gifts they might actually want

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

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

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When we asked Milk Teeth co-founders Catherine Newell-Hanson and Rebecca Calavan about the kind of play their respective 3-year-olds are into at the moment, they responded almost in unison: jumping. “Jumping on the bed, jumping off the couch, jumping on us, jumping on the dog, jumping on the trampoline,” Calavan elaborated. Of course, 3-year-olds also enjoy running, riding a scooter, drawing, playing dress-up, playing with action figures, and building block towers to knock down. They are also getting more interested in talking at this age, whether that’s narrating pretend play or speaking in the voice their favorite doll or stuffy. “There’s so much language development that’s happening, so talking and having conversations is really important” — says Erica Hill, a consultant at the early-childhood-education research foundation HighScope. And that’s true whether you’re discussing the differences between two Hot Wheels cars or pouring them a cup of invisible tea in the bath.

To help you find the best toys that will give the 3-year-old in your life a chance to jump, chat, and otherwise indulge their many burgeoning interests, we talked to child-development specialists, toy buyers, and stylish parents about the toys they recommend. The 28 expert-approved gifts below are organized by price, so if you already have a budget in mind, you can use the table of contents to jump to that section. Otherwise, read all the way through to get the full picture of what makes an elder toddler tick.

Meanwhile, if you’re also shopping for children in other age groups, we have gift guides for 1-year-olds, 2-year-olds, 4-year-olds, 5-year-olds, 6-year-olds, 7-year-olds, 8-year-olds, 9-year-olds, 10-year-olds, 11-year-olds, and 12-year-olds — plus the meticulously curated Strategist Toy Store, filled with all our greatest hits.

Under $25

At 3, children will often express a preference for (or maybe develop an intense obsession with) specific characters from the books, shows, or movies you share with them. And action figures let them create their own little fan-fiction, screen-free. We featured this Bluey set in our list of the best Easter basket ideas, but it would also make a great birthday gift or stocking stuffer. Whether they’re nuts about Bluey or madly in love with Peppa Pig (like my 3-year-old niece) mini figures like this will keep them entertained in restaurants, in traffic, and in doctor’s waiting rooms.

Newell-Hanson told us that her 3-year-old daughter’s current favorite toy is this Green Toys tea set that she loves to play with in the bath. The set, which includes cups, plates, and spoons for four, is both affordable and made of sustainable materials. It comes in two color schemes — primary red, blue, and yellow, or the pastels shown here — plus it’s food-safe and dishwasher-safe in case you want to go all-out the next time you play tea party.

Here’s a toy that will encourage (and channel) some of that jumping energy. The Flybar Foam Pogo Jumper has a wider, sturdier base than a traditional pogo stick, which according to child psychologist Dr. Nicole Beurkens allows younger children to use it successfully. (It’ll still take many 3-year-olds a bit of practice.) It was originally mentioned in our list of the best outdoor toys , but it can also be used indoors and the foam base won’t mess up your floors.

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. According to Dr. George Sachs, a child psychologist and the founder of the Sachs Center in Manhattan, games like this “teach the skills of sharing, turn-taking, and handling frustration when losing.” Sneaky, Snacky Squirrel also teaches kids about colors and improves their fine motor control.

Kinetic Sand Sandisfying Set

Zahra Kassam, founder of the at-home Montessori program Monti Kids, says playing with this Kinetic sand set “is like bringing the beach to your home but less messy. It’s very sensory, creative, and peaceful.” Susie Allison, former teacher, mom, and creator of, also recommends it for 3-year-olds and their families. “It moves and molds, bends, and cuts in a way that is completely different from other sensory bases. It has a velvety smooth texture — it isn’t gritty like sand. It won’t get in your toddler’s eye like traditional sand will.” This set includes two pounds of red and blue sand along with ten tools and molds that kids can use to mix, marble, layer, or shape the sand in endless ways.

“Don’t forget about playing outside,” says Dr. Roberta Golinkoff, a professor of child psychology at the University of Delaware and co-author of Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children. She stresses the benefit of cheap and easy outdoor games like hopscotch that adults can share with young children. Use this set of 64 crayon-shaped sidewalk chalks to draw your hopscotch court, or “just give it to them and let them go wild,” she says.

The 100 blocks in this set from Melissa & Doug can be used in a plethora of ways, from building tall 3-D structures to arranging flat, puzzlelike creations and anything in between. The nine different shapes included, made of smooth, vibrantly painted wood, help kids lock in their knowledge of primary colors (plus green). Jeannette Corey, director of the Bank Street Family Center, says that for young children “play should be as hands-on and open-ended as possible with lots of opportunities for creativity, curiosity, problem-solving, and cooperation.” She recommends giving kids simple building materials like blocks that will grow with them as they mature and become more sophisticated.

