You’re likely well acquainted with that bucolic period known as the terrible twos, when the tyrant formerly known as your child thrashed around for no discernible reason and exhibited a sudden and inexplicable hatred of things like socks. Welcome to the equally fraught threes, dear parents. Kids this age can speak in sentences made up of five or six words, but their favorite, by a long shot, is “No.” Paired with a perfectly-timed tantrum. And that’s one of the many reasons buying the best toys for 3-year-olds is a tricky endeavor. They’re old enough to let you know if they like something, but too young to truly articulate what they want.
According to the CDC, by age three, children can play make-believe with toys, work buttons and moving parts, build towers with more than six blocks, and climb and run. They can usually ride a tricycle, too. Children will likely engage in pretend play, name colors, and understand the idea of counting and what numbers mean.
You want toys that foster their development, so choose ones that encourage open-ended or pretend/fantasy play, let them express themselves, can be used more than one way, encourage problem-solving, and look like the real thing (by this, we mean toys that look like actual foods or other real-world stuff to help them make sense of what they see around them). Of course, books are always a good idea.
The key to open-ended toys is that there's no one way to play with them. These magnetic blocks can be anything. Anywhere.
Kids connect these 14 magnetic blocks to make dinosaurs, giraffes, pandas, or cars. Or. Or. Or.
Tender Leaf's magnetic blocks combine the multidirectional magnets of Magna-Tiles with the beautiful look and feel of wood blocks.
Who doesn’t love rockets? No one, that’s who. The magnets make it easy to make tall or winding structures without anything falling down (or anyone getting frustrated), and encourage problem-solving as kids figure out what shapes go where.
Anything that helps toddler express their feelings and connect with their emotions is a win-win. This set helps promote emotional maturity as children identify and articulate their feelings.
The thoughtfully-crafted balance board is a boon for pretend play, as it becomes everything from a see-saw to a boat.
Each of these beauties is handmade, but above and beyond that, the balance board help kids find their center of gravity and work their muscles. Plus, it magically becomes a dollhouse, a tunnel, or a canoe.
Dressing up is a key part of pretend and fantasy play, which kids this age love.
A gorgeous scarlet cape that’s fully washable, and lets kids be a princess, a superhero, or perhaps just an oddball but awesome butterfly.
They call it a STEM toy. We call it a damn cute robot that helps kids learn about such concepts as greater and less than.
This screen-free coding toy has kids using the key pad on its head to select a play mode, code a path, and start or stop where the robot goes or what he’s doing. Cause and effect, anyone?
Kids learn color and shape recognition by creating their dream garden.
Kids mix and match these 26 wooden pieces to learn about the beauty of flowers, and use their creativity to plant their own wooden garden, with endless options of how they want it to look.
There’s a reason some toys are timeless. Because they’re perfect. Such is the case with the Radio Flyer tricycle, which has spoked wheels and rubber tires for durability. It’s ideal for getting kids to be active and play outdoors.
Trains don't exist in a vacuum, so why should toy train sets not have interesting scenes all around them?
Another great open-ended toy that made our Best Toys list, this set includes not just easy-to-assemble wooden train tracks, but also dozens of other pieces for creating schoolyard scenes — including people that can go down the slide and spin on the merry-go-round. Other sets in the series include a recycling center, “delivery depot,” and campground.
Your little animal lover will dig this highly-detailed toddler vet kit.
Toddlers get a complete 24-piece set, along with a plush dog and cat, plus with all the veterinary tools they need and a storage bag. It’s a pretend-play kit that also helps teach kids empathy.
These brilliant magnetic tiles let kids create whatever their minds dream up.
Truly, this is among the best open-ended play set you can buy. There’s no limit to what kids can build, from castles to flowers to cars to whatever they think up.
Speaking of magnetic toys, this set lets kids build a house, over and over and over again, however they want.
No, we’re not being paid by Melissa & Doug. Yes, we simply dig the brand’s toys. This set is an example of thoughtful and well-made: The double-sided magnets encourage kids to explore and build, and inspire open-ended, hands-on play by themselves or with others.
Kids love banging on stuff, and this dope musical crocodile let them rock to their own beat.
