Three-year-olds have a reputation for being tricky customers. “It can be a time of strong wills and growing personalities,” says Siobhan Freegard, founder of parenting video network ChannelMum.com. “The parents in our community often refer to 3-year-olds as ‘threenagers.’ But 3 is a wonderful age, as children are developing their own interests — and aren’t afraid to tell you what they want. It’s a brilliant opportunity to choose a truly personalized gift.” With that in mind, we asked Freegard and 13 other parenting and child experts — from play psychologists to parenting-group founders — to suggest the best gift ideas for 3-year-olds, from bookworms to daredevils. Read on for the best soft toys, books, and board games to suit all budgets. By the way, we also have gift guides for 1-year-olds, 2-year-olds, 4-year-olds and 5-year-olds.
The best pretend play toys for 3-year-olds
Toys that emulate items found around the home can help children understand their daily lives, while also keeping them out of your cupboards. Freegard; Sarah Ockwell-Smith, author of The Gentle Parenting Book; and Lisa Clegg, author of The Blissful Toddler Expert, all recommend investing in a toy kitchen. Freegard suggests getting this one. “Sustainable wooden toys will last to be used by siblings and not add to the plastic crisis,” she says.
When we asked experts for their tips on cooking with kids, this measuring tool came recommended. “This is a brilliant way for children to learn how to measure,” says Ruth Chubb, founder of Three Bears Cookery children’s clubs in Derbyshire. Young children may find using conventional scales a bit tricky, but this clever cup makes it easy to measure both wet and dry ingredients by simply filling it up to the relevant line.
Kitchen tools in child-friendly sizes would also make great gifts. “I always get my rolling pins from Wilko’s,” says Chubb. “They are good value for money, plus they have the standard-size ones for older children and they also do smaller rolling pins, which are perfect for little hands.” [Editor’s note: Wilko’s mini-rolling pins are currently out of stock, but we found this Amazon alternative.]
Alternatively, Ockwell-Smith recommends heading to Ikea, as their wooden railway tracks are compatible with other brands so can be used as an inexpensive way to expand your set.
The best outdoor toys for 3-year-olds
Both Ockwell-Smith and Julie Elliott from the Royal Society for Blind Children recommend mud kitchens. They provide toddlers with a great opportunity for role play while in the garden – so brace yourself for being offered up some choice mud pies to sample.
Spinning round and round on the Whizzy Dizzy will help children improve their hand-eye coordination and develop their gross motor skills, says Victoria Millsop, manager at Fledglings — an online shop that is part of a disability charity called Contact. It can be used indoors or outside and children are always in control of their speed as the Whizzy Dizzy will only spin as fast as they are pulling on the wheel.
A balance bike is a great introduction to cycling. “This beautiful design from KinderKraft has a carry bag on the front to take out water and snacks,” says Freegard. “It’s not cheap, but it is strong enough to be passed down the family so you’ll get plenty of long-term use.”
The best STEM toys for 3-year-olds
“My daughter Ocean loves getting her hands dirty,” says Nina Malone, founder of Dope Black Mums. “She loves this kit. It’s really easy, everything you need is included. We check on the plants every day and she is so excited to see when they have sprouted and grown.”
“This spiral ball run is ideal for encouraging little ones to develop their hand-eye coordination and introduces them to problem-solving logic,” says play psychologist and Good Play Guide founder Amanda Gummer. “We found it great for helping young children to improve their turn-taking and collaborative play as they cheered others on and waited for their go.” She adds that 3-year-olds will need some adult help to construct the track.
Kids can make cars, bikes, SUVs, trucks and even robots with these magnetic tiles and wheels. They may need adult help at first, says Gummer, but with a little practise they’ll learn to follow the instructions and use their imaginations to create their own constructions.
“Children enjoy pressing the buttons and listening to the characters talk – this is fantastic for teaching cause and effect at this age,” says Gummer. “Little ones also learn through repetition so as they repeat pressing the buttons to get the desired reaction, they learn about how things work.”
