Cognitive Development in 3 Year Olds

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Your three-year old may have survived the emotional and cognitive challenges of the terrible twos, but their brain development is now entering a new, more complicated phase of cognitive growth. Your child, between three and four, will go from understanding that the sky is blue to asking why. As this development occurs, here are the traditional milestones to watch for.

One of the biggest developments over the first five years is the learning of categories. Colors, animals, numbers and letters are some of the earliest examples of categories that children learn. Three year old should be competent at color recognition, and should start to recognize numbers, count items, and learn letters.

A three year old's memory will also increase to the ability to understand multi-step processes. You can ask him or her to pick up their coat, hang it on a hook, then go wash their hands before supper. Between three and four, children can learn increasingly difficult tasks.

Imagination and Fiction from Fact
Fantasy plays an important part of the three year old's brain development as well. Kids may gain imaginary friends, or they might pretend to be their favorite characters on television or animals as they play. The dark side of this is that kids begin to lie and test their believability. Fantasy is a critical part of healthy brain development. It fosters creative problem solving and self entertainment, both of which have been shown to be a part of healthy and successful adults. The more original this fantasy is and not constrained by parents or tv rules, the more brain expansion that is possible.

Narrative Order
As children begin to understand story and fantasy, the order in which things occur becomes important, and easier to understand. Kids will begin to be able to retell a favorite story and get the major events in the right order. There is a logic to why a story that starts sad ends happy, and as the brain of your three year old develops, you can begin asking them why certain order is necessary for the story to work. As they grasp this, they will begin asking questions of their own.

As a child goes from 3 to 4, the endless why questions begin. As frustrating as this stage may be, it is an important milestone for the brain in that your child no longer thinks that things have to be only one way. This marks a shift from fixed to flexible thought, which is one of the biggest major changes between the brain function of a toddler versus that of a child. Once this phase begins, your baby's brain is reaching the end of the baby brain phase, and learning in a back and forth way will explode.

Cite this page: N., Sam M.S., "Cognitive Development in 3 Year Olds," in, March 6, 2016, (accessed August 11, 2022).