Cognitive Development in 3-Year-Olds

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At age 3, children often immerse themselves in make-believe worlds and stories. Although these activities seem lighthearted or even silly, they actually play a major role in cognitive development at this age. The preschool years--ages 3 to 5--are a time of curiosity and exploration. Supporting both educational and imaginative activities helps these young children continue to build their cognitive and language abilities.

Cognitive Skills

Kids at age 3 should be able to follow simple commands. They have a basic sense of time. Preschoolers at this age will likely know a few numbers and have some concept of counting, according to They should also know a few colors. Children at age 3 have an understanding of the concepts of same versus different, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. They can match images with objects that are in their environment. Many of these basic cognitive skills are reinforced during playtime activities.


Playtime helps 3-year-olds develop and improve their cognitive skills. By the end of their third year, kids should be able to put together simple puzzles, sort objects by shape and independently handle toys with some mechanical function, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Imaginative play is also a key part of cognitive development at this age; children make up stories or fantasies using their toys or people they know. Such activities reinforce logic, language and recall abilities. Dr. Sean Brotherson, a family science specialist at North Dakota State University, states that playtime also provides the opportunity to use organization and counting skills.

Language Skills

Closely tied in with cognitive abilities is language development. Cognition--which deals with logic and thinking--is important for kids' understanding and use of language. At age 3, most children are able to answer simple questions about people, places and things. They can discuss their daily activities and talk about stories. Preschoolers at age 3 should be able to use simple four- to six-word sentences that are mostly understood by strangers. Their cognitive abilities at this stage also help them begin using plural words. They should be able to say their name, age and sex as well.

Warning Signs

Children who don't show an interest in toys or other kids by age 3 could have a developmental delay, as could those who don't take part in fantasy play. The inability to follow simple commands or instructions is also a warning sign. Having speech problems or difficulty making logical statements is also indicative of developmental issues at this age. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends caregivers seek medical advice if their 3-year-old has difficulty with self-control, scribbling, responding to others and completing daily tasks such as dressing.