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52 toys for 3-year-olds that will allow them to learn, play and explore

These gift ideas are perfect for the little one who's in their "I'll do it myself" phase.
TODAY Illustration; Kara Birnbaum / TODAY
/ Source: TODAY

The best gifts for 3-year-olds provide plenty of opportunities to explore as toddlers grow and develop into 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.” According to Klein, “Open-ended toys such as blocks and building toys allow them to explore, 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, head of The Wetherill School in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania, and a board member of the American Montessori Society.

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Best toys for 3-year-olds

Mini Squishable Comfort Avocado

Is the avocado your tyke's latest obsession? Take a gander at this one, which will never brown. This avocado is part of Squishable’s “comfort food” line, an unusual addition to the usual stuffed animal menagerie. It's also the smaller version of the full-size Comfort Food Avocado Squishable, which means that, at 7 inches, it's the perfect size for 3-year-olds to cuddle and play with. "This is an A+++ squish," said one reviewer.

Candylab Police Car

The mod, wooden cars made by Candylab, like this handcrafted, wooden police car, are eye-catching and just right for little hands to scoot around. You can pair this with the wooden ambulance from the same Candycar collection for the perfect gift set for your little one to play pretend.

Haba Little Friends Townhouse Villa

A dollhouse gives toddlers room for creative play, as well as a space to work through issues around separation as they head to school. This one has an open design that lets kids play on all sides, so there’s no elbowing for a spot.

Skip Hop Zoo Bark-Ista Coffee Set

Why should tea sets get all the fun? Baby can make their first "cappuccino" with this coffee set. With its 20 play pieces that include a "fill and drop" filter, as well as signal lights and realistic coffeeshop sounds, your tyke will have fun playing barista while potentially developing their fine motor skills. The drawer below opens to reveal doughnuts and other treats.

Hape Super Cityscape Transport Bucket

Is your 3-year-old enamored with all forms of transportation? It’s trains, planes and automobiles all in one in this 80-piece set, which also features construction trucks and toys, a fire station and more. We also like that the two-piece storage bucket turns into part of the landscape. Plus, all the pieces can go back in the bucket when you’re done.

Bluey’s Bus + Mates

Everyone’s favorite Australian dog and his friends get a kid-friendly bus for transport around Brisbane (or your floor). The Amazon Exclusive set includes all the six characters the bus can seat: Bluey, Bingo, Lila, Coco, Winton and Calypso. All figures can be posed to your tyke's heart's content, so they can make Bluey's imaginary world as realistic as possible. We also included a Walmart link that includes only Bluey and Bingo, in case your little one wants to slowly collect all six.

Hape Mini Band Set

This set of instruments has everything your child needs to start a band — minus the drum set (aren’t you glad?). Your little musician's kit will include a tunable ukulele (available in two colors), a tambourine, a clapper, a rattle and a rainmaker. And not only will this set inspire your 3-year-old's inner musician, but, as the brand claims, it can help develop their auditory sense and ear-hand coordination.

Best educational toys for 3-year-olds

Kinetic Sand Sandcastle Set

“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. It's sensory play at its best.

Educational Insights Design & Drill Patterns & Shapes

They'll develop fine motor skills alongside shape and pattern recognition with this toy drill board. Each set comes with five reversible board cards that they can follow, or they can use their imagination to get creative.

Melissa & Doug Pattern Blocks and Boards

The options are endless when it comes to the patterns and designs your child could make with these vibrant geometric blocks, but they can also build the patterns that are already included with the set. Their problem-solving skills and natural curiosity will also be tested by shapes like hexagons, trapezoids, rhombuses and more.

Mudpuppy Puzzle Sticks

This unusual puzzle lets 3-year-olds arrange sticks to form a picture, a different kind of problem solving than the usual notch-and-groove puzzle.

Kid O A to Z Magnatab

With a magnetic stylus, reinforcing the ABCs and their handwriting becomes an easy task. It's perfect for the young learner who is still practicing their penmanship.

Best active toys for 3-year-olds

Melissa & Doug Let's Play House Set

Whether your three-year-old wants to run the house or help you around the house, this cleaning tools set is the perfect set. With a broom, mop, duster, dustpan and hand brush, the set has all the tools to keep an (imaginative!) house clean and your toddler running around.

Mobo Mity Sport

Scooters, tricycles and balance bikes all encourage coordination. This three-wheeled trike is low to the ground with extra zoom like a little race car.

B. Toys Let's Glow Bowling! Set

Brightly colored pins and a glowing bowling ball will capture the attention of even the most excited 3-year-olds. They'll have a blast while unknowingly improving balance, hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills.