“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. They’re one of our favorite open-ended building toys; in addition to the creativity and fine motor development involved in using them, “a tube of these repetitive shapes is a lifesaving distraction, especially on an airplane, or at a restaurant, because they’re versatile and require some concentration to pull apart and put back together,” Kelso says. In other words, he explains, “they buy you at least 15 minutes of freedom.”


Books are a welcome (and foolproof) gift at any age. Children’s fashion designer Grace Lim, a mom of two, says her daughters adored every book they encountered in the Little People, Big Dreams series. As Lim explains, the books help kids “learn about people’s different stories and backgrounds and how each person went through such different adventures to become who they are.” She adds that the content is particularly great for this age, telling us her now-4-year-old daughter was able relate to many of the books’ scenarios: “She often said, ‘Me, too!’ while reading along.” The books are available in multi-book sets, collected stories based on occupation, or individually like this one that tells the story of how little Prince grew up to be PRINCE.

If, like Prince’s parents did, you have an aspiring pop singer in your home, publicist and mom of two Sonya Li Casino recommends this wireless mic that her son loves to perform with. When he asked for a real microphone, she got him this Bluetooth one that can connect to other devices. While fun, Casino does have a word of warning. “It’s also slightly obnoxious,” she says.

Both Newell-Hanson and Calavan say they have gotten a lot of mileage out this colorful fake sink — that nonetheless be filled with real running water — from B. Toys. “It’s not an attractive item, and requires a towel, but it provides maximum toddler absorption,” says Newell-Hanson. The sink comes with everything a 3-year-old needs to get scrubbing; just add the H2O. Plus, the cups and plates change color in warm water.

Under $50

Golinkoff says encouraging imaginative play and social interaction is a fabulous way to nurture any 3-year-old. Parents should ask their children what they want to pretend to be, she says, whether it’s a doctor, a princess, a flame-breathing dragon, or even a creative combo of all three. We featured these silk butterfly wings from parent favorite Sarah’s Silks in our guide to the best dress-up clothing for kids. The wings aren’t cheap, but their quality and open-ended nature mean they will last for years.

Here’s an artistic toy that’s virtually mess-free: a set of reusable coloring books and included paintbrush-like pen that, when filled with water, magically makes colors appear on the page. As pages dry, the colors disappear, so kids can paint them all over again. Sarah Gregory, a mom to twin boys and a girl, calls them “so good” and explains that kids learn to “feel a mastery over them, which they hardly ever feel with anything else in their life.” Perhaps more importantly, she adds there is “instant quiet in our house when they get going on them.” They are also easily portable, making them equally great for use during car trips and at restaurants.

Super Smalls is another brand that was mentioned multiple times by the parents and educators we talked to for our list of the best dress-up clothing. The realistic-looking play jewels are among Backdrop cofounder Natalie Ebel’s (and her daughter’s) favorite pieces. These over-the-top toddler heels make getting into character easy and a lot of fun. Plus the clomping sound they make when a 3-year-old walks in them is hilariously cute.

This classic Tonka Truck was recommended in our guide to the best outdoor toys for winter, but it’s an excellent year-round toy both indoors and out. Jennifer Lynch, content developer at the Toy Association, loves this commemorative version because its metal construction is durable, while the extra-large wheels are rugged enough to roll over sand, icy snow, and shag carpet. And its nostalgic design will encourage parents and grandparents to play too.

“My kids loved Transformers,” says Golinkoff, and while the action figures of our 1980s dreams still hold up in their own right, this VTech version modernizes the concept a bit. Pictured as a velociraptor that chomps and roars, it transforms into a rocket-launching rescue helicopter with a spinning propeller, searchlight, and an LCD screen. “Dinosaurs are good for girls and boys and great for make-believe,” notes Golinkoff.

While it doesn’t project actual constellations, Casino says this LED star projector helps simulate the experience of a planetarium at home. Her son received it as a gift for his third birthday and it has been a hit since the moment he unwrapped it. “We love turning it on before bed and just watching the light show,” she says. “It’s really mesmerizing and relaxing.”

Under $100


Bouncing — a.k.a. jumping’s twin sibling — “engages almost every muscle group in a child’s body, especially the legs and core,” says Lily Balsen, a New York City–based yoga teacher whose clients range in age from newborn to 80. Not only does it foster balance and a sense of spatial orientation, she says, but “rhythmic movement is organizing for the nervous system, so it’s a great self-soothing and self-regulating mechanism. Also, it’s just plain fun! I’m a big fan of the bouncy horse.”

