Rough-and-tumble play

Play-fighting, and very physical, active play, will increase during years 3–4. A lot of boys and some girls will go through this development phase, which is completely normal and does not mean your child is “violent.”

Rough-and-tumble play helps children to learn their physical limits as well as gaining hands-on experience of handling aggression, managing mood, enjoying competition, falling out, and making up. It is an early form of negotiation. However, some basic ground rules are necessary so that children do not hurt each other maliciously. No pinching, punching, biting, kicking, or other form of inflicting harm is appropriate.

Playtime and playdates

Now that your toddler is a little older, she is ready to develop her social skills—and you are ready to enjoy the company of other adults who are experiencing the same challenges as you. There is no better way to address these two needs than to arrange for your toddler to go on “playdates,” where your child goes to play with another child at his or her house, or vice versa. You may find that girls want to play with girls and boys want to play with boys at this age. Don’t discourage this since it is all part of children learning about their own gender and their differences. It is a good idea to encourage a mixture of friends from both sexes and across different cultures, though, so that your toddler gets used to, and is comfortable with, diversity from a young age.

If your child already attends a preschool or toddler group, she will be reasonably used to the company of other children by now. Not all children have had that experience, however, and for those who have spent more time solely with their family, playdates can be an ideal way of helping your child to make friends.

The basic guidelines for successful playdates are planning ahead, supervision (even in the background), cooperation (with the other parent), expecting the unexpected, and being relaxed.

Developing social skills

Children are ready to become more social by this age and enjoy having friends and playmates. It will help them adjust if they learn some early social skills before starting school, too.

Real life

I was tearing around the house one day trying to tidy up before my in-laws arrived. Mark, who’s nearly four, had been playing with some cardboard boxes, but had long since abandoned them for an exciting game with his brother. I had just finished crushing them when I heard the wail, “Where’s my rocket gone? Mommy, mommy! Rocket GONE!” It seems it wasn’t just a stack of cardboard after all…

Playtime ideas and games

Action games with others

Games that involve actions encourage children to listen carefully and to follow instructions. These games also encourage an element of competition that will enable children to learn skills from each other. Try:

  • Mother May I.

  • Duck, Duck, Goose.

  • Hot Potato.

  • Hide and Seek.

  • Simon Says.

Make-believe games

There is scope for make-believe in almost anything at this age. Favorite play includes:

  • Role-play

    Playing “classrooms” can be a helpful way to get your child used to the idea of going to school. “Going shopping” will get her used to swapping money for goods, rather than just taking what she wants.

    Playing “house” will often include pretending to do chores like mommy and daddy. Gender differences often show markedly in this game.

  • Characters

    She might want to be a farmer, fireman, doctor, soldier, dancer, singer, or nurse—and you might have to be a character, too!

Games with rules

Toddlers of 3–4 years old will have a limited ability to understand, remember, and stick to rules. Games with only one or two simple rules such as Tag or Red Rover are a good place to start. In a mixed age group, it can be useful to team a younger child with an older child or adult so that they can learn by observation to begin with and don’t become overwhelmed by fast play.

Simple card and board games

These games encourage children’s observation skills and help them learn to take turns. Early experiences of winning and losing—as well as cheating—can be learned from card and board games.

An early competitive streak may appear. Learning to lose without becoming upset takes a lot of effort and it is a good idea to praise your child if she handles defeat well.

  • Dominoes

    Teach children about numbers and matching.

  • Chutes and ladders

    Help children to get used to counting as well as the concepts of “up” and “down.”

  • Snap

    Offers a lively way to speed up observational skills and to learn about matching. It is a good idea to adjust the speed of play depending on the mix of ages.

Arts and crafts

Children are much more dextrous at this age and many develop a natural enjoyment for drawing, sticking, and other messy delights. All kinds of household items from cardboard boxes to string, pasta shapes, buttons, and beans offer scope for making things (but be careful that your toddler doesn’t put anything in her mouth, nose, or ears). Activities she’ll need your help with include:

  • Making simple hand puppets—then acting out a story.

  • Simple science—such as creating a worm farm or growing seeds.

  • Cutting and sticking.

  • Cooking together and measuring.

  • Creating a treasure hunt for playing “pirates.”

  • Making a scrapbook.

Outdoor games

All children benefit from playing outside and will enjoy activities such as flying kites, cycling, going to the playground, or just walking in the park with you.


Children aged 3–4 will be much more capable in all areas of play, and they will love to entertain and show others—especially their parents—what they have learned.

Jokes and laughter

Children love to giggle and laugh, and by the age of three can understand context and have enough memories to begin to get a joke. This will transform into a sense of humor and later an understanding of sarcasm. At age 3–4, children often have a great sense of silliness and enjoy slapstick-style humor. They like to see or hear the same funny events repeatedly, and can be very giggly. At this age, too, toddlers may laugh at inappropriate things—and may join in laughter without truly understanding what was funny. Through this year you may start to notice your child developing her own jokes about words that sound funny, or bodily functions. Toilet humor is guaranteed to get some kind of reaction from adults!

Dealing with silliness

As your child’s reasoning skills develop, so does her sense of humor. Your child will enjoy making you happy and laugh. This is a good skill to have but toddlers can get carried away with their sense of silliness, and so need to understand when to be sensible, too. It is a different kind of self-regulation. For some children, playing the clown can become the way they gain self-confidence and integrate with others. This will not always be welcome—especially in the classroom—so your toddler will need to learn to understand when joking is appropriate and when it isn’t. He will usually learn this from you.

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