Developmentally Appropriate Milestones for 3-Year-Olds

3 is a social age! The 3-year-old becomes more and more involved in play with other kids. They are often openly affectionate to kids and adults alike and may delight in acts of kindness, such as collecting flowers for the teacher or drawing a picture for a special friend. They still have trouble understanding the point of view of others, though, so conflicts related to turn-taking and leadership roles are common. The 3-year-old also struggles to understand the difference between accidental and “on-purpose” events; their feelings may be deeply hurt if a classmate hurts them unintentionally. It is not uncommon to hear a 3-year-old yell at a stray toy for “making their” trip!

3-year-olds thrive on routine and may become panicked if things don’t happen in the usual way. They experience a wide spectrum of intense emotions and can swing from 1 emotion to another quickly. They live very much “in the now” – the wants, needs, and events of the moment govern their actions, and they may not be able to focus on benefits and consequences down the road.

Strong bonds favorite toys have developed, and the 3- year-old is usually an “expert” on their favorite topics. Pretend play continues to be a favorite activity. Popular themes include mothers or fathers and babies and “puppies and kitties.” The 3-year-old thrives on repetition, often repeating the same games day after day, asking you to read their favorite storybook repeatedly, and drawing stacks of similar pictures. Puzzles, matching games, and pegboards are often popular. They beam with pride after mastering a challenging task!

Physical strength and coordination continue to grow. The 3-year-old can be a risk-taker whose confidence exceeds their competence. Close supervision is essential for ensuring safe active play. Throwing and kicking balls, pedaling tricycles, climbing, and sliding are favorite playground pastimes. Small motor skills are growing, too. When using crayons, scribbles often give way to very deliberate marks, such as lines and circles. Soon, self-portraits and other drawings emerge.

The 3-year-old is eager to talk about a wide range of topics and is often full of questions. 5 and 6-word sentences are common during the middle and end of this year, and they continue to master the basic rules of grammar.

Favorite books include repetitive text, and the kid joins in with enthusiasm during favorite parts. They often enjoy paging through familiar books, retelling the story aloud. They also tell their own unique stories, beginning with simple single sentence stories and progressing to longer, more complicated tales – “and then… and then… and then…”!

Responding to 3-year-olds

Provide support as kids begin working and playing with 1 another. They will need your guidance throughout this year and can learn much as you role model social behavior.

Validate the feelings of the emotional 3, and remember that events that seem small to you may be monumental to them! Celebrate their accomplishments, and help them seek solutions to problems.

Provide a variety of materials to encourage sorting and classifying. The 3-year-old enjoys exploring natural materials, such as seashells and stones.

Develop a library of favorite books, and share them often with people or small groups of kids. Seek books with a repetitive storyline, and encourage the kid to join in telling the story.

Play-dough and clay are popular with 3-year-olds, as are finger paint and tempera paint. Encourage open-ended, process-oriented use of these materials.

Provide an array of fine motor materials, such as puzzles, lacing and linking activities, and simple building toys. Sort and organize materials to help kids be successful, and consider rotating materials to maintain interest.

Create warm rituals for daily tasks such as putting away toys, washing hands, and preparing for naps. Songs and games support smooth transitions while accommodating the 3-year-old’s desire for familiar routines.

Take time to listen to the 3-year-old’s stories and to talk with them about their favorite topics. Build sequencing and recollection skills as you discuss events from the recent past, such as a cooking project from earlier in the day.

Kids develop stronger interests and are often interested in the same topic for hours, days, or weeks. Consider allowing kids’ questions, ideas, and topics of play to guide classroom planning. For example, kids who race to the playground fence in anticipation of the weekly arrival of the trash truck may delight in sharing books about big vehicles, playing with toy trucks during block play, and having a chance to see community helper vehicles “up close and personal” through a field trip or special guest.

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