Three's Are Thrilling - 6 Ways to Work Better with your 3-Year-Old

13 May 2019

Three's Are Thrilling - 6 Ways to Work Better with your 3-Year-Old

When I was teaching my child development course at Duke University, I often referred to the two-year period from about the age of three and four as the “golden” years. The challenging two’s are over, and your preschooler is no longer a toddler, thanks to big leaps in their physical, social and emotional skills. So for those with thrilling 3’s out there, let’s dig deeper and find out how to work better with what’s special about your 3-year-olds growing skills.

Around the age of 3, your little one is becoming more independent and at the same time, more responsive to other children. She is able to control and direct her physical movements now, so she can play more organized games like tag and hide-and-seek. Another key difference is that she’s better able to express her desires and feelings verbally. This creates a big change in behavior. Your 3-year-old child can now begin to verbally express how they feel-- instead of expressing emotions through physical actions such as grabbing, hitting, or crying. So, three is a perfect age to introduce your child to preschool or an organized play group, where your little one can stretch their new found physical skills while learning to socialize with other children.

Here’s what you can expect to see in your three-year-old’s 6 major areas of development, plus some fun and practical ways to work with them:

1. Social Development. Your three-year-old will be much less self-centered than she was at two. Three’s will also be less dependent on you, a sign that their own sense of identity is stronger and more secure. Now your three-year-old will actually play with other children, interacting with them instead of just playing side by side. In the process, they’ll recognize that not everyone thinks exactly as they do and that each playmate has many unique qualities, some attractive and some not. You’ll also find her drifting toward certain children and starting to develop friendships with them.

The good news at this age is that threes are learning to cooperate when playing with friends. This is because she is becoming more aware of and sensitive to the feelings and actions of others. Threes gradually stop competing and become capable of taking turns and sharing toys in small groups, even if they don’t always do it. Our article, Types and Stages of Preschool Play has more information on specific types of play at this age.

2. Emotional Development. Three-year-olds are considered “magic” thinkers. This is when your child’s world will be dominated by fantasy and their vivid imagination. This vivid fantasy life will help them explore and come to terms with a wide range of emotions, from love and dependency to anger, protest, and fear. Three-year-olds will not only take on various identities, like being a princess or mermaid, but they will also assign living qualities and emotions to inanimate objects, such as a tree, a clock, a truck, or the moon. Ask your three why the moon comes out at night and they might reply, “To say hello to me!” When you think magically like your three-year-old, this can be true!

From time to time, expect your three to introduce you to one of her imaginary friends. Some children have a single make-believe companion for as long as six months; some change pretend-playmates every day, while others prefer imaginary animals instead. Other children may never have one at all. Don’t be concerned that these phantom friends may signal loneliness or emotional problems. Imaginary friends are actually a very creative way for your child to sample different activities, lines of conversation, behavior, and emotions.

You’ll also notice that, throughout the day, your preschooler will move back and forth freely between fantasy and reality. At the age of three, preschoolers imagine that many unfamiliar images or things may be “monsters.” At times, your child may become so involved in a make-believe world that they can’t tell where it ends and reality begins. Her play experiences may even spill over into real life. For example, she might come to dinner as a firefighter. Another time, she may come to you sobbing after hearing a ghost story that she believes is true.

While it’s important to reassure your child when she’s frightened or upset by an imaginary incident, it’s important to be careful not to belittle or make fun of her. The important thing to remember is to respect your preschooler’s emotions, whether they are fantasy or reality. This state in emotional development is normal, essential and should not be discouraged. Our article, Children's Creativity-Part 2 - Sensory and Make Believe Play will give you more insights into this special stage of emotional development.

3. Small Motor Skills in the Fingers, Hands & Eyes. By age three, your child will develop both the muscular control and the concentration they need to master many precision finger and hand movements. You’ll notice that they can now move each finger independently or together. This means that instead of grasping a crayon in their fist, they can hold it like an adult, with thumb on one side and fingers on the other.

You’ll also see that they have greater control over the way they hold utensils and tools to perform specific tasks. Because a 3-year-old’s spatial awareness has developed quite a bit, they’ll be more sensitive to the relationships among objects. Perhaps you notice that they position their toys with great care during play or want other things placed “just so.”

