I’ve been told we have a lot of toys…
But, you have to remember—I have 6 kids! So yes, I do have a lot of toys. And some of them are pure junk and destined for the trash can. However, most are part of a collection, slowly acquired over 18 years—toys that have been well loved and have proven themselves worthy.
The Making of Great Preschool Toys:
What makes a toy worthy—how does a toy stand the test of time (or at least 6 kids)?
- Durable–For me the toy needs to durable (it cannot be breaking down, needing batteries, or anything else synonymous with junk).
- Open Ended–I like toys that are open-ended and ready to be fueled by imagination!
- Skill Enhancing— I especially love preschool toys that help develop motor skills, critical thinking, and language skills.
- Spans Ages and Stages–And my favorite toys grow with my kids and will be loved through different ages and stages.
Kids grow and change in amazing ways during the preschool years—and they do most of their learning through play! It makes sense to provide quality preschool toys to enhance their development and creativity. I’ve created a list of our current favorites (many were also once loved by my teenagers). These are the toys my 3 year old twins come back to daily, and my kindergarten son still engages with regularly (a few of the toys are slight modifications of toys we own—some styles and items have changed since originally purchased—i.e., my wooden toy kitchen is now 14 years old)!
Educational Toy Games and Puzzles
Why I love it: I discovered this button activity when looking for an educational toy to keep the twins busy around the age of 18 months. It felt like I hit the jack-pot! The board is large enough for 2 children to play together; it is perfect for practicing early fine motor skills, color recognition, and matching. Asher was 4 when we bought this toy, and he also loved playing with it! (Recommended Age: 18 months-4 years)
Why I love it: I am a total sucker for a logic problem, so this is my jam! I love the critical thinking and problem solving involved in this game—which is played individually. Asher received 3 Little Piggies at age 4—it provided the perfect level of challenge (and even some challenges for mom and dad). The story book theme adds a layer of language arts instruction and imaginative play (lots of opportunities for retelling the timeless story). Plus, a wordless picture book illustrating the classic tale is included with the game—so cute! (Recommended Age: 3-6 years)
Why I love it: Another great single player problem solving game (you will have fun doing this with your kiddos)! The wooden pieces are high quality–and the princess and knight characters add an imaginative story element. The puzzles get progressively harder and are great exercises for enhancing spacial reasoning. Asher received this gift for Christmas when he was 4. With some assistance, he was able to solve beginning level puzzles and now (age 6) can work through them independently. The challenges are definitely appealing to a wide age range–making the game a perfect unique gift! (Recommended Ages: 4-9 years)
Why I love it: Oh my goodness, I don’t even know where to begin with this adorable game…It has strategy (how many games for 3 and 4 year olds can say that?), counting, colors, matching, fine motor skills (the squirrel “tongs,”are amazing that come with this game), and of course–the beloved lessons of taking turns and winning/losing! If you have a preschooler–you need this game in your life!! (Recommended Ages: 3-7 years)
Why I love them: I have to say these two puzzles surprised me a bit–my twins adore Seasame Street, but I wasn’t really sure how engaged they would be with these puzzles…the girls LOVE them! There is just something about the cute little cases (the girls are constantly carting off the little “briefcases,”somewhere) and the “clicking,” in of all the letters and numbers…whatever the magic, these puzzles are a big hit. (Recommended Ages: 2-4 years)
Why I love them: These puzzles are high quality and classic–most are very gender neutral, though some are definitely geared more for boys or girls. The farm puzzle is a huge favorite at our house! I love seeing my kids play with the chunky animal pieces–truly the perfect first puzzle (Recommended Ages: 1-3). I’m also obsessed with the Latches Wooden Activity Board–another unique choice for little ones that helps with fine motor and language skills (Recommended: Ages 3-6). As your preschooler grows, Melissa and Doug also makes a line of 48 piece jigsaw puzzles (the entire puzzle fits nicely into a wooden frame/tray). There are a wide variety of themes available: dinosaurs, space, trucks, ballerinas, mermaids, pirates, jungles, horses, bugs, ocean–you name it, if your kid is into something, they probably have a puzzle for it (Recommended Ages: 4-6). All would be beautiful, timeless (affordable) educational toy gifts!
