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Gift Guide 2015: Top Toys for Quality Dramatic Play

Love this list! Dramatic play promotes literacy through vocabulary and story-telling practice as well as social skills such as empathy, turn taking, and the identification of emotions.

On to our finds for dramatic play, yippee!  Why am I so enthusiastic about this list, and dramatic play in general?  Because I truly believe that this type of play is absolutely VITAL to kids’ development.  It teaches so many wonderful things – literacy through vocabulary and story-telling practice as well as social skills such as empathy, turn taking, and the identification of emotions.

It can even incorporate lots of practical mathematical problem solving skills, and much, much more. Plus kids absolutely love it, which means carefully selected, engaging toys can lead to hours upon hours of both independent and cooperative play.

Don’t forget – you can check out all 10 of our 2015 Gift Guides here!

Once again this year, I’m heading up each list with my favorites from all the picks – here, in no particular order, are my top 7 Toys for Quality Dramatic Play (scroll down for full details on each):

  1. Kidkraft Red Vintage Kitchen $148.64 (2 – 8 years)
  2. Learning Resources Pretend & Play Doctor Set $26.20 (3 – 6 years)
  3. Learning Resources Teaching Cash Register $38.03 (3 – 9 years)
  4. Little Tikes Gas ‘n Go Mower Toy $20.99 (walking – 5 years)
  5. Imaginext Rescue City Center $42.95 (3 – 8 years)
  6. Melissa & Doug Dress Up Sets starting at $19.99 (3 – 6  years) and Disney Dress Princess Outfits starting at $11.03 (2 – 6 years)
  7. Kidkraft Waterfall Mountain Train Set & Table $179.99 (2 – 8 years)
  8. Green Toys Tea Set $19.59 (2 – 4 years)
  9. Little Helper Broom Set $13.66 (3 – 6 years)
  10. Designed by You Doll House with Furniture $110.22 (2+ years)

I should mention that the most classic of dramatic play toys, dolls, are not included on this list other than the doll house mentioned above.  That’s because there are so many blocks that I love they have their very own gift guide: Best Toys for Doll Lovers.

Read on for over 30 of my favorite toys for quality dramatic play, broken down into:

  • Cooking & Grocery Shopping
  • Dress Up
  • Doctor & Veterinarian
  • Trains, Planes & Automobiles
  • Construction
  • Stand-Alone Dramatic Play Props

Special Note: In an effort to help you out as much as possible this year, I’ve included both prices and age recommendations for each item.  Please take the age ranges as just that – recommendations – you know you’re child best after all!  

Also, this time of year prices can fluctuate quite dramatically.  So if you see something a little outside of your price range, it might not be a bad idea to click over and check it out anyway – you may get lucky and catch a sale.

Along those lines, I’m doing my best to keep our readers up-to-date on any sales I see on our gift guide items.  To be in the loop, be sure to follow us on facebook and subscribe to our newsletter.

Ready for the big list? Here we go…

Dolls & Castles for Princess Lovers

Thanks in no small part to the movie Frozen, my 4 year old daughter officially got into princesses this year – which led to quite a bit of research on princess dolls and castles for her birthday. So, new this year is an entire section on princess dramatic play – enjoy!

  • Disney Princess Toddler Dolls Starting at $17.99 (2 – 6 years) – These cozy dolls are the perfect size for a child to drag along all day long. If you’ve got a little one that just wants an Elsa, Anna, Mulan, Belle, ect. to call her own and cuddle with at night – this is a great choice!