Best building blocks and toys for 3-year-olds

Magna-Tiles Clear Colors 32-Piece Set

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

Learning Resources Building Toy Gear Set

Encourage early STEM development and fine motor skills with this interactive gear set that really works. According to the brand, this set will help them start learning about sorting, grouping, counting — and even putting physics into play with the spinning gears!

Melissa & Doug 100-Piece Wood Blocks Set

With 100 pieces, this wooden block building set is meant for fun and play. They'll get to use the colorful blocks and shapes to build their own architectural creations.

Tegu Robo Magnetic Wooden Block Set

Conti is a big fan of wooden magnetic blocks like these for easy manipulation with less frustration. This "future-themed" block set consists of 14 differently shaped pieces made of sustainable (and gorgeous) hardwood, which have playful graphics painted on them with water-based, nontoxic lacquer.

Best arts and crafts and music toys for 3-year-olds

KiwiCo Marble Run and Art Easel

The marble run behind this kid-friendly easel will let children create different paths for cascading marbles, while the easel can be used as a chalkboard or a white board, with built-in paint cups and a tray for art supplies. With this easel, the brand aims to help your child explore both engineering and art!

Loog Mini Acoustic Guitar

Prepare for hours of music play with this mini guitar that's just right for little fingers. “Musical toys can form a big part of a 3-year-old’s day,” said educational toy expert Lauren Leisk.

Play-Doh Fun Factory Deluxe Set

Little ones are unleashing their inner artist at this age, and this set lets them explore through touch and feel.

Kid Made Modern My First Arts and Crafts Library

Small craft pieces like felt, pipe cleaners and googly eyes encourage creativity and fine motor skills as kids create mini masterpieces.

Etch-a-Sketch

The original mess-free way to draw is a perfect toy for travel or restaurant play.

Best pretend play toys for 3-year-olds

Hape Gourmet Chef Kitchen and Cookware Set

For the aspiring chef, this little kitchen can provide hours of imaginary play. (They may especially love it in the real kitchen so they can "cook" with parents or show off their culinary masterpieces.) If you want a more complete set for your ambitious little chef, we included a link to Kohl's that include an oven for a culinary bundle that'll keep them occupied for hours.

Janod Wooden Pasta Playset

We're of the opinion that it's never too early to inspire your child's inner gourmand — as long as there are no dangerous gadgets or messy sauces to worry about. Enter this deluxe pasta set, which includes three shapes of pasta and felt “sauce” to top it off. Your small chef will have scrumptious and creative "pasta" dishes delivered to the table in no time.

Great Pretenders Dragon Toddler Cape

This fun dragon costume is easy to put on and take off for 3-year-olds who want a quick change — or are quick to change their fancy. Don't let the scales or "armor" fool you; this reversible cape is made with a smooth, snuggle velvet, and there's a foolproof, kid-friendly Velcro closure at the neck.

Kiko+ Kaleidoscope Wooden Camera

This chic wooden camera features a kaleidoscope lens to delight 3-year-olds as they mimic their paparazzi parents. It's also available with a yellow lens.

Sarah's Silks Enchanted Playsilk

These real silk play scarves can be capes, wings, the roof of a fortress...it's the ultimate in open-ended play. Currently, the playsilk is at its lowest price in 30 days.

Melissa & Doug Sushi Slicing Set

If Japanese fare is more your child chef's speed, they can now “cut” sushi and then pick them up using (helpfully velcroed) chopsticks, thanks to this sushi "slicing" set.

Best stuffed animals, dolls and figures for 3-year-olds

Jellycat Medium Beckett Fox

This smooshable fox is ready to comfort and play with your preschooler. (In fact, these are made suitable for newborns and up.) You can choose between a 10-inch small or a 12-inch medium fox, whichever your tyke prefers for maximum cuddles.

Gund Magic Draw and Glow Panda

Make bedtime just a little more exciting by letting little ones draw in glow-in-the-dark ink. In the daytime, this whimsical bear has soft white and yellow fur with shimmering purple details. Your tyke can choose to cuddle or, using the included LED pen, draw all manner of fantastical shapes right on the bear. This activates the fur's glow effect, which, in the dark, illuminates your child's drawings. (Not to worry: They fade away after 2 minutes, the brand says.)

3 Bees & Me Dinosaur Toy Set

If they're into dinosaurs, they'll love this set that will help them play out all of the Jurassic-style scenarios living in their heads. This set includes 12 realistic dinosaurs of all kinds, as well as their names and fun facts about each, to keep your little archeologist immersed for hours.

