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44 entertaining gifts your 3-year-old won’t want to put down

TODAY logo TODAY 12/14/2020 Lisa Tolin

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The best gifts for 3-year-olds will include 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.” “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, the head of The Wetherill School in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania, and a board member of the American Montessori Society.

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Don’t forget to check out Shop TODAY’s 2020 Gift Guide to find the perfect present for everyone on your list!

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Best toys for 3-year-olds

1. Fat Brain Toys GeoMagic Mosaics

Fat Brain Toys GeoMagic Mosaics

Fat Brain Toys GeoMagic Mosaics Fat Brain Toys GeoMagic Mosaics
  • Fat Brain Toys GeoMagic Mosaics $29.95 at Fat Brain Toys
  • Fat Brain Toys GeoMagic Mosaics $29.95 at Walmart

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

2. Chuckle & Roar Jumbo Aqua Draw Doodle Mat

Chuckle & Roar Jumbo 4' x 3' Aqua Draw Doodle Mat

a person sitting in a box

Chuckle & Roar Jumbo 4' x 3' Aqua Draw Doodle Mat $14.99 at Target

With a little bit of water and a lot of creativity, your 3-year-old could create colorful masterpieces with just a flick of the wrist — plus some brush pens and markers.

3. Boon Marco Light-Up Bath Toy

Boon Marco Light-Up Bath Toy for Kids

icon: Boon Marco Light-Up Bath Toy for Kids, Blue (Amazon / Amazon) © Amazon Boon Marco Light-Up Bath Toy for Kids, Blue (Amazon / Amazon)
  • Boon Marco Light-Up Bath Toy for Kids $14.99 at Amazon
  • Boon Marco Light-Up Bath Toy for Kids $14.99 at BuyBuyBaby
  • Boon Marco Light-Up Bath Toy for Kids $14.99 at Bed Bath & Beyond

Bath time just got so much more fun! Marco's helmet changes a multitude of colors once he hits the water, making his deep-sea explorations a lot easier.

4. Toniebox Audio Player

Toniebox Audio Player

Toniebox Audio Player Toniebox Audio Player

Toddlers can control their own music and storytime with the Toniebox audio player. Add-on figures come with songs and stories from favorite books and movies.

5. Kid O A to Z Magnatab

Kid O A to Z Magnatab

text, whiteboard: Kid O A to Z Magnatab (Amazon / Amazon) © Amazon Kid O A to Z Magnatab (Amazon / Amazon)
  • Kid O A to Z Magnatab $22.21 at Amazon
  • Kid O A to Z Magnatab $22.24 at Walmart
  • Kid O A to Z Magnatab $29.99 at Macy's

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

6. VTech Write And Learn Creative Center

VTech Write And Learn Creative Center

a close up of a device: VTech Write And Learn Creative Center (Walmart / Walmart) © Walmart VTech Write And Learn Creative Center (Walmart / Walmart)
  • VTech Write And Learn Creative Center $19.88 at Walmart
  • VTech Write And Learn Creative Center $19.89 at Target

Whether they like to draw or write, they'll get to explore their artistic side with this interactive toy.

7. Little Tikes Rescue Tales Scrub 'n Groom Bathtub Playset

Little Tikes Rescue Tales Scrub 'n Groom Bathtub Playset

Little Tikes Rescue Tales Scrub 'n Groom Bathtub Playset (Walmart / Walmart) © Walmart Little Tikes Rescue Tales Scrub 'n Groom Bathtub Playset (Walmart / Walmart)
  • Little Tikes Rescue Tales Scrub 'n Groom Bathtub Playset $29.82 at Walmart
  • Little Tikes Rescue Tales Scrub 'n Groom Bathtub Playset $29.99 at Target

With a real working shower head, little ones will get to bathe the adorable Chocolate Lab and engage in pretend play to experience adopting their own dog.

8. Color Your Own Superhero Cape

Color Your Own Superhero Cape

a close up of a logo

Color Your Own Superhero Cape $35.00 at UncommonGoods

This customizable cape is perfect for pretend play that’s not determined by a character from TV or books.

9. Sarah's Silks Enchanted Playsilk

Sarah's Silks Enchanted Playsilk

a woman posing for a picture: Sarah's Silks Enchanted Playsilk (Amazon / Amazon) © Amazon Sarah's Silks Enchanted Playsilk (Amazon / Amazon)

Sarah's Silks Enchanted Playsilk $19.95 at Amazon

These real silk play scarves can be capes, wings, the roof of a fortress ... it's the ultimate in open-ended play.

