Why do we need to bother on how to choose the best learning toys for preschoolers?
Yes, you might be asking. I firmly believe that play matters in childhood. Playing, is how children explore their surroundings, learn new things, and develope important skills they need in life.
PLAY IS THE HIGHEST FORM OF RESEARCH. – Albert Einstein
I think there’s no hard and fast rules on how kids should play, and with what toys. There’s no bad* toys, but I do believe there are some toys that better help children in their developmental milestones, and also help them learn a lot of things through play.
*Apart from the obvious like safety risk, profanity, violence, nudity and all those stuff you knew you won't get for them in the first place.
What criteria should you consider before choosing their toys?
These are what I usually try to ask myself when considering a toy;
1. Is it safe?
Some obvious considerations for me would be; no sharp/pointy edges, no breakable part from glass/ceramics, no small part if the child still have tendency to put small objects inside their mouth/nose.
For preschool age (3-6 years old), I would say that it’s better to observe your child’s developmental stage.
Usually, toys manufacturer only put this small part warning for kids under 3. But I do have some friends with kids aged between 3-4 years old and they still sometimes teasing their parents by putting small toys inside the mouth. Or nose. Yes they know they’re not allowed to do that. But still, some kids might..
So, know your child first for safety measure.
2. Is it age-appropriate?
Simply put, you can refer to the recommended age written on the toy’s packaging. But be flexible. You can add your own intuition into account.
Say, your child is 3+ years old. If you think he/she can start playing with that Lego Juniors for 4-6 years old, I would say why not. If the size of each piece is not too small, and the model is not too complicated, go ahead.
3. Is it open-ended toy ?
Open-ended toy basically means it can be played in variety of ways. Kids can assemble, disassembled, and reassembled into different plays. Many of them can be played together with collaboration, and have no single solution.
One example is bulding blocks. Kids can build something vertically (houses, towers) or horizontally (bridge, road, maze). They learn to understand different shapes and how they fit each other. All of it can spur their creativity in the play.
4. Is it durable for rough use?
Usually I would prefer wooden toys. Next is plastic made (observe the quality first on your own or based on others’ review).
5. Is it simple enough for independent play?
I prefer to choose something that my child can just straight away play with them once they get it out from the box. Or when it does not need extensive parents’ help or supervision, does not need to follow specific instructions.
Those toys are the ones that encourage children to play through exploration, trial and error. Let them play, let them learn.
6. Is it replayable?
By replayable I mean that it can be used by wide range of ages. Be it in toddler years, kindergarten years, or when they start elementary years, some versatile toys would still be interesting for them. It lasts through ages.
Now, I did not say that you should aim to choose toys that meet ALL the criteria (you dont want to spend hours wandering in the shop or comparing toys online! Lol). These are just rough guidance, use them to your preference.
Should you splurge or save?
Most of the time, I would choose to save.
I might have exceptions if I can justify them to be able to last for ages thru childhood and it must bring significant learning process, or if it’s special occasion and with daddy’s approval.
I would be choosing with extra care if it’s meant for babies (ours, or if it’s a gift for family’s or friends’ baby), in terms of safety and quality.
Where are the places you can search for toys?
If I have the chance and time, I usually prefer that I can hold and actually observe the toys on my hand before buying.
And local store here does not necessarily mean toy stores. Sometimes I like to browse for toys in a book store or other stationery store, or even gift shops.
Prefer browsing online for your window shopping? My favorites are Amazon or Etsy.com (more for unique or handmade toys).
Or, you can also do a quick search with your toys name/category and your city/country, to see if any local store has their online shop as well. It would save you the delivery fee instead of ordering from overseas.
Inside your home.
Guess what, you don’t always need to BUY a toy! Think about everyday items in the house, or try to reuse/recycle some things.
Rice for measuring activities? Kidney beans or cherry tomatoes for counting? Disposable cups or plates for learning numbers or letters? Toilet paper roll and egg cartons for kids craft? Masking tape for track racing? Leaves and flowers from the park for counting?
My favourite picks
Okay so usually I like to think about choosing a toy among these categories of learning toys (my version!). I’m not really particular about one brand to the others, but sometimes I do choose better quality (read: more durable, can be used longer).
1.Wooden blocks. I have this set of colored wooden blocks as a gift from a friend since 5 years ago. This is one of the favourites in the house, and it’s great to pull this set out when we have guests with kids coming over. Versatile for most ages, boys or girls!
