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Kindergarten Prep: How to Get Your 3-Year Old Preschooler Ready for the Next Steps

When friends, family, and associates know that you work in early education, they start bringing you questions.  

“I’m having a hard time teaching Jake to count, what should I do?”

“How should I start teaching Billy to read?”

And just after, “what does my child need to know for kindergarten (because that is the question I am asked the absolute most),  I am often asked, “What is my ___-year old child supposed to be doing”. 

Because child development is not this perfect linear movement from one point on a spectrum to another, it is not easy to answer this question.  Often, I don’t have an intimate enough relationship to know what a child “should” be able to do or where that child started from and has grown to.  

Parents are often very concerned about whether or not their children are meeting developmental milestones.  I get it!  I try to stay abreast of what my children are able to do and the developmental milestones that they “should” be reaching.  We want to know if our children are measuring up and if they are on pace for success.  So before we get into the meat of this topic, let’s be clear on a few things:

  1. Even if your child has a developmental delay, he/she can overcome this hurdle and still enjoy massive success in school.
  2.  Comparison breeds dissatisfaction and can even negatively affect self-esteem.  I caution parents all the time about comparing their child to other children.  Please do your best to avoid comparison.
  3. Children are not robots.  They are going to excel in some areas and then in others.  Child development is not a straight line with movement at 60 beats per second where every child arrives at the same place at the same time.  This is how you see one healthy child walk at 10 months and another at 14 months.
  4. Highlight your child’s strengths more than you highlight areas you want to work on.  

These four items are important because we don’t want to use developmental milestones as an negative assessment of our child.  We can use the information to help guide us in how we focus our time with our children or what games we choose to play with our children.  

The Preschool Parent’s Developmental Tool

The Ages and Stages Questionnaire (ASQ) is a development assessment that I am very familiar with.  It is used across the country in many early-education programs as a tool to provide parents with feedback on their child’s development.  Many pediatricians use the ASQ in their medical practices at well-child visits.   I like the ASQ because it is designed to be completed by parents.  So there is no need for specialized knowledge and the child doesn’t have to complete the tasks in the moment.  The parent can report based on what he/she knows the child is able to do.  The assessment is based off of your child’s age (taking into consideration premature birth) and can be completed rather quickly.  Let’s use the 36 month ASQ as a guide when we answer the question, “what should my 3 year old be able to do?”

Section 1: Communication

The ASQ asks your preschooler to complete 6 tasks related to communication.

  1.  Follow the directional words on and under.
  2. Explain what is going on in the pictures of a book.
  3. Follow the directional words up and down using a zipper.
  4. Say first and last name when asked, “what’s your name?
  5. Carry out three unrelated directions like, clap your hands, touch the door, and sit down.
  6.  Use all of the words in a sentence, when speaking.

These tasks are focused on comprehending verbal communication and speaking.  This gives you an idea of what your three year old should be able to do–understand directional words, speak in complete sentences, follow verbal instructions, and say his/her first and last name when asked.  

Before we get into the how, let’s talk about why these skills are important for children at age three.  Birth to three is an important time in your child’s development, especially brain development.  By the time we are three almost all of our physical brain growth has taken place, like 85%.  Now that doesn’t mean that we are done learning, it just lets us know that birth to three is a critical time for learning.  

One way to work on communication skills with your 3-year old is to focus your literacy activities on reading books and having two-way conversations. Listening to books and engaging in back and forth conversations allow your child to develop vocabulary and understand language far greater than what he/she can say or read.    “Simply put, the more words a child hears, the more prepared they are when they enter school. By the third grade, children who hear more words tend to have bigger vocabularies, be stronger readers and perform better on tests” 2018, Shrier). 

Section 2: Gross Motor

The ASQ asks your child to complete 6 tasks related to gross motor skills:

  1. Walk up stairs placing only one foot on each step. 
  2. Stand on 1 foot, without holding onto anything, for 1 second.
  3. Throw a ball overhand.
  4. Jump forward at least 6 inches with both feet leaving the ground at the same time.
  5. Catch a large ball with both hands.
  6. Climb a ladder.  

It can seem like some children were born to run, jump, and climb.  In reality, children that excel at gross motor skills probably have been given many opportunities to practice.  Allowing for the movement of your child’s large muscles is one of the most important things parents can do to support this type of development.  

Going outside is a great way to support gross motor development.  Children are able to move their bodies outside in ways that they would never be able to accomplish inside.  Not to mention the many brain benefits that we’ve learned come from being outside.  In my membership site, Preschool at Home there is an outside activity planned each and every day.  Don’t short circuit your child’s physical development.  Make a commitment to provide the time and space for your child to develop his/her large muscles.  

Section 3: Fine Motor

The ASQ asks your child to complete 6 tasks related to fine motor skills

  1. Copy a  circle after watching you draw one.
  2. Draw a horizontal line after watching you draw one.
  3. Open and close the blades of scissors with one hand.
  4. Hold a writing tool with a tripod grasp.
  5. Complete a five to seven piece puzzle.
  6. Copy a plus sign.