10. Etch-a-Sketch

Etch A Sketch

a little girl in a blue shirt

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

11.Slumberkins Alpaca Snuggler

Slumberkins Alpaca Snuggler

a close up of a bear

Slumberkins Alpaca Snuggler $44.00 at Slumberkins

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.

12. Janod Mint Balance Scooter Bike

Janod Mint Balance Scooter Bike

a close up of a motorcycle: Janod Mint Balance Scooter Bike (Amazon / Amazon) © Amazon Janod Mint Balance Scooter Bike (Amazon / Amazon)
  • Janod Mint Balance Scooter Bike $109.99 at Amazon
  • Janod Mint Balance Scooter Bike $167.14 at Walmart

Scooters, tricycles and balance bikes all encourage coordination.

13. Green Toys Car Carrier

Green Toys Car Carrier Set

a small child sitting on a table: Green Toys Car Carrier Set (Amazon / Amazon) © Amazon Green Toys Car Carrier Set (Amazon / Amazon)

Green Toys Car Carrier Set $23.95 at Walmart

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

14. Fisher-Price Thomas & Friends Wooden Railway Thomas

Fisher-Price Thomas & Friends Wooden Railway Thomas

a small child sitting on a wooden table: Fisher-Price Thomas & Friends Wooden Railway Thomas (Amazon / Amazon) © Amazon Fisher-Price Thomas & Friends Wooden Railway Thomas (Amazon / Amazon)
  • Fisher-Price Thomas & Friends Wooden Railway Thomas $6.89 at Walmart
  • Fisher-Price Thomas & Friends Wooden Railway Thomas $9.99 at Barnes and Noble

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

15. AnaMalz Wooden Moose Figure

AnaMalz Wooden Moose Figure

AnaMalz Wooden Moose Figure (Amazon / Amazon) © Amazon AnaMalz Wooden Moose Figure (Amazon / Amazon)

AnaMalz Wooden Moose Figure $21.99 at Amazon

Animals are of great interest at age 3 and these sweet wooden figures are perfect for pretend.

16. Kiko+ Kaleidoscope Wooden Camera

Kiko+ Kaleidoscope Wooden Camera

a close up of a logo: Kiko+ Kaleidoscope Wooden Camera (Amazon / Amazon) © Amazon Kiko+ Kaleidoscope Wooden Camera (Amazon / Amazon)
  • Kiko+ Kaleidoscope Wooden Camera $29.99 at Amazon
  • Kiko+ Kaleidoscope Wooden Camera $33.00 at Maisonette

This chic wooden camera features a kaleidoscope lens to delight 3-year-olds as they mimic their paparazzi parents.

17. Mudpuppy Puzzle Sticks

Mudpuppy Transportation Puzzle Sticks

a close up of a sign: Mudpuppy Transportation Puzzle Sticks (Amazon / Amazon) © Amazon Mudpuppy Transportation Puzzle Sticks (Amazon / Amazon)

Mudpuppy Transportation Puzzle Sticks $13.59 at Amazon

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.

Related: Make the holidays sparkle for kids and teens in need this year.

Best book gifts for 3-year-olds

1. "Everyone's Awake," by Colin Meloy and Shawn Harris

"Everyone's Awake," by Colin Meloy and Shawn Harris

a close up of a sign © Amazon
  • "Everyone's Awake," by Colin Meloy and Shawn Harris $14.49 at Amazon
  • "Everyone's Awake," by Colin Meloy and Shawn Harris $15.99 at Barnes and Noble
  • "Everyone's Awake," by Colin Meloy and Shawn Harris $16.55 at Bookshop

Everyone should be sleeping, but bedtime hijinks get in the way, with escalating, rhyming silliness from the lead singer of The Decemberists.

2. "Every Little Letter," by Deborah Underwood and Joy Hwang Ruiz

"Every Little Letter," by Deborah Underwood and Joy Hwang Ruiz

engineering drawing © Amazon
  • "Every Little Letter," by Deborah Underwood and Joy Hwang Ruiz $17.09 at Amazon
  • "Every Little Letter," by Deborah Underwood and Joy Hwang Ruiz $17.99 at Barnes and Noble
  • "Every Little Letter," by Deborah Underwood and Joy Hwang Ruiz $16.55 at Bookshop

In a city of letters that refuse to mingle, one little letter sees through a wall to start something extraordinary. This book about the alphabet has some important lessons about community, too.

