Three-year-olds are so ready to have their toy game taken up a notch! Unlike their easier-to-please 2-year-old selves, your growing 3-year-old is way more likely to have opinions on toys and super-specific interests that they’re excited to explore. Need help selecting the just-right present for your little one? Here, some helpful gift-giving guardrails to keep you on track to pick the perfect toy!

Upgraded Puzzles

Puzzle for 3-year-olds
Photo and to purchase: Fat Brain Toys

While jumbo knob puzzles are ideal for a 2-year-old’s wee hands, often, 3-year-olds are ready to step-up their puzzle game with chunky, big-piece puzzles that are easy to hold and peg puzzles with their thin knobs that require a more mature and precise grasp. Play experts often recommend having a small stash of different types of puzzles for little ones to play with, so feel free to open your gift-buying search to “big kid” floor puzzles with their larger pieces, like this giant fire truck floor puzzle from Mellisa & Doug, jigsaw puzzles that come in a board that defines the puzzle space, and “tangram” puzzles that are comprised of geometric pieces that can be arranged in different shapes, like the Little Thinker’s Block Logic Puzzles pictured above.


Snack Shack Playhouse for 3 year olds
Photo and to purchase: Crate & Kids

Little kids love hide-outs, forts, make-believe kitchens, tents, and playhouses! In fact, they love all things that can be morphed into their own private play space. So, while a refrigerator box or couch-and-pillow fort will often do, if you're hoping to level up your 3-year-old’s playhouse, there are so many fun options to choose from. Consider the super-affordable and super-fun Ikea circus tent or a cardboard cottage for your sweet pea. Or maybe think about the canvas playhouse from Pottery Barn that nicely blends into any room, the sleek Little Chef Chelsea Modern Play Kitchen, or the snack shack from Crate & Kids, pictured. 

Realistic-Looking Toys

3-year-old toy truck

Photo and to purchase: Target

We all love a gorgeous, wooden car, but honestly, oftentimes, 3-year-olds really, really crave playing with realistic-looking toys! Research shows that children this age adore playing with what’s dubbed “replica play toys,” such as small people, animals, or vehicles that, well, look like the real deal—or at least, close-enough! When playing with these types of toys, children are more prone to create “elaborate, make-believe scenarios”—and these toys bolster their conversation and cooperative-play skills. Pair these with building toys and, boy oh boy, the play possibilities are endless!

Toys to Get Wiggles Out

3-year-old children playing with Teeter Poppers
Photo and to purchase: Fat Brain Toys

Three-year-olds need at least 30 minutes of adult-led physical activity and a minimum of 60 minutes of unstructured, active free play each and every day. Good thing most 3-year-olds are expert runners, jumpers, kickers, and skippers! Take advantage and find your naturally active little one toys that buoy their budding look-what-I-can-do confidence, hone their motor development, and bring them tons of fun! Some ideas include a T-ball set, pint-size basketball hoop, hopscotch rug (like this living room-worthy one from H&M), backyard bouncer, single-user trampoline, various sports balls, foam pogo jumper, balance stepping stones (these double as sensory play, too!), three-wheeled scooter, backyard climbing structure, or balance board, like the Teeter Popper (pictured) that also makes a fun popping sound with every movement!

Building Toys

Squigz building toy for 3 year olds
Photo and to purchase: Fat Brain Toys

You’d be hard pressed to find a 3-year-old who doesn’t go gaga for building toys. (Learn why!) At this age, your child is really ready to expand their collection beyond the classic wooden building blocks (which will always be A+ gifts). There are so many toys in this category that work to help your tyke engage in creative, open-ended play that fosters problem-solving, planning, spatial awareness, and motor skills. And—best part—building toys are usually a solid investment since they can grow with your child well beyond their third year. Before you buy, know that research shows that the best building toys are not ones that require kiddos to make a specific thing—and they have enough pieces for kids to create many different designs. You can go the classic route with old-time faves like Bristle Blocks or a Tinkertoy set or consider toys like fort-building sets, rainbow stackers, magnetic builders, nuts-and-bolts toys, gear toys, interlocking tubes or discs, suction-cup connector toys, like the Squigz set pictred, and marble runs. (Loving this marble run/art easel combo by Kiwi Co!)

