Sometimes life with a 3 year old can feel especially chaotic indoors. Toddlers (ages one to three) seem to have an endless supply of energy and an insatiable curiosity that only seem to intensify by the time they’re three years old. These toddlerhood traits are completely normal and wonderful, but they can be somewhat exhausting and surprising for parents and caregivers.
Just the other day, I noticed an eerie silence in my home. The type of silence that usually foretells some impending toddler disaster. I was right to be worried—my toddler had found a bath bomb and had thrown it into our fish tank! Don’t worry, the fish survived, but I took it as my cue to bring my toddler outside to enjoy some much-needed fun under the sun.
There’s something about the outdoors that helps 3 year olds get out their antsy energy. I’ve found that outdoor activities are perfect for burning energy, developing physical literacy, and spending quality time together. In this article, I’m going to share typical 3 year old milestones along with a list of 15 outdoor activities that will help your 3 year old learn, move, and have fun.
Development milestones for 3 year olds
From birth to the age of three, children grow in leaps and bounds. Whenever I think about the fact that a running, jumping, and climbing 3 year old was a wrinkly little newborn a mere 36 (or so) months ago, I’m flabbergasted! While there’s a wide range of normal when it comes to development milestones, according to the Canadian Paediatric Society there are certain gross motor, fine motor, language, and cognitive skills that most 3 year olds can do. Here is a quick summary of what those are:
Gross motor skills: By age three, most toddlers can run around easily, climb stairs and simple play structures, jump up and down with two feet, throw a ball overhead, and kick a ball forward.
Fine motor skills: By age three, most toddlers can cut with small child-safe scissors, string beads onto a string, build a small tower, draw lines and circles, and hold a crayon correctly.
Language skills: By age three, most toddlers can speak in sentences, ask a lot of questions, and say their names.
Cognitive skills: By age three, most toddlers can name colours, play make believe, understand two to three step instructions, and name body parts.
Important: Keep in mind that milestones are approximate. At what age a child reaches certain milestones may vary by a few months due to the fact that different children develop at different rates. If you’re at all concerned that your toddler isn’t reaching their development milestones, book an appointment with your family physician or visit a public health nurse.
15 fun outdoor activities for 3 year olds
These 15 activities are some of my favourite outdoor activities to do with 3 year olds. Not only are these activities fun but they’ll help your toddler meet her developmental milestones, develop physical literacy, and get in some active time.
1. Learn to ride a bike
Can 3 year olds learn to ride a bike? You bet they can! For many years, tricycles were the go-to bike for teaching toddlers how to learn this skill, and there’s no doubt that pedalling a tricycle is great fun. However, a better option is the balance bike. Balance bikes—small two-wheeled bikes with no pedals—have become popular since the Strider run bike was released in 2007. What I love about balance bikes is that toddlers learn how to balance first. Learning how to balance first and pedal second seems to give young children the skill and confidence they need to transition to a two-wheeled pedal bike with ease.
2. Find a rainbow of colours
By the age of three, most toddlers can identify colours—how fun! Going on a colour hunt outdoors is a simple activity that’s great for any season. All you need to do for this activity is step out your front door and go on a walkabout outside. Depending on where you live, you can collect different coloured items, natural or man-made, and arrange them on the ground to make a rainbow. This is a perfect activity in the fall when autumn leaves are in colourful abundance. Another option is to take a camera along and take pictures of the different colourful things your 3 year old spots.
3. Nursery rhyme playtime
This outdoor activity combines nursery rhymes with movement to help 3 year olds develop their language skills and physical literacy at the same time. I like to pick nature-themed nursery rhymes when doing this activity outdoors. Some of my favourites are:
- Itsy Bitsy Spider
- Row, Row, Row your Boat
- I Like the Flowers
- Round and Round the Garden
- Five Little Ducks
- Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush
- Five Little Speckled Frogs
You can find the actions for these songs by doing a quick internet search, or you can make up your own.
4. Draw with sidewalk chalk
Drawing with sidewalk chalk is one of my favourite activities for 3 year olds. It’s easy to set up, spurs creativity, and helps to develop fine motor skills. I like to stock up on sidewalk chalk so that I always have someone on hand. I even keep a couple pieces in my car or purse for emergencies. You never know when sidewalk chalk will save the day! Other than using chalk to draw letters, numbers, and shapes, you can use it to play games too. Here’s how you can use one piece of chalk to play eight active games.
