Courtesy of Hasbro
Why she'll love it: This soft, squishy stuff has been thrilling preschoolers for more than 50 years. Because it's open-ended, there's no limit to what your child will create with it. Play-Doh spaghetti anyone?
Why experts love it: "Play-Doh has so many uses, especially if you add tools," says R. Keith Sawyer, PhD, a professor of psychology who studies creativity in children at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. "It uses fine motor skills and imagination."
Our pick: This caddy is a rainy-day lifesaver, with tons of tools and colors, all stored in a neat carry-all.
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Courtesy of Owlkids
My First Magazine Subscription
Gift: Kid Magazine
Why he'll love it: How thrilled will he be to get something in the mail just for him? Just like you do with your US Weekly, he'll be keeping tabs on the mailbox for the next issue.
Why experts love it: "It's never too early to begin reading," says Rahil Briggs, PsyD, a child psychologist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and the Children's Hospital at Montefiore, in New York City. "Interactive magazines will help to engage a preschooler."
Our pick: This 10-times-a-year magazine, published in Canada, is designed for preschoolers and beginner readers with puzzles, games, crafts, rhymes, and more.
Courtesy of Lillian Vernon
Let It Snow
Gift: A Go-Play-Outside Present
Why she'll love it: The outdoors can be one big playground, especially if you have the right tools -- and no inside voices necessary!
Why experts love it: "Three-year-olds are full of energy, and much of their difficult behavior comes from being bored and restless," says Briggs. "Playing outside helps avoid that."
Our pick: Have a snow day with this 47-piece decorating kit that includes mother and daughter Santa hats plus plastic carrot noses, coal for faces, and more (you can of, course, also use the real thing).
Courtesy of Amazon.com
Gift: Arts and Crafts Materials
Why he'll love it: Break out the glue! Kids love open-ended materials that they can put together in whatever way their imagination takes them.
Why experts love it: "Preschool kids use art as a way to express themselves," says Sue Adair, who oversees teacher training and development at Goddard Systems, the franchisor of the Goddard Schools, which emphasize learning through play. "They love freely choosing their own materials." Adds Briggs: "Many parents are reticent to teach their children to use safety scissors at this age, but it's an age-appropriate skill to learn through arts-and-crafts projects."
Our pick: This kit provides hours of crafty fun with cardboard shapes, tissue paper squares, pipe cleaners, crayons, and safety scissors all stored in a cute suitcase.
Courtesy of eeBoo.com
Gift: Memory Games
Why he'll love it: These days, your child can sit still for a bit longer and take turns -- the perfect time to introduce him to board games like Concentration, which build memorization skills.
Why experts love it: "Children notice and ask questions about similarities and differences at this age, and they're also building problem-solving skills," says Adair. "This is the perfect time to introduce this type of game."
Our pick: Your kid's probably already fascinated by butterflies, so she'll love this game. Start with only a few pairs to avoid frustration, and add more as she gets older. She'll love it when she beats you!
Birthday Party Ideas
Courtesy of BabyScholars.com
The Doctor Is In
Gift: Doctor's Kit
Why she'll love it: Now that kids understand more, they also fear more. Not only is a doctor's kit a wonderful tool for make-believe, it can help them feel more in-the-know and in control at the pediatrician's office.
Why experts love it: "Playing doctor can help relieve anxiety about a doctor's visit," says Briggs. "Kids also learn about giving care to others by attending to their baby dolls."
Our pick: Go ahead -- let her take your temperature or listen to your heartbeat. She'll play for hours with the pretend reusable bandage, fake thermometer, and stethoscope.
Courtesy of Supermarkethq.com
Know Your ABCs
Gift: ABC help
Why he'll love it: He's mastered the song, and now he's learning letters by sight. He's also figuring out that you put letters together in different combinations to make words -- a crucial pre-reading skill.
Why experts love it: "It's important to provide a print-rich environment for preschool kids," says Adair. "They're beginning to understand that writing is a system of communication."
Our pick: This mod print doubles as a cool piece of wall art, and capitalizes on the universal kid interest in animals to help them master their letters.
Courtesy of Amazon.com
Spin Your Wheels
Why she'll love it: She'll feel like a big-kid on a scooter -- and it provides a nice solution to that in-between stage when they're getting too big for a stroller but aren't ready for long walks on their own.
Why experts love it: "Scooters are excellent for developing motor coordination skills and reducing the time it takes to go somewhere," says Briggs.
Our pick: With its anti-slip coating and three wheels to make it more stable, this scooter safely introduces your child to the freedom of his own wheels.
Courtesy of Melissa & Doug
Up a Tree
Why he'll love it: You may make the rules on your house, but kids love having a playhouse where they're in charge. Add some play figures, and watch your kids go to town making up scenes and stories.
Why experts love it: "Preschool kids are quick to take on pretend roles and situations, and a dollhouse lets them do this," says Adair. "It also helps build social skills." Says Briggs: "The multiple heights of a dollhouse also make it fun for more than one kid at a time."
Our pick: Here's a cool twist on the dollhouse concept: This towering wooden treehouse with a foliage canopy includes a working trap door, pulleys, and a hammock -- and is much less complicated than building one in the backyard.
Courtesy of Amazon.com
Piecing It Together
Gift: Floor Puzzle
Why she'll love it: Puzzles can be a 3-year-old's obsession as they get better and better with practice.
Why experts love it: "Preschool children are starting to show persistence in tasks," says Adair. "Kids enjoy floor puzzles because the pieces are large yet putting them together hones fine motor skills."
Our pick: This wonderfully illustrated circular floor puzzle comes with 48 pieces and introduces kids to different cultures. She'll love seeing how it all fits together, as well as what kids around the world look like and wear.
Courtesy of Amazon.com
Gift: Books with a Message
Why he'll love it: Your 3-year-old has probably demonstrated some not-so-lovely behavior like hitting and biting -- and might pick up even more with the start of preschool. It's time to really focus on nipping antisocial behaviors in the bud.
Why experts love it: "Books can help children understand others' feelings, and encourage the development of empathy," says Nuner.
Our pick: Most kids will have a biting incident in their preschool life. This book will soothe both the biter and bitee by giving other options (the book helpfully suggests that teeth be used for smiling instead).
Courtesy of Ikea
A Room of Their Own
Why she'll love it: Whether you build a fort out of cushions or set your kids up with a pre-fab structure, they'll get a kick out of having a place to call their own -- no parents allowed!
Why experts love it: "Children at this age are developing their own ability to self-soothe and regulate, and often need a bit of a retreat," says Briggs.
Our pick: Resembling an igloo, this tent is as easy to move as it is to take down and offers a calm place for your little one to hang out and read or play games.
Copyright © 2009 Meredith Corporation.