Arts and Crafts

Wooden Farm Animals Stamp Set for 3 year olds
Picture and to purchase: Melissa & Doug

At age 3, your little one’s concentration—and their desire to discover—is developing rapidly, leading to a whole new hankering for tracing simple shapes, using child-safe scissors, rubber stamps, molding clay, and finger painting. While your budding artist is still too young to sit still and decide to draw a puppy, for instance, they’ll love to admire their own collection of scribbles and circles and proudly declare that they made a dog! Some gifts to consider: The Trace & Learn Writing Activity Set, the My First Wooden Stamp Set from Melissa & Doug (pictured), rainbow scratch paper, or this dim sum play dough activity kit from Commis Kids.

Toys for Sensory Play

Kinetic sand toy for 3-year-olds

Photo and to purchase: Lakeshore Learning

Sensory play, quite simply, is play that stimulates multiple senses, like touch, sight, and hearing, at the same time. This all-senses-activated kind of play promotes exploration, motor development, problem-solving, creativity, investigation...and it actually helps build connections in the brain. While there are for-sure active toys (like trampolines) and art toys (like finger paints), and more, that double as sensory toys, here are some other examples that your 3-year-old would surely enjoy: kinetic sand, slime, water table, sandbox, pop toys and beads, expanding fidget ball, calming glitter tube (like this too-cute rainbow feeling glitter toy), music tubes, busy boards, wax craft sticks.

Dress-Up Toys

Parrot Fringed Cape Dress Up for 3 year olds
Photo and to purchase Meri Meri

Can you even be a 3-year-old without a dress-up stash?! Whether dolled up as a superhero, a firefighter, a doctor, princess, or a kitten, tykes love this brand of imaginative play! That’s great because playing dress-up fosters creativity, role-playing, communication skills, problem-solving, and self-regulation. Plus, if some of the dress-up costumes include buttons, zippers, or snaps, then your child’s fine motor skills are getting a workout, too! When brainstorming dress-up toy ideas, feel free to mix store-bought costumes (like the amazing parrot ensemble above), stand-alone accessories (say, a fedora, silky scarf, apron, goofy sunglasses, or a boa—or a collection of accessories), and even finds from your closet or the thrift store.

Get-Ready-to-Read Toys

Match & Learn Letters & Numbers for 3 year olds
Photo and to purchase: Fat Brain Toys

Don’t freak out! Your 3-year-old is in no way behind! In fact, most children don’t learn to read until age 6 or 7. But the books you read—and the types of toys your tot plays with—today, all help to set a solid ready-to-read / ready-to-write foundation. For kiddos this age, consider gifting toys like magnetic letters, ABC stamps, letter tracing books, bath letters and numbers, no-mess writing tools, stand-up easel, alphabet blocks, an alphabet abacus, or letter or number matching toys. When it comes to books, embrace simple stories with wow-worthy pictures or illustrations all about their current obsession, whether it be trains, dinosaurs, diggers, horses, sea creatures, or anything in between. (And if these interactive books aren’t already in your home library...consider them!)

Early Board Games

The Sneaky, Snacky Squirrel Game for 3 year olds
Picture and to purchase: Educational Insights

Once your tyke is 3, they’re ready to dive into Family Game Night...albeit without the cut-throat competition. The best board games for this age group are easy-to-learn and require zero reading. They should also encourage counting, matching, and/or memory skills...and work to boost social skills, like turn-taking, listening, and self-control, notes Zero to Three, a child development non-profit. Some perfect-for-preschoolers options include, classic memory and matching games, plus Count Your Chickens (work together to return baby chicks back to their coop); Feed The Woozle, (team up to help feed the fuzzy monster hairy pickles and furry donuts); Richard Scarry’s Busytown, Eye Found It (search for hidden objects throughout Busytown); and The Sneaky, Snacky Squirrel Game (help woodland creatures find their acorns).

Doll Houses for All

Dollhouse toy for 3-year-olds
Photo and to purchase: Maisonette

Doll houses are classic toys for a reason! They’re what play experts like to call “open-ended toys,” which means your child drives the play, not the toy. And because of that, playing with a dollhouse advances imagination, creativity, role-playing, storytelling, problem-solving, vocabulary development, and fine motor skills. The doll house “sweet spot” is thought to be between the ages of 2 and 6, but so many children play with their doll houses significantly longer. (Investment!) When selecting one for your tyke, consider going the non-gender-specific route not only for versatility, but to allow for your child’s imagination to fill in all the blanks. But if a theme is more your kiddo’s speed, rest assured that castles, fire houses, and barns 100% count as dollhouses, too!

In the end, no matter how awesome you think a toy is, always check the toy’s packaging for age guidelines. A marble run designed for 3-year-olds, for instance, is not the same as one for school-age kids...and you need to buy accordingly. This’ll keep your child safe and free from out-of-their-league frustration.

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