If you have a three-year-old, you’re three times lucky, because three-year-olds are terrific fun! They still love to play, but they will sometimes listen to reason, and they are learning empathy for others. At some time this year, they will probably complete potty training. Hooray! Developmentally, they are acquiring skills at a rapid rate. They are old enough to play with toys with small parts, although some children persist in putting almost everything in their mouths. (You’ll need to exercise extra caution if your child is is a chewer.) Three-year-olds are learning to play with other children and may be starting preschool. When choosing activities for your child, consider those that can be shared with others and those that may smooth the way to school. You’ll want to create lots of special moments with your child, who in some ways is growing up far too fast!
1. Puzzle Play
With their improved small motor skills, three-year-olds are ready to try puzzles. Wooden puzzles are easy for young children to manipulate. Start your child off with a simple contour puzzle, such as one in which the puzzle pieces are in the shape of an animal. Then move to a puzzle with around 6 to 12 pieces. Some children may be ready to try block puzzles, too, before their fourth birthdays. These puzzles are made up of square wooden blocks that are put together and turned to make six different pictures. The simplest block puzzles have 9 blocks.
Puzzles provide problem-solving practice, while building fine motor skills. Watch a toddler handling a puzzle piece, turning it first one way and then another while fitting it in place, and you’ll understand what a really large challenge this is. A parent comes in handy to encourage and praise the little puzzler, and occasionally to show the way if the child gets stuck. Completing a puzzle is great for a little one’s self-esteem, but toddlers will often abandon a puzzle before it’s done. That’s okay, too.
Because there are puzzles about almost any subject in the universe, puzzles are a good gateway into other knowledge, too. They can be used to teach animal names, types of machines and vehicles, the names of dinosaurs and many other subjects that toddlers are interested in. Alphabet puzzles and number puzzles offer reinforcement for more formal learning as well.
2. Get Some Wheels!
Before the age of three, most toddlers have probably been using the kind of riding toy that is pushed with the feet. Now it’s time to take it to the next level with trikes, bikes and scooters. Traditionally children have started off with tricycles. Tricycles teach down-around-up-and-over pedal movement and can help your child get ready for a traditional bicycle, which most kids don’t ride until age six or seven. The drawback of a tricycle is that it’s really an inefficient way of travel. If you want to go for a walk with your child, for example, he or she will probably have a hard time keeping up without getting tired. Miniature bicycles with training wheels have much the same issue. Balance bikes and scooters don’t present this problem, because they don’t require pedaling.
Balance bikes are bikes without pedals. Children sit astride of them and push them with their feet. As they get more practiced, they will be able to raise their feet and coast. Balance bikes are easier to carry than traditional bikes because they are flatter and usually lighter. Another type of riding toy that you might consider is a scooter. Toddler scooters are more stable than the usual type, normally having two wheels in front and one in back.
All of these toys increase large muscle control and give those muscles a workout. Of course, children should wear helmets while riding, and parents should be vigilant about traffic. A park with sidewalks or trails that are removed from car traffic is the safest place for children to ride, although you will still have to watch out for other riders.
3. Dress Up for Fun and Learning
Costumes aren’t just for holidays and plays. Dress-up allows children to practice role play and also use their imaginations. You can buy complete outfits online, but children also enjoy improvising their own. Try accumulating a store of hats – pirate, policeman, cowboy, chef. Add vests, jackets, scarves and accessories. Some items can be re-purposed from your own closet, but clothing that is too long and shoes that are too big can be a tripping hazard, so don’t put those into the dress-up box.
Dress-up can be a springboard for other learning. It creates an opportunity for you to talk about what people in different professions do. It can also be a vehicle for make-believe and storytelling. Through role play, children can become comfortable with emotion words, which can help in the development and expression of empathy.
