The best gifts for 3-year-olds, according to child development experts

Age 3 can be a time of transition as little ones say goodbye to toddlerhood and hello to more imaginative play.

Many are entering school for the first time and interacting with friends. And 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,” says 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, says Marie Conti, the head of the The Wetherill School in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania, and a board member of the American Montessori Society.

Green Toys Car Carrier, $25, Amazon

Green Toys

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

Lovelane Superhero Cape, $55, Nordstrom

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

Kinetic Sand Folding Sand Box, $30, Amazon


“I would say the sandbox is one of the most popular activities on our playground, for all ages,” Conti says. This fold-up sand box is a perfect indoor version.

Colorforms Re-Stickable Playset, $31, Target


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

“Princesses Wear Pants,” $15, Amazon


Age three is when children are really starting to follow narratives for the first time, says Nina Lindsay, president of the Association for Library Service to Children. This one from Savannah Guthrie and Allison Oppenheim sends an empowering message.

Educational Toy Gear Set, $10, Amazon


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

Janod Music Instrument Set, $54, Nordstrom

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

Magna-Tiles Clear Colors 32-pc Set, $50, Amazon


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 says.

Tegu Robo Magnetic Wooden Block Set, $20, Amazon


Conti is an even bigger fan of wooden magnetic blocks.

"Nothing Rhymes with Orange," $13, Amazon

Chronicle Books

This rhyming romp about left out citrus will tickle 3-year-old funny bones.

Fisher-Price Thomas & Friends Wooden Railway Thomas, $11, Amazon


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

Fisher-Price Thomas the Train Wooden Railway Set, $24, Amazon


Train sets can get complicated – and expensive – but they are great for developing spatial skills, Klein says.

BlaBla Bunny, $46, Amazon


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

Janod Mint Balance Scooter Bike, $114, Nordstrom

jean marc baudet / Janod

Scooters, tricycles and balance bikes all encourage coordination.

PlanToys Tree House, $30, Target


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

Play-Doh Fun Factory Deluxe Playset, $13, Amazon


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

Janod 2-in-1 Art Desk & Easel, $114, Nordstrom


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

Lego Duplo All-in-One-Box-of-Fun, $24, Amazon


Conti thinks 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.”

Dress Up & Play Animal Ears Kit, $20, Nordstrom


Imaginative play is taking shape at age 3. These animal ears will inspire.

PlanToys 50 Unit Blocks, $70, Target


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

Star Diner Restaurant Play Set, $26, Target

Melissa & Doug

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

Looking for more suggestions? Check out the gift guide for babies, 1-year olds, 2-year-olds and 4-year-olds. Or try Good Housekeeping’s 2017 ‘Best Toy Award’ winners, the 10 toys that will be on every kid’s wish list this holiday season or Amazon's top 2017 toy list.

If you need to check other people off your list, test out our interactive gift guide! Simply choose who you are shopping for, what they are like and how much you want to spend, then we generate the gifts for you!

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