Last Updated: September 26, 2022
Four year olds are at a new stage of independence. Existing somewhere in the gap between young preschoolers and kindergarteners. The best open-ended toys for 4 year olds will give them opportunity for independent problem-solving, help them in self-directed open-ended play, and help them use and grow their newly refined fine motor skills and growing physical abilities. All while helping them navigate their new love of experimentation – not only with toys and life but pushing limits and boundaries in relationships. So here are our favorite open ended toys for older preschoolers.
Sometime in the fourth year, kids seem to take a leap in maturity. Their interests are still very young in many ways and then they’ll surprise you with logic and foresight. Like “Wow! Who is this little human in our house who seems to know everything, and understand logic?”
What are Open-Ended Toys? Open ended simply means that it has more than one use – that is open to interpretation. And while kids are great at reinventing toys and making almost anything into an open-ended toy, some toys are just more multifunctional than others. That said, “closed” ended toys are not bad! A puzzle is a good example of a “closed” ended toy. And it’s great for building spacial skills and problem solving. But you do need to get progressively more challenging new puzzles as time goes on – thus they’re not usually an example of open-ended toys that grow with your kids. But still good toys. Open-ended play helps our kids explore, get creative and problem solve.
And as with my other toys lists – the toys listed are here are typically when they might enjoy using them most and beyond. For example, you’ll find LEGOs on my four year old list. Can three year olds enjoy LEGOs too? Of course, but we found age four to be much higher interest and ability.
Best Open Ended Toys for 4 year olds
What toys do four year olds actually play with? Our favorite open-ended toys for four year olds are all about experimenting, independent problem solving, and more refined fine and gross motor skills. These items will grow with your older preschooler and still be useful in the years to come.
Dominos are a perfect open-ended toy for four year olds. We like dominos for both game play (numbers dominos), and domino toppling – to set up and knock down. Dominos are great for building those fine-motor skills of carefully setting up dominos in a line. This builds finger precision and also cause and effect thinking and will power! The classic sets of double nine dominos are great for toppling and game play. The weight of these classic dominos are also easier for smaller fingers to set up and not accidentally knock over. And they’re excellent for getting familiar with numbers – in a natural way! But also include colors for matching. You’ll be surprised how kids can use classic dominos in many different ways.
If they’re ready for more, the Hape Domino sets are a great upgrade for learning domino toppling and adding obstacles. KiwiCo also has a fun crate in their shop that is a Domino Machine. Note: this is a Tinker Crate (ages 9+), so you will be building this for/with your child!
Age four is a great age to introduce LEGOs. While some three year olds are interested in LEGOs and LEGO projects like the LEGO City vehicles, most kids will finally have the fine motor skill ability to match their interest, sometime in their fourth year!
Our favorite LEGOs for open-ended play are classic LEGO brick sets. IKEA has a great 201 piece set for $20, LEGO has their Classics 484 piece set for $28, or the LEGO Classics Creative Suitcase 213 piece set for $16. While the small LEGO City kits (street sweeper, fire truck etc) are fun to build, kids will really start playing and creating more freely with a bulk set. With no building objective, it’s fun to see what they can make.
The LEGO City & Create build kits (like the fire truck or LEGO 3-in-1) also serve a wonderful purpose. They help children learn to find specific shapes and pieces and to follow instructions to create an amazing thing and problem solve. But LEGO kits or LEGO Technics are not as often used as open-ended toys. And often sit as a “completed” item. So the LEGO City vehicles are a good option, as they are more usable for play.
LEGO City also makes a road kit (Amazon $20), that might extend your LEGO City kits open-ended play possibilities for transportation loving kids. So follow your kiddos interest. LEGO City and LEGO Friend are a great way to introduce LEGOs with a theme that interests them. Then jump into LEGO free play with a bulk set.
3. “Add-On” to Current Building Toy: Magna-Tiles, Blocks etc.
As four year olds start playing with their existing toys in new ways, adding on to a building set you already have, can be a fun way to “upgrade” a toy. You’ve already invested time and money, so why not make old feel new again with a smaller upgrade.
For example, already have magnetic tiles? Grab the Magna-Tile Crane Builder upgrade (Amazon $50). Already have basic blocks set? Upgrade their wooden block experience with a new architectural or castle blocks add-on (Target $20). There are almost unlimited options in upgrades when it comes to magnetic tiles (Picasso Tiles, Magna-Tiles etc). Have a ton of Duplos? Add-on a Marble Run Set (Amazon $33) or a Lego table (check out my IKEA Hack Duplo LEGO table here).
4. Big Vehicles
Age four is a fun age for big movement type vehicles. Big trucks like from the Bruder brand, or the Matchbox 15″ Recycling Truck (Amazon $35) are a huge hit for open-ended play. Outside digging toys like the Big Dig Ride on excavator (Amazon $40) are also great for open-ended outdoor play!
5. Gears Building Toy
Learning Resources has some of the most interesting open-ended toys. Their Gears Gears Gears line is great for young engineering minds. With colorful gears and shapes, kids can build all kinds of different items that rotate and move with the gears. A great STEM toy that’s actually fun. Note: this line has a ton of different options, designs and age ranges for increasing difficulty of projects.