3. "Randy, the Badly Drawn Horse," by T.L. McBeth

"Randy, the Badly Drawn Horse," by T.L. McBeth

text © Amazon
  • "Randy, the Badly Drawn Horse," by T.L. McBeth $17.30 at Amazon
  • "Randy, the Badly Drawn Horse," by T.L. McBeth $18.99 at Barnes and Noble
  • "Randy, the Badly Drawn Horse," by T.L. McBeth $17.47 at Bookshop

Randy is bursting with the confidence of his child creator, until he sees his own reflection and has some doubts. But of course he's beautiful, because he's loved.

4. "You Don't Want a Dragon," by Ame Dyckman and Liz Climo

"You Don't Want a Dragon," by Ame Dyckman and Liz Climo

diagram © Amazon
  • "You Don't Want a Dragon," by Ame Dyckman and Liz Climo $14.79 at Amazon
  • "You Don't Want a Dragon," by Ame Dyckman and Liz Climo $17.99 at Barnes and Noble
  • "You Don't Want a Dragon," by Ame Dyckman and Liz Climo $16.55 at Bookshop

In this sequel to "You Don't Want a Unicorn," there's a new kind of warning: You definitely don't want a marshmallow-toasting, awesome dragon.

5. "Welcome to Jazz," by Carolyn Sloan

Welcome to Jazz: A Swing-Along Celebration of America’s Music, Featuring “When the Saints Go Marching In”

diagram: Welcome to Jazz: A Swing-Along Celebration of America's Music, Featuring © Amazon Welcome to Jazz: A Swing-Along Celebration of America's Music, Featuring
  • Welcome to Jazz: A Swing-Along Celebration of America’s Music, Featuring “When the Saints Go Marching In” $18.51 at Amazon
  • Welcome to Jazz: A Swing-Along Celebration of America’s Music, Featuring “When the Saints Go Marching In” $24.95 at Barnes and Noble
  • Welcome to Jazz: A Swing-Along Celebration of America’s Music, Featuring “When the Saints Go Marching In” $18.59 at Target

They'll swing, dance and get into the groove while learning about the history of jazz with this interactive book. The page-turner also comes with a dozen sound chips to expose your music-loving toddler to the rhythm section, scatting, brass instruments and more.

6. "A New Green Day," by Antoinette Portis

"A New Green Day," by Antoinette Portis

map © Amazon
  • "A New Green Day," by Antoinette Portis $15.29 at Amazon
  • "A New Green Day," by Antoinette Portis $15.29 at Walmart
  • "A New Green Day," by Antoinette Portis $18.99 at Barnes and Noble

All the little wonders of nature send invitations to enjoy a new green day in this lovely picture book that celebrates the Earth.

7. "Pirate Stew," by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell

"Pirate Stew," by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell

a group of people wearing costumes © Amazon
  • "Pirate Stew," by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell $17.99 at Amazon
  • "Pirate Stew," by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell $17.99 at Barnes and Noble
  • "Pirate Stew," by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell $18.39 at Bookshop

When Mom and Dad go out, they leave behind a pirate babysitter who isn't sure what to feed the kids. Along comes his crew with a hearty stew — but it might be best not to eat it in this fun, rhyming tale from Neil Gaiman.

8. "Mabel: A Mermaid Fable," by Rowboat Watkins

"Mabel: A Mermaid Fable," by Rowboat Watkins

© Amazon
  • "Mabel: A Mermaid Fable," by Rowboat Watkins $15.29 at Amazon
  • "Mabel: A Mermaid Fable," by Rowboat Watkins $16.99 at Barnes and Noble

Mabel is different from other mermaids (she's missing a mustache), but she meets an octopus who is different from other octopuses and they discover the beauty in their difference.

9. "Saturday," by Oge Mora

"Saturday," by Oge Mora

© Amazon

Age 3 is when children are really starting to follow narratives for the first time, said Nina Lindsay, president of the Association for Library Service to Children. Oge Mora's story about the beauty of spending time with family is a great place to start.

