Many 4-year-olds are learning to master their environments—and to negotiate boundaries, push limits, and question everything. Some of the best gifts for 4-year-olds engage their endless curiosity, rapidly developing physical skills, and desire to understand everything around them.
Early STEM toys—those that help develop skills related to science, technology, engineering, and math—allow preschoolers to experiment with the strength, size, and shape of objects, and to explore cause and effect (hopefully without breaking too many things). Along with classic wooden blocks, building toys that feature magnets, gears, curves, and wheels allow 4-year-olds to problem-solve independently.
Jena Olson, who was the president of the STEM educational nonprofit Kid Spark Education at the time of our interview, emphasizes other, lesser-known skills that STEM toys can help preschoolers develop: “Children learn language and cooperation,” she said. “They refine their physical skills, including fine motor skills, as they push and pull pieces apart.” Gifts that encourage art and creativity, as well as games and movement toys that allow for silly and energetic play, are also great choices for kids of this age. (You may have noticed that STEAM—which adds an emphasis on the arts to STEM’s existing focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—has been picking up, ahem, steam over recent years.)
We relied on the advice of Olson and Ann Kienzle of Play toys in Chicago, as well as that of parents and other caregivers on our staff, to identify memorable and engaging gifts for 4-year-olds. Many gifts for kids are appropriate for a range of ages. If you’re looking for more kids gift ideas, check out our guides to the best gifts for 1-year-olds, 2-year-olds, 3-year-olds, 5-year-olds, 6-year-olds, 7-year-olds, 8-year-olds, 9-year-olds, and 10-year-olds, as well as crowd-pleasing stocking stuffers for kids. We also have guides to gifts for tweens and teens. (Just remember, since kids develop at different rates, all age recommendations should be taken with a grain of salt.) And please share your own best ideas in the comments below.
A bouncy seat
Waliki Hopper Ball (about $18 at the time of publication)
The Waliki Hopper offers joyful bouncing for kids who have energy to spare—and it doubles as a comfy seat for those who like or need to wiggle and rock even when they’re sitting still. For my oldest son, who has autism spectrum disorder and sensory processing disorder, the Waliki Hopper served as a sensory-friendly seat for story time and more, allowing him to rock and bounce to stay alert and focused well into his middle-school years. Constructed of thick rubber, the Hopper is more durable than a yoga ball, which is typically made from vinyl; our Hopper has withstood years of indoor and outdoor use. A hand pump is included. The Hopper comes in six colors as well as plush-covered versions, and there are four sizes (the 18-inch Hopper is best for 4-year-olds).
Peaceable Kingdom Dinosaur Escape Game (about $18 at the time of publication)
Around the age of 4, many kids can really listen to, understand, and follow simple game instructions, said Keewa Nurullah, owner of the Chicago children’s shop Kido. To play Dinosaur Escape, players roll the die to reveal either a number or a volcano. The former moves the player’s dinosaur in any direction on the board, while the latter adds one piece to the five-piece volcano at the board’s center. As young dinosaur experts know, volcanoes are bad news for dinos. The object of the game is to get the dinosaurs to safety without completing the volcano—or being run back to the start by a T. rex token.
Play-Doh Kitchen Creations Drizzy Ice Cream Playset (about $10 at the time of publication)
My aunt is an elementary school teacher, and she always manages to find the gifts that delight my kids the most, like this pretend ice cream maker. The Play-Doh Kitchen Creations Drizzy Ice Cream Playset lets my children live out their sundae fantasies—from lemon ice cream with gummy worms to a rainbow unicorn concoction with sprinkles. They push the Play-Doh through a lever to create creamy swirls, while the 31 molds on the contraption’s side produce faux candies, sprinkles, cherries, gummy bears, and other toppings. Squirting the alarmingly realistic strawberry and chocolate drizzle—pretend syrup goo—from the squeeze bottles is especially fun. (Don’t worry—it’s all washable.) Tulip-shaped serving cups are included, along with two spoons and a pair of recipe cards. The set also comes with six containers of Play-Do. It’s gotten so much use, though, that we’ve purchased replacements (any Play-Doh will do, but we’ve noticed that the fresher stuff works best). I’ll admit that this machine is a little clunky—it’s about the size of my forearm—so I stash it (along with all the accouterments) in a bin between sessions. But considering what a crowd-pleaser this has been, it more than earns its keep.
What a charade
Pressman Charades for Kids (about $12 at the time of publication)
When you have a wide range of ages to entertain, nothing beats a good old-fashioned round of Charades. Granted, you don’t need anything more than your imagination (and a willing audience) to play Charades, but Pressman Charades for Kids definitely helps get the game off the ground. The set comes with an hourglass timer, an optional die (for selecting which clue to act out), and 150 cards. Each card has three levels of clues to choose from: The easiest is represented by just an image (like a cat or a bee), so there’s no reading required, and the other two get increasingly difficult (eating spaghetti; hanging a picture).
Classics for reading aloud and learning to read
Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad have amused generations of early readers—and their parents—with the silly and profound nature of their enduring friendship (you can find all four of the original Frog and Toad stories, with Lobel’s beautifully expressive illustrations, in Frog and Toad Storybook Favorites). We can all recognize a little of ourselves in the anxious, innocent, and tantrum-prone Toad or the patient, cheerful, and always-reasonable Frog (or both!). Although they offer some useful life lessons, the stories are never didactic: Their appeal lies in the joy these opposites find in simple acts such as gardening, sledding, and doing kind things for each other—as well as in the ridiculous things that Toad does all on his own. The Lobel-narrated audio collection is as beloved in our household as the books, and someday I’ll find the time to knit absolutely perfect, little stuffed versions of my favorite amphibian friends with the Frog & Cast Frog and Toad Pattern Download.
A goofy game
Go Away Monster (about $20 at the time of publication)
Go Away Monster is a silly, lightly competitive game that offers just the right challenge level for many preschoolers. Players have individual game boards showing a bedroom scene, and each person takes a turn by reaching into a bag filled with cardboard pieces, selecting (by feel; no peeking!) either a bedroom item—a bed, a lamp, a teddy bear, or a picture for the wall—or a friendly-looking monster. The goal is to add all of the bedroom pieces to your game board without selecting a monster. But if you do grab one, you should say, “Go away, monster!” and fling it away. The game challenges 4-year-olds to recognize and remember shapes by touch and to make choices about which pieces they need. And since the game doesn’t end until everyone completes their bedroom, no one really loses. Go Away Monster is a pick in our guide to the best board games for kids, where we also recommend the slightly more challenging Max (the Cat) for the same age group. (In that cooperative board game, players work together to help a bird, a mouse, and a squirrel escape the prowling advances of a hungry cat named—you guessed it—Max.)
A better board game for beginners
My First Castle Panic ($16 at the time of publication)
As a huge board-game geek, I’ve spent the past three years impatiently waiting for my now-preschooler to age into games that involve even a modicum of strategy—versus, say, feverishly smashing a lever to make a hippo eat marbles. My First Castle Panic is the first game we’ve played together that suggests there’s hope on the horizon. The concept is fairly basic: You simply draw and trade cards with shapes on them (no reading required), and then play them to stop the monsters from encroaching on the castle. But it involves communication, cooperation, planning, and even some fantasy role-playing, when we really get into it. It’s much more engaging and re-playable for all ages than other games we’ve tried that are aimed at kids under 5. Perhaps we’ll launch that family D&D campaign together sooner than I thought.
Scratch and Sketch Infinity Pad ($15 at the time of publication)
I like to think of the Scratch and Sketch Infinity Pad as magic paper. It resembles a plain black clipboard, but when you draw on this LCD doodling board, multicolor art magically appears. My 4-year-old daughter is dazzled by how its screen transforms from darkness into a neon riot every time she uses it. The kid-size stylus (included) helps her create precise lines, but she uses just her fingers, too. When she’s ready to start fresh, there’s a single button at the base of the screen that erases her work and replaces it with a blank canvas. This portable, shatterproof toy does require a coin-shaped battery, but it’s less an electronic device than an Etch-a-Sketch for the 21st century. Only instead of bulky knobs and a monochrome palette, my daughter has the whole rainbow at her fingertips.
Mudpuppy Dominoes ($10 at the time of publication)
Simple, inexpensive, and endlessly replayable, this set of Mudpuppy Dominoes is a welcome take on the classic matching game, designed specifically for toddlers and preschoolers. The dominoes themselves are made of card stock—so you can’t set them up and knock ’em down or craft the beginnings of a Rube Goldberg device. But they’re made from recycled materials and are big and sturdy enough to be gripped by little hands. Playing with them doesn’t require any reading: On one side of each card, there are differing numbers of dots, so kids can practice their counting; on the other side, there are just pictures that can be easily paired up. The themes include unicorns, wildlife, and outer space. We’re a dino family.
Bingo with a zing
ThinkFun Zingo! (about $14 at the time of publication)
My son begged me to get Zingo after he played several fun-filled rounds of it at his preschool. As with its predecessor, Bingo, the object of Zingo is to be the first player to fill your row or board—only in this game, the victor shrieks “Zingo!” with competitive zeal. Instead of numbers, the boxes on the laminated boards feature illustrations, like a tree, a cake, or a heart, along with the corresponding word in a bold, easy-to-read font. (My son’s preschool teachers loved how Zingo helped build vocabulary and focus along with a whirlwind of excitement.) Three years later, this game is still in rotation in our home, with my daughter, 4, joining in the fun. She and her brother, now 7, take turns pulling chips from the dispenser and calling out the images. My husband and I often play too, because it’s tough to resist the high drama and thrill of winning.
$20 to $50
Zoob BuilderZ 125 Piece Building Set (about $40 at the time of publication)
The Zoob BuilderZ kit is a building toy featuring connectable pieces with ball joints that kids can snap into U-shaped brackets. (We recommend Zoob sets in our guide to learning toys and STEM toys we love.) Instead of building static structures with traditional blocks or Duplo kits, this Zoob set allows 4-year-olds to experiment with hinges and joints, building open-ended creations with curves and bends that they can move, flex, and spin. There are Zoob kits for building robots or other projects, too. Per the box, the Zoob kit is recommended for kids ages 6 and up, though we’ve seen younger kids gravitate to it the most. The pieces fall between Duplo and Lego in size, and they require some manual dexterity and strength to snap together.
Petit Collage Make Believe Animal Costume Magnetic Dress Up Box (about $25 at the time of publication)
Like a sturdier version of paper dolls, Petit Collage’s adorable magnetic animals come with over 35 mix-and-match costume changes. Young kids can use their imaginations to invent new jobs and identities for the included bear and fox. It’s a particularly convenient toy for long car rides, thanks to its magnetic box, which pulls double duty as a backdrop for the dress-up fun and a container for all of the small pieces. Once dressed, each animal can be displayed on a wooden stand to fully flaunt their new looks. Petit Collage also offers a selection of detailed play scenes, including outer space and a tree-house party.
To the moon
Born Toys Premium Deluxe Astronaut Costume (about $45 at the time of publication)
If your 4-year-old is into dress-up, make-believe, and all things space, this simple yet sturdy astronaut costume offers ample opportunities for imaginative play. The main suit is made of hefty material and has a front zipper and an adjustable belt buckle. Festooned with official-looking stickers, it comes with its own accessories, namely a NASA cap and a little backpack that can store the costume when it’s out of commission. The best part? Its durability. Several members of the Wirecutter staff can attest that the suit will survive years of space-themed playtime.
For eagle-eyed kiddos
Richard Scarry’s Busytown Eye Found It! (about $25 at the time of publication)
The world of legendary children’s illustrator Richard Scarry is crammed with industrious animal characters attending to the many particulars of their busy lives, so it’s the perfect setting for a gamified version of Where’s Waldo? To play Busytown Eye Found It!, players work together to move their characters though Busytown, searching for images in Scarry’s signature elaborate pastiches. The goal is to reach the blanket at the other end of the board before pigs swoop in and consume the picnic spread. (All the participants must reach safety as a group, so you win or lose together as a team—which helps foster camaraderie and minimize meltdowns.) You’ll notice right away that the board itself is huge—6 feet long once unfurled from its box. The jumbo size is great for toddlers crawling around to hunt for pictures, but it can be arduous for grownups when the board is on the floor. I’ve found this is a particular joy for kids ages 2 to 5 to play. And it introduces them to all the basic skills and concepts of board gaming: flicking a spinner, counting spaces, drawing cards, watching a timer, making decisions, working together, and yes, sometimes even losing to a horde of hungry pigs. (Note: While kids as young as 2 can handle the action, the small game pieces can be a choking hazard.)
Tea for four
Green Toys Tea Set (about $18 at the time of publication)
My daughter loves a good tea party (humans and stuffed animals are all invited). But when she started drinking out of the cheap, paint-chipped plastic set my sweet mother-in-law bought at a garage sale, I had to step in with an upgrade. The Green Toys Tea Set, made in the US from recycled plastic, meets FDA food-contact standards, so you can feel comfortable putting cakes on the plates and sipping from the adorable cups. The service for four comes in two color schemes (blue, red, and yellow; pink, purple, yellow, green, and blue) and is dishwasher safe, though I just give it a quick hand wash after use. In our house, a tea party is really just an excuse to drink sugar dissolved in water. The sugar bowl, oddly enough, has holes in the bottom that let the saccharine crystals fall onto the table. We quick-fixed that by adding a napkin liner before filling the bowl (and our bellies) with the sweet stuff.
A super friend
Wonder Crew Superhero Buddy (about $30 at the time of publication)
Researchers are beginning to study the social-emotional benefits of doll play for young children, but boys have often been overlooked by doll designers. Psychotherapist Laurel Wider developed the superhero-themed Wonder Crew buddies to address this gap. The soft-bodied buddies are available in four combinations of skin tones, hair styles, and eye colors, and will appeal to any child who loves exciting play and wants a friend to cuddle and care for. Each doll comes outfitted with a superhero cape and mask—with a matching, real-kid-size version—aimed at inspiring imaginative play related to friendship, adventure, and empathy.
Rainbows in their room
Kikkerland Solar Powered RainbowMaker With Swarovski Crystal (about $40 at the time of publication)
Many 4-year-olds are mesmerized by the magic of rainbows. The Kikkerland RainbowMaker is a happy little contraption that uses a solar panel to power a colorful geared motor, which rotates a hanging Swarovski crystal and sends rainbows swooping across your room. You simply attach the RainbowMaker to a window (it affixes via suction cup, so there’s no need to worry about sticky residue) that gets some direct sunlight, and then wait for the optics to work their magic. It’s particularly fun when you forget the Rainbow Maker is there until the sun reaches just the right angle and sets it into motion. My niece calls this “rainbow time,” and she enjoys chasing the colors across the room and seeing them slide over different objects.
Learning Resources Gears! Gears! Gears! Deluxe Building Set (about $24 at the time of publication)
Lakeshore Turn & Learn Magnetic Gears (about $35 at the time of publication)
The Learning Resources Gears! Gears! Gears! building set is basically what you’d guess: a big box of colored gears that snap together with axles and extenders to create complex, movable structures. The challenge is figuring out how to align and order the gears so they’ll all turn in unison and not get jammed up. As preschoolers experiment with building spinning, whirring, gear-driven structures, they’re actually starting to understand the basics of complex machines. These gears have long been a pick in our guide to learning toys and STEM toys we love, and they’re a favorite among the kids of several parents on our staff.
The Lakeshore Turn & Learn Magnetic Gears set includes magnetized gears that you can attach to the fridge. You can’t build complex structures like you can with Gears! Gears! Gears!, but this set is still an engaging way for little kids to experiment with mechanics (the pieces are also a bit larger, which may be easier for some little kids to handle). My 3-year-old son loves to align the colorful, interlocking pieces on our refrigerator and figure out how he can make them all spin. A bonus: The magnets themselves are really strong and will keep all of your child’s refrigerator-worthy artworks firmly in place.
An approachable intro to coding
Coding Critters Go Pets Dipper the Narwhal (about $25 at the time of publication)
Calling this a “coding toy” feels like a bit of a stretch—it’s essentially a jigsaw puzzle that forms a track that a cute, battery-operated narwhal automatically follows. However, the toy does encourage preschoolers to plan, count, and problem-solve in sequential order, as they reconfigure the pieces of the track to send the narwhal on simple missions (which match the story from a short activity book). My 3-year-old enjoyed those exercises only briefly and then moved on to the real fun: building and rebuilding the track to send the poor, persistent narwhal on an endless, tangled loop.
A monthly craft-box subscription
KiwiCo Koala Crate (about $70 for a three-month subscription at the time of publication)
The KiwiCo Koala Crate is our favorite subscription box for preschool-age kids. We tested five such subscriptions for this age group and liked this one the best for its thoughtful design, appealing themes, and fun, unique, and age-appropriate projects. KiwiCo, the company that makes Koala Crate, develops its projects with input from educators and child-development experts. Although children’s individual skills vary, many 4-year-olds will be able to complete some or all of each month’s projects independently, giving them a sense of accomplishment—and providing a reliable arsenal of rainy-day activities. Each box comes with instructions (including directions for the “grown-up assistant”), as well as all the materials to make two or three different craft projects. These projects challenge kids to explore skills like stitching, gluing, and arranging pieces. I tested these subscriptions when my daughter was 4, and she loved the projects we tried: dyeing a tote bag with tissue paper and water, sewing and stuffing a felt rainbow, and making a tissue-paper campfire. Every project is organized around a theme, such as reptiles, ocean animals, or doctor visits.
A wild ride
Radio Flyer Cyclone ($55 at the time of publication)
I was extremely skeptical about this unusual-looking contraption after my son received it as a gift when he was about 4. But over several years of use, the Cyclone—which you “pedal” with your arms, somewhat like you would a racing wheelchair—became one of my kids’ favorite outdoor toys, and it held up well to miles of rough rolling. From age 4 or 5, my older son was an ace on the Cyclone, speeding it down the sidewalk to a local park and performing spins and skids for littler kids once there. They tended to line up to give it a whirl, and I found that some kids as young as 3 can learn to maneuver the Cyclone in the dizzying circles that no doubt inspired its name.
