Looking for things to do with your child? Check out these learning and educational activities for 3 year olds at home or outdoors.
Like many moms, I wanted to engage with my 3 year old at home, providing him with a list of activities that were not only fun, but educational as well. I was that mom who collected leaves and counted the steps on the stairs we took.
At the same time, I also understood that educational activities can get… over the top. We don’t need to stress out about “teaching,” so much as inspiring our kids’ curiosity and desire to learn.
You see, so many of us can feel like we’re not doing enough educational activities. That we’re somehow “behind” what other parents are doing with their kids. We assume that every moment spent should be a learning opportunity, or that we need to provide better toys or experiences.
Educational activities for 3 year olds
But thankfully, it doesn’t take much to teach and engage with your child. These educational activities for 3 year olds can keep her entertained while learning the fundamentals along the way. They’re geared for even the shortest attention span, or for kids who easily tire of doing the same thing for long stretches.
They’re also perfect to give your caregiver ideas to do with her during the day while you’re at work. You don’t need expensive toys or classes galore to make sure she’s off to a great start. These easy, doable, and even practical activities are more than enough to teach and engage:
1. Activities that promote fine motor skills
One of the best activities to practice with your 3 year old is his fine motor skills. Developing dexterity and muscles in her hands can set the foundation to hold a pencil, cut with scissors, and button her clothes.
Writing with pencils and crayons isn’t the only way to develop fine motor skills, either. Take a look at these activities that can also do the trick:
- Threading string through items. Start with large pieces, like dry rigatoni pasta and shoelaces, before moving on to smaller items like beads and thread.
- Pipe cleaners and a colander. Sticking the ends of pipe cleaners into a colander was one of the activities that intrigued my son for a long stretch. Turn a metal colander (one with large circle holes) upside down. Then, have your child stick one end of a pipe cleaner into one hole, and the other into another hole. See what creations and patterns she can make!
- Glue sticks. Make a collage of pieces of paper and glue sticks. First, tear paper into small pieces—start with 2″ pieces and gradually cut them smaller. Then, show her how to glue one side and stick it onto a larger piece of paper.
2. Writing letters and numbers
Even if your 3 year old can’t read or write just yet, you can begin practicing writing letters and numbers.
Incorporate playful and unconventional ways to write, like tracing his finger on sand or making letters with play dough. Teach him the alphabet by finding the letters in your environment. You can always make learning letters and numbers fun with no pressure!
Take a look at these ideas:
- Go down the alphabet. Pick one letter and talk about it throughout the day. You might color a page of the letter, describe the different sounds it makes, or find things in the room that start with that letter.
- Use a dry erase board. This allows him to write and erase as often as he’d like.
- Write letters and numbers with sidewalk chalk. Whether on the driveway, sidewalk, or a chalkboard, writing with chalk is another fun way to practice holding writing tools.
- Combine magnetic letters and a cookie sheet. Have a set of magnetic letters and numbers? Combine them to make words on a cookie sheet! The cookie sheet makes for a fantastic portable “board” he can place on his lap or take with him anywhere.
Free printables: Help him trace and recognize the letters and numbers with sample worksheets from my digital workbook, Letters and Numbers! Join my newsletter and grab them below—at no cost to you:
3. Daily tasks and lessons
A simple way to incorporate learning activities for 3 year olds is to use your daily tasks as “lessons.” So much of what your child sees is an opportunity to learn without needing to do things too differently in your day.
A few ideas you can do:
- Counting. Count how many times you push her on the swing, the steps you take up the staircase, or the peas in her bowl.
- Measuring. Invite her into the kitchen as you cook. Say out loud how many cups, tablespoons, or pounds you need with each ingredient.
- Sorting. Doing laundry? Sort the piles into types of clothes (and encourage her to find pairs of socks). Playing with blocks? Sort them into piles of the same color. Sort pom poms by size or color into empty muffin tins or egg cartons.
4. Educational games
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Games are a fantastic way to practice social skills, have fun, and learn new things. Board games, simple card games, puzzles, and “conversation starters” work well. Here are a few ideas:
- Puzzles. Don’t be afraid to challenge her with bigger puzzle pieces. Even if she doesn’t finish a puzzle in one sitting, encourage her to keep trying to finish it at another time.
- Card games. Memory games (finding and pairing similar cards) and matching games are simple to do just about anywhere. Find “kid-friendly” card games like these instead of a standard deck so she has an easier time identifying the cards.
