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Things to Know About 3-Year-Olds

My youngest is now three. That means I have done this "having a three-year-old thing" three times already! (No wonder I'm tired!) Three seems to be a magic age, because it is when a child is ready to learn a lot of new things. As I look forward to teaching my baby, I find myself reflecting on what I have observed about threes over the years of teaching preschool and teaching my own children. Whether you are a preschool teacher, or a parent, I hope you find something helpful in these Things to Know About Three-Year-Olds.

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 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 point you may be wondering, what does this have to do with reading?  Is a three-year-old ready to read?  Well.  Three is when I start doing a lot of the preparation for learning to read, such as teaching letters and sounds. 

However, I have learned to calm down about letter and sound memorization with threes. I try to introduce a new letter/sound each week. We play games to review the letters, do puzzles, read ABC books, 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 basis. 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! I also make sure to work on other pre-reading skills such as author and illustrator, rhyming words, letters vs. words, etc.

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 my littles 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)

    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.

    Most three-year-olds are not reading books on their own.  But this is the time to help them learn to love stories!  Sometimes we are too focused on learning to read, that we forget about why knowing how to read is such a great thing!  Books are a great way to spend quality time with your child.  There are many children's books that can reinforce lessons you are trying to teach your child.  (We don't hit.  Be kind to others.  Mommy loves you.  It's okay to feel angry.)  Start a habit now of reading aloud to your child often, and never stop!

    Are you wondering how you can work on these things at home with your three-year-old? I have created many early childhood resources for that very purpose. Find these resources in my Shop:


    1. Thank you for sharing!! I have a two year old but it’s good to know what we can begin working towards for next year!

    2. Suzanne, you're very welcome! Enjoy your time with your two-year-old :)

    3. Thanks so much for this article you are an Inspiration to us all. Here is a great way I found to teach my kids how to read better and they are more confident to show others. I hope I will help many more.

    4. Three year olds should not be pressured to learn letter sounds, letter recognition, or pencil grip. In fact, you can do more harm than good if you try to get them to hold a pencil "correctly" before they are ready. If they point to a letter and ask what it is or what sound it makes, it's fine to tell them. Otherwise the pre-reading/writing skills they need are to draw whatever kind of pictures they would like to draw (scribbling is a very important step in the process!), have lots of books read to them, and to see reading and writing in everyday life. Let them dictate a letter to grandma so that they begin to learn that the words that they speak can be represented by symbols (writing.) They also need the fine motor activities as described, but formal instruction on reading and writing is not a good idea for 3 year olds. Please let them play!!!!!!!

      1. OK can u suggest the letter sound book the three years old

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