Updated: Dec 21, 2020
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elected were chosen because they meet our high standards for developmentally appropriate toys.
It all happens so fast. While it might feel like they just came home from the hospital before you know it, your child will have progressed out of infancy and into their toddler stage.
Once they reach preschool-age, you’ll want to do everything you can to ensure their early childhood education is on track. But education doesn’t mean that you put an end to fun and games. In fact, you can enhance learning and fun by choosing the right toys for your little one.
Be sure to read to the bottom of this list to get input from Cynthia Hockman ARNP, MS, CPNP from Unity Point Health in Iowa. She’s an advanced certified nurse practitioner who specializes in developmental pediatrics.
Use the following guide to navigate your next toy shopping trip.
Great Educational Toys for Toddlers and Preschoolers
We’ve broken these toys into the following categories.
Fine Motor Skills
Price Range: $12 to $30
Category: (Motor Skills)
You might remember this toy from when you were a kid—and it’s no coincidence that they’ve been around for so long.
Bead mazes encourage children to use their senses and employ their motor skills by touching the wooden beads, and it shows them how gravity works when moving them in a certain direction.
Since it doesn’t require batteries and can’t be taken apart, this is a durable and practical option for keeping your son or daughter entertained.
Price Range: $9 to $22
Category: (Problem Solving, Fine Motor Skills)
Any kind of toy that challenges your child to place and match are great choices. Sorting shapes teaches your child colors and patterns.
Shape sorters will keep your child occupied and engaged. They’ll also develop motor skills.
Price Range: $20 to $40
Category: (Creativity, Problem Solving, Motor Skills)
Another great option for little builders are these large LEGO pieces. You can choose from a wide variety of sets. Or just get a bucket of blocks.
Either way, your child will enjoy building fun scenes or building whatever they like. DUPLO blocks are the perfect size for preschoolers. They can also teach counting, colors, and patterns.
Price Range: $7 to $22
Category: (Problem Solving, Motor Skills, Learning)
When it comes to multi-purpose toys, lace cards are one of the best. They help with shapes, colors, counting, and sorting. Their main purpose is growing motor skills.
Your child learns to run a shoestring through holes in the card.
Amazon has a great assortment of top-rated lacing cards available.
Educational Bath Toys
Price Range: $14 to $30
Category: (Problem Solving, Motor Skills)
Learning never stops! Make bath time learning time too! Floating toys can teach your child counting, patterns, and how to sort.
Toys that require pouring water into pipes help with motor skills. You can make bath time fun and educational at the same time!
Problem Solving Skills
Wooden Peg Puzzles
Price Range: $8 for individual / $35 for sets
Category: (Problem Solving)
This sturdy problem-solving toy serves multiple purposes. While your child will be eager to fit each piece back into its slot, they can also engage in imaginary play with the pieces outside of the puzzle, especially if they’re animals or characters.
The pegs in the center of each piece are important for training your child’s grip and will prevent them from squishing their fingers into the wooden openings. If you opt for one of the letter or number wood peg puzzles, you’ll also contribute to your son or daughter’s reading and writing skills.
Wood Building Blocks
Price Range: $30 to $90
Blocks are one of the best open-ended play toys. They let your child use their imagination to build whatever they want. They’re also sturdy enough to handle some rough play and encourage cooperative play.
Your child can also have fun knocking their building blocks down and starting over. Just make sure you get pieces that are too big to swallow.
While building block sets can be pricey, they are super durable and could last for several children and for generations.
Cardboard Building Blocks
Price Range: $25 to $40
Category: (Creativity, Problem Solving, Motor Skills)
Jumbo cardboard blocks foster reasoning skills along with cause and effect: Build it too tall and it falls over. The nice thing about the cardboard building blocks is that your preschooler can build a large structure without fear of being hurt when the tower tumbles.
Waffle Blocks and Jumbo Waffle Blocks
Price Range: $15 to $70
Category: (Creativity, Problem Solving, Motor Skills)
Waffle blocks were first manufactured by Little Tykes in 1985 and have become a consistent favorite of developmental experts and kids. Because they can be connected in hundreds of different combinations, they allow for creativity, find motor skills and problem solving.