4. Teach Organizing Skills
Your life will be much easier if you begin teaching your child certain organization skills at an early age. Fortunately, at this age, many children are interested in putting things where they belong, and it’s easy to capitalize on that. If you don’t have a certain area in your home for your child’s coat, shoes and the like, this is the time to designate a spot. You can also teach your child to put his or her toothbrush away instead of leaving it on the counter and to put dirty clothes in the hamper. If your child goes to preschool or daycare, personnel there will be working on teaching your child to hang up clothing and use a cubby, and their efforts will complement your home training.
Keeping toys organized is a challenge for most parents, and there’s no reason why children can’t help. If you haven’t had an orderly approach to toy storage, why not up your game? Provide bins for small toys, boxes or baskets for large toys and shelves for books and games. Label boxes, shelves and bins with words and pictures to show what goes where. While picking up toys, your child will actually be practicing sorting and may even learn a few sight words.
Your child can also help keep the household as a whole neat. You can give him or her small jobs, such as picking up throw pillows and putting them back on the sofa or putting scraps of paper in the trash can. These skills won’t have a big impact on the overall neatness of your household, but they can have a sizable impact on your child’s habits.
5. What Can You Find?
For some reason, children love hunting for things if it’s a game. They just don’t like looking for their shoes! Hunting games improve their powers of observation and their mastery of direction words like “up,” “down,” “under” and “beside.” Here are some seeking games to play with your three-year-old.
- Play “I Spy,” looking for specific items or for items of a certain color or shape.
- At the grocery store, challenge your toddler to find a certain fruit in the produce section or a favorite food on the shelf.
- Before you take a walk, name three things to look for.
- Before you run an errand in the car, name three vehicles you might see, such as a school bus, a fire truck and a dump truck.
- Hide a small stuffed animal somewhere in the house and let your child look for it. Then it’s your child’s turn to hide it.
- Bury a few plastic dinosaurs in the sandbox and let your child dig for them.
- Why wait for Easter? Hide plastic Easter eggs in the backyard and let your child search for them.
6. Explore the Neighborhood
At the age of three, your child is old enough to notice his or her surroundings. As you run errands or go for walks, point out places of business, parks and other points of interest. You can talk about what can be found inside the different buildings that you pass. When you pass places that you visit often, mention the people who work there by name. If you see sanitation workers, letter carriers, police officers or other workers, you can talk about what they do and even stop and say hello if the environment is safe and the worker is not too busy.
Some children have an innate sense of direction. They may be able to tell you, for example, when you are getting close to home or which way to turn to go to the park. Other children don’t develop this sense as young – if ever! At any rate, this is a good time to talk about concepts such as left and right and near and far. You can point out which buildings are next to each other and which ones are across the street from each other.
7. Build Word Awareness
Just as children often learn to recognize their names by sight before they actually start to read, they can also start to recognize a few simple words. One of the best ways to help this process along is with books that have a single word per page. You can find quite a few books like this, with bright colors and illustrations that will keep your child engaged. You can also use labels around the house to designate items with simple names, such as “door,” “table,” “lamp” and “bed.” If your child is interested, you can help him or her spell out words with alphabet blocks or letters. If your child isn’t interested in this exercise, it’s okay. He or she is still being exposed to the concept of language.
Don’t confuse this type of word, which your child may recognize by sight, with the lists of sight words that children are sometimes asked to learn in the early grades. In that context, sight words are words that are used so frequently that children shouldn’t have to sound them out. Some are also words that don’t follow the rules of phonetics. That type of sight word tends to be abstract, such as “the,” “said” and “like.” These words are not concrete enough to make good early words for a toddler.
8. Discover Children’s Museums
Although children’s museums typically welcome children of all ages, your child will really begin to enjoy such museums around the age of 3. If you have a children’s museum near your home, you’re lucky! You can sample it in small bites rather than trying to do the whole thing at once. You can sometimes buy memberships that make frequent visits affordable. Don’t pass up other children’s museums that you may have a chance to visit while traveling.
