3-Year-Old: Your Growing Toddler

Three-year-olds are fascinating creatures. Fantasy, imagination, and their attempts to really be in charge of their lives make them very special.

The Magic Kingdom of Make-Believe

Make-believe is now a way of life, with every object, person, and event likely to be wonderfully transformed into something else. Your 3-year-old now makes up little stories to explain events in his life and he's discovered the power of words to make things happen.

Imaginary friends, who are completely at his beck and call, are very normal and healthy household additions. Don't pay too much attention to them, as they disappear or assume too great an importance under too tight scrutiny.

Your 3-year-old can't lie at this age, but he may creatively reconstruct reality so it matches the way he would like things to be. He thinks his words can create a preferable reality and that reality can be truly denied.

Playing With Others

Play at this age should be cooperative and really interactive.

Mutually regulated play with others can be a mild (though healthy) stress and a source of emotional growth. Giving your 3-year-old the opportunity to play with other children and work out conflicts with them is perhaps the most vital part of parenting support at this age.

The Role of Routine

Three-year-olds are dependent on predictability, which is part of their effort to understand and control their world.

Things that change on a daily basis create enormous stress. At this age, kids have a three-day time frame: yesterday, today, and tomorrow. When no two of those are alike, you're very likely to have an irritable, whiny child.

And watch out for too many activities. Although a 3-year-old may enjoy swimming, gymnastics, play group, and trips to the library, he may be overwhelmed by the total number of events in his life.

Three-year-olds adopt rituals to keep a sense of sameness and control over their world. Respect these, provided they don't seriously get in the way. Kids also like to categorize things at this age and are curious about what is the same and what is different about people and things. Expect embarrassing comments as kids notice things about people and events that differ from what they are used to.

Wonderful Words

Listen to your 3-year-old talk. You'll hear a fantastic narrative drawn from experience and imagination, filled with a few facts and a lot of commentary. A child this age is never slowed down by lack of vocabulary, so nonsense words appear regularly, causing you to see the world with different eyes. Water fountains become "crash waters" and an SUV becomes a "box car," for example.

There's no need to straighten out or reconstruct these narratives. Just listen to all that goes into them and reinforce this use of language.

Let your 3-year-old practice stringing words together and reconstructing events. She won't understand metaphors, word jokes, or puns, so be careful with these as they can lead to odd or even alarming visions in her head. Saying a man was boiling with rage or that the computer crashed or that a day really went downhill all make for strange images if you are 3. Watch for puzzled looks, and clarify things for your literal child. It's helpful to read slightly more complex books to your child at this age. Look for ones with short sentences composed of lots of action verbs, adjectives, and nouns, associated with appropriate pictures and a strong story.

Most of all, enjoy the magic of 3 and marvel at the hard work it takes for your child to put the world in order.


Monthly milestones

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