PlasmaCars promote plenty of outdoor fun, getting kids excited and keeping them moving — without any batteries or even pedals needed. They are great for exercise and let youngsters burn off some of that famous (or infamous) energy. “We have carried this toy for years, and they always sell,” says Holly Magelof of the Dolphin Bookshop. And: “They’re durable enough to make great hand-me-downs.”

Gregory likes the way that this Clixo set (another one of our favorite open-ended building toys) combine magnets, origami, and building blocks to let kids “get creative by turning the pieces into creatures or using them to play games, like seeing how many different ways they can stack or shape them.” Because they are magnetized, Gregory notes the pieces can conveniently “live on a fridge, so kids can just pass by and fiddle with them.” She says they’re “a good sit-in-the-kitchen-and-make-something-cool-while-I-cook toy,” noting that “they don’t look terrible on the fridge and don’t take up much space.”

$100 and up


When toy historians look back at this era, Magna-Tiles will all but surely rank among the ten or 20 best toys of the time, and they’ll probably still be popular even in a hundred years. The magnetic shapes improve fine motor skills, spatial reasoning, planning, and, when a structure collapses, resilience. Once toddlers are hooked on Magna-Tiles, they can continue to add to their collection with a variety of expansion packs — making the imaginative possibilities endless. Also, they’re just great entertainment, even for adults. Maybe especially for adults.

Nugget modular play couches come in lots of bright colors and provide ample cushion for active 3-year-olds, whether they’re jumping up and down, wrestling a sibling, or trying out gymnastics for the first time. Newell-Hanson says the nugget helps her 3- and 5-year-olds with spatial skills (lots of fort building) and imaginative play. And it’s supporting a lot of their crash landings too, she says.

Parents and kids alike adore the Toniebox, an audio-only entertainment system that keeps little ones occupied without screens. It’s a smart speaker that plays stories and songs when you place a magnetized figurine, or Tonie, on top, and there are dozens of characters to choose from, including Blue’s Clues, Encanto, Peppa Pig, Miffy, and Paw Patrol.

You can also get blank “Creative-Tonies” that you can program with any MP3 file, which Vulture writer Kathryn VanArendonk used with her two kids, or record yourself, family members, and friends reading and telling stories. “People talk about life-changing toys, and this one really helped my younger child self-regulate when she needed to cool down but had dropped a nap, and both my kids loved it for bedtime,” says VanArendonk. A note: You have to buy the speaker (Toniebox) and Tonies ($12 to $15 each) separately, but this starter kit includes a figurine that’s preloaded with a compilation of popular children’s songs. You can also buy bundles that come with two, three, or five Tonies and save a few bucks that way.

Lockhart says the train tracks at the preschool where she works are one of the most popular toys among 3-year-olds. Unlike so many STEM or STEM-adjacent toys, BRIO’s Smart Tech line really is age-appropriate for 3-year-olds; they can figure out how to play with this smart engine in a matter of minutes and might be inclined to integrate it with their other train sets. What stands out more than its educational value, though, is the sheer entertainment kids get out of setting up a train track where the engine will complete a route, turn around, and stop at the child’s prearranged transmitter arches.

“This bounce house is a near-permanent fixture in our backyard,” says Jamie Banks, a North Shore–based mother of three. The giant toy is perfect for getting pre-bedtime wiggles out and big enough to host group toddler hangs. It can even be used indoors, if you have a large-enough space.

You can certainly buy specific dress-up costumes to help your 3-year-old channel the characters from their favorite books and movies or reuse old clothing instead of throwing it away, says Golinkoff. But if you’re looking for a gift with more wow factor, this dress-up closet will delight them while also keeping everything organized. It has a garment rod, four shelf compartments, and a built-in shatterproof safety mirror so they can practice lasso tricks, spell casting, princess waving, or robot dance moves.

If you’re looking for the ultimate big-ticket gift, consider this ride-on truck that toddlers with a mail carrier obsession will especially appreciate. We featured the shrunken USPS vehicle (with working headlights!) in our print holiday gift guide a few years ago. The truck goes up to 2.5 mph and comes with a mailbox and two toy envelopes for kids to deliver. It also has a working horn, opening rear door, and a radio so they can listen to music while they “work.”

The Strategist is designed to surface the most useful, expert recommendations for things to buy across the vast e-commerce landscape. Some of our latest conquests include the best gifts for 1-year-olds and 3-year-olds, the best art supplies and dress-up clothes for kids, and the best toy storage. We update links when possible, but note that deals can expire and all prices are subject to change.

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