Each children’s museum has a slightly different mix of exhibits and activities, and most offer seasonal attractions as well. Still, there are a few activities that you’ll see in some form in most, including these favorites:
- Pretend stores where children can shop or “work”
- Playspace, climbing towers or ball pits
- Areas for art creation or inventing
- Sensory spaces using light, sound and touch
- Water play or giant bubble blowing
- Natural area featuring animals and plants
- Building blocks (often giant, lightweight ones)
Early morning is popular with parents of toddlers, who are often waiting for the museum to open. Afternoons are less popular because of naptime. If you can tweak your schedule, your child may have more room to explore in the afternoons. Holidays and weekends are usually busy. Children’s museums are closed most evenings.
9. Fun with Ribbons and Flags
If you’ve ever seen a ribbon dancing exhibition, you know how mesmerizing it can be. Your three-year-old will be fascinated, too. You can buy ribbon dancing wands online, but you can also easily make your own ribbon dancing accessories. Buy or hunt up some long ribbons. A good length for beginners is 24 inches. Your child can just hold a ribbon like a streamer and twirl, but you can also tie the ribbons to something round, like a plastic bracelet, shower curtain ring or canning jar ring. You can also tie them to a hair elastic so that your child can wear it on his or her wrist. (Make sure it’s not too tight!) Use one broad ribbon or multiple thinner ones.
Classical music is perfect for ribbon dancing. You can also look online for collections of children’s music that are especially designed for ribbon play. Older children can use longer ribbons, or get fancy with a ribbon in each hand. You can also take your child outside to let the streamers fly in the breeze.
Your child may also enjoy flag-making. Cut an old sheet or shirt into a rectangle or pennant shape. You can let your child decorate it with markers if you like. Fasten it to a stick and let it fly over the sandbox or playset. Your child will also enjoy holding the flag on a breezy day and feeling the force of the wind pulling on it.
10. Basic Ball Games
At the age of three, most children can throw a ball, and they will begin to be able to catch. At first, they will catch the ball by trapping it against their bodies. A little later they will be able to catch it with their hands. Keep a variety of soft balls on hand, from large to the size of a tennis ball. Although smaller balls are considered safe for those over three, three-year-olds and four-year-olds may still be tempted to put them in their mouths, making them a choking hazard. “Bouncy” balls are especially dangerous. Put off buying them for another year or two.
Here are some suitable ball activities for three-year-olds.
- Play catch. Use a large, soft ball so that it won’t hurt if it hits your child’s face.
- Vary your game of catch by bouncing the ball instead of throwing it.
- Encourage your child to throw a ball over something, such as a fence or other obstacle.
- Put a cardboard box on its side and challenge your child to kick the ball into it.
- Hold up a hoop for your child to throw a ball through.
- Show your child how to throw a ball straight up in the air.
11. Fun With Glue
By three, your child is ready to branch out in artistic expression. That means that it’s time for glue! But don’t worry. Glue now comes in sticks that are much easier to use than liquid glue. Your child will be creating collages in no time with minimal mess. To make basic collages, tear or cut different types of paper into different shapes and show your child how to glue them down. Let them dry and display proudly! (You may need to put a book or other weight on top while it dries to help it dry securely.)
A slightly more sophisticated collage can be made using miscellaneous objects that you have gathered, such as buttons, pasta pieces, beans, pompoms, feathers, googly eyes, sticks and bits of ribbon. You may need to switch to school glue for this activity, as glue sticks may not work for objects that aren’t flat.
12. Small World Gardens
You’ve probably heard of fairy gardens, but what about habitats for dinosaurs or animals? You can help your child create a miniature world for plastic dinosaurs, forest creatures or jungle animals. Just section off a part of the yard or flower bed for this activity, or purchase a large, flat planter box. Buy some inexpensive miniature plants for the habitat, or find appropriate plants in your yard or garden. Small ferns look amazing, and mosses and succulents are easy to grow. After the plants are in the ground, you can place “boulders” and smaller rocks in the habitat. Other ideas: You can sink a small blue dish for a lake or paint a rock to look like a volcano. Then just help your child place plastic animals in appropriate spots.
