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You may be wondering why anyone needs to research the best educational toys for 4-year-olds, considering how very articulate most children are about their likes and dislikes by this age. But then again, maybe you’re the type of parent who isn’t wondering this at all, as you’ve been researching everything you can to encourage your child’s development since they were in the womb (or before?). Whichever kind of parent you are, we’ve got you covered with this toy list.

There are a few important things that make some toys educational for 4-year-olds and others not — and we’re not talking about whether they feature the right Octonauts or Bluey characters. This is a kind of crossroads age, when kids still learn mostly through play, like 3-year-olds and everyone younger than them. But as they near age 5, they’ve also got to start gearing up for real academic learning. Kindergarten, if not already here, is on the horizon. The developmental milestones we’re used to seeing — social abilities, fine and gross motor skills, etc. — come along with the beginnings of reading, writing, and counting.

By age 4, according to the CDC, most children are more interested in playing with other kids than they have ever been before. They’re starting to understand rules of interaction, too — and that means they’re ready to play all kinds of games together. Simple board games and card games make sense to them, for example. And perhaps more interesting are the games of make-believe that they’ll invent with each other without any intervention on your part.

The “educational” toys we recommend here, and more you’ll see on the market, aren’t going to turn your 4-year-old into a genius mathematician who can read Tolstoy. Dropping extra money on STEM toys for your child doesn’t necessarily translate into high SAT scores down the road. For millennia, children had very little but sticks, rocks, and rags, and they managed to progress into functioning adults. But if kids are having fun and their caregivers are interacting with them, then they can more easily absorb information and learn problem-solving skills that they’ll use later in life.

Now, a quick caveat about milestones and “normal” childhood development: Kids learn at different rates, and their brains and bodies are complex machines that are different from each other. So when we talk about the best educational toys for 4-year-olds’ development, we simply mean a majority of children and don’t imply judgment if your kid is into something deemed more appropriate for older or younger children.

That said, we used milestone lists from the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics to guide us with these choices.

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