The best books for 3-year-olds
Malone says her daughter absolutely loves this story. “The names of the shapes are written in large and really friendly text,” she says. “My favourite thing about this book is that it also shows how you interact with the shapes in real life.”
“Books with rhymes and repetitive words keep young children interested,” says Clegg. “When they’re toddlers they want the same book every night and over time they learn the words. With my children I would read a sentence and stop before the last word and they would say the last word, so it’s good for their memory and their vocabulary.”
We first featured these board books in our look at the best gifts from ESEA-owned businesses. Suitable for up to age 5, they will introduce kids to new foods, cities, and concepts from all over the world.
The best soft toys and dolls for 3-year-olds
Natasha Crookes, director of public affairs and communications at the British Toy and Hobby Association, recommends this cuddly character. Fans of Hey Duggee will instantly know what tune it will play – and their parents will too, so take that into account before buying it, as it promises to “have little (and big) fans of the show singing and dancing for hours on end.”
“Dinos are very popular with this age group,” says Trabue. “This stripy T. rex is a fun and colourful take on a classic toy.” [Editor’s note: This product is currently sold out].
The best board games for 3-year-olds
“Games help children to develop and maintain attention, follow simple rules and practice key skills such as turn-taking, joint attention and attending to others,” says Emma Fraser, teacher of the deaf at the National Deaf Children’s Society. She recommends this colourful card game in which players have to find matching pairs of wellies for their monsters.
“Tummy Ache is a classic game which every family should own,” says Freegard. “It’s funny and yucky – which 3-year-olds love – but also subtly teaches them healthy eating skills too.”
This game involves finding matching pairs of fabric squares, each with a pattern on one side and a strongly contrasting black/white pattern on the reverse. Each matching pair also includes an inner texture layer which Millsop says can be matched by touch, so is “ideal for inclusive play with children who are visually impaired.”
The best arty toys for 3-year-olds
Each one of the nine different-coloured doughs in this set has a different scent – including blueberry, watermelon, banana and chocolate – which adds an additional sensory element to your child’s play. This set would also be good for visually impaired children, as Elliott says that smells can help them differentiate between colours.
“This bright-coloured set is great for encouraging children to engage in storytelling as they complete a creative scene using the magnets,” says Gummer. “Little ones can either copy from the cards provided to make the scene, which helps them learn to follow instructions, or they can make their own creation.”
The best sorting toys for 3-year-olds
Toddlers love to move objects from place to place, so toys with lots of parts that can be rearranged are sure to hold their attention. This set is “brilliant for learning to make patterns,” says Ockwell-Smith. “And for developing fine motor skills, inserting the pegs into the holes.”
Ockwell-Smith also highly rates this “super-budget option that can provide hours of entertainment,” as kids learn to thread the colourful cotton reels onto a length of string to make different patterns.
The best musical instruments for 3-year-olds
“This colourful, musical crocodile provides a great way to encourage little ones to make music, which is excellent for their creative development and self-expression,” says Gummer. With a washboard, drum, xylophone bell and two mallets, your little one can perform duets or become a one-man band. You can also personalise it with the giftee’s name and age.
“These first percussion instruments make a lovely sound and are a great gift to develop a child’s love of music from the age of 3,” says Trabue. This set contains a vibrantly decorated cymbal, castanet and a guiro.
Best clothing gifts for kids
When we asked seven stylish parents about the best kids’ T-shirts, Arket’s minimalist (and inexpensive) ones came out on top. They come available in 17 colors, such as orange-toned brown, peach, and olive green. Mum of two Alex Stedman, editor of the Frugality, says they’re a staple in her kids’ wardrobes as they are “great quality and a great shape.”
For a more maximalist child, this tie-dye T-shirt-and-shorts set is available in four colors: orange, blue, black, or purple. Nina Malone, mum of two, talent agent, and founder of podcast Dope Black Mums ordered the latter for her 3-year-old after seeing a friend post about launching the brand in the Dope Black Mums Facebook group. “I love that this T-shirt is fabulously retro,” she says. “I’ve also found the fabric is extremely robust and will survive multiple washes without fading.”