6. Buildings Playset: Horse Barn or Car Garage
Around age four, we really start to see our kids double down on their interests. Our vehicle kids want garages and car washes. The horses kids want a horse barn and stable. Our princesses need a castle and princess dress for their doll and themselves. So a fun open-ended play item is to expand their storytelling and imaginary world with one of these items. Note: you can also create most of these items with cardboard boxes and markers and paint and your child will be thrilled. But these higher-price buildings playsets are also great items as a big birthday or Christmas gift. The BRIO parking and train garage also made our list of best toys for 3 and 4 year olds.
7. Playmobil or Calico Critters
Another great toy for imaginative open-ended play, are the Playmobil and Calico Critters sets. There are almost unlimited sets from these two brands. Plus, you can often find them on sale! Age four is prime storytelling and imaginative play age. Their understanding of reality and pretend takes a leap, as well. Suddenly a “scary” book where the wolf eats the rabbit is no longer a scary thing and is quite funny. So toys like Calico Critters and Playmobil are really fun to see where their storytelling takes them. And a great way to incorporate a “dollhouse” style toy that will grow with them over the next few years, that feels less baby-ish. I know 7 and 9 year olds who are still thrilled with Calico Critters!
8. Fort building kit
Get ready for some in-house construction play! Four year olds love the life-size fort building and puppet theater type kits. Add to their open-ended imaginative play with a specific “fort building” kit, DIY, or meet somewhere in the middle with fort clips 19 pack set (Amazon $11) . These plastic clips were originally created for beach towel holding, but are great for kids DIY fort building too. There are also wooden version of these clips (Amazon $32 for 8 pack). Plus, fort building is one of the easiest active indoor play ideas for kids!
Most of the fort building kits say ages 5-8, but really age four is a great age for both interest and getting several years of use! They may need a bit of help to get started, and it’s a great way to practice their engineering skills. ;)
9. Art supplies refresh
Four year olds’ creativity blossoms in a whole new way. It’s so fun to see the kinds of things they can create, draw, paint, and color. While there are endless art supplies you can buy, our favorite in this fourth year has been in reality very simple supplies! Unlimited paper, a fresh set of marker (Target 50ct $8), scissors (to fit their ability), tape (Target 4 pack $2.50), and a fun upgrade for on-the-go art – a portable drawing case (IKEA MALA portable drawing case $15).
What about “wasting” art supplies and tape? While we have tried to teach about using more of the page and not just making a mark and moving on, allowing your four year old freedom with their art supplies is key. They will grow in skill and confidence when they’re not being corrected or reprimanded for using all the tape! How often do we not think twice about buying a $10 toy for our child, but god forbid they waste a roll of $1 tape? Right?! So give them a roll that is ALL THEIRS. When it’s gone, it’s gone. Also a great little gift from grandparents, and as stocking stuffers!
10. Cooking helper items
Four year olds make great kitchen helpers! They have more precision when measuring or stirring, have a longer (or should we just say growing? Ha!) attention span, and can do many basic tasks. So whether your preschooler is helping you in the kitchen or using an outdoor mud kitchen or play kitchen, they will love items that help cook. Think aprons, recipe cards or kids cookbook, measuring cups or spoons etc. While there are endless dramatic play and adorable toy cooking sets, some of the best for long-term use are real kitchen tools and accessories.
Around four and half we moved up from our kitchen learning tower to a regular step stool. Our four year old enjoys learning to crack eggs (tip: wait until you need a bunch like making a fritatta etc), chopping things (while 100% supervised!!) with a wavy chopper, measuring, stirring and of course sampling. Plus, cooking is another natural way to introduce beginning math concepts. Including: counting, fractions (quarter, half, whole), weights and more.
KiwiCo is another fun option for cooking kits and supplies. Now obviously, this ice cream is not open-ended and unlimited (if only!), but the kits come with some kitchen supplies and are a much more affordable option to some of the baking and cooking kits marketed toward kids. They also have a Bread and Butter Kit.
11. Beading and sewing kits
Threading beads for jewelry making and basic sewing kit type toys are just starting to get interesting for age four. Their fine motor skills are off the charts compared to a year ago. However, depending on the kid and the kit, some of these items might still be too frustrating and better at age 5 for open-ended play. Look for bead kits with larger pieces, or use fuzzy sticks instead of the thin strings for threading on pony beads. Children are sooo different in their interest and ability with these kinds of items. One 4 year old might be more interested and able than some 8 year olds, and vice versa! For more advanced kids, they may also enjoy a starter cross-stitch kit (Amazon $11).
Note: beading and jewelry making is not a gender-specific activity! While many of the kits are all pink, pastel, and glitter, boys can benefit and really enjoy beading too. I really like Target’s Mondo Llama house brand and Kid Made Modern for their color palettes that go beyond “girly” themes.
Best Open Ended Toys for 4 Year Olds
In summary, here are our favorite toys for the four year old preschooler stage.
- Dominos set
- “Add-ons” to existing toys: Magna-Tiles, wood blocks etc.
- Big Vehicles
- Learning Resources Gears Toy
- Buildings Play Set – horse barn, car garage etc.
- Playmobil or Calico Critters
- Fort building kit
- Art supplies
- Cooking helper items
- Beading and sewing kits
I hope this has given you a few ideas for toys that will grow with your four year old for open-ended play and fun! Looking for more open-ended toy ideas? Check out our favorite toys for three and four year olds list!