Skip to main content

How to choose toys your preschool child will love and learn from

adult watching child paint
December 03, 2013

Put a preschool-age child in a roomful of toys and he’s likely to gravitate to art activities or books. In other words, giving your child a fresh box of crayons or watercolor paints for Christmas may lead to more happy hours of play than a fancy talking doll or remote-controlled car.

Research being conducted at Arizona State University’s T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics shows that three- to five-year-olds in a well-equipped preschool setting choose to spend more time in art activities than anything else.

Their next favorite activity is playing on the playground – running, climbing, swinging – followed by looking at books. After that comes participating in musical activities, such as singing and playing musical instruments.

“Art and music are both associated with the development of math-related skills,” says Priscilla Goble, doctoral student and graduate research assistant in the school. “Art activities provide children opportunities to experiment with colors, size, texture, patterns, cause and effect, and trial and error.”

She is studying classic toys and gender differences in preferences for toys, but she emphasizes that parents should stay away from stereotypical gender toy ideas. Children benefit from as broad a diversity of play experiences as possible.

“Parents don’t need to look only in the pink or blue sections of toy stores. By playing with a variety of different toys, children can learn all different types of skills,” she says.

Books, of course, promote reading and writing skills, and a love of learning. There’s a reason why story hour at the library is so popular.

Pretend play with dress-up props, play kitchens, or with dolls or action figures, comes in at number five on the favorite list for preschoolers. Dramatic play in these situations promotes language development and literacy, as well as social development.

Blocks and legos are next in the order of preschool children’s preferences, followed by bikes and wagons, playing on a computer, then math and science activities. The researchers’ observations did not include playing on small computer tablets.

“Toys and games with small manipulatives, such as blocks and puzzles, afford opportunities for children to learn about math concepts: sizes, shapes, numbers, order, area, length, patterns and weight,” Goble says.

Math and science activities such as counting, flash cards, test tubes and sorting are considered “discovery activities,” along with sensory activities using play dough, water, rice and shaving cream, she says. They are thought to help children learn about measurement, practice number concepts and carry out problem-solving skills.

High levels of play in typically “masculine” activities – such as blocks and legos – tend to develop spatial abilities, while high levels of play in “feminine” activities – such as coloring, books and dress-up – tend to develop verbal abilities. That’s why it’s important for children to participate in both, Goble says.

Here’s a list of preschool children’s favorite activities, in the order of preference, to take to the toy store:

• crayons, paints and other art activities
• large motor activities (running, climbing, swinging, etc.)
• books
• music, singing, musical instruments
• figure play (dolls, action figures, Fisher Price figures)
• blocks, legos, Lincoln logs, etc.
• bikes, tricycles and wagons
• computers
• math and science activities
• sensory play with water, clay, dough, etc.