At age 4, preschoolers have colors and shapes down pat, and their numbers and letters are coming along. A 4-year-old is able to draw and they might even be able to write her name. Attention spans are growing, making it easier to stick with activities for a longer period of time, and personalities are (with more consistent likes and dislikes) slowly coming into focus. Natural talents are starting to emerge, and you're getting a sense of what will challenge your child. As you think about birthday gifts, seek out toys that will excite and engage and develop skills she needs before heading off to kindergarten. As the owner of Magic Beans, a children's toy store in the Boston area, I have some recommendations for the types of toys that will enhance your child's skill set.
Feeling and Communicating
When starting preschool, kids become busy refining key social skills to help them create and maintain friendships with their peers. "Doing a puzzle, especially a floor puzzle, as a group is a great way for children to work on communication," says Sue Woodward, Ph.D., a child psychologist and director of clinical care at Judge Baker Children's Center in Boston. "Games like Guess Who help with understanding emotions, since children need to be aware of the characters' facial expressions." Look for floor puzzles (about 24 to 50 pieces) with interesting artwork and photography. Rubber playground balls, like ones from Crocodile Creek, also make some beautiful ones in both 5" and 7" sizes. "Communication, teamwork, understanding emotions, respecting others, problem solving, tolerating frustration, and body regulation are all very important," Dr. Woodward says.
Reading and Laughing
By now, kids have progressed leaps and bounds in the language and vocabulary development. Their comprehension is growing daily, and they're always ready for a challenge. They grasp subtle elements in a story line, make accurate predictions, and draw interesting conclusions. This is a good time to introduce classic chapter books like Charlotte's Web, Winnie the Pooh, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Poetry by Shel Silverstein offers playfulness and humor, and lighthearted adaptations of classic fairy tales can provide a basis for simple life lessons.
Even if your child loves chapter books, don't assume you've permanently moved on from picture books. They can be just as sophisticated as early chapter books, and the illustrations provide visual cues for predictions. Some 4-year-olds may not have the patience to sit through long stretches of reading without a lot of pictures, so vary your book selection and stick to material your child will always enjoy. Laughing together is a delightful way to end the day, so look for books that are fun to read, like Mo Willems's Pigeon books.
Pedaling and Balancing
The transition from training wheels to a two-wheeler isn't always easy, but older preschoolers are coordinated enough to ride a scooter and pedal a bicycle. Still, some may need a balance bike to help them get steady on two wheels without the distraction of the pedals. On a balance bike, kids push with their feet to coast and drop them easily to stay upright. Once kids are comfortable keeping the bike upright, they can skip the training wheels and progress to riding a two-wheeled pedal bike.
Balance bikes are available in a range of materials, including plastic, metal, and wood, and some can be adjusted as children age, so the bike grows along with them. A bike with a metal frame will be more durable than one with a plastic frame, and pneumatic air tires provide a smooth ride. At this stage, it's not a bad idea to purchase a two-wheeled bike and ask a bike shop technician to remove the pedals for the time being. Always make sure your child wears a helmet when riding on anything with wheels.
Collaborating and Competing
Children are ready to play sit-down games -- staying at the table from start to finish, following the rules, and waiting their turn. Look for games that have interesting pieces beyond just dice and pegs, like wooden mice or plastic hamburgers, which will add extra appeal. "Four-year-olds are just coming into their own as game players," explains Jason Schneider, director of product development and marketing for Gamewright. "They're still working on basic skills like taking turns, learning how to win and lose gracefully, and grasping basic strategies, like moving forward." Collaborative games have had a renaissance, and there are now several outstanding options from Peaceable Kingdom Press that team up players against the game itself. These games help ease the pressure of competition and build teamwork skills.