The Essentials List: Toys for Preschoolers
Our series on essential toys continues, with a roundup of our favorite toys for stimulating and engaging preschool aged kids (2.5-5 years old).
Remember the basic principle we’ve outlined in previous lists: the more flexible and open-ended the toy, the more engaged your child is, the more she must flex her “brain muscle” to use it. The more the toy does on its own, however, the more passive your child can be, and passive “playing” does not lead to learning. This is an age where play is the primary form of learning for children, and equipping them with toys that encourage exploration and imagination are key to encouraging their cognitive, verbal, physical, and social development.
Kids at this age are able to form completely sentences and communicate much of what they see happening around them; much of what they are doing during play at this age is reinforcing their knowledge of what they see and experience, with the added benefit of expanding their vocabulary in the process. This is also around the time when imagination takes off, and kids will take bits and pieces of what they’ve experienced, and cobble it together with their own take on reality. It’s all part of synthesizing the day’s experiences, but also building on them.
During the 3-5 years, it’s particularly important that play is guided primarily by the child. So keep all these things stored within eyesight for them, and easily accessible. They should be able to reach for an incorporate as much of their environment into their free play as possible, without an adult telling them what to do and how to do it.
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Essential toys for preschool kids
Costumes and play sets
Keep a bin full of costumes around, and if you have the space, play sets that mimic real life activities. There are elaborate play sets such as kitchen sets (which all kids seem to be obsessed with!), but even smaller “real life” sets such as doctor kits, food prep, and tea sets, will do the trick. Anything that allows kids to play act things they may have experienced in real life, with the aid of props.
Drawing and art supplies
Kids’ fine motor skills get fine-tuned with they use crayons, pencils, paintbrushes, and even play-doh or clay. But they are also using their imaginations… as long as you let the drawing be guided by the child and don’t instruct them on what to do. (Refrain from telling them what they made, too. We frequently compliment kids on their beautiful rainbow, when in fact they’ve drawn an evil monster bunny. You won’t know what it is if you don’t ask.) Keep glue and newspaper, magazine clippings, and other junk around so kids can play with texture and color. It’s called creative recycling, ok?
Simple board games
At this age, kids are ready to follow simple rules. This is a good time to play an age appropriate game where there are a few basic instructions. It’s a great opportunity to teach lessons around cheating, fairness, and gamesmanship.
Magnatiles are an excellent upgrade from the giant building blocks/Legos that toddlers use. They are flat tiles, in a variety of shapes and colors, with embedded magnets that hold them together so you can build complex structures with them. Initially, a 3-year old might be a bit intimidated by them. But they are addictive (be careful adults, you may find yourself hogging the Magnatiles), and within no time, a preschooler will be building complex structures — and her geometry skills.
Make no mistake, imaginary friends are actually a great play and learning tool. Through their imaginary friends, kids are learning to process complex subjects, and test their understanding of right and wrong, or other concepts they may not have the confidence or maturity to ask about outright. So if your kid loves to play with his imaginary friend all day, don’t sweat it. Not only is it totally normal, it’s actually a learning experience.
It feels like we say this all the time, but kids’ books are one of the best ways of building your child’s vocabulary and syntax, and exposing him to new concepts and experiences. They also make for great bonding sessions. (Here’s a list of our favorite children’s books.)
By this age, one of the best learning experiences for kids is simply participating in real life. There are many aspects of daily routines that can be turned into games, and opportunities for further learning. For example, taking a preschooler to the grocery store can involve: naming various types of fruits and vegetables, determining quantities and even simple numeracy around prices, discussing where different types of food comes from. Participation in cooking can be good for fine motor skills, or even numeracy (“Help me set aside 5 eggs and 1/2 cup of flour”). If you’re willing to talk through your actions, daily activities like changing the little baby’s diaper, setting the table, watering the plants, or walking the dog can be opportunities for discussion, physical engagement, and learning. And these moments will undoubtedly form the basis for future pretend play, even when you’re not around.
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