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Published on November 23, 2016

preschooler playing in toy kitchen

Top Toys for a Tough-to-Buy-For Audience: Preschool Kids

With the holidays approaching, your preschooler may be starting that all-important wish list. It will likely be filled with the latest, coolest toys seen on TV, licensed toys based on current popular movies, and a lot of high-tech gizmos and gadgets.

Parents will certainly purchase some of the wish-list toys, but I would also encourage you to consider classic toys that have been proven to promote a child’s thinking, language, physical and social-emotional skills.

These toys repeatedly find their way to the top of the pre-school kids’ list:

Dress-up Toys

Purchased costumes, or just interesting clothes, hats and shoes from mom or dad’s closet or the thrift shop can provide hours of fun for kids. Dressing up and pretending helps kids define roles, work through scary or stressful situations and learn about cooperation and negotiation. A nearby shatterproof mirror will enhance their play. Watch out for clothing with strings, straps, fabric belts, and ribbons longer than seven inches, because they can be strangulation hazards. This includes necklaces or anything worn around the neck.

Play Kitchen and Accessories

Imitation and imagination in play develop creativity and problem-solving skills. Language skills are enhanced when children names foods and tools in the play kitchen and engage in play that requires conversation. You may hear children plan the “script” by saying things like “You say this and then I’ll say that.” This requires a fairly high level of cooperation. There are even math skills learned in the play kitchen: how many chairs do we need at the table? We have three people and two plates. How many more plates do we need?


Playing with dolls develops nurturing instincts, empathy and kindness. It lets children try out mother and father roles. It also helps develop fine motor skills when children use the small muscles in their hands to dress their babies, wrap them up, and feed them. Remember that dolls are not just for girls.


There is nothing better than curling up with a beloved grown up and reading a book. Children learn language and conversation patterns, as well as thinking skills like counting and colors. Later, children can “read” to you by retelling the story in their own words. Remember that letting your child listen to a book via technology should not take the place of reading with a real-live person.

Blocks and Building Toys

One of the first toys I purchased for my own children was a set of high quality, solid wood blocks. My oldest daughter is 37 and those blocks have never been put away in our house. As my girls got older, they kept thinking of new ways to use the blocks, including building mazes for their hamsters. Now my grandchildren play with them. They are pricey, but they last almost forever! Blocks teach basic physics skills like balance, weight, gravity, as well as geometry skills like angles and equality. If wood blocks are out of your price range, a good alternative is a set of high-density foam unit blocks. When you add toy vehicles, people and animals to blocks, you give children another avenue for dramatic play and pretending.


Looking at the lines, curves and shapes of puzzle pieces and matching them to the frame helps kids develop visual discrimination skills necessary for reading. In order to recognize letters and numbers, children must first learn to discriminate between the lines, shapes and curves that make up those letters and numbers. Start with simple knob puzzles with four or five pieces for toddlers, and work up to more difficult puzzles as your child grows.

Nesting and Stacking Toys

These toys teach a math concept called seriation—arranging things in order of their size. They also teach spatial relations as children discover how things fit together , and physics skills as children learn about balance.

Art Materials

Coloring books and craft projects are fine, but we also want children to have lots of opportunities for open-ended art. By that we mean using their ideas and creativity to experiment and come up with their own projects without having a certain end product in mind. Provide a variety of paper, old greeting cards, stickers, crayons, markers, glue sticks, safety scissors, paint and space to work. Always supervise scissors use with preschoolers!

Riding Toys

With concerns about obesity in children, the more physical activity they get the better. Toddlers can start with seated riding toys that are pushed with the feet rather than with pedals, or balance bikes.  At about age 2, pedal bikes and scooters can be introduced. Alternating the feet when using riding toys helps the left and right sides of the brain learn to work together. Children should always use bike helmets and other safety gear for riding activities. Battery operated toy cars and other vehicles really don’t help with skill development.

Balls and Bean Bags

Throwing and catching skills help develop eye-hand coordination and also exercise upper body muscles. Running and kicking balls provides good physical exercise for kids as well. A family game of catch, soccer, kick ball, or a game you invent is a great activity.

You parents and grandparents reading this might think, wait a minute, those are the toys I played with growing up. That’s because these toys have proven their worth in providing a variety of mental and physical skills in children. New toys will come and go, but we hope these toys will be around forever, and that parents will continue to choose them for young children.

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