- Board games. Many board games are now available for your child, but keep an eye out for the age recommendations. Some are still geared toward older kids, so stick to those suitable for the younger crowd.
5. Open-ended play
Don’t think that letting your child play is “wasted” time to learn—the opposite is true. Kids learn best through play, especially open-ended play where they’re not bound by preset limitations. This allows them to think creatively and come up with unique solutions.
Take a look at these ideas to nurture open-ended play:
- Blocks. The simpler the blocks, the better. Allow your child to create whatever he’d like from the blocks in front of him.
- Dress up and pretend. Set aside a box filled with costumes and dress-up clothes. These can be “career” outfits like a firefighter outfit, or even your knickknacks like old necklaces and hats. A pretend kitchen was also a big hit in our house, as my kids were able to come up with pretty amazing stories and games as they “cooked.”
- Art supplies. Don’t feel like you have to come up with cute crafts—a box of art supplies is all your 3 year old needs to nurture creativity. Crayons, pencils, play dough, and finger paint can make for a fantastic experience crafting and creating. You can also introduce labels by pointing out the shapes she makes from play dough or the different colors of the paint.
- Sensory bins. Fill a shallow tub with various materials like dried beans, rice or sand, and bury little toys, cups, or bowls to play with.
6. Field trips
Feeling cooped up at home with your 3 year old? Plan a few “field trips” to local spots! Not only can you fill your time together, but you can also expose her to new activities and lessons while you’re out. Nearly any outing can be a learning experience, but look for places catered to kids. A few ideas include:
- Child-friendly museums. Some museums are geared to children (My favorite is Moxi in Santa Barbara). Others are for general audiences with a children’s area. Hands-on exhibits make the experience fun for both you and your child.
- Library story time and activities. Many libraries host these events for toddlers and preschoolers. From playing with building toys to making magnetic slime to creating jewelry, libraries are fantastic places to take her.
7. Activities that encourage curiosity
Take advantage of your 3 year old’s natural curiosity with just about everything. Encourage her questions, no matter how silly (or “annoying”). Expand her world through books and resources, and show her just how many amazing creatures she can discover.
Here are a few ideas to nurture her curiosity:
- Explore your local outdoors. Step outside to your backyard, garden, or local park and look for bugs and creatures she can observe. Use a kids’ magnifying glass like this one to talk about different leaves and flowers. Let her help you garden by filling pots with soil and pulling weeds from the ground.
- Show her a map or globe. My kids love looking at a map of the world, even from a young age. Your child can compare countries, point out where she lives, and learn about the different continents and oceans.
- Read nonfiction books. Don’t forget to include nonfiction books in your regular reading. Books about the weather, how plants grow, or outer space are fantastic ways to explore the world from the comfort of books.
Best practices for educational activities for 3 year olds
Now that you have a few ideas on what to do with your child, take a look at these best practices for helpful tips:
- Stick to a weekly schedule. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with all the things you “have” to do. Keep it simple by focusing on a few topics a week. For instance, one week you can focus on circles, the color red, and the letter “A.” The next week, you can focus on squares, the color green, and the letter “B.” Get more tips on how to create a 3 year old schedule.
- Keep the activities short and frequent. It’s common for kids to lose interest quickly—don’t feel bad if your child can’t sit still for long periods. Instead, keep them short—no longer than 30 minutes at a time. Or intertwine these conversations and activities frequently throughout the day.
- Follow your child’s interests. Kids learn and pursue what they’re interested in. Nurture what’s already there rather than forcing something you think he should do. If he loves farms, find children’s books about farm animals, visit a local farm, and sing songs about the sounds animals make.
- Rotate toys and materials regularly to reignite his imagination. Old toys can feel new once again after they’ve been out of sight for a while.
Finding educational activities for 3 year olds has just gotten easier, especially with these ideas. Practice fine motor skills with threading and glue sticks. No need for a formal curriculum when you turn real life daily tasks into lessons. Play board games, solve puzzles, and practice writing letters and numbers.
Encourage open-ended play with toys and games, and go on “field trips” like child-friendly museums and library activities. And finally, be curious with your child, exploring your local environment like curious scientists.
As you can see, you’re nowhere near “behind” when it comes to helping him learn—even collecting leaves and counting steps can do the trick.
Get more tips:
- A Gift Guide to the Best Building Toys
- Physical Activities for 3 Year Olds
- How to Keep Kids Learning in the Summer
- 25 Fun Outdoor Activities for 3 Year Olds
- Easy Activities for 3 Year Olds You Can Do Any Day
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