When it comes to becoming a grown human, three years is a big deal. “They have real personalities now. They’re real people. Once language comes in, they can express their feelings and have a real conversation with you, people they don’t know, and on the telephone with people they can’t see,” explains Dr. Roberta Golinkoff, author of Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children (and who helped us find the best toys for 2-year-olds and 4-year-olds). Dr. George Sachs, a clinical child psychologist with a private practice in Manhattan, agrees: “At this age, children begin to initiate conversation, produce simple sentences, and talk about things of interest.”
They’re also advancing emotionally and are beginning to make real friends, according to Dr. Sachs, so he encourages parents and caregivers to increase peer interaction while also encouraging their curiosity. “Your child will need help, but parents should start encouraging independence as well as fostering fine motor and physical abilities,” he adds. And as Golinkoff explains, “They’re developing lots of confidence with how they interact with the world, but they still ask a million ‘why questions’ because now they have a sense of what they don’t know and what they want to learn.” Below are 11 gifts for 3-year-olds, as recommended by Golinkoff and Sachs, that will help tots explore their world. We’ve also got gift guides for kids of all ages, including 1-year-olds, 2-year-olds, 4-year-olds, 5-year-olds, 6-year-olds, 7-year-olds, 8-year-olds, and 9-year-olds.
And if you’re looking for holiday toys, don’t miss the top kid’s toys to buy before they sell out — we talked to experts to find 2018’s hottest toys.
“Physically, three-year-olds are able to walk and run without tripping as much,” says Sachs. “They can start catching and throwing a ball and even start to ride a tricycle.” Plus, he adds, “Playing outside helps a child feel energized. It’s healthy to be moving, and exercise helps them improve their physical abilities.” This balance bike will get them riding a regular bike in no time.
Or, they can try a mini-scooter so they can get around as fast as you do. “Kids learn from everything they do. The benefit from this is that kids get to use their bodies and practice moving in different ways and take little risks,” says Golinkoff. “If you don’t take little risks you’re not going to be creative. Wonderful things come from kids who use their bodies. We want to let kids know from the beginning how fun physical activity is.”
Sachs also recommends “encouraging children to build together and create new structures” using blocks. Try this 80-piece Mega Blocks set that can act like training wheels for smaller-sized Legos. The portability makes it ideal for sharing and taking on the go.
“Play-Doh is great because it can be fashioned and refashioned,” says Golinkoff. “Kids learn from feel. At this stage, they’re really learning how things feel and what textures are all about. Their own agency is always present because they can turn that into a spider, a bear, whatever they think it’s supposed to be. As a parent, don’t say things like, ‘Oh that doesn’t look like a spider.’ Ask, ‘What is that?’ and let them tell you.” This set comes with five classic colors and 20 cutouts.
As kids develop their language skills, they can begin to understand basic rules of grammar, according to Sachs. They may know that plural words end in ‘s,’ for instance, but cannot yet grasp complex rules. “For example, a three-year-old may say ‘gooses’ instead of ‘geese,’” he says. Reading books together with parents can further improve language abilities. This classic by Eric Carle is sure to please any 3-year-old. Sachs recommends letting your child turn the pages of the book himself while you read.
For a monthly surprise, subscribe to High Five from Highlights magazine, which is filled with hidden-picture games and puzzles for 2- to 6-year-olds. “My kids loved it and now my grandkids love it, especially the hidden pictures. We can play that for hours,” says Golinkoff. “They also like things that are silly. They’ll always look out for silly things. Now they’re also old enough to go to the library and say, ‘I want this one.’ They know what books look like and what illustrations are interesting to them.”
Board games are another great developmental tool for this age, according to Sachs, because they “teach the skills of sharing, turn-taking and handling frustration when losing.” This bestselling game for preschoolers has players collecting colored acorns using squirrel tongs and requires matching, sorting, and strategic thinking.
For something a little more cerebral, try the award-winning MightyMind game, which claims to “make kids smarter” by teaching them how to build and solve complex puzzles.
Here’s a solar system puzzle for the budding Neil deGrasse Tyson. “When it comes to puzzles, start easy and increase the number of pieces,” says Golinkoff. “When children know words like ‘over,’ ‘under,’ ‘through, ‘next to,’ and ‘beside,’ it feeds into understanding of spatial tasks and that correlates with mathematical ability.” Sachs agrees that puzzles can teach children spatial understanding. And both Golinkoff and Sachs recommend that parents should follow the child’s cues and encourage them to try fitting a piece themselves rather than doing it for them. Says Golinkoff, “If you see a child struggling with a piece, parents should say, ‘Try turning it.’ Don’t tell them what to do, but offer helpful advice.”
“Let’s not forget baby dolls and stuffed animals, which kids love because they can do fantasy around them,” Golinkoff says. “When they play pretend they’re putting themselves into someone else’s shoes. What a wonderful thing for a child to imagine an alternative reality. This means they’re no longer locked to the here and now. This means they can come to understand abstract ideas. It’s no problem getting a boy a doll too because boys will be dads and babies shouldn’t be alien to them, just as they shouldn’t be alien to girls.”
These dinosaurs that morph into trucks are great for play, too. “My kids loved Transformers. Dinosaurs are good for girls and boys and great for make-believe,” says Golinkoff. “It also might be a good idea to purchase a mat to put on the floor that looks like a highway or a desert scene. That’s a backdrop that will encourage make-believe with these kinds of toys.”
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