Today I want to share with you 10 of the best toys and games for preschoolers (ages 3-5). Some categories will overlap with those mentioned in the toddler post but the specific toy recommendations differ because, obviously, preschoolers are more advanced in their skills than toddlers. Plus, as the term implies, “preschoolers” are just that — little munchkins who are getting ready for school! Thus, they require an additional gentle nudge in the direction of “pre-academics”. But don’t worry. The primary goal is still to have fun!
Here are 10 of the best toys and games for preschoolers:
1. Toys that encourage problem-solving and fine motor skills.
Preschoolers are curious little problem solvers, and they are great at using their hands to figure things out. Once they have moved past toddler-level toys, consider more advanced toys with slightly smaller parts such as magnetic fishing games, LEGO blocks, Don’t Break the Ice, Kerplunk, Hi Ho Cherry-O, or simple puzzles or pattern blocks that encourage kids to start fitting pieces together. Did you know that when kids work with puzzles, they begin learning spatial skills and terms related to pre-math? “Flip” (when the piece is upside down), “turn” (when they need to rotate it in a circle to make it fit), and “slide” (when they need to move it horizontally or vertically to make it fit) are all important concepts for the pre-math kiddo to learn as they prepare to understand how shapes and, eventually, numbers fit together. Cool, huh? Remember that it’s also important to introduce toys and games that use tongs, tweezers, or scissors in order to strengthen little hands and get them ready for writing!
2. Toys that encourage interaction with vertical surfaces.
I said it once and I’ll say it again: interacting with vertical surfaces strengthens kids’ shoulders and wrists so that they have a stable base to support the skilled use of their hands. Vertical surfaces also get kids off their bottoms and involves their whole body in the creative process. They can bounce on a ball or practice standing on one foot as they color, paint, or play with magnets on the board in front of them. As mentioned previously, some fun supplies include bath tub crayons, foam bath toys, dry-erase crayons (my absolute favorite!), magnets, or easels. Use chalkboard paint or chalkboard contact paper to turn practically any vertical space into a chalk-friendly surface. Or easily make your own vertical surface simply by tipping a puzzle upright, taping coloring paper to the wall, or tilting a baking sheet vertically in order to encourage magnet play.
3. Toys that get kids moving.
The preschool years are a time of huge physical advancement for kids as they learn to make new motor plans and gain more and more control over their bodies. Tricycles with pedals are still great for this age, and some kids may even be ready for bicycles with training wheels. Flat scooter boards can be used in a variety of ways (click here for ideas) and are great for strengthening kids’ core muscles, arms, and legs depending on how you use them. Some other fun ideas include kids’ skates, balance boards, EZ steppers, hoppy balls, and mini trampolines with handle. Always make sure safety precautions are taken with these toys and have kids wear helmets and pads when necessary.
4. Toys that encourage both hands to work together.
As kids prepare for Kindergarten they will need to learn how to make their hands work as a team, where one performs skilled movements and the other acts as a “helper hand” to stabilize. This includes activities such as coloring or drawing on a loose piece of paper, snipping or cutting with scissors, using a hole puncher, lacing string through beads, decorating sticker books, making art with a paintbrush or sponge or stamp pad, constructing a tower while one hand helps with balance, or playing with a velcro ball mit.
All these tasks help preschoolers develop hand dominance so they have a “favorite hand” to use when learning to write, plus they often work to strengthen hands as well. Having a favorite hand by the time Kindergarten starts is super important, and kids should stick with crayons and other non-pencil supplies until they have established a hand dominance. Encourage kids to experiment with drawing self-portraits or coloring in books with simple, age-appropriate drawings. Color on paper that’s placed over items of different textures (like sandpaper) to see what happens and provide more feedback to the hands and fingers. As far as crayons go, offer triangle-shaped crayons or regular crayons that have been broken in half — both encourage age-appropriate grasp, as opposed to fat crayons, which can actually be counter-productive in teaching little hands how to pinch a writing tool with skill and precision.
5. Toys that encourage pretend play.
An active imagination is closely linked with creativity, and kids of this age are often all about using their imagination. To be honest, you don’t really need to invest a lot of money in specific toys to encourage pretend play because that’s kind of the point of preschool imagination…using regular, every day objects to create novel, elaborate play schemes. Join in with your little ones and help them come up with as many different pretend scenarios as possible. Encourage them to come up with alternate plots or endings to their favorite animated movies. If necessary, work with your preschooler to implement appropriate boundaries for the use of imagination if it becomes an issue of manners or safety (see an example of what I’m talking about by clicking here).
