DIY Learning Hands-On Activities for 3-Year-Olds

If you’re looking for fun, hands-on activities for your 3-year-old, there are plenty of options to choose from! Here are a few ideas:

Sensory bins: Fill a plastic bin with items that will engage your child’s senses, such as rice, beans, or sand. Add in small toys or objects for them to explore and manipulate.

Playdough: Making and playing with playdough is a classic activity for young children. You can easily make your own playdough at home using flour, salt, and water.

Painting: Finger painting or using a brush to create artwork is a great way to let your child express their creativity. You can use washable paints or even make your own using food coloring and water.

Nature walks: Take your child on a walk around your neighborhood or a local park and encourage them to observe and collect items from nature, such as leaves, rocks, or flowers.

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Building with blocks: Blocks are a fantastic toy for developing fine motor skills and spatial awareness. You can use wooden blocks, foam blocks, or even recycled materials like cardboard boxes.

Montessori has the ultimate scientifically-based way to address children’s development. At the young age of three, we often can observe common threads and windows of opportunity that a child’s behavior displays – sensitive periods.

Sensitive periods in Montessori education refer to periods of time when children are particularly receptive to certain types of learning. During these periods, children are naturally drawn to certain activities and materials, and they have a heightened ability to absorb and retain information.

The sensitive periods typically occur during the first six years of life and cover a range of developmental areas, including language, motor skills, and social development. Montessori teachers are trained to recognize and respond to these sensitive periods by providing a prepared environment that offers the appropriate materials and activities to support each child’s individual needs and interests.

By understanding and supporting these sensitive periods, Montessori educators can help children reach their full potential and develop a lifelong love of learning.

Sensitive Periods

It is always wise to refer to those sensitive periods when we plan to organize a learning environment for a 3-year-old child especially if we like to follow the Montessori approach. Before I share with you my suggestions and examples of learning activities for three-year-olds, I would like to revisit those sensitive periods. From the age of 0 to 6 years old, a child’s development can be characterized by the five types of sensitive periods:

  • order
  • language
  • sensory skills
  • fine and gross motor movement
  • social skills.

For each individual child the time it takes to fulfill and pass each of those developmental stones varies. Only the child can tell us through many cues and personal tendencies what his or her sensitivity is most prevalent at any point in time. Hence we strive to show respect and follow the child.

Bouncing off that we can see how important it is for us to practice observational skills from the child’s birth and be attentive to what the child’s behavior is telling us. This lays a great foundation for creating an environment and activities that will drive and support the sensitive periods, enable the child to be in harmony with his or her intrinsic stimulus.

Sometimes, adults can get fixated on a particular aspect of development – like learning to read and write or social skills. If the child does not show much interest in either of them or tends to like his or her own company, we begin to panic and push the child to reach the milestones without providing adequate support and are inclined to start attaching labels.

I believe we always have to take the child’s character and individuality into perspective. Our eagerness to “fix” the child should never be imposed or make the child feel inadequate. We should most certainly seek support or reassurance if that’s the case.

In the post, I would like to share some ways I incorporate learning activities with a 3-year-old during our morning learning time. I plan and prepare 3-4 activities for the child 3-4 times a week. I trust you find these helpful and inspiring.

We have limited space with children in different age categories, hence I aim to make the most out of it to allow freedom of choice. Here is an example of a shelf arrangement with a silence game and a sand timer in the basket, cutting strips, counting the quantity and matching to the numbers activity, the knobless cylinders, learning to identify the initial sound “I spy” game, painting, matching cards, and a puzzle type activity.

Practical Life Activities

We use cloth nappies at night until we feel the child is ready to go without them. Hanging and fastening washed nappies with a peg brought a sense of accomplishment, encouraged self-care, and was a great exercise for little fingers.

I like to encourage care of the environment. For example, clearing the table after an art activity is a wonderful way to support a child’s desire for order and boost confidence and independence. It takes a lot of patience to prepare, assist, and support the child from the educator’s perspective, however, it is definitely worth it.