  • Disney Frozen Color Change Elsa Doll $24.99 (3 – 10 years) and Disney Frozen Anna & Kristoff Dolls 2 Pack $24.24 (3 – 10 years) – Given the insane popularity of the Frozen movie, it’s surprisingly hard to find good quality Frozen character dolls. These all get high marks for their quality and large Barbie-like. The two pack is an especially good deal and kids will love Elsa’s “magic” dress which has a pattern that appears when it gets wet.
  • Disney Frozen Olaf Doll $14.99 (3 – 10 years) – This guy is the perfect companion for the Frozen dolls mentioned above. He too is a good size, plus he comes apart and can be put back together again (just like the real Olaf) and his facial expressions change when you push down on his head. A great little toy for both boys and girls and a reasonable price – this guy will likely end up in one of my kids’ stockings this year.
  • Disney Frozen Glitter Glider Anna, Elsa and Olaf Doll Set $23.80 (3 – 10 years) – Now that we have the Disney princess dolls and the Barbie Mariposa castle below, we’ll be adding this set of 4″ Anna and Elsa dolls to our daughter’s collection. Not only do the dolls in this set have removable, glittery dresses, they also “glide” around on new rolling mechanism. Plus, I love that an Olaf figurine comes with this set. There are also Glitter Glider dolls available in other Disney princess as well as a Disney Princess Glitter Glider Castle $35.00 (3 – 10 years). This wasn’t available when I first did my searching and were I to do it again I think I’d be just as likely to buy this one although the next item on the list still has a slight edge with the room it allows for dramatic play (and accompanying props).

  • Barbie Mariposa and The Fairy Princess Castle Playset with Mini-Dolls (3 – 10 years) – No one was more surprised than me when I found myself putting this plastic Barbie castle in my Amazon cart but I just couldn’t stomach spending $60 – $100 on a wooden castle that I would prefer when I knew what she really wanted was something that was purple and pink and sparkly. (Plus, I wasn’t totally convinced how much she’s play with a castle and those wood versions have a BIG footprint and I really liked the compact size of this one.) So, after a lot of research, I ordered this one and crossed my fingers that it wouldn’t be a piece of junk that fell apart in a few weeks. Thankfully, my daughter loves it, it’s the perfect size for the 4″ princess dolls we got her and it’s held up remarkably well. Plus it came with two additional fairy dolls that actually “fly” around the top of it.

  • Disney Princess Little Kingdom Magiclip 7-Doll Giftset $33.39 (3 – 10 years) – When my daughter decided she wanted some princesses to play with, I wanted to get her a group of them without spending a ton of money. What I really liked about this set was that she can put them all into a play bag or purse and easily tote them around, plus – bonus – the plastic dresses are interchangeable and easily removed with a pinching motion. My daughter REALLY likes this set and it goes great with the inexpensive castle we got her to go along with it. 

  • LEGO Disney Princess 41055 Cinderella’s Romantic Castle $59.97 (6 – 12 years) – As is attested to by the LEGO section of our “Best Building & Construction Toys” Gift Guide, we are a LEGO loving family (we even have an entire LEGO station in our house). So it’s no surprise that one of the few princess castles I recommend would be a LEGO castle. When fully assembled, this is a thing of beauty and it comes with a lot of nice accessories. Plus, it’s a castle that promotes both imaginative open-ended play and spatial reasoning skill through building – win, win!

  • Melissa & Doug Folding Princess Castle $63.16 (3 – 10 years) – Had my daughter been a die-hard princess fan instead of a brand new one (and I knew she’d spend a lot of time playing with a princess castle), then this is undoubtedly the one I would have picked. I’m a fan of Melissa & Doug toys in general and I love that this play castle has lots of accessible reach-in play space thanks to multiple play levels and an open courtyard. The impressive palace playscape also includes removable turrets, royal bedrooms, a working drawbridge, stable, and more. Plus the hand-painted accents are wonderful and I like the fact that it expands large enough for several kids to play on at once but does fold into a smaller size when not in use.
  • Disney Dress Princess Outfits starting at $11.03 (2 – 6 years) – These are pretty much all our daughter wanted for her 4th birthday so she got several from friends. They have all held up impressively well amidst repeated dramatic play use (while I may not be the biggest princess fan, I do LOVE the creativity these dresses have brought out in my girl). Our favorites include Snow WhiteAuroraAnnaMerida

Dramatic play promotes literacy through vocabulary and story-telling practice as well as social skills such as empathy, turn taking, and the identification of emotions.

Cooking & Grocery Shopping

Grocery shopping and cooking dramatic play has long been popular with boys and girls alike.  As such, there are a bevy of toy props to go along with this type of play in all sizes and price ranges. Here are a few of our favorites.