6. Toys that feel “weird”.
Again, this is one is more about encouraging specific types of experiences rather than purchasing certain toys. But you will certainly need to stock up on plenty of supplies to make sure your little one has plenty of opportunities to get messy while exploring with all the senses. There is this absolutely AMAZING blog written by a mom who, among other things, hosts and organizes “messy play” dates for her kids and their play group. As an OT, I believe this is the BEST. IDEA. EVER! She has a post called “Tips for Hosting a Messy Play Date”, and it can be read by clicking here.
If allowing preschoolers to cover themselves in mud or bathe in a pool of rainbow spaghetti isn’t up your alley, consider smaller-scale activities that still allow them to experience a variety of textures, consistencies, and even smells. Some examples include playing with shaving or whipped cream, play dough, bubbles, glow-in-the-dark slime, simple cornstarch/water mixture, flubber, a bowl of cooked spaghetti, bucket of dry beans/pasta/rice (find hidden toys like puzzle pieces or lacing beads in them), (squeezable) sidewalk chalk, (edible) finger paint, bubble wrap, floam, cloud dough, and sand. The possibilities are endless!
7. Toys and games that encourage following directions and taking turns.
Let’s face it: school is all about rules. Raise your hand to speak…Wait your turn…Stand in line…Stay in your seat…Take turns on the playground…And for goodness sake, keep your hands to YOURSELF!… Kindergarten will be tough for the kid who hasn’t been exposed to following rules or taking turns, and toys and games are a fun way to learn these social norms. Toys that can only be used one at a time are good, especially those that get kids moving as mentioned above in Number Three (e.g., tricycles, scooter boards, hoppy balls, trampolines). Additionally, basic games will give preschoolers a nice introduction to direction-following and turn-taking while also teaching them some pre-academic skills such as color identification and counting. Consider games such as Candy Land, Chutes & Ladders, Trouble, Ants in the Pants, Don’t Spill the Beans, Monkeying Around or, my personal favorite, Hullabaloo.
8. Games that encourage kids to use their visual memory.
As children move closer to entering Kindergarten, they need to be able to look at a model (like a letter or number) and remember what it looks like and where all the parts go so they can prepare their brains for writing and reading. Visual memory can be enhanced by engaging with activities such as puzzles, “I Spy” and other hidden picture books, matching games, Lite Brite and, of course, the game of Memory.
9. Games that encourage kids to copy whole body movements.
Not only do preschoolers need to be able to remember what a model looks like as they prepare for Kindergarten, they also need to be able to reproduce that model as a whole so their little brains are ready to start copying letters and numbers with accuracy. But before they can be expected to do that with their hands (using fine motor skills), they need to learn to do it with their bodies (using gross motor skills). I love to use kids’ yoga cards or do different kinds of animal crawls with little ones (bear, dog, snake, lizard, crab, frog, etc.). The most well-known copycat game, of course, is the classic “Simon Says”.
By incorporating spatial terms such as “top”, “middle”, “bottom”, “up”, and “down” into your directions, you will be teaching preschoolers some of the most important handwriting-related keywords. Trust me, Kindergarten teachers will love you forever if your child comes in and already knows what top, middle, bottom, up, and down mean because they already learned them before they stepped foot in a classroom.
I said it before and I’ll say it again: it’s never too early to introduce children to books. Kids who are read to from an early age are more likely to become good readers and achieve academic success than those who aren’t read to on a regular basis, regardless of socioeconomic status. However, those who become the most successful in reading and academics in late elementary school and beyond are the ones whose caregivers involved them in story time and made it interactive. Point out pictures and words, ask questions about what will happen next, clarify unfamiliar words to develop vocabulary, and check for understanding to develop comprehension. Look for engaging books that encourage rhythm, rhyming, repetition, matching, and/or identification of objects (animals, vehicles, body parts, shapes, colors, numbers, etc.).
Get creative and help preschoolers make their own book! Get some paper, draw a horizontal line in the middle of the page, and have them tell you their story. You can write the words on the bottom of the page and they can illustrate the story in the space on the top. Now they’re learning about authors and illustrators, as well as creating their own books. Fun, fun, fun!
Keep in mind that the 3-5 year age is a time of exploration and learning through the use of all the senses, so don’t just give a bunch of toys and games to preschoolers and expect them to learn. Engage with them, get messy with them, ask them questions about the things they’re experiencing, and get involved in their learning-through-play.
What toys and games do you love for preschool-age kids?
I hope this list has been helpful for you and that you’ll pass it on to others who would love it, too!