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July 2011


Between Babyhood and Beyond

By Deborah Wood, Ph.D.

A note about child development: The purpose of this series is to help parents and caregivers recognize normal stages and to provide age-appropriate activities, nurturing and guidance. Each child is unique. Rates of development can differ widely among normally developing children, and each child can have “fast” or “slow” rates of development in different areas and at different times. These descriptions are merely based on typical behaviors for the age. If your child is not exhibiting “normal” developmental behaviors, there is no cause for alarm. However, discussion with a development specialist can help you to determine if any special interventions are necessary.

Your 3-year-old has one foot in babyhood and one foot in childhood: still a cuddle bug on your lap, but rapidly expanding her knowledge of the world around her. Add to your knowledge about 3-year-olds to enjoy this dynamic and delightful stage of development.

Jumping for Joy (and Other Reasons)

There’s an important reason your 3-year-old jumps so much. At age 2, her body was mostly tummy with little appendages sticking out. But by the end of this year, she will have stretched into a long-legged 4-year-old. To help the bones in her legs grow, she needs calcium from her bloodstream. Weight-bearing exercises—running, jumping and kicking the back of your seat when you’re driving—assist in drawing the calcium into her growing bone cells. If the kicking in the car bothers you, just be sure to encourage jumping, stomping and raucous dancing at other times. Or move her to the other side of the car. (She really can’t help it!)

Physical development at age 3 includes increasing dexterity for dressing. She will take great pride in dressing and undressing herself, so choose clothing that supports this. Elastic-waist pants (without buttons or zippers) and Velcro shoes will allow her independence until she can better handle buttons and buckles. You can set up her dresser so that she can not only get her own clothes out in the morning, but also get herself clean clothes if she has a toilet accident during the day.

A 3-year-old can use scissors with increasing skill if she gets plenty of practice. For easier cutting, start with cardstock, magazines or construction paper. These hold still better than copy paper does. Play dough is also an excellent medium to practice control of the hand muscles for cutting. At first she will use both hands to open and close the blades, gradually refining the movement of one hand, with thumb in the thumbhole, to efficiently work the scissors.

Tell Me Why

A 3-year-old is inquisitive. She has just about mastered the physics of her world—how various objects feel, how gravity works, the ins and outs of fluid dynamics (how water from the bathtub faucet can make a beach ball spin). Now she wants to know why.

Why do birds build nests? Why does a thunderstorm make the power go out? Why does old milk taste sour? Why are you going to work? You may find that even the most carefully worded answer doesn’t suffice. The best answers will come from direct observations and hands-on experiences, and sometimes from prodding her with questions to help her find the answers herself. Ask her, “What do you see the mama bird and papa bird doing?” to see what new information she is gleaning. Satisfy her hunger for knowledge with projects, books, videos and outings to fill in the gaps of her understanding. A good preschool program or quality child care center can add to her comprehension of how the world works with age-appropriate activities, prompting even more questions when she has you, her favorite grown-up, all to herself at the end of the day.

Here’s an interesting fact from brain science: At age 3, the brain is more active than at any other time of life. She has about twice the number of neuronal (brain cell) connections as an adult. One thought leads to another, and another, and another …

Creative Outlets

On the plus side, her brain is developing her powers of creative thinking. Dress-up clothes and props help her to become the assorted people she is familiar with, such as family members, the doctor, the store clerk. She tries out different roles to feel what it’s like to walk in those shoes and to rehearse roles she may play in her future. Many children go beyond using props to imagining a telephone, a soup spoon, a hypodermic needle or other specific items needed to carry out a make-believe scene. Fantasy characters are just as real to a 3-year-old. She can be a princess, a unicorn, a puppy dog or a potato. (A 3-year-old student of mine requested my piano accompaniment so she could and the other children could become Rolling Potatoes. This became a popular request for our creative movement sessions.) On the down side, a 3-year-old’s imagination can invent monsters and other scary things that go bump in the night and frighten her into your bed.

Irrational? Yes. But her fear is very real. Dreams include symbolic representations of our waking thoughts and feelings. A bad dream could stem from the custodian she saw at the library, who was hurling trash into the dumpster and noisily dropping the empty metal cans on the pavement. The clang of the cans, the man’s massive strength and the disappearance of the trash into the bowels of the dumpster may resonate with her feelings of vulnerability. She wakes up with adrenaline coursing through her—her heart rate elevated, her breathing rapid and shallow and her muscles tight—to flee toward the safety of your reassuring arms. She needs to know that you will always keep her safe. Hold her close until the fear subsides. Remember, that under the influence of adrenaline, all sensations are magnified. The hum of the refrigerator can sound like the roar of a child-eating dumpster monster. In tomorrow’s daylight, the two of you can investigate the on and off cycles of the refrigerator and other nightly mysteries. And before she goes to sleep, check under the bed to be sure it is free of nonexistent creatures of her midnight imagination.

I Had It First!

One of the many subjects of interest to a 3-year-old is the study of human emotions. She likes to see which ones she can cause in the people around her. What makes Mommy smile? What makes Teacher frown? If you respond consistently, she can catalog action-reaction patterns she can pull out for anticipated results. If I pick a dandelion from our yard to give Mommy on the way to the car, she smiles. If I pull up a tulip from the flower bed as I walk into school, Teacher frowns.

She is just at the right age to begin learning about sharing. Coach her to say, “I’m not finished” and, “I’m waiting for a turn.” Although she may initially protest, when you stop her from taking a toy from a playmate, you can help her to read emotions in others. “Look, Sara smiles when you pass her the crayon box.” Set a standard of compassion and generosity as you guide her interactions with others. “Aww, Jeremy is sad about being left out. Here’s a space for him.” She needs to know how to work out the inevitable conflicts in relationships, which is important information she can use in her expanding world.

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist residing in Annapolis.