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The best gifts and toys for 4-year-olds help their imaginations come alive. As they leave age 3 and turn 4, little ones are enthralled by storytelling, pretend play and exploration.
They are also immersed with friends and start taking turns instead of just playing side by side.
“They tend to have clear preferences on what they like or want to do,” said Tovah Klein, director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development and author of “How Toddlers Thrive.”
Their pretend play is a little more complicated as they come to understand narratives and differentiate between fantasy and reality, said Marie Conti, the head of the The Wetherill School in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania, and a board member of the American Montessori Society. Capes and dress-up props, as well as outdoor toys or science gadgets — like magnifying glasses, bug jars and shovels for dirt — allow them to explore their world.
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 and gifts for 4-year-olds
- 1. Lego Classic Medium Creative Brick Box, $28 (usually $35), Amazon
“If you’re buying Legos, just buy regular Legos. Don’t feel like you have to buy pink ones because you have a girl,” Conti said.
If you need to organize your Legos, here are 5 brilliant, mom-approved hacks for keeping them tiny and out of your bare foot's way.
- 2. "Misunderstood Shark" by Ame Dyckman, $14 (originally $18), Amazon
Funny books like this one from Ame Dyckman and illustrator Scott Magoon are great for 4-year-olds. "It’s important for kids to have fun with reading," said Nina Lindsay, president of the Association for Library Service to Children.
- 3. ThinkFun Zingo Bingo Game, $20, Amazon
Also available at Target.
Four-year-olds are starting to learn about games with rules. This simple variation on bingo works well for pre-readers.
- 4. Marble Run Toys 60 Pieces Wooden Classic Ramps Track Building Construction Set, $36, Amazon
“When they’re finding ways to make the marble go down the marble run, that’s engineering,” Conti said.
- 5. Colorforms Retro the Original Set, $30 (originally $40), Amazon
This set makes art creation easier without needing to hold a crayon, and Conti noted that it slips into a bag as easily as an iPad for restaurant play.
- 6. Maileg Princess & The Pea Stuffed Mouse and Play Set, $50, Nordstrom
If your 4-year-old wants a Barbie, this is a good alternative. “The one good thing about Barbie dolls is it’s good for fine motor skills getting them dressed, but it’s pretty limiting, too,” Conti said. These little mice from Maileg also have wardrobes you can take on and off.
- 7. "If You Ever Want to Bring a Pirate to Meet Santa, Don't!" by Elise Parsley, $13, Amazon
Four-year-olds will enjoy seeing Elise Parsley's Magnolia try to keep a pirate off the naughty list.
- 8. Green Toys Jump Rope, $11, Amazon
Also available for $13 at Walmart.
This old-fashioned favorite promotes gross motor activity (aka exercise).
- 9. Insect Lore Deluxe Butterfly Garden Gift Set, $31, Amazon
Klein and Conti both love bug jars or insect boxes for kids this age.
- 10. "Pearl," by Molly Idle $13 (originally $18), Amazon
The little mermaid in this picture book by Molly Idle wants a big job, and she finds herself with a larger than life responsibility.
- 11. Playmobil Barn with Silo, $69, Amazon
This detailed set encourages storytelling and pretend play.
- 12. Melissa & Doug Hi Rise Wooden Doll House, $111 (originally $150), Amazon
Dolls let 4-year-olds play house and work through separation. This model has a working elevator that will excite kids, but try the fold-and-go option if you're short on space.
- 13. Calico Critters Grocery Market, $29 (originally $40), Amazon
Stores are another fun way to pretend, and small objects help with fine motor skills.
- 14. Calico Critters Hopscotch Rabbit Family, $17 (originally $25), Amazon
Critter figures fit perfectly in the grocery store or Cozy Cottage.
- 15. "Animalphabet" by Julia Donaldson, $15 (originally $21), Amazon
- 16. Tonka Mighty Motorized Fire Truck, $34, Amazon
Conti said there's nothing like a Tonka truck for hours of play. The garbage truck is another crowd pleaser.
- 17. Melissa & Doug Ice Cream Counter, $40 (originally $50), Amazon
Cooking, serving food and playing "restaurant" are key elements of a 4-year-old's pretend play.
- 18. Stomp Rocket Jr. Glow, $15, Amazon
Conti likes outdoor toys like this one for 4-year-olds.
- 19. Enkeeo No Pedal Balance Bike, $50, Amazon
Also available for $63 at Walmart.
Klein recommends physical toys like this balance bike that will get a 4-year-old ready to ride.
- 20. Boogie Board Jot Memo Writer, $30 (usually $35), Walmart
Also available for $20 at Target.
A fun way to work on letters and numbers or just sketch.
- 21. "Drawn Together" by Minh Lê, $11 (originally $18), Amazon
This touching story by Minh Lê about connections that transcend words features stunning illustrations from Dan Santat.
- 22. K'Nex Lincoln Logs, $46, Amazon
Lincoln Logs are back. There's a reason they're a classic.
- 23. Melissa & Doug Fire Chief Role Play Costume Dress-Up Set, $24 (originally $27), Walmart
- 24. Dress Up Cape and Mask Set, $21, Amazon
Many 4-year-olds become enthralled with superheros. Engaging in superhero play can help them feel powerful and in control.
- 25. Melissa & Doug Pet Vet Play Set, $26 (usually $30), Amazon
This kit lets little ones play doctor on the stuffed animals included.
- 26. "Interrupting Chicken and the Elephant of Surprise" by David Ezra Stein, $12 (originally $17), Amazon
This follow-up to David Ezra Stein's popular "Interrupting Chicken" will appeal to 4-year-olds' developing humor.
- 27. Candy Land, $6, Walmart
“It’s just a fun game that kids love to play,” Conti said.
- 28. American Girl WellieWishers Doll, $60, Amazon
Also available for $91 at Walmart.
“Dressing up dolls and figurines can help master the day-to-day chore of dressing oneself,” said educational toys expert Lauren Leisk.
- 29. Kapla Blocks Octocolor 100 Piece Set, $50, Amazon
Conti recommended these wooden building sticks. “They build in very different ways with those than we do with bigger blocks,” she said.
- 30. PlanToys Ramp Racer, $60, Amazon
Car lovers will enjoy the mesmerizing motion of this ramp.
- 31. Brio Metro Railway Set, $63 (originally $70), Amazon
Train sets are great for building spatial skills, Klein said.
- 32. "Imagine," by Raúl Colón, $13 (originally $18), Amazon
The paintings of the Museum of Modern Art come to life and move out into the world in this ode to imagination by Raúl Colón.
- 33. "Princesses Wear Pants" by Savannah Guthrie and Allison Oppenheim, $18, NBC Store
It's never too early to show your little ones that women and girls can dress, and do, all the things that boys can!
- Gifts for babies
- Gifts for 1-year-olds
- Gifts for 2-year-olds
- Gifts for 3-year-olds
- Gifts for 5-year-olds
- Gifts for 6-year-olds
- Gifts for 7-year-olds
- Gifts for 8-year-olds
This article was originally published on November 15, 2017.