Essential Toy Guide: 3-to-5-Year-Olds

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These are essential toys, the high value gender-neutral toys that your kids will enjoy and then later you’ll hand down to friends’ kids. These are not posh. They’re reality toys that you don’t have to mortgage your home to buy. Be sure to weigh in below with your opinion about other essential toys.


Photo of Wooden Take-Along 24-piece Tool Kit.

Wooden Take-Along 24-piece Tool Kit by Melissa and Doug — My daughter loved taking wooden screws and nuts apart and attaching them to this toolbox. Later, the screwdriver and wrench appeared by her side whenever she wanted to help Mom or Dad fix something. $12.

Photo of Primary Lacing Beads.

Primary Lacing Beads by Melissa and Doug — Soak up lots of detail work here with hand-eye coordination. Go with simple primary color beads, not the frenetic attention-deficit designs found with most bead sets. $10.

Photo of Lacing Cards by eeBoo.

Family Pets Lacing Cards by Eeboo — Graduate from lacing beads to lacing cards, a more complex task and easy to do individually as a group activity. Pets are gender neutral, good in case you have a second child. $16.

Lacing Pets by Melissa and Doug is a less expensive option at $10, but the storage box has a plastic sliding lid that is harder for a toddler to maneuver.

Photo of a Pretend & Play Calculator Cash Register.

Pretend & Play Calculator Cash Register by Learning Resources — First, it’s a pretend register making noises. Then you realize the number keypad lets you do real math (with a solar powered LED screen), and the till can hold real money in addition to the supplied play money. $29.

Photo of the iPlay 2-in-1 Vacuum.

2-in-1 Vacuum by iPlay — Emulation play is a big deal, and vacuuming comes naturally to a toddler. This toy vacuum is favored because it has sound effects, but doesn’t speak to you or have a personified face. Plus, the dust container is removable for pretend emptying. $40. Also consider a toy broom, or regular sponge and water-filled mini-spray bottle for wiping tables. Three-year-olds love to clean, especially after they enter preschool.

Photo of the Fisher Price Medical Kit.

Medical Kit by Fisher-Price — Playing nurse is great fun (let’s be honest, doctors rarely poke and prod patients; nurses do all the work). This kit has the best selection of instruments I’ve seen without going overboard with pagers and other junk. $26.


Photo of LEGO 50th Anniversary Building Set.

LEGO 50th Anniversary Building Set — 700 bricks of various shapes and sizes. It’s heavy on traditional bricks and should be viewed as a foundation, with future specialty kits providing wheels, people and such. $37.50.

Photo of LEGO Creator Community Builders Set.

LEGO Creator Community Builders Set — Avoid specialty kits entirely with this buy-once-and-you’re-done 1,670 piece set that includes basic bricks, wheels, people and a mix of other unusual pieces. $101.

This toy guide is not finished! We need your expertise! Help other parents by posting a comment below with your suggestions for must-have toys that your child(ren) have loved. And if you have strong feelings about toys in this guide, or similar ones, share those thoughts too. Thank you!

And be sure to check out all of our toy guides:


11 Responses to “Essential Toy Guide: 3-to-5-Year-Olds”

  1. yolanda says:

    Cool List here is another one
    *** TickleMe Plant *** It Moves!
    My daughter is growing a real plant that MOVES when you Tickle IT! It’s called the TickleMe Plant The leaves instantly close and the branches move when Tickled. It even produces candy cotton like pink flowers!
    It’s a must have grow kit. We found it at you gotta love that video!

    November 28th, 2008 at 5:15 am

  2. Lara says:

    Good guide. What about some play food such as the haba food you reviewede the other day. How about cars and a garrage.

    November 28th, 2008 at 6:24 am

  3. Laralara says:

    I forgot to mentionn marbles can be used to rowll or for immaginary play, ours were used for a family going into and out of school the other day. Perhhaps with a marble run to go with them we have the bassic quadrilla set.

    Puppits are also good, any sellections really.

    Some sort of creative toty either playdough or something like that or playfoam makes less mess.

    November 28th, 2008 at 6:30 am

  4. Ticia says:

    dress up clothes in your child’s interests. My kids are into superheroes and princesses and knights, so we have lots of different costumes

    November 28th, 2008 at 9:09 am

  5. MIdge says:

    My daughter is five, these are her current favorites for the past year:

    Wood Horse Stable, with horses. Also doubles as a dollhouse/jail/kitchen/classroom or whatever she needs for the current imaginative “set up”. It was a gift from the Grandparents last year:

    She has a collection of Schleich and Papo fantasy characters. We plan to add a few to her collection each year. She loves them!!

    November 28th, 2008 at 9:45 am

  6. dayna says:

    Fisher Price makes My First Dollhouse which is excellent for 1.5 – 4 year old kids. It has been priceless in our house.

    November 28th, 2008 at 12:55 pm

  7. Kelly K says:

    I want to second Laralara’s marble / marble run suggestion. My four year old is enchanted with marbles right now. We have spent hours using his regular set of assorted wood blocks + a set of nesting boxes (to make a stairway to build momentum) + our wood rainbow pieces (to catch and redirect fast moving marbles and as a launch pad, rolling down the sides) as a sort of home made marble run… cardboard tubes, folded paper all kinds of things.

    November 29th, 2008 at 7:15 am

  8. Jen says:


    board games… especially cranium ones! My daughter LOVES Cranium Cariboo… I highly recommend it! I’m asking the grandparents to get some Cranium Bloom games for her for Christmas this year.

    November 29th, 2008 at 3:25 pm

  9. Kelly K says:

    Guidecraft Feel and Find!

    November 29th, 2008 at 6:29 pm

  10. Timmi says:

    Marbles are dangerous even for 3 to 5 year olds!

    December 8th, 2008 at 9:49 pm

  11. My Boaz's Ruth says:

    No, Timmi. Not when used with supervision. I know there are kids in that age range (and even older) who are too immature to trust with marbles. That is where parents become involved, they have to know their kids. But most kids in that age range I know are perfectly safe when left to play with marbles in a supervised environment.

    December 9th, 2008 at 6:32 am