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NYS Parent Guide

36-48 Months: Growth and Development

You and Your Thriving Three-Year-Old

Supporting Learning and Curiosity

Supporting Learning and Curiosity

Your child is learning as he runs, jumps, turns blocks into buildings or empties boxes into trains. As he plays in the sand, collects stones or pinecones and kicks a ball. And as he pretends to be a lion, a baby or a firefighter.

Many experts believe there are five types of play: exploratory play, which is discovering what something is (even infants do this), constructive play, where children put things together and take them apart (toddlers can do this to some degree), dramatic play, which is taking on pretend roles and situations, and later on, play that has rules (rules can be created by the child or from outside source,) and rough and tumble play.

Here are ways to support these types of play and learning.

  • Head outdoors. It’s the perfect place to climb, run, throw a ball or bean bag, ride a tricycle or visit a park. There are also amazing things to discover, explore and enjoy together: clouds, worms, butterflies, snow, and dump trucks at a construction site.
  • Encourage “construction” and “collection.” Three-year-olds love to build anything and everything, put things together and take them apart, and create as they make collages, mold clay or playdough, build with blocks or make a sculpture with pipe cleaners. As he creates, your child learns about size, shapes, balance, weight, color and how things connect to each other.
  • Make believe together. Pretend play supports language, cognitive, social emotional and motor learning! When your child invites you to be the mommy, baby, firefighter or tiger, join in—even though it can feel weird. Follow your child’s lead and watch her creativity and confidence grow.
  • Introduce simple board games. Be prepared: your child will make up the rules for now. Don’t worry about winning or even completing the game. No matter who wins or how long you play, your child will be learning about taking turns, counting, numbers and letters.
  • Encourage “connections.” Between play and real life: “I see you are playing with your garbage truck. Our garbage is outside right now waiting for the city garbage truck. Let’s see if it’s coming.” And between the familiar and new: “Can you help me find a lemon? Lemons remind me of the oranges you like to eat, but they are smaller and yellow.”
  • Spend time with other kids. Three-year-olds begin to play with as opposed to next to other children. With practice and your support, playing and getting along with others gets easier for your child. The chance to talk with other parents and to see other three-year-olds in action can make playtime fun for you, too.
  • Explore programs for your three-year-old to attend. Are you thinking about preschool? State funded Universal Pre-Kindergarten? Head Start? A nursery school? This year or next? Just like picking a quality child care program, you want to know a lot about a high quality preschool program and what is expected of you, as a parent.

Useful Resources:

Find information on early learning opportunities for your preschooler:

Request a copy of As You Think About Child Care for Your Three to Five Year Old from New York State Parents’ Connection.


NYS Universal Pre-kindergarten

Call your local school district or visit their website to learn more.

Private Pre-school

Find listings in your local phone directory under nursery school or pre-school.

PBS online

Public Service Broadcasting (PBS) online information on choosing a preschool or child care center.

Head Start Programs

Find a Head Start Program in your community:

additional resources My E-Journal

Did you know

Research shows that children who engage in complex forms of socio-dramatic play have greater language skills than non-players, better social skills, more empathy, more imagination, and more of the subtle capacity to know what others mean. They are less aggressive and show more self-control and higher levels of thinking. (THE ALLIANCE FOR CHILDHOOD, 2009)