Your child can help water the plants with a small watering can. Be prepared for some of the plants to die or get trampled! But they are easy to replace.
13. Muddy Trucking
If your child has some basic plastic cars and trucks, it’s time to go mudding! This is a good activity for your child to enjoy with a friend. Find a corner of the yard or a flowerbed with bare dirt. Add enough water to make mud, and then let your little truckers get to work! Some children will love pushing full speed through the mud. Others may want to create roads and obstacles. Both types will be sure to get good and dirty. That’s why this activity is best done in warm weather, when your child can get by with minimal clothing and you can take the vehicles through a “car wash” before bringing them back inside.
The mud provides a wonderful sensory experience, and you can take the opportunity to introduce some new vocabulary words, although they may be drowned out by the vroom-vrooms!
14. Classes for Little Ones
Toddler classes are great fun for certain children, those who tend to be active, adventurous and sociable. Most of the time, the parent is expected to stay with the child. Some classes involve the parents. In others, the parents are expected to be there just in case. The teacher should be approachable, and classes shouldn’t be too crowded. A class that lasts an hour or so is about right most of the time.
Here are some of the types of classes your child could take:
- Music classes involve singing, moving to the music and playing simple instruments.
- Tumbling classes let children practice climbing, jumping and rolling, using soft play equipment and mats.
- Art classes give toddlers a chance to experiment with different forms of artistic expression, such as sculpture and collage, as well as painting.
- Dance for toddlers usually focuses on building muscle strength and coordination, while helping children practice following directions.
- Exercise and movement classes aim to improve balance and coordination while letting active toddlers burn off some energy.
- Yoga classes feature simple, safe poses, often done with a parent.
- Swimming classes can teach swimming and water survival skills, or they can be geared toward becoming comfortable and having fun in the water.
- Specific sports classes usually teach basic skills and are available in soccer, basketball and volleyball, to name a few.
- Outdoor classes focus on nature studies and simple projects.
At three, some children aren’t ready for a structured class. You can take your child to the local library for story time if you want to see how your child does in a group setting. Story hour may supply your child with all the stimulation that he or she needs at this time.
15. Educational Games on Screens
If you choose to let your child interact with screens, you’ll want it to be a high-quality experience. The best way to judge the experience is to be right there watching how your child engages with the program or app. Many apps that don’t seem educational teach divergent thinking and problem-solving. They don’t have to incorporate the alphabet or counting to be educational. If your child is engaged and active, he or she is probably learning.
When choosing apps or other screen-based activities, look for names you can trust, such as those associated with public television. Be wary of those with in-game advertising or in-app purchases. Some games have a free version with advertising that you can let your child try out before you pay for an ad-free version.
16. Learning From You and Others
Although your child doesn’t need a full social calendar, it’s a great idea to set up an occasional play date, as children learn from their peers. It’s fascinating to see children move through the different stages of play as they grow. At first, you may see what is known as onlooker play, when your child observes another child playing but doesn’t interact. Next comes parallel play, where your child plays alongside another child and doesn’t directly interact but may mimic the other’s behavior or speech. Parallel play is followed by associative play, where children are still working on their own projects but may talk and interact while doing so. This is the introduction to true cooperative play, which usually occurs in the four to five age group.
By the age of three, most children have adults other than parents in their lives. These may include relatives, preschool teachers, Sunday school or religious school instructors, librarians and babysitters. Other adults bring different perspectives and skills to your child’s life. For example, a grandparent may have a lot of knowledge about nature. A librarian may be a wonderful storyteller, and a preschool teacher may be adept at encouraging children to work together. Your child will learn and grow from contact with individuals such as these.
Of course, you will always be your child’s first and best teacher. And your child will continue to teach you valuable lessons, too.