These skills are heavily focused on your child reproducing what they see and displaying control over tools.  Through these tasks you get a sense of what your three year old should be able to do at this time.  At the heart of these tasks is your child’s ability to control the small muscles in his/her hands.  That’s what fine motor skills are all about.  And they are so important.  You’d be surprised how many times you use fine motor skills as you go about your day–zipping, buttoning, tying your shoes, typing on a computer, etc.  Fine motor skills are especially important for preschoolers to be able to carry out many self-help skills.  

What’s great about fine motor skills is that they are really easy to practice and often kids don’t even know they are “working” because you can develop fine motor skills through play.  See how we can always tie play back into what we do with our children.  Playing with playdough is a great way to develop motor skills.  What little kid doesn’t love to play with playdough?  You can also finger paint, string beads, draw, scribble,  or write, pour back and forth from one container to the next, cut string or paper, and use tweezers to pick up cheerios, beans, or beads.  Lots of play and lots of fine motor practice! 

Section 4: Problem Solving

The ASQ asks your child to complete 6 tasks related to problem solving:

  1. Recognize that an incomplete stick figure is a person.
  2. Repeat a pair of numbers in order.
  3. Copy the way you stack blocks.
  4. Repeat three numbers in order. 
  5. Identify the smallest from a set of three. 
  6. Participate in pretend play.  

These six tasks are focused on holding information in mind and using prior knowledge to figure out a challenge.  Young children have to develop the capacity to hold information in mind and this task is essential to problem solving.  You can’t solve a problem if you can’t recall the details.  Have you ever asked your three-year old to count a set of blocks and tell you how many?  Often when asked how many, a young child will start counting again.  That child hasn’t developed the capacity to hold that number in their mind just yet.  And that’s okay.  Because with practice, children will develop this skill.  

And guess what?  Play supports this kind of learning.  Pretend play can specifically help children develop problem solving skills.  “Pretend play presents your child with opportunities for problem solving and finding a variety of solutions for the same problem. It allows children to gain information and discover relationships between objects.”  (2018, playfulpittsburgh.com)

Section 5: Personal-Social

The ASQ asks your child to complete 6 tasks related to personal-social development:

  1. Understand that the person he/she sees in the mirror is him-/herself.
  2. Put on a coat, jacket, or shirt without assistance.
  3. Recognize if he/she is a boy/girl.
  4. Take turns.
  5. Serve him-/herself food from one container to another.  
  6. Wash (with soap) and dry hands independently.  

These skills are all related to understanding self and being able to complete self-help skills.  It is important that young children understand key information about themselves.  As a child develops he/she begins to distinguish between him-/herself and others.

“By 2 years old, children have gathered enough information about their physical selves that they can identify themselves in photographs.At the same time, babies and toddlers are also gathering information about other people as separate from themselves, constantly making comparisons between their own bodies and images and the bodies and images of others. These comparisons help them gain a growing understanding of the distinction between self and others.”

https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/2648-who-am-i-developing-a-sense-of-self-and-belonging

It is obvious why being able to complete self-help skills is important.  Many children would come to my preschool classroom at 4 and not be able to put on a coat or serve themselves lunch.  I quickly came to realize this wasn’t because the children were unable, it was because parents weren’t allowing the children to help themselves at home.  And let me tell you, I understand.  Have you ever wanted to hurry up and get in the car, but you are waiting for your three year old to put his/her shoe on or zip her coat.  Woooo!  It is a genuine test of patience.  The silver lining in that tortuous wait, is that our children begin to see themselves as able to care for themselves.  They learn that they can put on their cat, tie their scarf, or button their shirt, even if it takes a lot of effort (and a lot of time).  

Recap

The 36-month ASQ highlights five areas of focus:

  1.  Comprehending verbal communication and speaking.
  2. Balancing, climbing, and throwing.
  3. Displaying control over tools such as scissors and pencils and reproducing simple figures.
  4. Holding information in mind and using prior knowledge to figure out problems.
  5. Developing self-concept and self-help skills.
Support Your 3-Year Old's Development in 5 Easy Steps

How you can support these areas of development:

  1. Read books with your child and have two-way conversations.
  2. Find a space for your child to consistently engage in gross motor play–running, jumping, climbing.
  3. Encourage your child to use the small muscles in his/her hands through play–playdough, stringing beads, cutting paper, using tweezers, etc.
  4. Encourage your child to engage in pretend play scenarios.  You can join in, too.
  5. Allow your child to complete self-help skills at home. 

If you liked the ideas listed above and you’d like more quick and easy ways to support your preschoolers’s development, download The Ultimate Kindergarten Readiness Starter Kit. You’ll get 25 activities you can do in 20 minutes or less. You’ll teach your child important skills and your child will have fun learning.