-key response, they shouldn't get forgotten. Puzzles are a must-have item, especially today when youngsters are starting kindergarten with poor fine motor skills. Puzzles are fantastic for enhancing the pincer grasp so youngsters can hold pencils and scissors comfortably and correctly upon starting school.

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

Another Wise Investment, Puzzles Promote Fine Motor Skills and Problem Solving.

Garage sales and children's re-sale stores are good resources for wooden puzzles at reasonable prices.
Garage sales and children's re-sale stores are good resources for wooden puzzles at reasonable prices. | Source

3. An Easel -- Open-Ended Art That Stimulates Creativity and Independence!

If parents restricted their preschoolers to just one art activity, painting at the easel should definitely be the one. Easel painting is a form of open-ended art, meaning it's unstructured with no limits of expression. It's the opposite of teacher-led craft projects in which a youngster follows step-by-step directions to make a project that looks almost identical to everybody else's.

With open-ended art, the process is more important than the finished product. The goal is to get the young artist to experience those feelings that make doing art so profoundly pleasurable. Open-ended art is soothing, relaxing, and empowering. If children experience that when they're little, they'll want to create art for their entire lifetimes because it feels so good, not because it's a money-making venture.

Painting at the easel is perfect for preschoolers because it's so simple and lets them express themselves through art, not words. Plus, parents can change it up so the children never get bored: using tempera paints one day, watercolors another, 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 painting). With easel painting, the possibilities are endless!

Placed Inside or Out, an Easel Is Ideal for the Budding Artist!

Young children need plenty of activities to experiment with paint, crayons, colored pencils, stamps, and clay.
Young children need plenty of activities to experiment with paint, crayons, colored pencils, stamps, and clay. | Source

This Easel Is Versatile and Will Provide Hours of Enjoyment

This easel is another high-quality wooden toy by Melissa and Doug. Your child can paint, draw, and learn numbers at it. Unfortunately, too many preschools and kindergartens have removed easels from their classrooms to make time for "real" learning. This is a shame because kids develop so much independence and confidence while creating at an easel. I couldn't imagine teaching preschoolers without one!

4. Open-Ended Art Supplies – Simple Is Best!

Forget the complicated craft kits and go for basic art supplies that spark the imagination. Find a place in the house to store the supplies where your child can get to them easily. Creating art is an activity that should always be available to your youngster but never forced. Include a watercolor kit, brushes of various sizes, white and colored paper, crayons, markers, colored pencils, play-dough with a mat and tools, stamps, stickers, glitter pens, and glue. Collect assorted materials for collage such as buttons, feathers, fabric pieces, ribbons, dry flowers, shapes, and bottle caps.

Fill a Cupboard in Your Kitchen with Art Supplies: Watercolors, Crayons, Colored Pencils, Markers, and Collage Materials

Children should have art supplies handy so they create when they get the urge.
Children should have art supplies handy so they create when they get the urge. | Source

5. Kids' Music: Get Your Groove On With These Favorites!

One of the joys of having children is listening to kids' music in your car as you drive from place to place. You can't help but sing along and feel overwhelmed with happiness. There's such a wide assortment of kids' music these days so you'll surely find something that appeals to both you and your youngster. Plus, the music teaches so much: the alphabet, counting, rhyming words, shapes, manners, left/right, and movement.

*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 Arnold – These 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 CollectionMany 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.

Kids' Music -- Raffi Is a Long-Time Favorite Among Preschoolers and Their Parents

6. Games, Games, Games – Develop Fine Motor Skills While Having Fun!

Many preschoolers play games on the computer, iPhone, and iPad that deprive them of opportunities to build their fine motor skills. Kindergarten teachers are noticing children entering school with weak hands and fingers. Parents can help their preschoolers develop fine motor skills by playing these classic games:

Don't Break the Ice – This 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.

HiHo CherryO – This 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 Pirate – In 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.

"Don't Break the Ice" Is a Classic Game that Enhances Fine Motor Skills and Hand-Eye Coordination

Parents may have played this game as kids. It's simple, easy to set up, and lots of fun.
Parents may have played this game as kids. It's simple, easy to set up, and lots of fun. | Source

7. Water Table – Inside or Out, Playing in Water is Fun!

Like wooden blocks, a water table 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 toys 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.

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.
A water table can also be filled with sand, beans, or rice. | Source

What Mattered Most When You Were a Preschooler?

What toy was most important to you when you were little?

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