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Level up your 3-year-old’s ABCs and 123s with 51 gifts that take playtime to the next level

These gift ideas are perfect for the little one who's in their "I'll do it myself" phase.
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/ 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.”)

What should I look for in a gift for 3-year-olds?

“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.” 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, says Marie Conti, head of The Wetherill School in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania, and a board member of the American Montessori Society.

From stuffed animals and dolls to books and educational toys, we found tons of giftable options for 3-year-olds.

Educational toys | Arts and crafts and music toys | Pretend play toys | Stuffed animals, dolls and figures | Cars, trains and vehicles | Play sets | Books | Meet the experts

Best educational toys for 3-year-olds

Kinetic Sand Deluxe Beach Castle Playset

“The sandbox is one of the most popular activities on our playground, for all ages,” Conti says. This magic sand is a perfect indoor version. It’s sensory play at its best.

Montessori Mama Wooden Toddler Puzzles for Kids Ages 3-5

Between the vibrant colors and cute animals (dinosaurs, dolphins, rabbits and bears, oh my!), these puzzles will keep your toddler entertained for hours. Not to mention, they will help them count numbers and refine hand-eye coordination while they play, according to the brand.

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.

Creativity for Kids The Very Hungry Caterpillar Sensory Bin

Most little ones are familiar with the classic tale, "The Very Hungry Caterpillar." Now they can get a hands-on experience with the story! This sensory bin is loaded with 2.5 pounds of sensory sand, a Hungry Caterpillar toy, foam accessories, shovel, sand stamp and colorful clings, among other things.

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.

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.

Magna-Tiles Downhill Duo

Landing on The Toy Insider's STEM 10 list last year, budding speedsters can design their own magnetic race track using the kit's translucent pieces, all while exploring development logic skills.

Best building blocks and toys for 3-year-olds

Byserten Flower Garden Building Set

Watch their imagination bloom as they create their own garden with Byserten’s flower building set. Reviewers on Amazon say this toy is engaging and practical, but make sure to have a bag to keep up with the pieces.

“The 98 pieces allow for endless imaginative creations, and my son loves playing with it too. It’s a fantastic blend of arts, crafts, and building, making it an ideal gift for little ones with budding creativity,” one verified Amazon reviewer wrote.

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.

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!

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 says. They're also a favorite of commerce vice president Jen Birkhofer.

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

Crayola Color Wonder Mess Free Coloring

These mess-free coloring pages are perfect for travel (and for avoiding stains on every surface in the house). If they're not into Bluey (but let's be honest — what kid isn't?), there's also a Barbie option.

Crayola My First Crayola Double Doodle Board Drawing Tablet

Enjoy the fun of finger painting — without the mess of real paint — with this reusable doodle board. It's double-sided, so your little one can draw with washable crayons too.

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.

B. Toys DJ Mixer Toy

They can flex their musical talents with this DJ mixer toy that makes 12 sounds, has three pre-set beats, a record they can "scratch" to remix sounds and even a retractable microphone so they can jump on the beat themselves!

Kids 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,” says educational toy expert Lauren Leisk.

Best pretend play toys for 3-year-olds

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.

Melissa & Doug Let’s Explore Light & Sound Camping Lantern Play Set

This toy was designed to inspire hours of screen-free fun. They can change the color of the light in the lantern. Plus, it plays soothing noises like bird chirps, campfire sounds, ocean waves and more to help them feel like they’re on a real adventure.

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.

Melissa & Doug Let’s Play House Set

Whether your 3-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. Shop TODAY editor Rebecca Brown watched her daughter spend countless nights using this set. "This became part of our bedtime routine. My daughter would get the mop or broom out and 'help clean' before bed by mopping the carpet. It was fantastic."

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.

Melissa & Doug Super Smile Dentist Kit

Kids may hate going to the dentist, but they won’t mind playing dentist! Landing on Walmart’s Top Toys list last year, the Melissa & Doug pretend play set comes with plenty of accessories to teach them about good oral hygiene.

Cadson Miniature Dyson Ball

Get them loving chores while they’re still young. With a working suction and twisting and turning capabilities, this mini Dyson vacuum replica works just like Mom’s and Dad’s!

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

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 two minutes, the brand says.)

Paw Patrol Plush Stuffed Animal Toys

If your little one was a fan of the new “Paw Patrol” movie, they’ll love having Marshall, Chase, Rubble and Skye to hang out with at home. They’re all in uniform and ready for their next rescue adventure!

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.

Jellycat 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.

Manhattan Toy Playdate Friends Harper

This doll is huggable, machine-washable and dryer-safe, and 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!

Sesame Street Elmo Slide Plush

Elmo has been a staple for youngsters for as long as we can remember. (Who can forget the Tickle Me Elmo craze of the '90s?!) Appearing on The Toy Insider's annual list of the hottest toys this season is this dancing plush that encourages kids to be active.

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

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.

Green Toys Car Carrier

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

Lego Duplo Disney Mickey & Minnie Mouse Birthday Train

Let their favorite characters celebrate alongside them this year with this Lego Duplo set. This birthday train set includes a 3-part train, birthday cake, number bricks and accessories.

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.

John Deere Big Farm Tractor

This John Deere 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.

Fisher-Price Laugh and Learn Food Truck

This pretend food truck comes with two sides, over 20 pieces and even a menu. Senior editor Jess Bender is a huge fan: "One of my nephew’s favorite activities to play with me is Food Truck. He loves the interactive elements inside that low-key help with various skills like imaginative play, counting and vocabulary. His favorite part about this play set, though, is all the cool food that comes with it. (I never get to see the cool food I order, though — he thinks it’s so funny to steal my money and give me the wrong order)."

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.

Best bath toys for 3-year-olds

Munchkin Fishin' Bath Toy

The mini 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.

Spin 'N' Sprinkle Water Lab Bath Toy

Every 3-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.

CoComelon Splish Splash JJ Doll

If your little one is obsessed with the hit show "CoComelon," they'll love having this JJ doll as their new bathtime companion. He comes with an inflatable floatie, swim trunks and a shark bath squirter, so he's ready for a dip in the tub!

Best play sets for 3-year-olds

Battat Classic Construction Toy Take-Apart Airplane

Watch as little hands practice coordination and dexterity while assembling and taking apart this airplane. Brown says her daughter loved this. "It was incredible watching my then-3-year-old fumble with things like screws and a screwdriver. Over time she developed the confidence and control and got better at figuring it out."

Colorforms Restickable Play Set

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

Bluey Hammerbarn Shopping Playset

"Bluey is everyone's favorite show, from preschoolers to grade schoolers to parents," The Toy Insider's editor-in-chief Marissa Silva says about this popular TV show about the titular Australian Blue Heeler and their equally beloved family. This four-story Hammerbarn shopping center allows the characters (and kids) to explore the environment and curb their curiosity.

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.

Best books for 3-year-olds

“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.

“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.

“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.

“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."

“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.

“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.

Meet the experts

  • Marie Conti is Director of Regional Community Relations for American Montessori Society. She was the former head of The Wetherill School in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania. Conti is based in Greater Philadelphia.
  • Tovah P. Klein, Ph.D., is Director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development in New York, as well as the author of “How Toddlers Thrive." She focuses on young children's social emotional development as well as parents' experiences raising them. Klein is also an adjunct associate professor and teaches a year-long course on toddler development.