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The Best Educational Toys and Games for 3-Year-Old Children

With a degree in biochemistry, Leah works for a small biotechnology company and enjoys writing about science.

Make a Box City

Don't have blocks? Try making some out of recycled cardboard boxes. My son (age three in this picture) spent hours designing and playing with his "cardboard city!"

Don't have blocks? Try making some out of recycled cardboard boxes. My son (age three in this picture) spent hours designing and playing with his "cardboard city!"

Choosing the Best Toys for a Three-Year-Old Child

Developmentally, three-year-old children are emerging from the top-heavy toddler stage and are becoming more adept with language and physical play. Three-year-old children like to assert their independence and are beginning to develop fine motor skills and a longer attention span. The parallel-play from the previous year begins to disappear, as a child of three will play cooperatively with other children. Games of pretend-play and physical energy release are favorites among this age group.

Choosing the best toys for a preschooler can be a difficult task. The toys must help a child develop necessary skills while remaining safe for small hands that may occasionally still place objects in the mouth—many three-year-old kids are still quite "oral" in their explorations.

The toys discussed in the article below will focus on five major developmental areas:

  1. Language
  2. Gross motor skills
  3. Fine motor skills
  4. Social/emotional growth
  5. Abstract thinking skills (spatial awareness/pre-math skills)

Doll Houses Expand Language

Doll houses (or, in this case, Dragon Castles) allow children to practice their language skills with miniature pretend people.

Doll houses (or, in this case, Dragon Castles) allow children to practice their language skills with miniature pretend people.

Great Language Toys

The best "toy" to develop language is a great storybook, complete with pictures and a great storyline. The spoken language we use on an everyday, casual basis cannot compete with the amount of language present in a book. When we talk about sleeping, for example, we might say, "take a nap" or "go to sleep." A book like The Napping House (written by Audrey Wood), however, will use the words, "doze," "snooze" and "slumber." There is no better way to increase vocabulary and language comprehension than through reading to a child.

Reading aloud is absolutely vital, so "books" rank as the best educational toy for developing language in preschool aged children. If you are a parent who does not own Jim Trelease's "Read Aloud Handbook," go and buy it now. This handbook lists the best read-aloud stories for children of all ages, and will supply a wealth of wonderful literature ideas for years to come.

Dollhouses, in their many forms, are also fantastic for fostering language development. Our young sons love Fisher Price's Imaginext brand of toys - the dragon castle and the Batcave have been particular favorites. Despite the superhero branding, these toys serve the same purpose as a dollhouse - the miniature people take part in pretend situations that mimic real life.

One of our favorite toys at the age of three is Automoblox, which is a building toy that allows kids to build different types of cars. Many language concepts are used while building the cars (prepositions, color labels, and action words, among others). This particular toy also helps exercise fine motor skills, which gives two major benefits for one toy!

Music is another wonderful way to develop language. Developing a sense of rhythm and echoing familiar songs helps children understand the pattern of language. The rhyming nature of many children's songs helps prime kids for future reading skills. Dancing with scarves to music, playing rhythm sticks during a song (matching the beat), and coming up with silly verses to songs like "If You're Happy and You Know It" helps children gain fluency with language.

Balls help children learn to balance and develop coordination, in addition to crossing the mid-line (a vital skill for future reading success)!

Balls help children learn to balance and develop coordination, in addition to crossing the mid-line (a vital skill for future reading success)!

Great Toys to Develop Gross Motor Skills

Three year old kids are learning how to coordinate their legs to pedal a bike, jump with both feet, and are becoming more sure with climbing and running skills. While many educational toy websites focus on academic areas, developing gross motor skills is vital. Crossing the mid-line (reaching across the body) is, in actuality, a skill required for reading and writing. Children who cannot cross the mid-line are unable to visually track from left to right while reading, and may not be able to reach across their body to put shoes on.

A tricycle is a three year old staple, as this toy encourages the development of gross motor coordination. Other toys that help children learn to coordinate their bodies include a safety trampoline, a climbing gym, and swings.

Expensive playground equipment is not required, however, to develop gross motor skills. The best toy ever created for helping children cross the mid-line and develop running and jumping skills is incredibly cheap: a ball.

Throwing, catching, and chasing a large rubber ball will help children obtain many gross motor skills. Kicking a ball will help develop balance, as kicking requires a brief stance on one leg. Try to find balls of different sizes to develop different skills - a smaller ball is better for throwing, while a larger ball is great for kicking and chasing.

