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Playing Preschool Wish List: 'Tis the Season

A Companion to Busy Toddler's Playing Preschool Curriculum

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The other day Green Toys has their toys on a Flash sale on Amazon and I found myself over on Instagram like, "here's the tea set I wish I had bought for the Nursery Rhyme unit" (and which I subsequently ordered for $10). My stories continued with "this would would be great for Community Helpers unit, On the Farm, Plants" and so on...

It got me thinking about all the open-ended toys we have (and a few I wish we had) that have been the most useful in teaching Year 1 of Playing Preschool. My toddler and I completed Year 1 in May of this year but I made the decision to repeat it before moving on to Year 2 (you can read about that here) which gives me the benefit of knowing the full scope. With the holidays on the horizon, I know some people are working on their holiday wish lists, so I wanted to share my top picks for educational toys to complement Playing Preschool.

Favorite Educational Toys for Playing Preschool

Here are my recommendations for toys that won't blow your holiday budget and have longevity across the Playing Preschool curriculum and/or homeschooling in general. I've designated in bold which units they would be suited for but because they are all open-ended toys, your children are sure to find new and varied ways to play! Scroll to the end to see actual photos of my children actually playing with these toys!

These apples are more than meet the eye! They can be used for sorting by color in the Apples unit, color recognition in the Colors unit, matching in the Things that Go Together unit and number recognition and counting throughout the year.

This toy is one that spans a wide age range in that it appeals to my 3-year-old as well as my 18-month-old. The rainbow is an obvious choice for the Colors unit as it is helps children learn prismatic order but it also works well for activities where children are practicing vocabulary like big and small in the Opposites unit or arranging things by size. It is also just fun to play with balancing them and a MUCH less expensive alternative to the popular Grimms rainbow stacking toys (although I kind of which I had opted for the Lewo Wooden Rainbow Stacker Large Nesting Puzzle as its shape allows them to stack in opposite order and balance on each other.

This is the tea set I wish I had bought for the Nursery Rhymes unit's tea party as it actually pours water (the Melissa and Doug one I have is wooden and is just for "pretend"). It could also be used at your teddy bar picnic in the Teddy Bears unit. I have two boys so I'll take every opportunity I can to have a tea party!

This is one of those that is still on my wish list. We own the Melissa and Doug Joey Magnetic Pretend Play set, but this bear family would be perfect for the Clothing unit (dressing for different occasions), the Teddy Bears unit (to go along with Goldilocks and the Three Bears), the Things Go Together unit (matching outfits), the Weather unit (dressing for the weather) and looking ahead to Year 2: Unit 1 - All About Me (exploring emotions) since the bears' heads have different expressions.

We were able to borrow this puzzle from our local library for the Clothing unit and while I can't say that my three-year-old learned to tie his the laces or even mastered the zipper, I'm sure he would with a little more time. I loved that the individual pieces come off so they can be easily manipulated (as opposed to a busy board) but they all fit together into one puzzle. It also comes in Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse versions.

We actually bought this set to go with the play kitchen we bought my son for his first birthday. This set is perfect for the food sorting activities in the Food unit and must-have for pretend play. We also have the Melissa & Doug Salad Set that comes with a cutting board and knife that we used for slicing bananas and avocados.

This is one of my all-time favorite toys in my house. I remember having the classic Fisher Price version growing up but my love for this toy is more than just nostalgic. It integrates financial literacy, number recognition and counting, matching by color/size and fine motor skills into one compact toy. It's perfect for imaginative play when learning about Food and grocery shopping, but could also be useful for role play in the Community Helpers unit. But I think the real reason this is a favorite is because it spans such a wide age range. At 16 months, my taby learned to put in the coins and push the buttons and it entertained him for hours (okay minutes but it felt like hours)!

It's no secret that parents and toddler's love dot markers for being easy to use and the least-messy way to paint. These scented dot markers can be used throughout the Playing Preschool curriculum, but pair especially well with the Five Senses unit. My toddler and I had a fun time trying to get the flavors using only our sense of smell. Also tempting were the Ice Cream flavors scented set.

Speaking of ice cream, this toy is easily one of my top five. The cones and "scoops" of ice cream are magnetic so they stack. The ice cream "scooper" picks up the ice cream magnetically, then releases when the lever is depressed. Also, there are TWO cones and TWO scoops which means my children can BOTH play! The magnetic aspect makes this a great fit for the Things Go Together unit, but it could be great to have for the Food unit too. Again, this is one of those toys that both my taby and my preschooler play with regularly, which is probably why it ranks so high in my estimation.

You need a train set. I'm sure you have one. But just in case you don't, this one is a great place to start. I bought this at a consignment store and it didn't have the animals (which would have been useful for On the Farm), but it was a simple introduction to tracks and trains for my then 2-year-old. We have since expanded our collection greatly, but I hold a special place in my heart for this set. You'll want it for the Transportation unit, but I was glad we had for the Things Go Together unit to practice with the puzzle-like track and polarity of magnets. If you're looking to invest in something on a larger scale, that's coming up.