Even when we don’t have store-bought flowers, the children often start picking flowers from the loan. I quickly organize a tray and tools to do flower arrangements. This exercise boosts a child’s fine motor skills, and concentration, and fosters a sense of beauty.

Fine motor exercises with lacing cards I find to be effective at capturing a child’s attention for an extended period of time. It is important to offer the child a demonstration first otherwise, they can become frustrated quickly as they run out of string shortly if they don’t practice lacing in the correct order.

Along with helping in the kitchen, children enjoy practical life trays with pouring and transferring activities to perfect those fine motor movements. It also allows the child to indirectly prepare for writing and extend their concentration time when they are allowed to work on it without interruptions.

Children don’t seem to get tired of pouring activities at this age.

It is always a good idea to extend the difficulty of the task and offer more challenging work if you feel the child is ready to move on.

Fine Motor Activities

Without a doubt, the shelf work, Montessori trays, and hands-on learning activities tend to and satisfy sensitive periods. With one activity the child learns the order of the presentation, the order in which all materials are organized on the tray, and the way they should be placed back on the shelf.

They learn language by naming the tools, colors, and objects on the cards. They learn to communicate when they need help with an activity. They learn to differentiate colors, sizes, and textures. Hence I find this time the child spends working on the activities invaluable for their development.

Generally a trip to a discount, thrift, or office supply store is sufficient to gather the necessary tools to prepare and set up learning activities for preschool children.

I love getting creative with manipulatives I can use for transferring, math, or loose part play. Here you can spot everlasting flowers I kept from one of the flower-arranging activities.

Playdough play with loose parts is a regular activity on our shelves for preschool children. We prefer to use natural loose parts we have collected in the woods or purchased from craft shops.

Fine motor work as such is always only done under direct supervision for safety reasons. As a rule, I do not leave it on the shelf for the child to access at any time without an adult being present. At the age of three many children still like to take small objects into their mouths.

Sensory Activities

Once in a while, the children enjoy sensory play. For example, we mix up cornflour with beetroot juice, some eco-friendly glitter, and a hair conditioner. This fun and engaging activity can get messy but it is very much child-led and can entertain them for a while. I like to use this opportunity to work with the sibling without destruction.

It is safe to say that at this age majority of activities I present to the children require a minimum involvement, presentation time, or guidance from the adult. I simply set up an activity on a tray, if the child takes it to work, I ask if I may have a turn. I demonstrate how to do it once and leave the rest to the child. Most of those activities are open-ended.

Playdough and plasticine are often favored by young children. Activities that require them to pinch, squeeze and mold prepare little fingers and hand muscles for writing and drawing.

Often all three children of different ages engage in an activity they can accomplish at a different level based on their skills.

I aim to always have a high supply of paints because a three-year-old can not have too many opportunities to do a painting. Self-expression is very satisfying. We make sure to place the painting on a wall to admire after it dries.

I encourage the child to do simple crafts to practice cutting and other important skills and often it is done to honor an important occasion or to make a card for someone. Meaningful exercise triggers intrinsic motivation that inspires children to complete them.

For example, here is an activity for making a card with a love heart shape the child punches with a shape puncher.

Children learn about creating patterns and simple designs when they have an opportunity to make papercraft.

In the preschool packs that I prepare, I include cutting and push pinning activities. Children enjoy those as they challenge them and help develop fine motor skills that are essential for their growth.

In my Spring pack, I included matryoshka cards for lacing. However, my daughter was more inclined to me to cut it up and glue the puzzle pieces as she was learning to apply pressure on the glue and put pieces together to complete the picture.

Pre-writing and pre-reading activities

Pre-writing activities for preschool children are an important stepping stone towards mastering cursive handwriting. I use colored sand to prepare a pre-writing tray. I may also have loose parts for the child to arrange first and then make continuous strokes with a paintbrush around those objects on the sand.

“I spy” activity for learning to identify the initial sound is very engaging for children at this age as they are curious to learn new vocabulary.

Once the child has competence in identifying beginning sounds, I start introducing tracing sandpaper letters and sorting pictures based on their initial sound.