  • Kidkraft Red Vintage Kitchen $148.64 (2 – 8 years) – The play kitchen is a quintessential play toy that I would recommend for every child if you have the space and budget.  There are so many different ways kids can play with them – cooking at home, setting up a restaurant, having a tea party, going shopping and unloading the groceries, etc. We bought this one for the kids two years ago when they were 1 and 3 and couldn’t be happier with it.  I really like the look of the thing and I think the vibrant red is nicely gender neutral. Despite a small footprint, this kitchen still has all the amenities and both my kids enjoy regularly playing at it simultaneously even now at ages 3 and 5 (Side note: people sometimes ask if kids will get too big for this smaller kitchen – mine are 95% in height and haven’t had an issue). If you’re looking for a big wow gift from Santa, this could very well be it!
  • Learning Resources Teaching Cash Register $38.03 (3 – 9 years) – An obvious extension of all the play food that comes with a play kitchen, is playing store.  And the biggest prop needed for some good store play is a cash register.  My kids started hoarded the register at a local drop in play center for over an hour at a time last year and I knew we had to get one for Christmas. A lot of research pointed to this one as being the best learning register on the market thanks to a working calculator and scale as well as being able to recognize real money and even incorporating some math games.  This is a toy that will grow with your kids.
  • Fisher-Price Laugh and Learn “Say Please” Tea Set $14.39 (6 months – 4 years) – Toddlers and preschoolers naturally love anything that allows them to pour water over and over again. Add in a level of pretend play with the “tea time” experience plus voice prompts, sounds and songs teaching about numbers, shapes, opposites, manners, greetings and more – and you’ve got a winning toy guaranteed to provide hours of fun. With over 800 reviews averaging 4.5 out of 5 stars, parents agree.
  • Melissa & Doug Cutting Food $15.99 (3 – 6 years) – Regardless of whether you go for a play kitchen, cash register, or both – you’re gonna need some food to cook or buy.  We got this cutting food from Melissa & Doug before we ever got the kitchen and it was an excellent toy all on it’s own, both for dramatic play and for building fine motor skills.  Our kids have been playing with these pieces for years and still found them very enticing on their own up to age 3 or so (after that they were good props for kitchen play).
  • Melissa & Doug Shopping Basket and Play Food $16.71 (3+ years) – As much as we love the cutting food, for a store setup it’s less frustrating to also have some food that doesn’t fall apart when being scanned and bagged.  I like the array of items in this set, as well as the realistic shopping basket (a great alternative if you don’t want to go for the cart).
  • Melissa and Doug Shopping Cart $44.95 (3 – 7 years) – A shopping cart isn’t totally necessary for shopping play but if you have the space, kids absolutely LOVE it, both for playing store and just for pushing their dolls and other pals around in. (This option bundles the cart with a wooden pantry food set and a fridge food set.)
  • Educational Insights Grill & Go Camp Stove $27.05 – I’ve been a bit obsessed with camping since our family had such an awesome go of it the last two summersr I really like how real looking this set is and I think it would be great both for kids already excited about the great outdoors and those you’d like to get excited by next summer. Our toddler group had a big pretend camp set-up one year and then 2 year old S loved this thing.

Dramatic play promotes literacy through vocabulary and story-telling practice as well as social skills such as empathy, turn taking, and the identification of emotions.

Dress Up

Dressing up is a great way to encourage roll playing, which really gets kids thinking critically about the world around them and their place in it.  It also often leads to improved emotional intelligence as children explore how their interactions with each other effect feelings and emotions.

  • Melissa & Doug Dress Up Sets starting at $19.99 (3 – 6  years) – A big box full of dress up clothes was the kids’ big present two Christmases ago.  I filled it with lots of random items (shoes, jewelry, masks, hats, boas, etc) as well as a few complete outfits.  For that, Melissa & Doug’s selection has always been my favorite.  Go for their Delux Role Play Costume Bundle or check out their chefFire Chief, and pirate outfits as well as this very cool, non-M&D, astronaut getup.
  • Learning Resources Pretend & Play Fishing Set $19.76 (2 – 6 years) – If you’ve got a parent or grandparent in the family who likes to fish, your little one will especially love this comprehensive fishing play set. Complete with lots of cool fishing gear including an adjustable vest and tackle box, plus a magnetic fishing pole and fish that come with 6 pages of write and wipe, fishing-themed activities so the set can be used for game play as well as dress up.
  • Little Adventures Girl Superhero Cape $14.99 (3 – 8 years) – There’s something so confidence-inspiring about getting to be a superhero.  Be sure to get a cape for your boy too.
  • Disney Brave Merida Dress $18.65 (3 – 6 years) – As I said above, I don’t love the whole princess thing. Nevertheless, little girls like to be pretty – that I get.  And if there’s one princess I can get behind it’s Merida from Disney’s Brave so she gets a special additional mention here.
  • 12 Foam Animal Masks $4.45 (3+ years) – These foam masks aren’t the highest quality but they’re dirt cheap and my kids have been playing with them for nearly two years now (with a few casualties).  One of the best $5 I ever spent!

