the toy matrix

The Only Toy Gift Guide for a 3-Year-Old You’ll Ever Need

Photo: Photo-Illustration: Stevie Remsberg; Photos: Courtesy of the retailers

You know about New York Magazine’s “Approval Matrix.” Now, the Strategist has taken that model of what falls where on our taste hierarchies and applied it to toys. In this case, the four sides of the grid are “Educational” (say, a coding toy), “Brain Candy” (kinetic sand), “Reasonably Priced,” and “Splurgy.” Each toy in every quadrant comes highly recommended — click here to learn more about our sourcing process and the dozens of experts involved — and every age up to double digits is covered, all of which you can see by also clicking here.

Here we cover the 3-year-olds. “At this age, children begin to initiate conversation, produce simple sentences, and talk about things of interest,” notes Dr. George Sachs, a child psychologist and the founder of the Sachs Center in Manhattan. That’s why Erica Hill, a consultant at the early-childhood-education research foundation HighScope, says any toy you give should be one you (or another adult) can use with a kid too: “There’s so much language development that’s happening at this age, so talking and having conversations is so important.” In other words, they’re real people now — people who can, say, recite proper table manners using a place mat that doubles as a game, or mess around with the alphabet at a pint-size standing desk; who can match keys to locks and blow their own bubbles and much, much more.

You can jump directly to the section that interests you most — “Educational/Reasonably Priced,” “Educational/Splurgy,” “Brain Candy/Reasonably Priced,” or “Brain Candy/Splurgy” — or read all the way through to get the full picture of what kids these days are into. Whether you’re shopping for a birthday or a holiday or any other day, it’s a list that keeps on giving. And if you want to check out even more toys, don’t miss our list of the ones experts say will be the hottest toys to give this season.

Educational/Reasonably Priced

Manipulatives — small items that children can grasp in their hands and move around — are an important part of development at this age because they help kids develop their imagination, according to Shannon Lockhart, a manager of early-childhood applied practices at HighScope. Manipulatives can be anything from farm-animal figurines to nuts and bolts to these wooden geometric shapes. If you want to encourage even more unstructured play, Lockhart says not to use the diagrammatic boards this set comes with, so “kids can put the shapes together in different ways.”

Bears in Pairs

While suitable for many 2-year-olds, a 3-year-old can play this game at its most advanced level and can also engage with it independently. “Bears in Pairs introduces young children to the concepts of turn-taking and following directions,” says Helen Sadovsky, a pediatric occupational therapist who runs, a blog focused on helping parents find developmentally appropriate and educational toys for their kids. Meanwhile, Sadovsky adds, “it encourages sustained attention and cognitive skills, such as pattern recognition and matching.”

Yes, puzzles, in general, are great for this age. “Puzzles are a bonanza of skill development,” says Terri Anderso, who taught in Madison, Wisconsin, elementary schools and was an educational consultant for school and library supply company Demco. “Turning and trying puzzle pieces in different spots develops hand-eye coordination and builds fine-motor skills, strengthening muscles and coordination in hands. Matching colors and shapes as clues to where a piece fits hones critical prereading skills. And working on a puzzle with others is great cooperative play, while completing a puzzle is a feat of problem solving that gives children a sense of success and self-esteem.” But, of course, certain takes on the medium stand out among others — as does the eeBoo collection: Technicolor illustrations by award-winning artists, exceptional durability (printed on recycled grayboard), and a nifty top-handle perfect for travel.

This easy-to-learn game is ideal for 3-year-olds because it involves no reading and no dice with numbers to count — instead, there’s a spinner to flick on a colored wheel and matching acorns to pick up — yet it still fosters learning in a quick-paced setup, teaching about colors and improving fine motor control. Games like this also “teach the skills of sharing, turn-taking, and handling frustration when losing,” says Dr. Sachs.

Plus-Plus BIG Tube

“Plus-Plus pieces are designed in Denmark and can be used to create anything from simple towers to imaginative robots,” says Stirling Kelso, founder of Half Pint Travel. In addition to the creativity and fine-motor development involved in using this, “a tube of these repetitive shapes are a lifesaving distraction, especially in public, on an airplane, or at a restaurant, because they’re versatile and require some concentration to pull apart and put back together. In other words, they buy you at least 15 minutes of freedom.”

This graphic tablemat makes mealtime into a game (and not in a food-throwing kind of way). It’s scrawled with little goals (e.g., “Our napkin stays on our lap”) and comes with erasable markers for checking them off, so you can teach your child proper table manners with less nagging. To encourage his son to place his (real) glass back on the cup circle at the top right, Steven John, one of the writers of this article, excitedly says, “Cup spot! Cup spot!,” which he thinks is a more fun alternative to “You’re going to shatter that thing. Move it!”

The whopping 100 blocks in this set from Melissa & Doug can be used in a plethora of ways, from building tall 3-D structures to flat puzzlelike creations and anything in between. The nine different shapes included, made of smooth, vibrant wood, help kids lock in their knowledge of primary colors (plus green). And as John has seen firsthand with his children, playing with the blocks helps with the development of spatial awareness, fine-motor control, and planning and executing.