If you combine Waffle Blocks with other Little Tykes people and cars, your child will enjoy hours of creative play. You may also want to consider the Jumbo Waffle Blocks which allow for easy fort building that is safe and easy to clean up.
Price Range: $20 to $40
Category: (Fine Motor Skills, Problem Solving, Creativity)
Any toy that lets kids pretend is a great benefit. Train sets let kids do “grown-up” jobs and teach them patterns and matching.
Pushing the trains around helps develop motor skills as well. They can learn colors from different pieces.
The durable Melissa and Doug train set pictured above is less than $30 on Amazon.
See other top-rated Matching Games on Amazon.
Magnetic Drawing Boards
Price Range: $15 to $25
To encourage the artist in your child, gift them a reusable, magnetic drawing pad (these are Amazon’s Top Rated ones). If they make a mistake, they can easily erase their work without creating a mess.
Once your child starts to recognize letters and shapes, they can practice them on the drawing board. Plus, it’s compact enough to take in the car.
Pretend Kitchen & Play Food
Price Range: $20 to $100
Category: (Creativity, Problem Solving)
There’s just something about playing in the kitchen! Children seem to love it. So why not give them a kitchen of their own? Not only will they have fun making their own recipes, but they’ll learn a thing or two. You can teach them colors and shapes from the food toys. It can also reinforce good hygiene by practicing handwashing. You can find plastic and felt play food depending on what best fits your child. Or get a mix of both to stimulate their sense of touch!
Wooden Food Toys can be a fun way for kids to play cooking without the mess and the possibility of getting burned. We like Melissa and Doug’s durable wooden food toys. This set costs less than $20 and will last several lifetimes. These wooden food toys are endorsed by Cynthia Hockman, ARNP, MS, CPNP, from UnityPoint Health (see her comments at the end of this article).
Price Range: $11 to $15
Category: (Creativity, Sensory, Learning)
We’ve all played with Play-Doh at one time or another. It’s easy to remember the fun of squishing the dough into different shapes. There are many different play sets as well to spark imagination. Play-Doh is a great sensory toy as well as a way to learn colors.
Price Range: Varies
Category: (Fine Motor Skills, Creativity)
Puppets are a great tool for playing pretend and for teaching. Different types of puppets can create recognition. Your child can see a lion puppet and know what sound it makes.
Puppets can be as simple as a sock with two buttons sewn on it and as creative and complex as one with moving eyes, mouth and arms. For preschoolers we recommend the simpler puppets as their fine motor skills and coordination aren’t developed enough to manage more complex movements.
Melissa and Doug have created some really cute and durable puppets for less than $20 - pictured above.
Price Range: Wide range available
Any kind of toy animal will be loads of fun for your child. They can play all sorts of games and let their imagination run wild. Realistic toys can teach them about each animal. Throw in a play mat and they’ll be entertained for hours playing Zoo or Safari.
Price Range: $19 to $36
Category: (Creativity, Learning)
Instruments provide a great sensory experience for children. They can play with different sounds and learn patterns.
Certain instruments help with counting and learning colors. Your child can make their own band with friends and siblings.
You can find inexpensive sets of 20 to 30 rhythm instrument toys for between $20 and $35 on Amazon.
Price Range: $20 to $38
Category: (Problem Solving, Learning)
Toy registers teach your child counting, addition, and subtraction. They can have fun opening and closing the money drawer and sorting items.
Even toy money can be a fun addition to the setup! Again, it adds another thing for your child to sort and count.
Top-Rated toy cash registers can be found on Amazon for between $17 and $30).
Alphabet Wood Tracing Boards
Price Range: $10 to $39
Category: (Learning, Fine Motor Skills)
Your child can develop motor skills and early writing skills with this fun toy. The wood ball fits easily into the grooves and guides your child’s hand through the shapes of letters.
Some are double-sided with uppercase and lowercase on each side. The tracing boards are a great first step toward learning to write and mess-free. A variety of durable Alphabet tracing boards can be found for between $15 and $35 here.
Play and The Preschoolers From a Child Psychologist
Dr Martin Keller has been a practicing Child Psychologist in Scottsdale, AZ for more than 30 years. He is a strong advocate for children’s mental health issues.
When it comes to preschoolers and play he encourages parents to make time to play with their children. “The toy is less important than the relationship that the parent has with the child while playing with the toy,” relates Dr. Keller.