Here is another example of a shelf arrangement with a dusting activity and mystery bag for feeling and guessing objects to support the child’s sensitive period for touching.

Sometimes the child will initiate activities by watching other children work with materials. They come up with a way to use them that makes sense to them. I generally do not interfere and allow the use of those materials as soon as the child is doing it respectfully.

Sensorial Activities

For example, here the child is organizing math beads by color and length.

This is the age when children start learning discriminating objects – grading and sorting by size. I adapt to our children’s needs and purchase materials I feel will benefit them the most for an extended period of time. The cylinder blocks are a perfect example.

As children encounter shapes and learn many other concepts from interactions in real life, we can start introducing hands-on activities with cards that reinforce that knowledge and draw attention to it like a magnifying class.

I created a series of cards that help children to learn through manipulating picture cards and learning small snippets of information – Nature Curriculum in Cards. I regularly use materials from the bundle with all my children to teach them about the natural world.

This is a pre-updated version of living and non-living things printable for sorting. This kind of activity fosters logical thinking and understanding of the concepts of life.

My daughter enjoys working with cards. Hence I use this opportunity to offer as many activities as I can to support her interest.

Language Activities

Our children eat their veggies without us nagging and they are not shy when it comes to spices. But that definitely didn’t happen overnight. We talk about food and nutrition all the time and in a fun way. We discuss cuisines and ingredients in our meals, the way food makes us feel, and how it affects our mood. I am very open with them about mistakes I made in the past when it comes to healthy eating habits. We talk about self-control and discuss what it looks like in practice. We are still learning every single day how to nurture our bodies but we try not to make it a chore.
Having cards with whole foods available on the shelf to work with helped me with my littlest to normalize eating fresh and unprocessed foods that at times don’t seem to be overly attractive to children.

This is a shape-matching activity with animals that is very beneficial for even younger children. Cards like these indirectly reinforce the idea that we express affection when we feel safe to do so (we are a part of the animal kingdom after all) while learning the names of different shapes, and animals and applying logical thinking and observational skills.

Tracing Activities

Tracing worksheets are usually not my first choice when I prepare activities for my preschool children. However, they are like a magnet to them. If given a choice, they work with them practically daily. They serve the purpose of preparing children for handwriting, developing extended concentration skills, and learning pencil grip.

In my tracing no prep books I also include activities on logical thinking. If children are engaged, they can spend a significant amount of time working on an activity that boosts their ability to concentrate for longer.

Hands-on Activities

There is so much to be admired about Montessori materials. They are made mostly out of wood and they are made to last. They are at the very foundation of the Montessori method. In our home, we own a few sets but I also find a way to substitute those materials with something that comes at a lesser cost and can be stored efficiently. Here is an example of our DIY color tablets II. These are easy to make with construction paper or cardboard.

Here is an example of an open-ended type of activity that allows free exploration. It is not material that requires a presentation. If the child asks questions, I am always there to give a short introduction and point to land and water, name continents. But the main purpose behind material as such is to allow the child an opportunity to manipulate its parts, to spark his or her curiosity, and to help gain information through play and observation.

When I think of puzzles for preschool children, I like to choose wooden ones with knobs. Indirectly it allows the child to practice pencil grip. Children can also trace shapes by holding them by the knobs and then use the outline to do push pinning, coloring, or cutting.

Pattern work with shapes fits in perfectly with the sensitive period for developing sensory skills and satisfies the curiosity and desire to sort, match and make patterns.

Here is another way I allow to repurpose Montessori metal insets and be used like puzzles. Generally, these are used by older children to practice tracing, coloring, and making continuous strokes. In saying that, at the age of three, my children were ready to use them as intended as well.

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About Anastasia - Anastasia is an early childhood teacher and the founder of Montessori Nature - a blog about Montessori living and learning and nature-based explorations. With many years of experience working in a Montessori environment and homeschooling her children, she directed her passion for all things Montessori and nature into creating educational resources. You can learn more here and browse her printables on Teachers Pay Teachers.