Playdough Straw Lacing Activity

Fine Motor Toys for Three Year Olds

Writing, typing, and tying shoes all require fine motor skills. These fine muscle movements take time to develop, and three year old children are beginning to develop these skills.

Play-dough (whether made at home or purchased at the store) is probably the best toy for developing fine motor coordination. Play-dough can be cut with plastic safety scissors to strengthen hand muscles, and can be manipulated into various shapes (including letter shapes), increasing dexterity. Hide beads and other small objects in play-dough for a "treasure hunt" - finding and pulling the small items out of the play-dough will help to refine small finger movements.

Crayons and markers are also great toys to develop fine motor skills. Most three year old children will hold a crayon in a fist grip, so larger crayons are ideal for this emerging skill. Older three year olds might be transitioning to a proper pencil grip - to assist the development of a proper grip, break crayons into short segments. A child must grip a short crayon segment in a tripod-grip, which encourages proper pencil holding skills.

Lacing cards and large wooden beads on strings are also great fine motor toys. Children love stringing beads and lacing ribbons around familiar animal shapes.

Toys for Social and Emotional Development

The best way to foster social and emotional development doesn't involve "toys" at all, but requires interaction from loving adults and other children. There are toys that will foster communication and shared play among children and adults, facilitating the development of social bonds and emotional growth.

"Home Life" toys, including play kitchens, cash registers, play office equipment, toy lawnmowers, and dress-up centers foster social interactions. Children who have access to these toys in the presence of other children learn to organize and participate in cooperative play. The inclusion of dolls and stuffed animals in these play centers further facilitates the emotional and social growth of children. Kids may act out a recent trip to the doctor, or pretend to make and serve dinner to their peers.

A sandbox is another excellent toy for social growth. Three year old children absolutely love playing in the sand, and a sandbox provides an excellent opportunity for socialization and learning boundaries. Children learn what they cannot do (throw sand or step on another child's sandcastle, for example) and how to cooperate with others (building a road together or digging for "treasure" with other kids).

Toys for Pre-Math Skills

Three year old children love puzzles and blocks. These toys help develop spatial awareness and abstract thinking skills - the exact same set of skills required for future math lessons. Most three year old children are able to put together a simple 6 or 8 piece wooden puzzle. Some three year olds may be able to complete 25 piece jigsaw puzzles.

Unit blocks are, hands-down, the best toy for math skills. Unit blocks (also called "preschool blocks") are cut in precise sizes - the square is exactly half the size of the rectangle, and the rod is exactly half the size of the square. Blocks give a sense of geometry and relative size. Every child should own a set of high-quality blocks at home (to be honest, blocks transcend the "pre-math" category and could be included in every single other category listed here - they are the most universally wonderful toy a three year old child could own).

Duplo bricks (large Legos) and toys like marble runs are also wonderful for encouraging abstract thinking skills and spatial awareness skills.

Don't Break the Bank

When choosing toys for a three year old child, don't break the bank with expensive electronic gadgets. The best toys for any three year old are simple and foster the developmental needs of a child moving from toddlerhood to childhood:

  • Books for language
  • Balls for gross motor development
  • Crayons and play-dough for fine motor development
  • A sandbox for social play with other children
  • A great set of blocks for pre-math (and other) skills

Harvard on the Science of Child Development

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 Leah Lefler


Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on August 28, 2013:

My kids adored all of the Leapfrog toys, Toytasting! My older boy is now a big Lego fan, but he would play with the Automoblox for hours when he was a preschooler. My younger son was a huge fan of pretend play, so we have a lot of Imaginext toys!

Toy Tasting from Mumbai on August 27, 2013:

Really liked your hub. Thanks for sharing.:)

Recently, I purchased some educational toys for my niece and they are amazing. They are based on the above mentioned guidelines- To name some are Leapfrog's My Scout Pal, Sevi's Magnetic board with letters and Little Tikes iTikes Map. I guess more than her its me who enjoys playing with them. Your list for type of toys for a 3 yr old is completely worth referring.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on April 25, 2012:

Thanks, Peter! We have a lot of toys, but the ones that get the most use are the simplest - cardboard boxes, blocks, and balls!

Peter Leeper from Londonderry, New Hampshire on April 25, 2012:

Nice hub and great ideas. Voted up!

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on March 21, 2012:

Thanks, randomcreative! A lot of people try to buy fancy electronic gadgets that end up in the bottom of the toy box. You can never go wrong with balls, blocks, and a sandbox!

Rose Clearfield from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on March 20, 2012:

Great resources and suggestions!