Gift ideas for preschool / early elementary children

Previously: gift ideas for young children (0-2)

I thought I’d list some toys our kids have especially liked. None of these are amazing revelations that you probably couldn’t find on other sites.

I’m picking things that need little or no adult supervision, unless otherwise specified.

A few of these (especially the Melissa and Doug toys) are so ubiquitous that you might well duplicate toys they already have, so it might be worth asking the family if they already have them. We had three identical wooden train sets at one point. This is fine for sets that build on each other, less so for other toys that you really don’t need multiples of.

Eeboo, Mudpuppy, and Crocodile Creek puzzles – attractive and well-made large jigsaw puzzles.

Melissa and Doug toys of many kinds. We have several of the food sets that have gotten a lot of use, including pizza, cupcakes, and cutting food. The cleaning set is surprisingly good for actual cleaning.

Battat take-apart airplane (and other similar take-apart toys from the same company). Pieces go together with big plastic screws. The coolest part is that it comes with a working drill (forward and backward) that you use to put the screws in and take them out. Unlike a bunch of construction toys, the pieces are big and simple enough that a 5-year-old can do it themselves with maybe some adult help the first time.

Some kind of marble run set. A poorly made one is pretty annoying, so I do think it’s worth reading reviews. The ones that snap together are easier for younger kids than the wooden kind that falls completely apart if you bump into it.

Costumes: hats, crowns, and fancy dresses have been popular with my kids. You can buy used sequiny dance costumes on Ebay.

Play kitchen. There are usually some on Craigslist or similar sites. The Ikea one is popular for good reason.

Dolls and stuffed animals: when I asked the kids, these were the first things they listed as their favorite toys. BUT we’ve been given about 9 times more volume of stuffed animals than the kids actively play with, it’s kind of a storage problem, and I would not suggest getting these for other people’s children without checking what they already have.

Paper activity books: Play All Day is maybe out of print but I think it’s the best. Masha’s World, My Giant Press Out Activity Book.

Dollhouse: I would only get this for a kid who’s already into dolls. 2-4 seemed to be the peak years for dollhouse interest. There’s a sort of standard wooden type with expensive ones by Hape and Melissa and Doug, and some other cheaper ones for typical 4-inch wooden dolls.

Physical play:

Bilibo: plastic seat / teeter totter thing. Versatile and doesn’t take that much space.

A kite. Get one described as for kids or beginners.

Large floor mattress: ONLY get this for your own household, not someone else’s unless you are sure they want it. Most of Anna’s bedroom is taken up by a queen mattress. (She sleeps on a different smaller mattress.) It serves as a guest bed, a sleepover location when Lily wants to spend the night with her, a trampoline, a circus ring, and a gymnastics tumbling mat.

(In climates with snow) snowpants and sleds. Snowpants for both kids and adults mean you can do stuff in snow or cold weather and not be miserable.


What We Do All Day has my favorite collection of book suggestions by age, topic, etc. Can use for picture books, or longer books to read aloud to kids at this age.

You can search for “Caldecott lot” on Ebay or similar sites and find collections of prize-winning books, often classics from other decades.

Anything published by Usborne seems reliably good. For example their “Look inside” series of lift-the-flap books about science topics like space and the human body, good for younger kids who aren’t ready for wordy science books.

Let’s Read and Find Out science series is also good, with topics from germs to weather to animals. Some are old enough that you can search Ebay for “Let’s read and find out lot” and get bundles of them, but I haven’t found the info outdated.

Board/card games:

My First Orchard: attractive wooden pieces, teaches game mechanics, no skill involved. Pieces are big enough that you can play with a baby around and they cannot eat the pieces. Best for age 2-4.

Rush Hour, Rush Hour Jr, or Three Little Piggies spatial puzzle games. The first two seem to be very similar except that the Jr version has some easier puzzles.

Uno: of the standard children’s games, less boring for adults than Candyland or Chutes and Ladders. Can play a simplified version starting around age 4.

Board Game Geek’s lists of games by suggested age. Mostly pretty obscure unless you’re in Germany (and maybe even there.)

Open-ended materials:

I would not give messy project type supplies (e.g. paint) as a gift unless you know the parents are up for that.

String. Rope. Scrap cloth. Tissue paper. Giftwrap. So much scotch tape.

Big rolls of paper. Washable paints (watercolor, tempera). Paint sticks. Spillproof paint containers and brushes. Washable markers. Pipe cleaners. Pompoms.

Digging tools like shovels and trowels, either sets for kids or small real tools. Can be used at the beach or in dirt.

Bucket, bowls, boxes with lids, other containers.

Flashlight. Kids leave them on and the batteries run down, so we’ve enjoyed a wind-up rechargeable one.

Rocks and branches in the yard.


Tiny Polka Dot: card game with lots of variations for different levels.

Counting bears: This set or any of many other sets. We use ours a lot for Bear Store, other ideas here.

A bowl of pennies. We use them as counters for a bunch of things.

After developing a distaste for BOB books and other learn-to-read books, Lily had a breakthrough with the Acorn series at age 6. They have chapters, but with few enough words per page that they’re manageable for a kid who needs to sound out a lot of words. A key thing was getting books on a topic she was interested in (fairies, in her case.)

Needs adult supervision:

Snap circuits Jr. Lily listed this as one of her favorites. Some of the projects are loud (I have banned the one that plays “Happy Birthday” during work hours). She was ready for this at age 6.

Science kit: there are a lot of ones that look kind of bad, but this one has been a hit. Lily really wanted to do the kind of science where you need to wear goggles, and this did it for her.

Pricey but versatile:

Magnatiles or similar magnetic tiles. My kids never got super into these, but they’re consistently recommended enough by other families that they’re worth considering.

Duplos: my kids did get super into these. The cheapest option we found was buying them by the pound on Ebay, though you might get knockoffs instead of name-brand Duplos which are easier to work with. My kids are more into narrative than pure construction, so the animals that came with our set were a big part of their enjoyment. We haven’t gotten into legos yet except for travel, where a lego set can provide a lot of playtime for little luggage space.


1 thought on “Gift ideas for preschool / early elementary children

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