This beautiful set includes a drum, metallophone (or xylopnone), guiro wooden block, and bell, as well as two mallets for playtime duets. Kids learn the basics of rhythm while honing their motor skills and learning to express themselves through music.
This wooden drum set is perfectly sized for toddlers and it has everything they need to create what passes for music, including drums, cymbals, and rhythm makers.
Once your kid reaches a certain age, every surface in your home becomes a drum. This includes, but is not limited to, high chair trays, coffee tables, windows, the cat, and if you’re very lucky, your face. This adorable beginner drum set at least offers the illusion of an appropriate space for drumming. It’s great for promoting dexterity and hand-eye coordination.
It's art-fueled imaginary play at its best: Kids color the animals, wash them off, and start all over again.
If rhinos aren’t your thing, choose from other members of the animal kingdom. Kids decorate them with washable markers, rinse them off, and get going again.
Little guys and gals arrange these easy-to-connect segments to create endless combinations, which send the Code-a-pillar in different directions depending on the configuration.
As entertaining as it is educational, kids have a blast deciding which way to send the toy and love its colorful lights as well as its music. It’s durable and gives kids a fine motor skills workout.
Sure, Lego gets all the attention, but Playmobil sets are just as great. This set is specifically designed for little hands to hold and maneuver.
Little builders create a countryside landscape with a bridge, and horse-drawn carriage, plus critters galore. And best of all, this set grows with your child and can be come a million different things.
Kids need to eat their veggies. Help them out with this sorting set, which helps develop color recognition and sorting skills.
Kids sort the produce by color, and put the veggies into the corresponding baskets. The set includes 25 foods, five baskets, and stickers to label them. The foods like what actual people eat for actual meals, and it’s one great “real world” toy to help kids understand what’s around them.
Using this open-ended magnetic tablet, children draw pictures, shapes, letters and numbers, and lo and behold, the tablet glows in the dark!
Not only is this simply a killer toy, it’s also great for travel. The stylus is the “pen” and the tablet is the “paper.” You press a button and erase your kid’s masterpiece so they can start over again.
Kids learn their letters by using them to make fun objects and creatures, including snakes, tigers, or rabbits.
This crafting kit includes letters, a glue stick, eight crayons, yarn, googly eyes, cupcake wrappers, flowers, sticks, and stickers.
With this toy, kids mix and match facial features to create the weirdest-looking people possible, and use those faces to express their own emotions.
Yes, this game is a hoot. For sure. But while stacking and assembling bizarre features, kids also learn about color-matching, and critical thinking. All the pieces are made from high-quality, non-toxic, food grade ABS plastics and come with a case which stores all the pieces. Which means less mess for you.
Scooters are a great way for kids to be active and develop their motor skills. This one is stable, and has an adjustable T-bar accommodates children as they grow.
The Micro Mini scooter is easy to use, it’s ultra-stable, and comes in a slew of great colors. The handlebar is adjustable, so it grows with your kid. It has a low-to-the-ground deck and stable steering, which are both ideal for pre-schoolers who are just getting started. Just don’t forget the helmet!
This ingenious Cubebot is a puzzle, an action figure, a robot and a transformer that really puts kids' problem-solving skills to the test.
We can’t say enough good things about this wooden toy, which is inspired by Japanese Shinto Kumi-ki puzzles. The robot is made from wood and elastic and can be positioned to hold dozens of poses. And then, it folds up into a perfect cube, assuming kids can figure out how.
A great option for kids who love physical activity, this board encourages them to find their center of gravity.
Kids balance from side to side, and figure out that staying put is actually not all that easy.
This set helps your child be part of the food prep process, and it's made from 100 percent recycled plastic.
This 18-piece meal set inspires young chefs to whip up succulent meals using a cheese stamp, a sauce cutter, dough tubs, and myriad other necessities. Pretend play at its best.
This non-genderized dollhouse is tailor-made for fantasy play, as kids create their families and act out scenarios.
It’s easy to mock dollhouses, but if you get one like this wood Hape dollhouse, it doesn’t push tired princess tropes. In fact, it encourages kids to dive deep into pretend play and solve real-world problems, like who has to make the bed in the morning.
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