Three to Four Years

The three-year-old (always allowing for individual differences) can be much easier to cope with than the child he was six months ago. He can concentrate for a little longer, has more skill, more knowledge, can wait a little while for the help he needs, can play alongside other children without getting into as many difficult situations as the more unaware ‘me first’ two-year-old.

He wishes to please as he enjoys praise and approval. He can remember simple routines and procedures and likes the feeling of power and confidence arising from knowing what to do next. This then is a good ‘training’ period because he is suggestible and on the whole cooperative. While even young babies learn by watching and trying to copy, the three-year-old is very good at watching carefully, remembering and then trying to do it himself. The two-year-old wraps a doll or teddy bear in an old towel and drags it round by its feet. The three-year-old will carefully take the same towel, fold it to make a mattress then demand another for a top blanket and come back yet again for something to use as a pillow. He will politely tell a helpful visitor that ‘My mummy doesn’t do the washing-up like that – she washes the knives and forks first/puts clean water over the cups before she dries them/ puts the clean things here, not there.’ Boys and girls watch both parents equally. Little boys will cheerfully help make beds or bath a doll while girls, given the opportunity, will try to use a hammer or screwdriver.

Perhaps the most significant step forward which takes place between about three and three and a half years is that most children will positively manage without their mother for a short period (that is they will cheerfully say ‘ Goodbye, see you after the story’) if they have been gradually introduced to this idea, if the place they are going to contains other adults they can trust and accept, is interesting, contains other children – in other words if they feel safe there and want to stay there. This is just as much a step forward as learning to walk alone. Add to this that the child of three needs more space and time than many homes can offer, needs more and larger equipment than the home can provide, needs to be with other children at the same stage, and one can see why the sensible age for a child to join a nursery group for some part of the day is some time after his third birthday, depending on the individual.

Apart from the more obvious advantages a nursery group offers it provides a very different social group from the family.

While each child is valued for himself within the home, his status there is rigidly defined. However hard a mother tries to give each child equal opportunities, to be fair according to their needs, there are inevitably times when she will say’Let him have it because he is younger/older than you’; ‘You can’t have it because it belongs to your brother/sister’; ‘You must let the others play because they are your brother/sister’; ‘You had better not play with that until the baby is having his afternoon sleep’;’ You can’t make that noise while your big sister is trying to do homework.’ Within the nursery group there may be some rules and restrictions too but they apply to every child or if they seem to apply to the younger children at least these children will in turn become the older group who reap the benefit of such rules. Taking turns is inevitable in a nursery group. Somehow this is easier for children to accept in a nursery than in the home where siblings are involved. All the play material in a nursery is there for the children to share equally and fairly, as are the adults and the attention they can give. Nursery groups can provide a great release from emotional tension in a child – and incidentally also provide relief for his older and younger brothers and sisters at home during the short time he is away. Thus some of the earliest aspects of social development which mothers, indeed everyone, see as desirable such as taking turns, sharing, being thoughtful for others, learning to be independent may be easier for a child to accept in a non-family group although the home will inevitably be the longest standing, more enduring influence. A further social advantage is that while siblings may be incompatible playmates, either because of clashing temperaments or too great a gap between their age or ability, in a nursery group of twenty-four children covering a two-year age range there should be someone with whom a child can play at his own level. For a second-born child it may provide the first opportunity eventually to become one of the older children and therefore one of the leaders, which may never happen in the home if the older sibling is a strong personality.

Rapid progress is made during this three to four year period. From the stage of playing alongside other children a child will progress to combining activities almost accidentally with another child who is playing with the same material, moving on to positively enjoying a joint game, becoming part of a small group of children for a short time, then being able to play as a member of a small group for a long time. By the age of four he may have special friends with whom he plays regularly. Once he can play with just one other child his play will progress faster and last longer because two individuals are bringing in ideas instead of each child being limited by his own slender resources. Within a group of mixed age and stage children the three-year-old will spend a long time watching the older ones just as he watches adults. Eventually he will perhaps imitate what they do by himself or he may be absorbed, even if for only a short time, into the older group. The older, more able children in the group gain from this as they enjoy showing off newly developed skills. In those games which require a willing slave or dogsbody to be ordered about, for example family games requiring a baby, hospital games requiring a patient, or cowboys and Indians needing someone willing to be the underling who gets shot, a tractable three-year-old can be very useful to a group of fours to fives.

The normal three- to four-year-old is more often limited by the learning material and situations available to him than by his ability to learn (this is true of any age but particularly this age range). He develops a wide vocabulary, learns to use it, learns more about colours, sizes, weights and textures, enjoys and remembers stories, and starts developing the skills and techniques which enable him to use all the raw materials he has previously explored. He becomes able to use his body more efficiently (although finer movements such as cutting with scissors are still too difficult for the majority of children) and also to use his body in conjunction with apparatus of various kinds. A skilful four-year-old on a good tricycle combine to form a very fast, stable, manoeuvrable, responsive machine whose efficiency ratio (considering it is using non-resource-wasting, easily available, low-cost energy) ought to be the envy of any manufacturer producing vehicles. The three-year-old pushing a relatively heavy doll’s pram or truck up and down kerbs finds it hard work as he tries to control it at all times. The four-year-old has learned that he need only do the lifting up part – and that the weight of the truck or pram will bring it down without his needing to support the whole of its weight.

From everyone’s point of view, not least that of the child himself, this is a very happy, busy, productive year. Mothers seem to enjoy it, adults who work with children of this age usually find it rewarding if demanding. Although the whole preschool period is important as laying the foundation for later development, this is the first year in which outside agencies can make up for deficiencies in the home situation. Before this age children are too dependent on their mothers to benefit from any help which does not come via her. The mother is at once the child’s stepping stone to the outside world and the outside world’s bridge to him. After this age outside help, while it may still be necessary, desirable and forthcoming, may well be too late for maximum benefit.