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, empathize with characters in a book or mess around with the alphabet at a pint-size standing desk; who can pretend they’re pop stars singing into a microphone or 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.
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.”
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 Toy-Ideas.com, 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.”
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 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.”
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 one of the writers of this story (Steven 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.
This simple but remarkably effective STEM toy introduces the basics of block-based coding in the form of a kit that many 3-year-olds can use on their own (for the most part). If it looks familiar, the toy had a brush with fame when Danielle Busby of TLC’s OutDaughtered talked about how she loved having the kids playing with their Coding Critters in the hall — “chasing the balls and the yarn, just like they do with our actual dog.” Except with this, they’re actually learning coding in the process.
Books are always a welcome (and foolproof) gift at any age. Children’s fashion designer Grace Lim, a mom of two girls, says that her 3-year-old adores every book she encounters 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 daughter can relate to many of the books’ scenarios: “She often says, ‘Me, too!’ while reading along.” The books are available individually (Lim says her daughter’s favorite subjects include David Bowie and Mahatma Gandhi) or in sets like this one that includes stories about Maya Angelou, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks.