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Play Dough -- Seriously, this frugal staple is key for developing many skills our kids need to write. Stretching, pinching, and pulling strengthens muscles in the hands so kids can grip a pencil properly. Even carefully pulling shaped dough out of molds helps develop hand-eye coordination and finesse. Playdough also encourages creative play, can be used for STEM and STEAM activities, and can encourage social skills (waiting patiently, sharing). You can turn your kids out and let them free style or you can print off some task cards to give the ideas! Add in some letter and number stamps, some shape cutters, and plastic dough knives and scissors for unending play.
Building Blocks -- Old-fashioned, but valuable. Children love to stack them up and knock them over. As they start being more aware, they start branching out and making bigger and better creations. Blocks improve hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills, spatial awareness, encourage critical thinking and any other skills. You can also use them as manipulatives to teach colors and shapes. Line them up in a row and ask for your child to find the triangle or one that is blue. Put them together to make pictures tangram style. Practice making patterns. Use them for math manipulatives. Here is a huge list of ideas.
Alphabet and other Stamps -- Stamps are a fun way to add to your child’s art. They love stamping themselves, paper, you. The possibilities are endless. You can use these in school to practice encoding words before your kids can write easily or matching sounds (for example you stamp an L then you child must stamp something that beings with L like lion). You can practice making patterns, use them for making addition subtraction worksheets.
Little Tykes STEM Robot -- This particular toy is on my own wishlist, lol. It's a cute robot geared towards teaching STEM to preschoolers. They can play with it completely independently. Check it out:
Of course board games make great gifts, too. Check out my list of the best 9 PreK board games.
Puzzles -- Puzzles are important for learning hand eye coordination, and critical thinking skills. In particular they develop adaptable thinking, mathematical ability (shape, spatial ability, pattern recognition and prediction), language skills, and even social skills as you work with them and teach them how to solve the puzzle. There are different types of puzzles, too.
These make great gifts as early as 6 months. As soon as baby can sit and grab, they can have fun trying to fit the pieces in the right spaces. Baby puzzles have large chunky pieces for little ones to easily grasp and are not choking harzards. Below are some puzzles for young children:
As kids get older, puzzles become a great way to let them explore shape, texture, color, patterns, and get their brains thinking. Here are some puzzles for older preschoolers.
Now I would like to switch gears for a moment, and talk about the importance of exercise for kids. Exercise encourages brain growth, proper development, and learning among other benefits. Tired kids sleep better, too, y'all. That's an obvious fact.
Ideally, we could take them to the park every day, but even for my family, getting to the park can be a challenge. And we love the park A. LOT. so if you can bring the park to you. Let's be honest, when kids have jungle gym-esque play equiment, they will give you a few minutes to relax while they entertain themselves. That's a win for everybody.
If space allows, give kids the ability to roam climb, run, jump and play inside. Below are some ideas:
Pretend Play -- Pretend play is one of the most important parts of childhood. Dress up, house, kitchens, superheros, princesses, dolls, whatever you kids like. Below are just a few ideas!