Gift Guide | Preschoolers

Choosing the right toy for a preschooler is hard.

You know this from experience.

Your toy box is full to bursting from years of unwanted gifts. Each one seemed like a good idea at the time.

What happened?

You didn’t choose the wrong toy - you chose the wrong time.

What makes a good toy?

You can tell when your child likes a toy. Play becomes engrossing. Time stands still.

Children instinctively know what’s best for them. They gravitate towards toys that press the right developmental buttons. The right toy at the right time is a hit. But give that same toy a few months earlier - or later - and it’s a complete flop.

So how do you get it right? What’s the formula?

First we have to take a look at the developmental landscape. Where is your preschooler? And where are they heading?

Understanding Preschooler Development

Like Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary, each preschooler is one of a kind.

They develop at different rates and shine in their own unique ways.

But they also have many things in common. They are on the same developmental journey. And once we understand the road they are on, we’ll know exactly which toys and activities to offer - and when.

So, what are preschoolers interested in? What pushes their developmental buttons.

Let’s take a look:

Physical Development

Trolleys and walkers are great for toddlers. They offer support to unsteady legs and hold favourite toys for all kinds of transporting fun.

But preschoolers are too cool for all of that.

Who wants a walker when you can balance with ease? Now all the fun is in running and jumping, kicking and throwing.

A trolley still has its place, but now it serves a different function. It exists as a storytelling prop.

Here is my baby, tucked up in this pram. We are off to the clinic.

Gross motor development is secondary. The focus of the play is imaginative.

This is also a time of great progress with fine motor movements - of the fingers and hands.

Babies and toddlers face the challenge of learning to articulate fingers individually. This is the time of finger painting and finger food.

But preschoolers have a higher goal - pencil grip. And that means cutting and sticking, mark-making and toys with smaller pieces.

Cognitive Development

Babies and toddlers explore objects through movement and their senses. Preschoolers explore ideas with their minds.

As their attention span increases, children’s problem-solving abilities become more sophisticated and they begin to grasp more complex concepts such as time, counting, and sorting by categories. They also start to develop early mathematical and scientific thinking, as they notice patterns, compare sizes, or experiment with balance and weight. Symbolic thinking is a highlight of this stage, with children engaging in imaginative play and beginning to understand that symbols, like written words or numbers, can represent real-world objects or ideas.

Language Development

Language skills blossom during the preschool years. Children's vocabulary expands dramatically, and they start to form more complex sentences. They begin to understand and use grammatical rules, and their speech becomes more understandable. They also start to grasp the concept of a conversation, learning to listen while others talk and to wait their turn to speak. These are the home corner years. It’s a time for imaginative play, of getting into role, alone or with others.

Social-Emotional Development

Preschoolers are learning how to understand and express their emotions in more nuanced ways. They start to show empathy towards others and become more aware of social norms. They're also learning to manage their own feelings better, even though tantrums might still occur when they're overwhelmed. At this age, children start to form real friendships and understand what it means to share and cooperate with others. Which toys help children develop these skills? How does a doll’s house encourage dialogue and relationship building? Or a play shop or kitchen?

Literacy Development

As they approach school age, many preschoolers show an interest in pre-reading and pre-writing activities. They might recognize some letters, especially the ones in their own name, and some can even write a few letters or numbers. They enjoy being read to, and they start to understand that those squiggles on the page represent spoken words. So mark-making materials are the order of the day. But so too are loose parts and arranging materials, sticks and circles that can be connected together to make shapes, numbers and letters.

What toys can complement and enhance these skills?

Best Toys for Preschoolers

So, what are the best toys to boost a preschooler's development? Here are some ideas, sorted by the key skills they help to foster:

Gross Motor Skills Toys

Toys that promote the development of large muscle groups are perfect for preschoolers. Some examples include:

Baskets: Carrying objects in baskets requires co-ordination and balance. You need good proprioception, the sense of your body in space. Walking is easy. Walking whilst carrying a toy-laden basket is a challenge. And that’s exactly how preschoolers like it. How full can the basket get? How heavy? Let’s find out!

Tool benches: Using toy tools often involves the use of both hands and arms simultaneously, known as bilateral co-ordination. For instance, holding a peg with one hand while hammering with the other.

Fine Motor Skills Toys

Play food: Chopping pretend food takes a lot of fine motor control. Wielding a wooden knife accurately and applying enough pressure to cut through the velcro-fastened food is a real test of grip strength.

Craft materials: These allow preschoolers to cut, glue, thread, and construct, boosting their fine motor skills.

Puzzles: Almost any puzzle will do. The action of rotating and releasing the pieces is surprisingly difficult when you are three.

Cognitive Development Toys

Wooden train sets: If you have ever tried putting wooden track together, you will know how hard it can be to make it loop back to the start. Often, the final piece just doesn’t line up or you realise that you didn’t leave enough room for the last bend. It’s a real test of your planning and spatial reasoning skills, not to mention pattern recognition, logical thinking and maths. In the pantheon of wooden toy greats, it’s up there with the toy kitchen and the doll’s house.

Board Games: Preschooler games and board games seem simple but following the rules, strategising and taking turns is a real cognitive challenge.

Language Development Toys

Doll’s houses: Open the doll’s house and watch as your child starts to narrate play and tell stories. Listen as the dolls engage in simple dialogue about everyday life. It’s a chance for your child to work through the events of the day and imagine alternative outcomes.

Small world toys: A doll’s house isn’t for everyone. Some children prefer more imaginative settings for their small world play. The good news is that the language benefits are the same. So why not try a farm, castle, garage or space station?

Social-Emotional Development Toys

Toy shops and kitchens: Waiter, waiter, there’s a fly in my soup! Mr. Shopkeeper, the apples you sold me are rotten! Running a restaurant or shop is hard work. You have customers to serve and to please. Things can go wrong - and often do. How will you manage?

Wooden animals: Did life go smoothly on Noah’s Ark once all the animals were on board? What did the Little Red Hen think of the animals who wouldn’t help her bake the bread? Relationships and questions of etiquette are everywhere in children’s stories. Think Aesop’s fables. Did the hare deserve to lose to the tortoise? These kinds of questions come up all the time when you offer your child a set of wooden animals to play with.

Other toys to consider

Loose parts: Loose parts can be anything. The point is that they are movable and numerous. Whether you choose acorns, pebbles or wooden loose part toys, the aim is the same. To arrange the materials in a way that is aesthetically pleasing or helps you to explore an interesting concept. They are great for schema play, through which children enjoy lining up and placing objects as they learn about spatial relations, lines and enclosures.

Wooden Vehicles: Much like the wooden railway, wooden vehicles provide children the opportunity to explore the trajectory schema further. By pushing and pulling the vehicles, they comprehend the concepts of motion and direction. These vehicles also help in developing fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination.

Final word

The right toys can transform your preschooler’s playtime, turning it into a rich, fulfilling learning experience. You don’t need many. You just need the right ones, toys that encourage open-ended play and creativity, that challenge and engage.

Play is simple. Offer the right toys and get out of the way.

Your child knows what to do.