Dramatic play promotes literacy through vocabulary and story-telling practice as well as social skills such as empathy, turn taking, and the identification of emotions.

 

Doctor & Veterinarian

  • Learning Resources Pretend & Play Doctor Set $26.20 (3 – 6 years) – A quality doctor kit is another excellent dramatic play toy for both boys and girls. Kids like being patients but really enjoy the power involved in getting to play care-taker.  These kits are also nice for easing doctor visit anxiety. I really like how comprehensive this set is and the fact that it comes with a durable carrying case to keep track of everything.
  • Melissa & Doug Doctor Role Play Set $$26.20 (3 – 6 years) – You get a lot in this set, including lab coats, face masks and an array of props like the working stethoscope.
  • Dalmatian Vet Kit $24.08 (2+ years) – We got this for our then 2 year old daughter last year.  She’s one of those girls that likes caring for stuffed animals and dolls, but doesn’t go nuts about babies like some of her friends.  This has been be a nice, non-baby dramatic play option for her. We packaged it along with a book about the vet staring one of her favotite characters, “Biscuit Visits the Doctor“.
  • Playmobil Super Set Animal Care Station $25.14 (3 – 10 years) and Playmobil My Take Along Vet Station $39.99 (3 – 10 years) – When I reached out to our newsletter subscribers asking for their favorite toys for this list, I got replies that Playmobil sets were a hit with their kids.  These two options look like they’d provide lots of opportunities for role playing taking care of animals both big and small.

Dramatic play promotes literacy through vocabulary and story-telling practice as well as social skills such as empathy, turn taking, and the identification of emotions.

Trains, Planes, & Automobiles

  • Kidkraft Waterfall Mountain Train Set & Table $179.99 (2 – 8 years) – We bought our son a train table for his 2nd birthday and we always say it’s one of the best purchases we’ve ever made.  Over four years later both he and his sister still play with it several times a week.  At 4 he was able to completely construct the track by himself using the map and that added a whole new level of building play to this fantastic toy. I think the model we bought has been discontinued but this one is the same brand has all of the same key components: a bridge, waterfall mountain, helicopter landing pad, and the all-important drawers for storing all the little pieces. If you’re going to be putting your train table in main living space, you may want to spring for the more expensive KidKraft Metropolis Train Set Table with Trundle Drawer.  It’s got a nicer “furniture” look (and that double bridge is pretty cool too). Also, over the years we’ve amassed quite a collection of Thomas trains to go with this table.
  • Fisher-Price Little People Lil’ Movers Airplane $17.99 (1 – 3 years) – Like the entire line of Little Peoples Movers, the stocky size of this airplane is perfect for little hands still developing their fine-motor skills. This plane, which lights up and plays multiple sounds gets tons of rave reviews from parents for it’s durability as well as how many ways there are to play. Complete with a pilot, two passengers, a piece of luggage, a door that opens, six windows, including the pilot’s windshield, a handle over the cut-out top, and working wheels (which make the pilot and passengers go up and down as if encountering turbulence). Push down on the pilot in her seat for flashing lights, a tune, flight attendant commentary, and swooshing airplane sounds.
  • Playskool Heroes Transformers Rescue Bots Starting at $13.61 (3 – 6 years) – The perfect introduction to transformers, these rescue bots have a great book series of the same name and are easy for small hands to manipulate.
  • Imaginext Rescue City Center $42.95 (3 – 8 years) – This rescue center play set gets a lot of kuddos for having a high number of working parts for the kid to interact with and for doing a great job in stimulating dramatic play. One Amazon reviewer wrote, “The toys are clever and witty and well designed with hidden doors, functions and scope for imagination. They are some of the most played with toys–besides Legos–in our house… These are some of the coolest toys out there that meet the need for non-licensed (usually no licensed toys beyond the Batman line) for lots of fantastical, imaginative play.” The set also gets high marks for durability and two-sided play that allows for more than one child to play at the same time without crowding.
  • Green Toys Airplane $10.49 (1+ years) – Ever since the kids were babies, I’ve always appreciated the non-toxic and eco-friendly nature as well as the lack of small parts on Green Toy vehicles.  I’m sure we’ll be getting a few for baby #3 once he or she arrives.
  • Melissa & Doug World Airplane and Luggage Carrier Set $19.99 (3 – 6 years) – This simple set is charming.  It’s the perfect thing for promoting lots of imaginative play and I’m smitten with the little wooden luggage and luggage cart.
  • Playmobil Rescue Ambulance $19.99, Rescue Helicopter $28.99, and Fire Rescue Station $34.99 (3 – 10 years) – I’m eyeing these sets for my 5 year old son this year. He’s in a rescue phase and I think he could set up some amazing scenarios with a few of these together (may have to recruit the aunts or grandparents to get him some too).
  • Plan Toys City Series Parking Garage $74.11 (3+ years) – C got this garage for Christmas two years ago.  He and his sister really like the working elevator and it’s a favorite toy for group play during play dates.