10. "Penguinaut!" by Marcie Colleen and Emma Yarlett

"Penguinaut!" by Marcie Colleen and Emma Yarlett

text
  • "Penguinaut!" by Marcie Colleen and Emma Yarlett $14.39 at Amazon
  • "Penguinaut!" by Marcie Colleen and Emma Yarlett $17.99 at Barnes and Noble

This penguin has a dream and wants to achieve it himself (like many 3-year-olds), but discovers adventures are better with friends.

11. "The Very Impatient Caterpillar," by Ross Burach

"The Very Impatient Caterpillar," by Ross Burach

diagram: The Very Impatient Caterpillar (Amazon / Amazon) © Amazon The Very Impatient Caterpillar (Amazon / Amazon)
  • "The Very Impatient Caterpillar," by Ross Burach $11.69 at Amazon
  • "The Very Impatient Caterpillar," by Ross Burach $15.99 at Barnes and Noble

Waiting isn't easy for this little guy (or your little ones) in this funny new take on transformation.

12. Literati Vibrant Voices Gift Box

Literati Vibrant Voices Gift Box

text, calendar

Literati Vibrant Voices Gift Box $57.95 at Literati

Give little ones curated boxes full of books as a one-off gift or an ongoing subscription from Literati. Themes include "vibrant voices," a box celebrating diversity and inclusion.

13. "What Kind of Car Does a T. Rex Drive?" by Mark Lee and Brian Biggs

"What Kind of Car Does a T. Rex Drive?" by Mark Lee and Brian Biggs

a close up of a box: What Kind of Car Does a T. Rex Drive? (Amazon / Amazon) © Amazon What Kind of Car Does a T. Rex Drive? (Amazon / Amazon)
  • "What Kind of Car Does a T. Rex Drive?" by Mark Lee and Brian Biggs $13.94 at Amazon
  • "What Kind of Car Does a T. Rex Drive?" by Mark Lee and Brian Biggs $17.99 at Barnes and Noble
  • "What Kind of Car Does a T. Rex Drive?" by Mark Lee and Brian Biggs $16.55 at Bookshop

Uncle Otto has a tough time finding the right car for a T. Rex — a fun combination for your dino and car-obsessed toddlers.

14. "Chicken Break," by Cate Berry and Charlotte Alder

"Chicken Break," by Cate Berry and Charlotte Alder

text © Amazon
  • "Chicken Break," by Cate Berry and Charlotte Alder $10.99 at Amazon
  • "Chicken Break," by Cate Berry and Charlotte Alder $17.99 at Barnes and Noble

Crafty chickens make a break for it in this clever, rhyming, counting book.

Related: Help kids code, build and mix concoctions with these brilliant gifts.

Best play sets for 3-year-olds

1. Melissa & Doug 100-Piece Wood Blocks Set

Melissa & Doug 100-Piece Wood Blocks Set

a close up of a toy: Melissa & Doug 100-Piece Wood Blocks Set (Amazon / Amazon) © Amazon Melissa & Doug 100-Piece Wood Blocks Set (Amazon / Amazon)
  • Melissa & Doug 100-Piece Wood Blocks Set $16.99 at Amazon
  • Melissa & Doug 100-Piece Wood Blocks Set $16.99 at Walmart

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.

2. Play-Doh Fun Factory Deluxe Playset

Play-Doh Fun Factory Deluxe Set

a stack of flyers on a table
  • Play-Doh Fun Factory Deluxe Set $16.15 at Amazon
  • Play-Doh Fun Factory Deluxe Set $27.29 at Walmart

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

3. Lego Build Me Emotions Set

Lego Build Me "Emotions" Set

a small child sitting on a table: LEGO Build Me © Amazon LEGO Build Me
  • Lego Build Me "Emotions" Set $69.95 at Amazon
  • Lego Build Me "Emotions" Set $103.15 at Walmart

This Lego set helps kids identify emotions for social emotional development, something many parents are concerned about now.

4. Colorforms Re-Stickable Play Set

Colorforms The Original Classic Set

a close up of text on a white background: Colorforms The Original Classic Set (Amazon / Amazon) © Amazon Colorforms The Original Classic Set (Amazon / Amazon)
  • Colorforms The Original Classic Set $29.84 at Amazon
  • Colorforms The Original Classic Set $33.52 at Walmart

“They can fit easily in your tote bag the same way an iPad could,” Conti said of this re-stickable set.