Speaking of magnets, this is another item on my wish list, and I don't know why I haven't just ordered it already. It would have been so cool to have for Things Go Together, but I will definitely have to pull the trigger before we get to Year 2, which has a whole unit dedicated to magnets.

We were able to borrow this set from our local library for the Community Helpers unit and I loved the diverse representation, even though the clothes and computer were a little outdated. It was so meaningful to have these figures when we were talking about different careers and my toddler played with them every day of the unit (which we stretched to three weeks because it was so much fun!). I've also considered adding the Little People Community Helpers Figure Pack to our collection since they are compatible with our other Little People sets.

As I mentioned, we have the Melissa and Doug "Joey" set which includes outfits and accessories for police officer, firefighter and construction worker for the Community Helpers unit. This set is an expanded version that includes doctor, chef, astronaut and cowboy (for careers) as well as a pirate, superhero and knight (for fun). Also available is the Melissa and Doug "Julia" set that includes a female police officer, firefighter, doctor, astronaut, artist and chef as well as a superhero and rock star.

The Learning Journey puzzle I was going to recommend is currently unavailable but I actually like this one better because it matches the Community Helpers with the tools they use. And I love puzzles to make the learning hands-on, plus the self-correcting ones lend themselves to more "independent" puzzle time if you know what I mean.

So we actually have this BLACK + DECKER Workbench and Power Tools that is pretty amazing in that it has a table saw where the blade rotates and the drill spins in addition to all the other accessories, but we got it as a Christmas gift from the grandparents. If I were having to buy my own tool set for the Community Helpers and Construction units, it would be this one. You definitely want one with nuts and bolts that screw together.

You will probably want a doctor's kit for the Community Helpers unit but it will come in handy in the Pets unit later on. I'll be 100% honest and that I have yet to find a doctor's kit that I love (so if you have a favorite, please email me) but I do like this one for the price. I also looked into the Green Toys Doctor's Kit Role Play Set, but I chose this one for the blood pressure cuff.

Okay, I could recommend a bunch of products to piece-meal together what you may need for the Transportation unit, but instead I'm going to go big with this one. It has cars, a bus, a train set (including track and 4 train cars), a boat and a helicopter plus road signs, traffic signs/lights and a bridge/tunnel PLUS the activity run to bring it all together. It also includes construction vehicles that will come in handy for the Construction unit later on (my favorite is the cement mixer that actually spins). This would make a great birthday or holiday gift!

I'm sure you own a farm set. But if by some chance you don't, you will probably want one for the On the Farm unit. Again, this is not the set I actually own, but mine was a gift and is no longer available so this is what I would probably purchase to get the most out of this unit. On the other hand, my sister has this Fisher-Price Little People Caring for Animals Farm and both my boys love playing with it when we go to her house.

Believe it or not, this magnet set is also in my top five of toys that we own, probably because we have had them since my preschooler was a baby and we've found so many ways to play with them over the years (for more on that see this post). Seriously, the best $10 investment I've ever made. In terms of Playing Preschool, they're great for On the Farm (sorting farm animals vs. non-farm animals, making puzzles, etc) and Pets (classifying).

Okay so I actually own this version that came with a cloth bag but I really wish I had gotten this one for the Eggs unit as it has more shapes and a cute little egg carton for storage. This could also be used for Colors and Things Go Together but also any time you are working with shape recognition.

Talk about getting a bang for your buck. These reusable scenes come with stickers Transportation and Construction units and cost about $5. These stickers hold a special place in my heart for being a low-prep, no-mess activity I could give to my toddler to keep him engaged when my taby was still a newborn.

Full disclosure, I got my kids gardening tools for the Plants unit at the Target dollar spot, but no mater what you buy, having a gardening set of their own makes this unit so much more fun! My toddler and I fully immersed ourselves in the experience and started our own raised bed garden last spring (you can read about that here) and it was the epitome of hands-on learning! If you're looking for something on a smaller scale, try this Green Toys Indoor Gardening Kit.

I just missed the sale on these last week but I will be stalking this item because a friend recently told me how much her girls love "building" flowers (which makes it a STEM toy). It would be helpful for examining the parts of a flower in the Plants unit but it also looks like something my boys would enjoy playing with.

This stamp set was also a gift (my mom and I share a love of Melissa and Doug products) but it really came in handy during the Pets unit as it gave us an interactive way practice classifying pets vs. non-pets.