He continues, “Singing, rhyming, hide and seek, reading to kids, building blocks, art projects using items in the home, nature walks and using leaves, and branches, and rocks and shells, role playing, making up stories, are more important than many commercially produced toys.
Dr. Keller’s focus, “Is on helping parents understand the value of play, laughter, and joy in promoting social skills, language skills, and on deepening the emotional attachment between child and parent caregiver, teacher, and peers.”
Play also helps with anxiety management. Play also allows adults in the child’s life to re-experience the playful silliness, and goofiness of their own childhood.”
His toy recommendations come from the Child Development Institute. The best toys for preschoolers are toys that introduce your children to what they will learn in school. These include alphabet puzzles, number games, and counting toys.
Child Development Expert Shares her observations on toddlers, toys and play
When it comes to children between the ages of 2 and 3 years, Cynthia S. Hockman, ARNP, CPNP, MS says, “Books are the
best toys, at any age, to enhance speech and language development, social and cognitive development and instill in a child the love of reading for a lifetime!”
She also says that technology can definitely assist with a child’s development. But parents should promote a balance of learning through technology and learning through creative play.
“There are many free, educational and fun preschool apps for toddlers designed to help them learn colors, shapes, counting, ABC’s and other activities that enhance their problem-solving abilities. However, as with any activity, moderation is the key to screen play. Children need time to play creatively, too,”
Cynthia recommends these favorite books and toys for children between 24 and 36 months.
“It’s Potty Time” books (assist with potty-training)
Melissa & Doug Cutting Food Set
Melissa & Doug Hide and Seek Puzzle
Read more about Cynthia’s recommendations for younger children at UnityPoint.org.
Child Psychologist Roberta Michnick Golinkoff is quoted in New Yorker Magazine as recommending the following toys for preschoolers.
Pediatrician Views on Play
Michael Yogman, Andrew Garner, and various pediatricians spoke on the Power of Play. They categorized play into four groups: Object Play, Physical, Locomotor, or Rough-and-Tumble Play, Outdoor Play, and Social or Pretend Play.
Object play occurs when a child is exploring an object. This could be a toy that they touch or feel to learn it’s properties.
Physical Play helps the “development of functional motor skills” in childhood. Children also learn to cooperate with others.
Outdoor Play “provides the opportunity to improve sensory integration skills” which helps with motor, social, and linguistic skills.
Social or Pretend Play is any play that involves a child pretending to be something or someone different. They learn to negotiate the “rules” of the game with other children
What Makes an Excellent Educational Toy for Preschoolers or Toddlers
There are five factors you should keep in mind when selecting toys for your child.
To keep your little one engaged, you’ll want to provide them with a toy that encourages or even requires their interaction.
For example, toys with objects they can pull, rotate, or fit into place are much more exciting than simply sitting and watching a mechanical toy operate on its own.
They should have the capacity to be played with in multiple ways. Playing the same way over and over gets boring and loses its appeal. The toy should challenge your child’s cognitive and creative skills.
You’ll also want to choose toys that can be played with in multiple ways—such as wooden blocks that can be used to count, match colors, or build a fortress for imaginary play.
For preschool-age children, it’s also important that toys are durable. This allows your little one to be as active as they please without getting hurt or frustrated.
Keep choking hazards in mind as well. We all know how much kids love putting things in their mouths. It’s best to avoid anything too small that could be swallowed. You don’t want anything that could scratch up your child’s mouth either.
5. Modestly Priced
Because preschoolers are developing so quickly, they will mature through some toys quickly while others will be played with for years. So, you’ll want to spend carefully on toys that are more modestly priced.
Look for durable toys that can sustain preschooler play and then be handed off to other children or re-sold. Some of the toys we recommend may be considered expensive, we’ve suggested them for their durability and value.
With a little sleuthing you may also be able to find these great toys, pre-owned, from friends, Facebook Marketplace or at yard sales.
Conclusion on Great Educational Toys for Preschoolers
Buy the best toys you can afford, but invest your best time in playing with your children. This will return great dividends today and in the future.at leads to learning. And we also believe that the greatest form of play for a child is spending time with their parents or other significant adults in their lives.
Buy the best toys you can afford, but invest your best time in playing with your children. This will return great dividends today and in the future.