Three Year Old Learning Milestones and Classroom Expectations

By understanding the three year old learning curve you are likely to have more success in the classroom. Preschool teachers don't expect too much from their students, but know how to challenge their growing minds. Almost everything a three-year-old does during the day teaches him or her something about the world. They learn through exploration and trial and error and their minds are like sponges. If you're new to the preschool arena, or simply want to understand your students a bit more, here is some information about 3 year olds and how they learn.

The Learning Process

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Young children, especially three-year-olds, learn by using all five of their senses. They learn best when given the opportunity to explore with their hands, ears, nose, eyes, and mouth. To encourage and maximize learning, classrooms should provide plenty of hands-on toys and materials. Activities which involve all five senses include nature walks when learning about plants and animals. Let the children explore the outdoors and collect leaves, nuts, twigs, pine cones, or anything else safe and natural. Take field trips or invite guest speakers to come and bring some of their tools. For example, you could ask a fireman to come into the classroom to speak about their job, who in turn may have the children climb around on a fire truck, have them listen to the siren, and let them ask questions.

Motor Skills

Physically, three-year-olds love spending time practicing their gross and fine motor skills. A young preschooler can spend over an hour climbing a ladder and going down a slide over and over again simply perfecting coordination, according to Lesia Oesterreich, M.S. in the article, "Ages & Stages: Three-Year-Olds". Activities which encourage large motor development include riding tricycles, running simple obstacle courses, and throwing large balls overhand. Activities great for perfecting a 3 year old's fine motor skills include putting together a 6 piece puzzle, modeling with clay or Playdoh, and stacking blocks. Children at this age can stack up to nine blocks high.

Scholastic Expectations

Adults understand about 75 percent of a 3 year old's language, according to the article, "Developmental Milestones: Ages 3 Through 5" on GreatSchools.Org. They speak in complete three to five word sentences. Teachers begin introducing the letters of the alphabet to three-year-olds. Most don't master the alphabet during this year, but they do become familiar with some of the letters and by the end of this year, some advanced children begin trying to write and copy letters on paper. One 3 year old learning expectation deals with math. Children at this age should be able to sort objects according to one characteristic such as size, shape, or color. They can also count up to 5 and begin to recognize the written numerals "O" through "9". Three-year-olds are a bit better at problem solving and critical thinking than 2 year olds.

Social and Emotional Expectations

A 3 year old talks much more than a 2 year old and uses simple sentences in conversation with adults and peers. Vocabulary quickly grows during this year and they understand much more. Emotionally, children begin to recognize other people's feelings and do simple things to comfort them. Although three-year-olds begin forming real friendships with other children, they still may run to the nearest adult to settle conflicts. They often play by themselves, but prefer to be near other children, even though they still don't share well. Feeling safe and secure with a familiar adult is important for children at this age. While they want independence, they still need nurturing arms of loving adults. Also, 3 year olds want to do tasks themselves, but recognize their limitations more quickly and know when to ask for adult assistance. Providing three-year-olds with 2 appropriate choices for meals or activities gives them the feeling of independence and builds self-confidence.

Nothing is more precious than a 3 year old. As long as teachers provide a safe and exploratory environment conducive to learning, the students will thrive and develop at a perfect pace. Keep in mind that while teachers should introduce numbers and letters to their three-year-old students, mastery of these concepts doesn't usually happen at this age. If you establish these basic expectations, your students will gain the most from their learning experiences.


PBS.Org, "Child Development Tracker", accessed November 4, 2010.

National Network for Childcare, "Ages & Stages: Three Year Olds", accessed November 16, 2010.

GreatSchools Inc., "Developmental Milestones: Ages 3 Through 5", accessed November 16, 201