Dramatic play promotes literacy through vocabulary and story-telling practice as well as social skills such as empathy, turn taking, and the identification of emotions.

Construction

  • Melissa & Doug Construction Worker Role Play Set $24.99 (3 – 6 years) – Perfect for any construction vehicle loving kiddo in your life.
  • Bruder Construction Vehicles $15.59 and up (3 – 8 years) – If you’ve got a true vehicle lover at home then you know they can NEVER get enough construction vehicles to push around the floor (or around the sandbox).  The Brudler versions are each realistic, high quality options that won’t disappoint. They cost more but they hold up and my son is seriously smitten with how well this crane truck works.
  • Green Toys Tool Set $19.59 (2+ years) – A tool set is another “must-have” toy in my book. They’re fantastic for dramatic play (my kids love finding new things to “fix”) all by themselves. Add in some working nuts and bolts and you’ve got fine motor practice to boot.  We bought a wood tool set for C and have been happy with everything except the durability, so far we’ve had a wrench and pliers snap.  I think this set from green toys would be a lot more durable (there are sets available in blue, yellow, and green or brown, red, and blue as well).
  • Melissa & Doug Wooden Project Workbench $58.10 (3+ years) – If you’ve got a serious tool lover in the house, and have the space, this deluxe tool bench is another great option and the price is pretty good when compared to dramatic play toys of similar size, such as play kitchens and stores.

 Dramatic play promotes literacy through vocabulary and story-telling practice as well as social skills such as empathy, turn taking, and the identification of emotions.

Stand-Alone Dramatic Play Props

  • Dirt Devil Junior Lights Sounds Upright Toy Vacuum $24.97 (walking – 7 years) – I had to include this toy vacuum because it was the absolute favorite of my son AND literally every other kid in his toddler group when he was 2 to 3 years old. The class had 3 of them and there were still daily tussles over them between the kids… and that’s without even being allowed to have the batteries in them. (In fact, if you’re not a fan of toys that make sounds I’d suggest just never putting the batteries in – this will still be a fantastic pretend play toy). This Disney Minnie Bowtique Vacuum is also really cute and gets great reviews.