5. Janod Music Instrument Set

Janod Ukulele Music Set

a close up of a guitar

Janod Ukulele Music Set $29.07 at Amazon

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

6. Tegu Robo Magnetic Wooden Block Set

Tegu Robo Magnetic Wooden Block Set

Tegu Robo Magnetic Wooden Block Set (Amazon / Amazon) © Amazon Tegu Robo Magnetic Wooden Block Set (Amazon / Amazon)

Tegu Robo Magnetic Wooden Block Set $22.00 at Amazon

Conti is a big fan of wooden magnetic blocks, like these, for easy manipulation with less frustration.

7. Hape Gourmet Chef Kitchen and Cookware Set

Hape Gourmet Wooden Play Kitchen

a little girl sitting in front of a refrigerator: Hape Gourmet Wooden Play Kitchen (Amazon / Amazon) © Amazon Hape Gourmet Wooden Play Kitchen (Amazon / Amazon)

Hape Gourmet Wooden Play Kitchen $68.99 at Amazon

For the aspiring chef, this little kitchen can provide hours of play. (They may especially love it in the real kitchen, so they can "cook" with parents.)

8. Melissa & Doug Star Diner Restaurant Play Set

Melissa & Doug Star Diner Restaurant Play Set

a table full of food: Melissa & Doug Star Diner Restaurant Play Set Melissa & Doug Star Diner Restaurant Play Set
  • Melissa & Doug Star Diner Restaurant Play Set $29.99 at Melissa and Doug
  • Melissa & Doug Star Diner Restaurant Play Set $25.49 at Kohl's
  • Melissa & Doug Star Diner Restaurant Play Set $26.99 at Macy's

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

9. Melissa & Doug Standard Unit Blocks

Melissa & Doug Standard Unit Blocks

a close up of a building: Melissa & Doug Standard Unit Blocks (Amazon / Amazon) © Amazon Melissa & Doug Standard Unit Blocks (Amazon / Amazon)

Melissa & Doug Standard Unit Blocks $63.46 at Amazon

These blocks are a favorite in preschools everywhere. Various sizes and shapes let little ones problem-solve.

10. Fisher-Price Thomas & Friends Wooden Railway Set

Fisher-Price Thomas & Friends Wooden Railway Set

Thomas & Friends Fisher-Price Wood (Amazon / Amazon) © Amazon Thomas & Friends Fisher-Price Wood (Amazon / Amazon)
  • Fisher-Price Thomas & Friends Wooden Railway Set $39.99 at Amazon
  • Fisher-Price Thomas & Friends Wooden Railway Set $55.76 at Walmart

Train sets are great for your 3-year-old boy or girl's developing spatial skills, Klein said. Brio train sets are also compatible.

11. Kinetic Sand Sandcastle Set

Kinetic Sand Sandcastle Set

Kinetic Sand Sandcastle Set (Walmart / Walmart) © Walmart Kinetic Sand Sandcastle Set (Walmart / Walmart)

Kinetic Sand Sandcastle Set $9.97 at Walmart

“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.

12. Learning Resources Building Toy Gear Set

Learning Resources Building Toy Gear Set

a little girl sitting on a table: Learning Resources Building Toy Gear Set (Amazon / Amazon) © Amazon Learning Resources Building Toy Gear Set (Amazon / Amazon)
  • Learning Resources Building Toy Gear Set $41.53 at Amazon
  • Learning Resources Building Toy Gear Set $39.99 at Staples

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

13. Magna-Tiles Clear Colors 32-Piece Set

Magna-Tiles Clear Colors 32 Piece Set

text: Magna-Tiles Clear Colors 32 Piece Set (Amazon / Amazon) © Amazon Magna-Tiles Clear Colors 32 Piece Set (Amazon / Amazon)
  • Magna-Tiles Clear Colors 32 Piece Set $49.99 at Amazon
  • Magna-Tiles Clear Colors 32 Piece Set $69.53 at Walmart
  • Magna-Tiles Clear Colors 32 Piece Set $59.99 at Target

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.

Still looking for the perfect gift? Be sure to check out Shop TODAY’s 2020 Gift Guide to shop for everyone on your list, including:

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This gift guide was originally published on Nov. 21, 2017.

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