Manhattan Toy Playdate Friends

These dolls are huggable, machine-washable and dryer-safe, and each comes with its own pet for extra fun. Harper, the little playdate friend featured here, not only includes a white built-in onesie and adorable bow, but she also sports a cute removable dress and shoes!

Slumberkins Alpaca Snuggler

As they start school, toddlers may become more interested in cozy friends who give comfort. These therapist-designed snugglers come with a story to help with stress management. According to Slumberkins, "Alpaca teaches children to articulate their feelings, manage their anxiety and share their worries with others."

Best cars, trains and vehicles for 3-year-olds

iPlay iLearn Fire Truck Play Set

The trunk that holds these fire trucks opens up and turns into a building ripe for rescue. Different types of trucks will please the most truck-obsessed preschooler.

Green Toys Car Carrier

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

Fisher-Price Thomas & Friends Wooden Railway Thomas

Child development experts Klein and Conti both appreciate Thomas the Tank Engine and the stories that go along with him.

Bruder Mack Granite Dump Truck

This detailed, functional construction truck is built to last, and likely to become a favorite for years, especially if your 3-year-old likes to play auto mechanic! They'll love opening up the bonnet to access the miniature engine, folding the mirrors in, and using the functional doors and dumping bed.

John Deere Big Farm Tractor

This tractor might not help much on the farm, but it will do just about anything a child could want, with lights and sounds for extra appeal.

Best bath toys for 3-year-olds

Yookidoo Spin 'N' Sprinkle Water Lab Bath Toy

Every three-year-old has a little scientist in them. Allow them to channel their scientific urges with this water lab bath toy that creates double-chain reactions and effects.

Munchkin Fishin' Bath Toy

Target is selling some of the hottest holiday toys this year, and this bath toy is at the top of our list. The magnetic fishing rod can "catch" the set's three magnetic bobbing characters for endless "catch and release" fun.

Crayola Scribble Scrubbies Bath Set

For a more artsy bath experience, your 3-year-old can color in these little pets, then wash them off and start all over again.

Best play sets for 3-year-olds

Creativity for Kids Sensory Bin: Construction Zone Play Set

Little ones love to get their hands dirty. This play set allows them to do that in the least messy way by keeping everything contained in one box with an assortment of tools, toys and moldable sand.

Lego Build Me Emotions Set

This Lego set is said to help kids identify emotions and practice collaboration for social emotional development, something many parents are concerned about at this stage in their children's lives. How? The bricks not only come in a variety of colors and shapes, but each also has its own facial expression. The set also comes with a teaching activity card that guides parents, as well as eight double-sided character templates.

Colorforms Restickable Play Set

“They can fit easily in your tote bag the same way an iPad could,” Conti said of this restickable set. The play set includes 350 vivid reusable pieces, a design guide and a play board. Your 3-year-old will have a blast finding endless combinations, sticking the pieces to the board, any glossy surface or each other!

Best books for 3-year-olds

“The Sun Is Late and So Is the Farmer,” by Philip C. Stead and Erin E. Stead

As farm animals wait for the sun to rise, it seems to take a little too long. So they set off on a journey to the edge of the world to summon the sunrise. If your little one loves animals great and small, they'll love this tale, which, according to Publisher's Weekly, "appreciates creatures’ gentle ways and offers a quiet reminder about perceptions’ ability to mislead."

“The Pigeon Will Ride the Roller Coaster,” by Mo Willems

The pigeon first tried to ride the bus nearly 20 years ago. Now he’s ready for a roller coaster and can barely stand the excitement.

“Go Back to Sleep,” by Zoe Foster Blake and Mike Jacobsen

Finn’s parents just won’t stay in bed at night, so he’ll have to enforce their bedtime routine in this funny role reversal.

“Counting to Bananas,” by Carrie Tillotson and Estrela Lourenço

Banana is waiting for his turn in this (mostly) rhyming fruit-counting book that keeps counting animals instead. This fun counting book will make little ones giggle.

“Sylvie,” by Jean Reidy and Lucy Ruth Cummins

Sylvie the spider watches over the tenants where she lives beneath a fire escape. Not since “Charlotte’s Web” has a spider been such a kind friend.

“Brown Is Warm, Black Is Bright,” by Sarah L. Thomson and Keith Mallett

Brown is the color of leaves and black a dark puddle in this lyrical exploration of positive associations of black and brown.

​​Don’t forget to check out Shop TODAY’s other gift guides to find the perfect present for every kid on your list including babies, 1-year-olds, 2-year-olds, 4-year-olds, 5-year-olds, 6-year-olds, 7-year-olds, 8-year-olds, 9-year-olds and 10-year-olds.