I love my Step2 water table (this is not exactly the exact one we own, but its very similar and I think I would actually prefer this one). The funnel adds a level (pun-intended) of fun and the circular shape means both my boys can reach, scoop, and swirl the contents. This is a must-have for the Water unit, and water play in general, but it can be used as an outdoor sensory table. The opening makes it easy to "drain" water beads, rice, etc. into a strainer or storage container. Speaking of sensory set-ups...

Favorite Sensory Bin Supplies

I know everyone loves their Learning Resources tweezers and that they help to develop the strength for pencil grip, but these mini-tongs were a game changer use! They put the fun back in sensory bins for my son because they are easy to manipulate; he's like a little crab with pincers!

Truth, my funnel set is from the dollar store. I started with three and they've all broken or cracked except one and it won't be long so I should probably just order these now. I like that this set has handles and a strainer for when larger items get mixed in, but it doesn't really matter if you spend $1 or $10, you just need a funnel. Something about watching the sand/rice/water go in the top and out the bottom is absolutely mesmerizing.

I'm not really sure why Kinetic Sand doesn't get more air play when it comes to keeping toddlers busy. Maybe because it isn't homemade (although I have seen DIY versions). If I had to choose just one sensory material, it would definitely be Kinetic Sand. It can hold my three-year-old's attention better than anything else and it is the easiest thing ever to clean up (seriously, it doesn't even stick in my rug like Play-doh). This set actually comes with cool tools for cutting, shaping and grating it but you can also buy just the sand.

I am an adult who loves to play with water beads. They are so squishy and bouncy and kind of slimy but not in a messy way. I will run my fingers through them and squeeze them in my hand; it really is a sensory experience. Basically they come packaged a tiny little beads and when you add water they grow and keep growing for like 8 hours. And there are tons of things you can do with them. I bought them for our Water unit but be played with them in our water table the rest of the summer.

My Homeschool Preschool Favorites

This calendar I actually bought mid-way through our Year 1 as a Christmas present to myself and I absolutely love it! It was in high demand in the Fall of this year when so many people decided to homeschool their preschoolers due COVID-10, but it is back and under $20! So many people have been told me their mind was blown when they realized the bottom part could be used as a white board (not just a place to store the magnets).

Susie of Busy Toddler recently talked about how math concepts can be very abstract for kids and that having manipulates they can work helps to make them more concrete (and fun). These blocks are a recent addition to our educational toys, but I am already blown away by how versatile they are! These blocks connect on all six sides and come as 10 sets of 10 colors that can be used for sorting, counting, construction, patterning and other pre-math skills throughout the curriculum as well as math concepts and STEM activities down the road.

Okay, hear me out. I am an advocate for limiting screen-time and I was not 100% sold on buying my child his own tablet. But last Christmas we were going on a 9-hour road trip to visit family and my husband and I knew we were going to need a little help. So we bought this little guy on Black Friday sale and I am glad we pulled the trigger.

Here's why: I am completely in control of what content is loaded on his device. We download apps, educational games, books, movies, etc. and then we turn off the wifi. It is password protected so he can't access the internet or browse other content. We can access lots of educational apps (I love PBS Kids for games and shows) and can pre-load it with episodes/movies from Disney+ before a long trip. Plus it comes with a 2-year worry-free guarantee in case of damage.

But the real reason I'm including this in the list of my favorite things for Playing Preschool is that it comes with one year of Amazon Kids+ (formerly known as FreeTime Unlimited, the kids version of Kindle Unlimited) with thousands and thousands of free books in digital format. This was a lifesaver last spring when our libraries and thrift bookstores closed due to the pandemic. In addition, one of the members of the Playing Preschool with Busy Toddler Curriculum Group created a master list of all of the books that are available on FreeTime that are part of the curriculum and many other suitable substitutes.

Even if you don't own a Kindle device, you can still download the Amazon Kids+ (FreeTime) app and get a 30-day free trial ($2.99/month after that for Prime members).

My Favorite Brands

Melissa and Doug

I'm not an early childhood expert, but I've been a mom long enough to know that my children prefer playing with wooden toys over plastic ones. What I don't really know is why but I suspect it has to do with the feel and the weight of them. This is how I came to love Melissa and Doug toys. I have also tried to buy similar (cheaper) versions of their toys and am always disappointed with the quality. On the other hand, I've purchased used Melissa and Doug toys from consignment stores and they're still in great condition!

Green Toys

Eco friendly and sustainable. Kid-safe materials. Dishwasher safe. On-budget. Made in the USA. Minimal packaging. Plenty of reasons to love Green Toys Inc!

What are your favorite toys or brands to complement Playing Preschool?


To learn more about how I got started with Playing Preschool and other supplies I recommend read: A Companion Guide to Busy Toddler's Playing Preschool Curriculum

I also invite you to join the Playing Preschool with Busy Toddler Curriculum Caregiver Group on Facebook. This group was created to share ideas and resources and offer support to other members also teaching the curriculum.

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