January 9, 2018

Early Childhood Learning Part 2: The Exploring Three-Year-Old

My first year of teaching a small preschool class in my home, I had a mix of 3, 4, and 5-year-olds.  It was a great learning experience!    After that year, I decided that I could not give my students what they needed unless I grouped kids by age.  So for my second year, I decided to do an all three-year-old class.  Though I was nervous at the start, I really did love teaching threes, and I learned a lot from the experience.  Whether you are a preschool teacher, or a parent, I hope you find something helpful in this post.

I have found 3 to be a good age to start working on scissor use.  These are the procedures I use for scissor use:

    • Talk about safe scissor use.  (Only cut paper with scissors.  How to hold them when we are walking.  Watch out for your fingers.)
    • Demonstrate how to hold the scissors.  (Thumb in the little hole, fingers in the big).  
    • Thumb points up to the ceiling.  (If child is having a hard time with this, I put a smiley sticker on thumbnail and tell the child they always want to see the smiley face while they are cutting).
    • "Open shut, open shut, that's the way we cut cut cut!  And don't forget to stay on the road."  This is what I say over and over again as they are cutting.
Some kids get the hang of cutting pretty quickly, and some still ask you if they are holding the scissors correctly after months and months of practice.  It is especially difficult for left-handed children to use scissors.  Be patient with them, they'll get it.

What do we cut:
playdough, straws, snip edges of paper, cut small one-inch lines drawn on strips of paper, diagonals, zig-zags, around a square, curved lines, around circles

I don't know why, but I think a 3-year-old feels really powerful when he has a glue stick in his hand.  It might seem like how to use a glue stick is a no-brainer, but it does take some coaching.  These are some glue stick skills to work on.
    • Putting lid on and taking it off independently
    • Rolling the right amount of glue up and down independently
    • Putting glue in the correct spot
    • Not using the glue to draw a picture
    • Using the correct amount of glue (some use way too much, some don't use enough)
A lot of my art projects for 3-year-olds involve gluing.  I try to do simple art that doesn't take very long, and allows them to do it in their own style.  Gluing small shapes is also a good fine motor activity.

I think most 3-year-olds like to trace things, what is frustrating to them is gripping the pencil.  Tracing is a pre-writing skill.  These are some tricks I have used:
    • Use the cues, "pinch the pencil, don't fist it"
    • I have them use crayons for much of their pre-writing.  They are familiar with crayons, and it's more fun to do it in color
    • Cut the pencil in half, it is easier to manage a half a pencil
    • Try pencil grips (or pencil "drips" as they are called at our house) I find that pencil grips work for half of the kids, and are counter-productive for the other half
    • Repeated practice on pre-writing pages is helpful when a child is first starting out.  (I put mine in page protectors and use dry-erase crayons).  We keep working on them until a child has developed a strong pencil grip.

At this age, I have learned to calm down about letter and sound memorization.  I try to introduce a new letter/sound each week.  We play games to review the letters, and I don't stress if they haven't mastered all of the letters and sounds by age 4, as long as they continue to be exposed to them on a regular bases.  I have found that it really depends on the child, and so I try to let the child gauge how fast this process will go.  I also try not to hold back a child who quickly masters all of the letters and sounds and is ready to start sounding out words.  Isn't it great that every child doesn't have to learn at the same pace!

When I was in Kindergarten, we had a play kitchen, play food, toy phones, a dress up area, dolls, and dinosaurs.  We learned letters and sounds, numbers and writing, but everyday, we were given some time for dramatic play.  Did anyone else have this kind of experience in kindergarten?  Sadly, pretend play is not facilitated in kindergarten anymore.  So I really, love to give preschoolers the chance for dramatic play.  Our playroom is always stocked with things to facilitate playing pretend, mostly items I have found from thrift stores or yard sales.  Some things I have are:  play food and dishes, dress-ups (princess, super-heroes, police and doctor), purses, wallets, cash register, cart, phones, cameras, doctor kits, vacuums, baby dolls and blankets)

When it was time to clean up, I would put on a clean up song. (We used "Shine Your Way" from "The Croods" and "Try Everything" from "Zootopia").  The kids knew that when they heard the song, it was time to clean up, and if they got cleaned up before the song was over, they would get to dance to the song.  Another helpful thing for cleanup is to label the bins with a picture and word of what goes where. 

While these activities just feel like play, they are very useful to strengthen muscles and increase coordination for pencil grip, cutting, and writing.  I often add a math element to fine motor activities (sorting, counting, patterning)

Examples of fine motor activities:

    • Using tongs to transfer items (pom poms, little erasers, counting bears)
    • Pushing pom poms into a small hole in a jar
    • Putting coins in a piggy bank
    • Poking toothpicks into foam
    • Squeezing water through pipets

I will be perfectly honest in telling you that I don't know a lot about teaching children to write letters.  What I have observed is that until they get the pencil grip down, it is really hard for them to form any letters.  I have noticed that they are all capable of learning to write their name, it just takes some a lot longer than others.  I teach them how to write their name, first with tracing, then with writing one letter at a time. The Measured Mom is my go-to for all things involving writing letters.  You can view her posts and hundreds of free handwriting worksheets here.

Isn't it amazing how many things three-year-olds can do?  This list does not cover all of them, I mean, you may even have a three-year-old who can successfully crack an egg.  Enjoy your threes!

Don't forget to look at the other posts in this series.  
Early Childhood Learning Part 1:  The Playing Toddler
Early Childhood Learning Part 3:  The Pre-Kindergartener

Check out my holiday preschool skills pages from my TpT shop. 
                                              Valentine's Preschool Skills Practice

St. Patrick's Day Preschool Skills Practice
You may also like my Preschool Math Mats:

Preschool Math Mats


  1. Great information. This reaffirms my 3 year old's skills at home :) Thanks for sharing!

  2. Great overview!! I think this breakdown would be helpful for many parents of toddlers to review and also try at home!

    1. Thank you! That's what I was hoping for!