5. Tiptoe around the sleeping animals
Show your 3 year old how to tiptoe by playing this tiptoe game. This make-believe game is great for developing creativity, coordination, and muscle strength. To play, have your toddler choose their favourite quiet animal (raccoon, fox, etc.), pick an area with some obstacles in it (bushes, empty boxes, a bicycle) and show your 3 year old how to quietly tiptoe around the imaginary sleeping forest animals (the obstacles), making sure not to wake them up.
6. Little outdoor helper
3 year olds like to copy their parents, caregivers, or older siblings. It’s an important part of how they learn. Maria Montessori recognized this trait over 100 years ago and incorporated it into her Montessori Method by teaching toddlers and preschoolers how to do practical life skills, like tidying up and cutting fruits. Teaching toddlers practical life skills can happen outside too. 3 year olds can help with watering plants, pulling weeds, harvesting food, raking leaves, washing outdoor toys, and sweeping by the front door. Not only do toddlers find these activities fun, but it helps them develop physical literacy, and it also boosts their confidence, concentration, and self-control.
7. Animal movements
Most toddlers have a fascination with the way animals move and “talk.” On any given day, I can expect my toddler to pretend to be some kind of animal. She’s been a horse, cat, dog, frog, bunny, and, most recently, a ferocious dinosaur. Pretending to be different animals is a great way to encourage 3 year olds to be creative while practicing movement skills. Next time you go outside, encourage your toddler to bounce like a bunny, hop like a frog, wiggle like a worm, crawl like a bear, pounce like a fox. Here are more ideas.
8. Kick or toss a ball
Learning how to throw and kick a ball are two important movement milestones for 3 year olds. For this activity, all you need is a ball and an outdoor space. If your toddler hasn’t had much practice throwing or kicking a ball, take some time to teach her.
9. Make stone soup
This activity is based on the old traditional folk story about a stranger that convinces village folk to give him bits of food to make a delicious soup. For this activity, you’ll need a bowl of water, a few rocks, and plenty of imagination. It might help to read or listen to a version of this story with your 3 year old before making your own stone soup. This activity is great for developing fine motor skills, problem-solving skills, and creativity.
10. Play dress up outside
On a dry, sunny day, bring a tote of dress-up clothing outdoors for your 3 year old to play with. If you have some old sheets, include those as well. Playing dress-up is great for pretend play, and there’s something special about playing dress-up outdoors.
11. Blow bubbles
Blowing bubbles is a fun year-round activity for 3 year olds. What about the winter? Blowing bubbles in the winter is extra special, because if it’s cold enough the bubbles will freeze into a beautiful frosty orb. How magical! You can easily make bubble mixture at home with a few supplies from your kitchen and, if you’re feeling extra adventurous, show your toddler how to make giant bubbles with a homemade giant bubble wand.
12. Make a mud pie
Toddlers and mud are made for each other. There are many benefits to letting 3 year olds play in the mud. It can boost their immune system and mental health, and develop physical literacy. Mud is also great for developing the sensory system. To make a mud pie, have your 3 year old fill an old pie plate with mud and decorate it with bits of nature like shells, pinecones, herbs, flowers, rocks, and sticks. Check out this resource for more mud play ideas for your toddler.
13. Hunt for pairs
According to the Canadian Paediatric Society, most 3 year olds can understand the difference between one and two, which is perfect for this fun outdoor activity. To hunt for pairs, have your toddler look for two of the same: two pinecones, two rocks, two sticks, etc.
14. Teddy bears’ picnic
Time to take those teddy bears outside for a picnic! Bring your 3 year old’s favourite teddy bears or stuffies outside on a nice day and set up a picnic. This is a special activity that your toddler won’t forget. You might even want to listen to the old classic song before setting out on your adventure.
15. Go on a bug hunt
Many 3 year olds are squeamish or afraid of bugs. It’s quite normal. To help toddlers learn to appreciate bugs, go on a bug hunt together. Look under rocks and logs, near plants and flowers, and in the crooks and crannies. Talk about how some bugs are safe to touch (ladybugs, pill bugs, grasshoppers) and how other bugs should only be observed at a distance (wasps, honey bees, ticks, certain spiders).
Outdoor play is great for 3 year olds
If your 3 year old is bouncing off the walls, head outside and try some of these fun outdoor activities to get them moving and to get some much-needed fresh air and sunshine. Not only will these activities get your toddler’s wiggles out, but they’ll also help to develop their physical literacy and meet their developmental milestones. What are your favourite outdoor activities to do with a 3 year old? Be sure to share your ideas below.