Marble Genius Marble Run Extreme Set (about $75 at the time of publication)
My sisters and I played marbles as kids, shooting our balls across the finish line to see who could knock the most marbles out of the circle. Shooting marbles lost its novelty eventually, and we outgrew the game. Marble runs like Marble Genius Marble Run Extreme introduce new energy to a childhood classic. This 300-piece set includes funnels, spinning wheels, tubes that snap together easily on three large bases, and parts that are translucent, allowing kids to see the marbles move from the top to the bottom and through all the spins and twists. In addition to giving kids the creative challenge of constructing a track—and the fun of watching the marbles spin and clatter through the turns—marble runs let kids observe the effects of gravity, speed, and direction. “Adults can help kids make predictions about how fast the marble will move and where it will go,” said Jena Olson, president of Kid Spark Education at the time of our interview.
The set comes with over 100 glass marbles, but it also accommodates the standard-size marbles you might already have. Some 4-year-olds may need adult help to get the hang of building the marble run, but it’s pretty irresistible even for grown-ups. (Note: The marbles in this set could pose a choking hazard for younger children.)
An excellent easel
My son received the KidKraft Storage Easel from his grandparents for Christmas when he was 4. He’s serious about his artwork, and he would be happy to paint every day. But setting up for—and cleaning up after—a painting session on the kitchen table can be a bit of a project. I like that the KidKraft easel comes with an attached roll of art paper and built-in storage bins underneath that can be used to hold paints, brushes, and other supplies (three paint cups are also included). Though this easel requires assembly, it’s sturdier and has more features than less-expensive easels we’ve used in the past. And since we keep it in the kitchen and see it all the time, I appreciate the glossy, dark-wood finish.
Wirecutter kids have also created countless masterpieces with simpler wooden easels made by Melissa & Doug and IKEA. The cheap rolls of craft paper you can buy at IKEA or local art-supply stores should work with any of them. And if your kid goes through a ton of paint, you’ll save money in the long run by stocking up on bigger bottles of washable tempera, rather than buying tiny individual cups of paint from Crayola and the like.
“If there is one constant of what preschool-age children are interested in, it may be magnets,” said John Dimit III, owner of the toy-and-game store Dr. G’s BrainWorks in Champaign, Illinois. Colorful Magna-Tiles, a pick in our guide to learning toys and STEM toys we love, combine the mesmerizing snap-together magic of magnets with open-ended block play. When my son was 4, castles were his go-to. Now 5, he’s always coming up with new creations, such as a robot or an oven to bake his toy cupcakes in. Classic Magna-Tiles include a variety of basic shapes. We also like Magna-Qubix, a 29-piece set of three-dimensional pyramids, prisms, and cubes. My son uses the Magna-Qubix to add more detail to his structures, and he’s working on making dinosaurs using the small pyramids and cube shapes.
Turrets and arches
FAO Schwarz 150-Piece Wooden Castle Building Blocks Set ($100 at the time of publication)
Note: When we first recommended this pick, the price for a 150-piece set was $30.
My son got these cool castle-motif building blocks as a gift years ago. They came with instructions for building one fairly elaborate castle, which he enjoyed making. But after a week or two, the wooden blocks were added to our generic block basket. From then on, he just incorporated them into his other block creations. We now have three other kids who are old enough to build with these blocks, and this set has proved to be a well-loved, long-lasting toy in our house.
A family membership to a zoo or nature center
Squam Lakes Natural Science Center ($90 for a four-person membership at the time of publication)
A family membership to a zoo or a nature center makes a great gift for families with preschool-age kids. Like many kids, my younger son was obsessed with animals when he was about 4. When we lived in Los Angeles, we had a membership to the LA Zoo (and once made a pilgrimage to the famous San Diego Zoo). When we moved to rural New Hampshire, we found a very different type of animal experience at the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center, where a lovely wooded footpath winds through exhibits that hold local native animals (many of them rescued after an injury). I like how smaller, local nature centers like this one can give kids a deeper knowledge of the creatures and ecosystems they encounter every day near their own homes. And similar to many of the best zoos, animal parks, and nature centers, Squam Lakes also has plenty of room—including fun outdoor play areas—for kids to run and use up energy.
We love finding gifts that are unusual, thoughtful, and well vetted. See even more gift ideas we recommend.
—Additional reporting by Julie Kim
This article was edited by Ellen Lee, Ingela Ratledge Amundson, and Kalee Thompson.
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