Potential Occupational Therapy for Children


3 Year Old’s and Play

If a child was asked to list their occupation, it should say “Player”. This is their job! And a very important one! Through play children learn to interact with their environment, practicing their motor, social, cognitive and language skills. True play is child initiated, child directed, fun, spontaneous, engaging and safe.

By 3.5 years old our children are starting kindergarten. And they will be playing alongside other children between 3.5 – 4.5 years of age. Within her book “Learn to Play” Professor Karen Stegnitti (Occupational Therapist) describes 3 year old pretend play. Based on her research and information, you will find some information below about 3 year old play.

Examples have been included to illustrate what you might see in your 3 year old’s play and how you may like to assist your child to play:

  • Playing stories with themes such as being a fire-fighter, being a pilot or a secret agent. These are themes that the child has not likely personally experienced. Popular toys are dress-ups, dolls, doctor’s kits, farm sets, and tea sets. Dolls houses and train station tables are ok to be introduced at this age.
  • They will start to plan out what they are going to play but they may not stick to the plan in the end! Their story line will become more complex and generally have a beginning, middle and end. There might even be problems occurring in the story that have to be solved! ‘Oh no, the car has crashed, we need a doctor for the man!’ . ‘Oh no the shop has run out of apples, what are we going to put in the lunchbox?’. You can encourage your child to tell you what’s happening in the story but wondering aloud about what they are doing. You might like to say “I wonder what teddy is doing? I wonder what that is (when you point at an object)”.
  • They will start to enjoy using objects in a pretend manner. The building block might become a phone or the ice cream container will be a hat for teddy to wear on the construction site. This is where junk comes in really handy! Your 3 year old will love using the objects for all sorts of things in their stories.
  • A 3 year old will start to enjoy interacting with others during their play. This is where play dates, social interaction during day care or play group will be very important for developing their play with others. Cubby houses are very fun at this stage!
  • 3 year olds will take on a role during their play story. They may be the doctor or the teacher. Watch out though as 3 year olds will change their roles! Mum might start out as the teacher, but you will find you are soon relegated to student, or back to being mum! Swapping and changing is expected at this age.

3 year old still love to get messy so any sensory play is wonderful too and can be incorporated into all of the above ideas and games. Soft clothing, slime, play dough, rice, sand and water are a great addition into any pretend play scenes.

If you have any concerns about the way your 3 year old play, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us to discuss your concerns.