  • Little Helper Broom Set $13.66 (3 – 6 years) – This is another item we’ve had for a few years now.  It’s very inexpensive and the kids really enjoy breaking it out to help with clean up when the opportunity arises.
  • Green Toys Tea Set $19.59 (2 – 4 years) – Whether playing with mommy or a favorite doll, tea time is always a fun way to pass some time.  We’ve had this set for over a year and it still looks like new (despite lots of use in the playroom, bathtub and even sand box).  Plus I love that Green Toys are 100% recycled, made from milk jugs, are FDA approved to eat and drink from, and do not contain BPA, phthalates, or lead paint.
  • Little Tikes Gas ‘n Go Mower Toy $20.99 (walking – 5 years) – This toy is great for taking dramatic play outdoors and, honestly, it’s totally worth getting just for the adorable pictures you’ll get of the kids following around Dad (or Mom) while they mow the lawn. Seriously, this toy is a real winner – it has lots of parts to interact with (pull cord, vrooming engine, push throttle, turning key and more) but doesn’t require batteries. It will ignite the kids imagination and get them moving at the same time.
  • Melissa & Doug My Own Mail Box $13.99 (3 – 6 years) – Everyone loves to get mail!  Having a play mailbox like this one is an incredibly cute way to encourage communication between siblings and they’ll adore leaving and finding notes in it.  It’s also a great excuse to practice writing skills.
  • Football Guys and Soccer Girls $24.99 (4 – 12 years) – This deceptively simple line of tubs filled with miniature sports players, gear and fields (there’s also Baseball Guys, Hockey Guys and Soccer Guys) is an excellent open-ended dramatic play toy for slightly older kids. They rate 4.5 out of 5 stars and are Best Toy Award winners. Parents report their kids return to play with the sets again and again to set up imaginary sports plays and tournaments. They also have a lot of flexibility in that it can be enjoyed alone or with friends. Plus they clean up easily with their own storage cases.
  • Animal Planet’s Big Tub of Dinosaurs $31.89 (2 – 12) – The best thing about these dinos are their size (9 – 11 inches). The second best thing is all the cool stuff you get along with them including a carrying case, playmat, landscape props (be sure to remove the bag of rocks for children under 3) and the names of the dinosaurs are even printed on the bottom. This is a great find if you have a dino lover at home and if you find your dinosaurs starting to accumulate, this storage box that unzips into a deluxe playmat is also extremely popular.
  • Aurora World Barn Yard Friends Carrier With Sound $17.10 – This is a plush farm and animal set that makes sounds and is the perfect thing for introductory imaginary play. For bigger kids, there’s the Melissa & Doug Fold & Go Mini Barn $33.79 (3 – 6).  It’s a two-story barn stocked with seven realistic plastic farm animals, a wooden ladder and a folding corral.

  • Toobs starting at $8.03 (3+ years) – After our Make Like a Montessori Mama: Animal Activities post two years ago, I knew I needed to get C some small animal figurines as soon as possible.  A quick Amazon search revealed exactly what I was looking for.  Not only are the handy Toob container the perfect shape for a stocking, there are a million themes to choose from.  Whether your little one are into horses, zoo babies, trains, pirates, dinosaurs,  North American Wildlife, or the arctic – there’s a Toob out there for them.
  • Melissa & Doug Puppets starting at $14.99 (3+ years)- Playing with puppets is great for storytelling and for learning about emotions.  These are very high quality puppets that remind me of the type real puppeteers would use (and also of the muppets). If you want to go all out, they also have a nice puppet theater and I also really like the creative component of this Deluxe Fuzzy Make -Your -Own Monster Puppet kit.
  • Designed by You Doll House with Furniture $110.22 (2+ years) – Whenever I make a big toy purchase for my kiddos, I obsess about it a bit.  I research (a lot) to find the train table, play kitchen, etc. that’s not only going to hold up the best, but will also offer up the most beneficial play experience.  When my daughter indicated that she wanted a doll house for her birthday last year, my research led us to purchase this one and we’ve been really, really pleased with it.The rooms are easy to access and it came with a bizillion pieces of furniture that both my son and daughter use for lots of dramatic play.  What I love most about it, though, is that instead of one permanent structure, the house is modular and can be reconfigured a bunch of different ways. This really extends the kids’ engagement.  I would recommend this for both boys and girls (if hubby gawfs at buying your boy something pink, just paint over those two walls with chalkboard paint to add to the fun).

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If you like these recommendations, I encourage you to pin or bookmark them for later when you’re ready to start shopping.  I would also love it if you forwarded the list on to your parenting friends or shared it on facebook – trust me, your friends will thank you for the help and you get to be the cool mom (or dad) with all the best resources. It’s a win-win.

Also, don’t forget to follow us on facebook and subscribe to our newsletter for even more recommendations and alerts when we spot our gift guide items on sale!

P.S. See all 10 of our 2015 Gift Guides here.

 

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