Gift Guide: Preschoolers

The two or three years before children enter primary school is a period of incredible wonder, when they develop their own personalities, learn to make friends, to chat, to play. Your toddler will move away from experimentation to intention, from making marks to holding a pencil and maybe even writing, from dependence on you to increasing independence. As always the key here is not to overwhelm them with hundreds of whizz-bang toys but to give them them the tools they need to engage and challenge themselves, boosting their confidence and skills so that the transition to school goes smoothly.

But never lose sight of the fact that this is a time of wonder. Your child’s last chance to play for long, uninterrupted stretches. Once school starts the fun has to be squeezed into smaller chunks of time: evenings, weekends and holidays.

Small world play

This is the golden age of small world play and make-believe. Long afternoons setting up the doll’s house or building a city on the bedroom floor. It’s a time of goodies and baddies, heroes and friends. The play can even go outside.

You don’t need many figures, just make sure they fit together well. A doll’s house containing a dozen children doesn’t offer the same scope for story-telling as a mixture of parents, children, friends and pets.

Maileg hiking mice and tent

Pitching the tent, Maileg style.

Maileg hiking mouse

As I walked out one midwinter morning…

Whether you choose a traditional doll’s house or something much smaller, like this Maileg Book House, or even just a couple of mice and a tent, the appeal lies in creating a story in a defined setting. Children like to rehearse everyday interactions and explore themes in their daily lives. The naughty dog, the crying baby, sleepy Grandpa, laying the table for dinner.

Sorting and classifying

A tinker tray is a marvellous thing. Fill it with woodland treasures and put on your nature table or collect your loose parts, ready for play. You can even use it to sort your Lego. The act of classifying is a key skill and one that children learn from birth. Is it this or that? What are its properties? How else could I group these objects? By colour? By material? By size? So much thinking provoked by such a simple tray!

Grapat tinker tray with loose parts and Ostheimer animals

Grapat tinker tray

Dressing up and role-play

Like small world play, dressing up is a way to explore the world in safety, to live imagined lives. We came across a couple of unsavoury characters on a recent shopping trip and – after the initial fright – the children came home and played an extended game of cops and robbers, full of vivid detail. Over the coming days, the game became more elaborate. Props were made, and the events shifted to new locations, but always with the same narrative arc: the baddies got their just desserts. In its own way, a trip to the doctor’s – or even the supermarket – can have as powerful an effect on a child.

You don’t need fancy costumes. A few pieces of fabric in the dressing up box are enough. No. 2 son’s response to the cops and robbers game was to declare that he was a spy. He wrapped himself in green silk and crept around the house for days, hiding in cupboards and using his homemade spy equipment.

As well as dressing up yourself, of course, you can also dress up your dolls. Strips of fabric can work very well (though you may have to tie them round the waist with string). But readymade outfits are also great fun. Moulin Roty have a dressing up wardrobe and Maileg’s mice come with a variety of costumes, from chefs to royalty and much in between.

Moulin Roty Wardrobe

Moulin Roty Little Wardrobe Suitcase Maileg big brother in matchbox

A simple mouse in a matchbox. But who could he be tomorrow? A chef? A king? A nurse?

STEM toys

Oppi Piks a great gift for the young engineer who may have tired of their old wooden blocks and wants new challenges. These boards and silicone cones offer new and unique challenges through the concepts of balance and centre of gravity. The teaching textbooks call it stunt building, which kind of sums it up perfectly.

Other next-level construction options include Kapla blocks, which take basic block play in exciting new directions.

Wooden figures

Ostheimer Sitting Tiger


Ostheimer play figures are lovely, enduring gifts for the child who enjoys small world play and lives for stories and imaginative games. For a festive take on these traditional wooden toys, a few penguins let loose in a tray full of ice makes for great fun and provides an opportunity to talk about water, temperature and the natural world, to boot.