Three’s are also extremely interested in discovering what they can do with tools and materials such as scissors, paper, clay, paint, and crayons. Your three-year-old now has the skill to manipulate these objects and will begin to experiment with them to make new things. At first, they’ll play randomly with materials, perhaps identifying an end product only after it’s completed. For example, after creating their scribbles, your child might decide they look like a dog, and then call the drawing “a dog.” Later in the third year, this will change as she’ll decide that she wants to draw a dog before starting her drawing. You can learn more about this process, or intentionally using scribbles to express ideas, in our article, Scribbling Stages - Part 3 of 5 - Controlled Scribbling.

4. Language Development.  By the age of three, your child will have a vocabulary of about three hundred or more words! Most threes can talk in sentences of three to four words and imitate most adult speech sounds. At times your three-year-old may seem to be chattering constantly, a phenomenon that sometimes may perturb you. But this is essential to your child’s learning new words and gaining experience in using and thinking with them! All of this new language allows your preschooler to express their thoughts. The more advanced your three becomes in speaking and understanding words, the more tools they’ll have to think, create, and tell you about it! Our Chatty-dos are quick activities and ideas we designed to use exactly for this purpose.

You can easily encourage your child’s language development to help them understand and participate in the world around them. For instance, three’s will often will freely ask, “What’s this?” when they can’t name something. You can help your three-year-old expand their vocabulary by providing additional words that they might not even request. For example, if your child points to a car and says, “Big car,” you could answer, “Yes, that’s a big gray car. Look how shiny the surface is!” Or, if they’re helping you pick flowers, describe each one she collects: “That’s a beautiful white-and-yellow daisy. And that’s a pink geranium.” If you’re looking for more practical info and ideas for your 3-year-old's language development, check out our Support Your Preschooler’s Language Development Series - Part 1 - Speaking.

5. Physical Appearance and Growth. Your child’s body should continue to lose baby fat and gain muscle during this time, giving them a stronger and more mature appearance. In general, a preschooler’s growth gradually will begin to slow during their 3rd year and in the subsequent one. However, after age two, children of the same age can vary noticeably in size and weight, so try not to spend too much time comparing your child’s measurements with those of her playmates. They’ll catch up over time. And, it’s always important to remember that children’s growth patterns are highly individual and will vary from child to child.

6. Large Muscle Movement. At age three, your preschooler no longer has to use most of their mental energy to concentrate on the mechanics of standing, running, jumping, or walking. Their movements are now quite agile, whether your preschooler is going forward, backward, or up and down stairs. However, not everything comes easily just yet! Your child still may need to make a conscious effort to stand on their tiptoes or on one foot, or while standing up from a squatting position, or to catch a ball.

Your three-year-old still may be as active as they were at two, but they’ll start to become more interested in structured games at this age. They also may enjoy active games with other children such as catch or playing ball. And, instead of running aimlessly or flitting from one activity to another, they’ll probably ride a tricycle or play in the sandbox for longer periods at a time than when they were two. For example, playing time in the sandbox may be 15 minutes for your three-year-old in comparison to the less than 5 minutes a year earlier!

Your preschooler may also seem to be in constant motion much of the time. This is because they still are using their body to convey thoughts and emotions that they can’t yet verbalize or don’t know the words for. Moving their body also helps them better understand and work through new words and concepts. For example, if you start talking about how an airplane travels, they may spread their wings to “fly” around the room. This level of activity may at times be annoying and distracting for you, but remember, it’s a necessary part of their learning process and their play. For even more ways to understand and work with how preschoolers express their creativity and the learning process, check out our article, Kids’ Creativity, It’s a Love-hate Thing.

Want even more information and ideas for how to work with your three-year-olds? Our Child Development Guide has even more specifics and fun ideas! Or you can check out our Three’s Are Thrilling Guide right here!

Now, go ahead and enjoy this golden year with your three-year-old while it lasts … because the 4’s are next. Get ready with our Fours Are Fabulous Guide here!

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