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Best Preschool Toys for Your Christmas List – Recommendations from a Pediatric Occupational Therapist

I am a pediatric occupational therapist. What that means is I help to facilitate a child’s occupation: to play. Isn’t that amazing? A child’s job is literally to play. When you break down “play”, there are lots of skills that go into it. The skills I help my clients develop are gross and fine motor in addition social and sensory regulation. When shopping for big events like the holidays, it’s important to shop smart and find the best preschool toys for kids ages 2-6 that will help them hone these skills. Each of these skills is critical as is not investing in a bunch of junk that just takes up space in your home!

When I’m evaluating any toy, I ask the following questions:

– What is my child learning when using this toy?
– What skills is this toy helping to develop?
– Can this toy be used in different ways? Is it multipurpose?
– Will this be used by my child alone? With an adult? With a friend?

I want to share some of my recommendations with you! In my opinion, these are the best preschool toys, sorted according to the skills they help develop.

Toys that Promote Gross Motor Skills

Gross motor skills have to do with how kids move their body in big ways like crawling, walking or climbing. When looking for toys that promote these skills, ask: What is being challenged? What environment is necessary to use it: outside, tile floor, street, carpet, grass, etc. Can the toy be used in another way (that multipurpose question from before)? For example, the Bilibo is great for balance and spinning,but you can turn it into a turtle shell, hide things underneath it, or pretend it’s an army helmet! Or, a scooter board could be used while sitting or on your belly, or even kneeling.

– Riding: – scooter, bicycle (I love the balance bike), Sit-n-Spin, Plasma Car, Roller Racer, scooterboard.
– Bouncing:  trampoline, Rody the horse, Hippity Hop, Pogo Bouncer
– Balancing – Balance board/Teeter Popper, Monster Feet/Steppers, Bilibo

Best Preschool Toys Best preschool toys

Toys that Promote Fine Motor Skills

Fine motor skills describe the smaller movements kids need for activities like drawing and writing. Smaller movements mean using smaller muscles so looking for preschool toys that foster that is key. My son received an “art box” for his birthday last year, it keeps everything contained. He takes it out when his baby brother naps and ‘creates’ things for us. Along the lines of saving the baby brother from the preschool toys, I’m excited to get our little Legos off the floor this year with these new accessories (see below) – I’m hoping this might save my bare feet from stepping on them!
– Art supplies – bingo dabbers, paint, stickers, hole punchers, scented markers, scissors, glitter glue
– Building supplies – blocks, Legos (check out Lego tape or adhesive base plates), Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs, MagnaTiles, Wikki Sticks, 
Lite Brite (promotes hand development – see my recent article about getting ready to hold a pencil), Perfection game

Toys that Promote Social Skills 

Social skills preschoolers need are taking turns, following rules, being flexible, winning and losing graciously and playing as a team. Games are perfect for this kind of practice! Kids can practice with parents first and work up to playing with friends. 
Games – Candy Land, Connect Four, Hi-Ho Cherry-Oh, Zingo Bingo, Guess Who, Hungry Hippos, Jenga, Ants in the Pants, Don’t Break the Ice, Cootie Bugs, Operation
Card games – Go Fish, Memory, Old Maid, Uno
Some Occupational Therapist Favorites – these have sensorimotor components built in:

  • Sneaky Snacky Squirrel – Pretend to be the “squirrel” with giant tweezers to pick acorns off the tree, works on hand skills.
  • HyperDash –  Test listening skills and attention to strike at targets as you run/hop/slither by!
  • Twister/Hullabaloo – These are great to play with friends, following directions and “freezing” when the music stops.
  • Cat in the Hat – I Can Do That – Sequence cards to create motor actions, practice direction and planning skills while interacting with familiar objects that the Cat drops in the book! My kids think this one is hysterical. I wish I had a video of me playing with them. You would laugh.
  • Let’s Go Fishing – Use fishing poles to catch biting fish that turn on a motorized surface, practice visual motor and tracking skills.
  • Feed the Woozle – Multi-levels for different ages, use the spoon to balance the snacks while you walk to feed the hungry Woozle monster. 
  • Whats in Ned’s Head – Use only your tactile skills to find some (gross) contents in Ned’s Head – and pull them out of his ear/nose/mouth.
  • Jungle Jive – Test your movement and balance skills while holding a bird egg, being careful not to drop it! Multi-levels built in. 

Best Preschool Toys

Toys that Promote Sensory Skills 

Sensory skills are about how our bodies process what comes to us through our senses. Oftentimes, kids need some extra practice to regulate and hone these skills. Activities that are multi-sensory are more engaging and can hold their attention. These are great for all kids, not just those with Sensory Processing Disorder (to read more about sensory processing, read this).

Gorilla Gym (doorway swing with climbing attachments, perfect to harness some energy this winter)
– Tactile play – Kinetic Sand, Water Beads, Thinking Putty,
– Tents/Teepees, fort kit. The holidays are a perfect time to stock up on materials to create a calm sensory space to wind down and regroup.
– Seating options – Bean Bag Chairs, Yogibo, video game chair (floor rocker)

I hope this compilation of toy recommendations inspires your list this year. While Amazon is great, I do love me a good whirl around the toy store! We’ve got some great local ones (G. Willikers, Noggin Factory, Whirlygigs – which is your favorite?) It’s important to see/feel/know what you’re buying and get a chance to play a bit yourself. I’ve had most of the above toys in my office for years, and they continue to hold kids’ interest. In the meantime, left is our indoor race track that my children have created around my kitchen island. Read, set, go!

Do you have any toys you’d add here?

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