A third birthday feels like a graduation of sorts. Your toddler is becoming a preschooler -- he's feeding himself, talking up a storm, and getting ready to potty train (if he hasn't done so already). This is the first year he will truly anticipate, understand, and revel in all the attention he'll receive on his big day. Shopping for toys changes a lot once your child turns 3. All the toys with smaller pieces labeled "choking warning" are now safer for your child, so a whole new universe of play opens up. "Three-year-olds explore things with their hands instead of their mouths," explains David Perlmutter, M.D., a board-certified neurologist and author of the book Raise a Smarter Child by Kindergarten. "While small pieces are still theoretically a hazard, it's less likely that a 3-year-old will actually choke."
For those with younger siblings in the house, small pieces should still be a concern, but there are plenty of toys labeled 2+ that are interesting and won't pose any threat. Continue to exercise common sense: A toy labeled 3+ with no obvious small parts is a better choice than something that has a lot of little pieces. As the owner of Magic Beans, a children's toy store in the Boston area, I spend a lot of time researching toys and development. Read on for the types of toys I would recommend to enhance your child's skill set for this age.
Reading and Recognizing
By this age, preschoolers are outgrowing the simplest board books, and they're ready for more advanced picture books. Look for ones that have easy-to-follow plots and rich, colorful illustrations. This is a good age to start working on "sight words" -- frequently used words that children will need to be able to recognize quickly -- and there are many excellent books with large, simple text made up primarily of sight words. When you read, follow along with your finger to help your child notice patterns. Children love to laugh, so find amusing, whimsical books that rhyme, such as Dr. Seuss's.
As language development becomes more sophisticated, your child will be able to follow longer stories, anticipate outcomes, and ask to hear the same book over and over again (but this is normal). Knowing exactly what will happen next in a favorite book gives kids a sense of control. "At that age, children depend on predictability," says Amy Flynn, M.S., M.Ed, an early childhood education specialist with New York's Head Start program. "While that repetition may seem boring to us, young children are growing and developing so quickly that every time they experience that book, they're discovering new things."
Learning and Solving
A lot of toys promote learning, but the most valuable educational toys are the ones that teach indirectly while still being fun. A toy cash register is a fabulous prop that can teach children basic math concepts (the learning part) while enhancing make-believe (the fun part). Toy computers and anything with a QWERTY keyboard help children be familiar with the layout. Magnetic letters and numbers can go on the fridge (or a magnetic board) and are a simple and low-tech way to learn the alphabet. Wooden puzzles with letters, numbers, animals, and shapes are another favorite for teaching problem solving and developing fine motor skills. Some even offer multiple solutions (the pieces fit in more than one spot); this fosters creativity and sharpens thinking.