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.
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."
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.
Most 3-year-olds are coordinated enough to ride a tricycle and a scooter, but learning to ride a two-wheeler is another story. Balance bikes help young children to adjust to two wheels without the distraction of pedals. Children simply push with their feet to coast, and if they start losing their balance, they can drop their feet to the ground for support. Once they're comfortable keeping the bike upright, it's a short leap to riding a bike while skipping training wheels.
Choosing the right type of ride-on toy is about knowing your child's physical abilities. Balance bikes with broad wheels provide more stability than those with narrow ones, and scooters with three wheels are more stable than those with two. A metal frame will be stronger and more durable than a plastic or wood, and air-filled tires will give a smoother ride than foam or plastic. Some balance bikes can adjust to fit a growing child; others are one-size-fits-all. Whatever you choose, don't forget a helmet, and teach your child to wear one from the beginning.
Kids need to work their imagination as much as they need to work on running and jumping. The best way is through open-ended play, which children this age love most. Dress-up supplies are a perennial favorite, so invest in lots of role-play sets and collections that might have an assortment of professional costumes, like a police officer, firefighter, astronaut, or chef, and some fantasy-based ones, like a fairy, princess, pirate, or knight. Add accessories like silly glasses, hats, shoes, and a soft sword or two. The sets encourage children to mix and match, like pairing a stethoscope with fairy wings.
A set of play food is terrific fuel for pretend play, and cutting food playsets (that have "cut up" plastic fruits and knives) have the bonus of developing fine motor skills. Children can mix pieces to invent new foods, and buy, sell, cook, and serve hundreds of meals. Baby dolls, stuffed animals, and puppets of any kind add dimension to playtime, and doll-size cribs and high chairs will engage preschoolers even as they get older.
Art is as much about the thought process and the development of fine motor skills as it is about exploring senses, lengthening attention spans, and building self-esteem. "Young children often don't know how to communicate their feelings or thoughts," explains Diane Quiroga, a board certified and registered art therapist and mental health consultant in Livingston, New Jersey. "Making art allows them to express themselves and cope with frustration. And creating a work of art leads to a great feeling of self-accomplishment."
Look for simple kits that incorporate a variety of materials and textures, like mosaics, clay, origami, and weaving. Collage is probably the most popular type of craft kit for this age, but don't restrict your choices to paper as a medium. "You can paint on sandpaper or aluminum foil and get interesting results," Quiroga suggests. Buy some big containers of washable tempera paint and some brushes and enjoy mixing up new colors. Art is sensory, and materials that look or feel unusual will hold more appeal than markers or crayons. A child-size easel is a smart investment. "Children this age sometimes struggle with their attention span," Quiroga says. "Standing on their feet is more natural for them than sitting in a chair." Don't forget a smock, a splat mat or drop cloth, and a muffin tin as a paint palette.
Preschoolers have developed enough language skills to be able to learn words to songs, remember hand movements, and move to music to reflect different moods. Look for toy instruments (as authentic as possible) that offer a variety of sounds and will inspire musicality in young children, like ones from the company Melissa & Doug. Rhythm instruments that fit small hands include drums, shakers, and tambourines, though some 3-year-olds are capable of handling instruments with more detailed features, such as the kazoo and harmonica. A gift certificate for a community music class can give children an opportunity to make friends and learn about music as part of a group. Beef up your iTunes library with some kid-music downloads, including indie artists who provide the kind of music you'll enjoy along with your child. Look for book/CD combination sets of nursery rhymes; Putumayo has many cool compilation CDs that showcase many genres.
While preschoolers have their own interests, those can (and do) change frequently, so what your child wants shouldn't influence what you buy too much. (In the coming years, though, your child will probably be more insistent about the types of toys he wants.) When shopping, think more holistically about the toys in your house. Do you have a wide variety of toys, games, and puzzles? Having a diverse assortment of age-appropriate toys will help your child learn new things every day and be ready to take on new challenges. Toys with many pieces are always a good bet for encouraging sharing behaviors. A big set of blocks, Wedgits, or Magna Tiles can keep a roomful of children occupied for hours. As the pieces get smaller and cleaning up gets harder, implement an efficient playroom organizational system. Store some toys and rotate a select few that you can maintain. Just remember that a great toy is one that children will interact with in creative ways, and one that they will come back to again and again for many years.
Copyright © 2012 Meredith Corporation.