Why I love them: If I have a group of children (say a small army of nieces, nephews, neighborhood kids–and my own gaggle of little people) playing at our house, I can guarantee they will all be decked out in dress-up clothes in a matter of 5 minutes. Kids LOVE to play dress up! I remember loving to play dress up! Playing dress-up fuels pretend play–which of course, is great for language skills, creativity, and problem solving. Pretend play is the whimsical essence of childhood and early learning! Melissa and Doug have a great collection of dress-up costumes. My girls, in particular, have always been drawn to Disney characters/princesses. However, the official costumes from Disney are beautiful but pretty pricey…I have found some great dress shops on Amazon that make lovely copies at very affordable prices–I can hardly get Isabelle out of her Elsa costume! (Recommended Ages: 2-6 years)
Why I love them: Toy kitchens are a staple of imaginative play at our house. My wooden kitchen (an old Pottery Barn set) has been through countless feasts–still loved after 14 years. Toy kitchens give kids a chance to play out what they see modeled in daily life–with an added bit of creative flair. There are countless toy kitchens on the market–everyone has their own preference. The choices can be a bit overwhelming, but I’ve picked out a couple I think you’ll like. They are wooden, neutral, and include the most necessary kitchen components at reasonable prices. Of course, no kitchen is complete without food, pots, pans, and dishes! My tops picks for kitchen accessories are below (Recommended Ages: 3-6 years):
Why I love it: This mailbox has been part of many adventures (even taking on a second life as a safe for storing treasure)! Older kids use it to enhance pretend play, and younger kids love to push mail through the slots and are fascinated by the locking door! Kids make a bee-line for this educational toy–it just has a special quality that kids find intriguing. The mailbox will grow with your kids and last forever (I plan on keeping mine for the grandbabies)! (Recommended Ages: 3-6 years–2 year olds will enjoy, but does have some small stamps)
Why I love it: Dollhouses are so great for language development–kids play out all kinds of stories with a dollhouse. I like neutral dollhouses that can be transformed to whatever my kids can imagine! Our dollhouse has housed stuffed animals, Polly Pocket, Legos, Barbies, Little People, Littlest Petshop, Calico Critters, and classical dollhouse families (probably a few dinosaurs as well). My now 16 year old daughter recieved our dollhouse when she was two–so it has survived a lot of love and a lot kids. We own Ryan’s Room Classic Wooden Dollhouse with 6 Rooms. And while it is obviously very durable, neutral, and large (also I don’t believe there is any assembly involved)–my critique is that the lower level can be a bit dark, with the center being a bit difficult to play in. If I had to purchase a dollhouse again, it would be a toss up between our beloved Ryan’s Room Dollhouse and Melissa and Doug’s Hi-Rise Wooden Dollhouse, which actually comes with some furniture and accessories. It looks a bit roomier and might be easier for preschoolers to play with–but either way, a dollhouse is perfect choice for your preschool (and early elementary) aged kiddos! (Recommended Ages: 2-6 years)
Why I love it: Learning carpets are so clever (and cute)! If you have boys, then like me, you probably have an endless supply of cars and trucks! These play rugs provide a great foundation for imaginative play with toy vehicles (without having to buy a bulky plastic track). In addition, my kids are inspired to build and create towns in and around their rug…You may end up with a large city (and mess)–but so much fun! (Recommended Ages: 2-8 years)
Why I love it: Honestly, how could I create a list of preschool toys and not include Thomas the Tank Engine?! Thomas was such an quintesential part of my oldest son’s childhood–he may never love a gift more than the Thomas the Tank Engine track set he received for his 3rd birthday! We still have the track; we still have the trains…I will never get rid of this toy! So much good playing (learning) happens when building the track. It fosters creativity, problem solving, fine motor skills, and language development. The exact track we purchased 15 years ago is no longer available–but this one (not an official Thomas track) includes a giant mountain just like our favorite set. And of course–don’t forget to add Thomas! Kids love his friendly face–now my 6 year old son and 3 year old twin daughters make stories up about Thomas and his friends! As a side note, we went years without having a train table–they are nice, but not necessary. I find that kids tend to get wild with their track building, and the creations may not always fit on the table! (Recommended Age: 3-8 years)
Why I love them: I love wooden blocks–especially ones that are unstained and larger in size. They are easy for kids to manipulate and provide open-ended play options. Younger children will enjoy the simple thrill of building. Later, kids use the blocks to create houses, beds, chairs and tables, ramps, and highways for their favorite toys. Blocks make a great gift for both boys and girls and are an excellent educational toy choice for a family gift to be shared. (Recommended Ages: 3-8 years)
Why I love it: Lego Duplos are great for small motor development, critical thinking, imaginative play, and language skills. We own several sets–but our favorite is family gift that my twins and Asher received last Christmas (at the time, ages 2 and 5). The Wild Animals Set is produced by Lego Education (which also has great open-ended minifigure sets for older kids). My preschool age children are completely obsessed with animals–this adorable set has many they love (ie..polar bears, pandas, giraffes, penguins, lions, and tigers–plus more). Easily shared by a group of kids, the blocks and animals have provided hours of play for my kiddos. (Recommended Ages: 2-5 years)
Encouraging Play in Your Home
Young kids are learning all the time–play is such an important piece of early childhood development. A great educational toy is worth the time and money we invest in them. It is easier and often tempting to hand even our youngest children an ipad or turn on the t.v. (I am guilty of this–not to say either is all bad, but the screen time adds up quickly!). And while convenient, way less messy, and sometimes cheaper…technology and screen time can never provide the same opportunities for growth and development that a quality educational toy encourages. You may end up with a lot of toys–that is ok! Your kids will have lots of memories of playing…the making of a magical childhood!
Please feel free to share your family’s favorite toys–I’m already busy making my wish list for birthdays and this coming Christmas!
Free Planner When You Join the Jen Merckling Newsletter
FREE HOME+SCHOOL PLANNER! Subscribe today and recieve 27 pages: lesson planning, home organization, lists, and more!