I couldn’t find the exact version of mine in Amazon (was from local Toys R Us), but it’s very similar to this Melissa & Doug Wooden Blocks Set.
2. Lego. Somehow I think Lego is slightly more challenging for small fingers since they need to attach one piece to another, unlike the wooden blocks which they can just stack it one on top of the others. But that’s the fine motor skill being trained. And Lego provides more possibilities on what you can make.
Just pay attention to the age range specified. I like that they have Lego Duplo with bigger pieces for toddlers/preschoolers, then there’s Lego Junior with slightly more complex mode, then the classic Lego ranges.
Psst.. sometimes daddies and mommies are fans of Lego too, apart from the tidying up part. And be careful not to step on those small Legos -youknowwhatImean.
What I like from any pretend play toys are, they can easily work with each other during play time.
You have doll house set and a farm animals set? Just pretend it’s the farmer’s house and they can have family lunch in the house after feeding the animals. Have small soft toys too? Let’s pretend you have a “giant pets” at home! Want to have a tea party with some pizza? Your kitchen/cooking set will come in handy.
For me the unproportional sizes between different playsets doesn’t matter. The kids can make up any stories they want!
I think it’s good for children to learn about practical life skills in their play. Sure you can let them try the adult size broom, but sometimes pink broom and duster are more enticing for little girl to pick for practice, don’t you think so? 😂
6. Vehicle sets. Car toys, or train set. For hours pretend play. And they works together with other play set, like the dollhouse, farm set, lego building, and so on.
Fine motor play.
Fine motor skills are those that uses the small muscles which control the hand and fingers. Stimulating this skill would help a child to do important daily tasks such as writing, feeding oneself, buttoning and zippering.
These abilities gradually develop through experience and exposure to a variety of toys, materials and even foods. Here are some toys which would be great in exercising those muscles.
8. Lacing beads
10. Puzzles. Great for their problem solving skills. My first daughter had her first puzzle when she was one year old, but sure she’s just randomly playing. She grasped the concept of a puzzle only after 2+. My 2nd shown her interest in puzzles only after she’s 3. I knew puzzles is not for everyone, so try one and see if your child likes it.
Creative sensory play
Sensory play is popular among toddlers and preschoolers. It lets them touch and feel things, observing textures and shapes. My favourites are these two;
11. Playdough, the classic sensory play.
12. Kinetic sand. I have to say that choosing kinetic sand is a bit trial and error, don’t assume all brands are totally non-sticky easy clean up as what they claimed. The CoolSand is so far the one with less negative reviews about the stickiness.
Just be prepared that they will get messy for both playdough and sand. You can use a plastic mat or alumunium tray as a base for the kids to play the dough or sand on top of it. And I found usually some portions of it can’t be saved for next time, playdough gets dried or mixed into one random color, or sands get thrown away.
Write and draw
I’m also a fan of things for the kids to freely doodle and draw. It comes handy too when they started to learn how to write. And I found that whiteboard or chalkboard can add fun factors for them to use in a learning session, instead of doing printable worksheets.
13. 2-in-1 white board and chalkboard. We have the 2-in-1 drawing board like shown here for quite a long time. I could not remember where I bought or what the brand is, but this double sided chalk & whiteboard from Melissa & Doug is pretty similar in nature. One precaution, I found almost all whiteboard/dry-erase board I tried before would be difficult to clean off after a few days. I keep enough supply of magic sponge eraser to clean them off, which I bought from local Daiso store.
If you prefer to buy an easel type, I would recommend to get the standing easel drawing board like this instead of the table top easel, even though standing easel will need more space in your house. The table top ones usually would move too easily, less stable than the standing easel.
14. Washable markers. Enough said. There’re wide varieties out there.
STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Basically it applies to learning and activities that focus on logic, problem-solving, creativity and experimentation. STEM play encourages open-ended, no single solution kind of play. Perhaps some of the toys mentioned above can also be considered STEM play. But I’ll try to give you some more unique kinds of building blocks play below.
16. Brain flakes interlocking set. I remembered playing there when I was a kid, endless hours of fun!
17. Magformer. Rainbow magnet party!
Math and literacy
Of course I just HAVE TO include the math toys category here, rite? I wrote quite sometimes ago why I believe math is important in our life. Also, if you need ideas on how to teach your preschoolers to learn basic counting, check out my posts here on counting activities!
Okay so that’s my long list! Hopefully it can help you with lots of ideas for getting that special gift for your children.
So, tell me, how do you choose toys for your little ones?