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The Best Play Activities for 3-Year-Olds, According to Play Experts

Here are five ways to maximize their imaginative play.

If it seems like your 3-year-old is always in the Land of Make-Believe, you’re not wrong. Games and activities for 3-year-olds are firmly rooted in imaginative play for good reason: Pretend play is seriously important developmental work for toddlers. When a 3-year-old picks up a play doctor kit and pretends to examine a patient, they’re also learning and developing essential skills like empathy, communication, creative problem-solving, and, of course, physical movement and hand-eye coordination — all from the comfort of their home.

Play activities are the lens through which kids see their world,” says Rebecca Parlakian, a senior director of programs at the nonprofit children’s advocacy organization Zero to Three. “Different activities build different skills.” Pretend-play activities for 3-year-olds give them the opportunity to grow across different developmental domains and help them gain a better understanding of themselves and their place in the world.

The preschool years are also the age at which children start exploring gender roles — watching a toddler apply common gender stereotypes to toys can be disconcerting for parents. But gendered toys have a push-pull relationship with imaginative play, says Parlakian, and our anxieties as parents are sometimes reflected in the choices our kids make: Research shows that preschoolers are able to predict whether their parents would want them to play with a given toy or engage in a game based on gender.

Rather than see this as a downside to imaginative play, Parlakian adds that parents can use this as an opportunity to control stereotypes early on. Give your kid a mix of games and toys, including gender-neutral toys like building blocks, so they are encouraged to try on different identities and activities, through open-ended and imaginative play.  

Rescue Worms

Tools Needed: Chocolate Pudding, Tray, Cooked Spaghetti, Kid Friendly Tongs, Magnifying Glass, Pebbles

How to Play: Your child can pretend to be a pet rescue worker as they save the worms from a muddy heap. It helps if you have an interesting story. Maybe the worms’ home (chocolate puddling) has just been infested by aliens (pebbles) so the worms (spaghetti) need to find a new home. Bury spaghetti strips and pebbles of different sizes into the chocolate pudding, give your kids a magnifying glass and watch them save the day as they transfer the worms from the “mud” into another container. You can take this activity a step further by having them bury the worms somewhere in the garden once the rescue mission is over. This would be their new home.

Scavenger Hunt

Tools Needed: Score Sheet, Pen, Scavenger Hunt Clues, Miscellaneous Items

How to Play: Three-year-olds love exploring, and the scavenger hunt is a perfect way to satisfy their love of discovery while also expanding their bursts of energy. Parents can also use this activity to target specific areas of a child’s development. If your child is just beginning to learn about shapes, then curating scavenger-hunt clues around shapes can be a great way to supplement their learning: Ask them to look for something around, something squarish, or something rectangular, and don’t forget to create a score sheet for the shapes they get right.

Santa’s Little Helper

Tools Needed: Paper, Envelope, Colored Pens, Tape, Craft Set

How to Play: Santa got a lot of requests for Christmas this year and needs a lot of help getting the gifts and cards ready. This exciting activity for 3-year-olds gives a sense of belonging as they contribute in their own way to something way bigger. Set your 3-year-old up with a workstation. You’ll need colored pens, papers, envelopes, and basic craft materials. As Santa’s little helper, they have the creative license to make whatever they believe would help Santa out the most — that might include handwritten notes, personalized drawings, or even making their own gift bags.

Tree Branch Craft

Tools Needed: Branch, Paint, Sandpaper, Knife (adult-use only)

How to Play: The tree branch craft is a fun activity for 3-year-olds to try. It allows them to combine their love of making and imagining in an especially creative way. Ask your 3-year-old what character they would like to act out and then proceed to create a tool of their choosing that would support this role. A child who chooses to be a knight might want a sword for example and a fairy would most likely be in need of a wand. Carve and shape a branch to resemble the intended tool, being mindful not to create any sharp points or edges, then have the kids sandpaper and paint them. An exciting aspect of this activity for kids and parents alike is that it can be spread out across several days. Day 1: Brainstorm character choices. Day 2: Prepare tools. Day 3: Pretend play.

Whatever You Can You Build

Tools Needed: Building Blocks

How to Play: Present your child with a scenario for which they have to assume a role and build what’s needed to perform their task. A child who’s pretending to be a teacher might use the building blocks to build out a miniature classroom. A fire officer might need to build out a truck, and so on. The activity is great for 3-year-olds because it gives young kids an idea of what tools are needed to perform specific tasks, and helps them to problem-solve along the way. It also opens up a channel for clear, direct communication and interaction using real-world terms.