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 / Updated  / Source: TODAY
By Lisa Tolin

The best gifts for 3-year-olds will include plenty of opportunities to explore as toddlers grow and develop more imaginative play.

Finally out of the "terrible twos," many are entering school for the first time and interacting with friends. They’re becoming increasingly verbal and able to answer questions and follow directions. (Or not: There’s a reason people call them “threenagers.”)

“Three-year-olds are getting to be more social and have ideas of their own,” said Tovah Klein, director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development and author of “How Toddlers Thrive.” “Open-ended toys such as blocks and building toys allow them to explore and discover and carry out their ideas."

They are deep in the “I’ll do it myself” phase, so they enjoy things that help them master the fine motor skills that might help them dress themselves, said Marie Conti, the head of the The Wetherill School in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania, and a board member of the American Montessori Society.

When we release our 2018 gift guides, we make sure all prices are current. But, prices change frequently (yay, deals!), so there’s a chance the prices are now different than they were the day of publication.

Best toys for 3-year olds

TODAY editors, writers and experts take care to recommend items we really like and hope you’ll enjoy! Just so you know, TODAY does have affiliate relationships. So, while every product is independently selected, if you buy something through our links, we may get a small share of the revenue.

Also available at Amazon and Target.

“The sandbox is one of the most popular activities on our playground, for all ages,” Conti said. This magic sand is a perfect indoor version.

  • 2. Colorforms Re-Stickable Playset, $30, Amazon

Also available at Target and Walmart.

“They can fit easily in your tote bag the same way an iPad could,” Conti said.

Also available at Etsy.

These are perfect for pretend play that’s not determined by a character from TV or books.

  • 4. Green Toys Car Carrier, $25, Amazon

Also available at Walmart.

This car carrier helps with fine motor skills and imaginative play.

  • 5. Janod Music Instrument Set, $38 (usually $50), Amazon

“Musical toys can form a big part of a 3-year-old’s day,” said educational toys expert Lauren Leisk.

  • 6. Magna-Tiles Clear Colors 32-piece Set, $50, Amazon

Also available at Walmart and Target.

These magnetic tiles allow kids to create their own masterpieces and will entrance them for years to come. “Kids will play with those for hours,” Conti said.

  • 7. JellyCat Bashful Unicorn, $23, Amazon

As they start school, toddlers may become more interested in cozy friends who give comfort. If unicorns aren't your thing, try a lion, bunny or fuzzy ostrich.

  • 8. Janod Story Box Safari, $20 (originally $28), Amazon

These little figures let kids construct different play scenarios.

  • 9. Tegu Robo Magnetic Wooden Block Set, $20, Amazon

Also available at Barnes and Noble and Target.

Conti is a big fan of wooden magnetic blocks.

  • 10. PlanToys Fruit and Vegetable Set, $27, Walmart

Pretending to cook is a favorite activity for 3-year-olds.

  • 11. Hape Gourmet Chef Kitchen and Cookware Set, $115, Amazon

For the true gourmet, this little kitchen can provide hours of play. (They may especially love it in the real kitchen, so they can "cook" with parents.)

  • 12. Educational Toy Gear Set, $37, Amazon

Encourage early STEM development and fine motor skills with this interactive gear set that really works.

These dolls are a little less girly than most. “I’m a big proponent of toys that aren’t so gender-specific,” said Conti.

  • 14. Janod Mint Balance Scooter Bike, $110, Amazon

Also available at Nordstrom.

Scooters, tricycles and balance bikes all encourage coordination.

  • 15. Calico Critters Cozy Cottage, $30 (originally $40), Amazon

This dollhouse for little critters is a great choice for 3-year-olds.

  • 16. PlanToys Tree House, $30, Target

This tree house includes little figures, acorns and a working pulley.

  • 17. Play-Doh Fun Factory Deluxe Playset, $13 (usually $22), Amazon

Also available at Walmart.

Little ones are unleashing their inner artists and exploring through touch and feel.

  • 18. Janod 2-in-1 Art Desk & Easel, $113, Nordstrom

This dry erase board can be an easel or table, depending on your 3-year-old's mood.

  • 19. Lego Duplo All-in-One-Box-of-Fun, $24 (usually $30), Amazon

Also available at Target and Walmart.

Conti said specific brick kits are “taking away from their imaginative ability to crate on their own,” so she prefers these more general sets. “I would make sure the kids have just a big tub of Legos.”

  • 20. FAO Schwarz Wooden Castle Blocks, $40, Amazon

Blocks of various sizes and shapes let little ones problem-solve.

  • 21. Animalz Moose, $19, Amazon

Animals are of great interest at age 3, and these sweet wooden figures are perfect for pretend.

  • 22. Etch-a-Sketch, $13 (usually $15), Amazon

The original mess-free way to draw, perfect for travel or restaurant play.

  • 23. Star Diner Restaurant Play Set, $25, Walmart

Take kitchen play up a notch with this full restaurant set.

  • 24. Fisher-Price Thomas & Friends Wooden Railway Thomas, $17, Amazon

Also available at JC Penny and Walmart.

Klein and Conti both appreciate Thomas the Tank Engine and the stories that go with him.

  • 25. Fisher-Price Thomas the Train Wooden Railway Set, $80, Walmart

Also available at Target.

Train sets are great for your 3-year-old boy or girl's developing spatial skills, Klein said. Brio train sets are also compatible.

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Best books for 3-year-olds

  • 1. "Thank You, Omu" by Oge Mora, $13 (originally $19), Amazon

Age 3 is when children are really starting to follow narratives for the first time, said Nina Lindsay, president of the Association for Library Service to Children. Oge Mora's story about the beauty of sharing is a great place to start.

  • 2. "Penguinaut!" by Marcie Colleen, $13, Amazon

This penguin has a dream and wants to do it himself (like many 3-year-olds), but discovers adventures are better with friends in this book written by Marcie Colleen and illustrated by Emma Yarlett.

  • 3. "A Big Mooncake for Little Star" by Grace Lin, $13, Amazon

Little Star makes a mooncake with mom but can't resist taking nibbles in this picture book by Grace Lin that explains the phases of the moon.

  • 4. "Three Grumpy Trucks" by Todd Tarpley $13, Amazon

The grumpy trucks imagined by Todd Tarpley and illustrated by Guy Parker-Rees just won't leave the playground. Toddlers will enjoy playing parent and telling toys it's time to go.

  • 5. "Llama Llama Loves to Read" by Anna Dewdney and Reed Duncan, $13 (originally $18), Amazon

Lllama discovers the wonders of words in his first book since the death of creator Anna Dewdney, with help from Reed Duncan and J.T. Morrow.

  • 6. "There's a Hole in the Log on the Bottom of the Lake" by Loren Long, $13, Amazon

Toddlers will love to sing along to this illustrated song with funny asides from Loren Long.

Finding the perfect present can be a challenge, but Shop TODAY's up to the task. No matter who you're looking for, we've got gift guides for everyone on your list, including:

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This article was originally published on November 15, 2017.