Your child's turning 4! Discover the best types of birthday presents to buy your 4-year-old.
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Credit: Kaysh Shinn

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.


More Birthday Gift Ideas for a 4-Year-Old

Creating and Crafting

Preschoolers can now play with toys and games that require nimble fingers (adding a hat on a Playmobil character) and a steady hand (putting two LEGO bricks together). They can draw and write with more precision, and this progress makes them prolific artists who enjoy working with a wide variety of media. Their increased attention span makes it easier to work on longer projects. "Long-term projects make kids feel proud," says Diane Quiroga, a board certified and registered art therapist and mental health consultant in Livingston, New Jersey. "This sense of accomplishment gives them the confidence to explore things outside of art." Look for craft kits that are more open-ended, like big jars of collage materials, Popsicle sticks, or kits that recycle household items, like toilet paper tubes, into something fresh and new. But keep in mind that even the most specific kit can be made open-ended by putting the instructions aside and using the materials in whatever creative way your child wants.

Pretending and Playacting

Costumes are a must-have for this age, and this is the time to be fully stocked with toys and props for dramatic play, both abstract and realistic. Give your child a set of wooden blocks, a bunch of silk scarves, and some jumbo pipe cleaners, and she's bound to amaze you with her creativity. Pretend food is nice for this age (especially cutting food playsets), and don't forget a big set of toy plates and cutlery for playing restaurant. For children who enjoy dolls, look for beautiful doll-size strollers, high chairs, and baby carriers. Pretend play based on real-life scenarios helps preschoolers deal with new and unfamiliar scenarios. "Four-year-olds have a lot of fears," says Ruth Migler, a psychotherapist and child development specialist in Rockville, MD. "Toys that help them work through those fears can help. A doctor's kit is a perfect example. By playing doctor with a parent, they're able to express and understand their feelings."

Jamming and Dancing

Thanks to newfound control over both their gross and fine motor skills, 4-year-olds are capable musicians. They can tap a rhythm, carry a tune, and even strum a guitar. They can dance, coordinate their bodies to learn ballet positions, and remember basic choreography. Their listening is becoming sophisticated, and they can hear more subtle changes in tempo, rhythm, pitch, and volume. "Four-year-olds are painfully aware that they are not as big or as competent as the grownups around them," says Julia Priest, director of Music and Movement of Newton in Newton, MA. "Singing and dancing are domains where they can collaborate with grown-ups and relish the challenge of getting in sync."

It's good to expose children at this age to a broad range of musical styles. Some children are ready to sit through short music lessons now, so if your child is passionate about music, a real instrument and some lessons would be a fantastic gift. Many preschoolers are coordinated enough to start formal lessons in violin or piano, but toy instruments (guitars, drums, harmonicas, ukuleles, and accordions) are excellent and they cross over nicely to function as both musical toys and make-believe props.

Learning and Interacting

As kindergarten approaches, learning toys are popular, but they are educational only if they hold a child's attention. It's impossible to ignore technnology at this stage, but there's nothing with more potential than the iPad or a similar tablet computer. The touch-screen interface is intuitive for young children, and there's much high-quality content available, especially since the recommended age for many children's apps is 4. Of course, some parents are understandably reluctant about tech toys, for reasons including cost and concerns about too much screen time. "Exposing children to technology is a good thing; their proficiency will be important to their professional success someday. The most important thing for children is to give them plenty of human interaction in addition to whatever time they spend on the screen," says David Perlmutter, M.D., a board certified neurologist and author of the book Raise a Smarter Child by Kindergarten. If you decide to buy apps for your 4-year-old, avoid flash card apps in favor of more creative and engaging animated book apps like There's a Monster at the End of This Book, featuring Grover from Sesame Street.

How to Invest in the Best Gifts

Some of the guesswork starts to disappear when it comes to choosing a birthday gift for 4-year-olds because they're happy telling you what they want. You may not want to follow all the suggestions ("a pony!"), but it's still worth asking so you get an idea of what excites them. It's easier now to find toys that appeal to different ages, so the toys will have a long shelf life and you'll get the best value for your money. Construction toys, in particular, can reach across many age groups. LEGO bricks and Playmobil are both recommended for age 4, but they stay relevant until the tween years. Logic puzzle games, like Rush Hour, offer several different levels of challenges.

Copyright © 2012 Meredith Corporation.