3-1/2 Year Olds: They Are a Meltdowny Mess and Love Science Experiments

I have been doing work, done in a community of parents, to characterize the typical age-related behaviors of children. I have focused on the times when they fall apart, often becoming whiny, aggressive, clumsy, or confused, and then describing the new abilities that cluster around this age-related irritable behavior.

The late 3s can be very difficult for parents and 3 years, 9 months marks a time that the frustrating behavior typically increases. I called Preschool Milestone 12, which gets to be at its worst around 3 years, 9 months, “Thematic Thinking.” Children at this age notice and create more themes, such as drawing a highly organized piece of artwork (perhaps of a train with stunning detail), arrange their food in an artistic way, play games such as checkers better, and notice the moral themes of a story better, for instance, “Such and such character has to decide to be good or bad.” All of this is new perceptual awareness and it seems to feel scary and overwhelming at first. As they grow noticeably in their desire to create things, they become very possessive and possibly even aggressive about protecting their work. You might expect that no one else will be allowed to have the ball if you play a game of catch. You might be also dealing with extreme nighttime battles.

At closer to 3 years, 10 months is Preschool Milestone 13 which I called “Tests and Compares Complex Theories and Systems.” They start to compare themes: who is faster, what rocket flies higher, etc. Their favorite “theme” is themselves: are they the fastest and best compared to others? If anything suggests they aren’t, prepare, because they will not like finding this out. You may be dealing with a lot of whining or aggression, depending on the type of emotional release your child prefers.

Here is one tip for dealing with the meltdowns at these sometimes volatile ages: play a “would you rather?” game. I use this tool of distraction but in a more involved way in the preschool years. In the early 3s, around 3 years, 3 months, if my child is having a meltdown or is scared, I find if I start telling them their favorite story, they calm down and become so engrossed in the story, they forget what they were scared of or defiant about.

I have used the “would you rather?” question at Preschool Milestone 13, 3 years, 10 months, successfully. My daughter was once fighting me to be buckled in the car seat. She was playing a game where she kept trying to close the door instead of letting me in to buckle her. I at first tried calm, quick action, but when she was wildly upset about what I was doing, I thought a new tool would probably be needed. I tried telling her favorite story but it didn’t work. I then asked a “would you rather” question. In this case, it was “would you rather be on the swing or slide?” as we were just leaving the playground. She calmed down instantly and became engrossed in the question. Lost in her thoughts, she said, “ummmm, both.” While she was calm, I buckled her and all was happy afterwards.

I think this may work so well at 3 years, 10 months because of how much they like to compare things, although it may work at many other ages (one mom told me she was going to try it on her 11 year old). Some other “would you rather?” questions might be, “Would you rather live in a castle or on a pirate ship?” “Would you rather have a lake in your backyard or a forest?” “Would you rather be a cheetah or a dolphin?” “Would you rather go to Paris or London?”

The idea behind my first book about these milestones, Misbehavior is Growth: An Observant Parent’s Guide to the Toddler Years, is that these rocky developmental stages are a child’s brain growing. We can help them by coming to them with love and comfort. And by understanding the cycles, we can be ready with great, highly age appropriate brain building activities. The activities can help unleash the enormous potential in them. The activities can also help calm them down and give you a chance to connect and find your new flow with them as they change in dramatic ways.

Something children in their late 3s absolutely love are science experiments. In the early 3s, I do easy ones where there is only one element or step, such as watching ice melt. In the late 3s, I start to do more complex ones. With as much as the child likes to race or compare things, here is one example of a plant experiment that they might like, something great for the summer months.

In this lesson, you are testing the water retention of different soil types and how well they grow a seed. Fill three clear cups with one of the following: sand, dirt, and dirt. Put several seeds in the dirt, on the side of the cup such that you can see them, fit snugly down into the sand or dirt. I like sunflower seeds due to how quickly they germinate. Water each such that the sand and first dirt cup are watered reasonably and the last dirt one is waterlogged such that water comes up over the dirt. Be careful to pour the water slowly as otherwise the seeds will start to float. Put a card or something else over the cups, with a small vent for air, such that the water does not evaporate. Then watch to see how well they do. For sunflower seeds, it will take 2 or 3 days to germinate.

At first the sand one and first dirt one will germinate and the sand one will even seem to do better. The water logged one will never germinate. However, the sand one will eventually collapse. It may look like this if you wait several days:



My 3 year old loved watching the plants germinate and seeing which one would “win.” You could take this much further, and this is still a great activity for older children (and adults!). My 6 year old thought for sure the one with a lot of water would win. You can feel the sand and dirt. The sand will feel dry on top. All of the water will sink to the bottom. The dirt will feel damp on top. I like to go outside and dump them out. You’ll see the sand spread apart easily and the dirt will stick together in a clump. A preschooler will love the sensory experience of playing with the sand and dirt that has been dumped. See my page on plant science, designed for elementary students but which will still delight preschoolers, for more ideas.

Come see the summaries of these milestones at www.TheObservantMom.com where I also include sections on Surviving and Thriving where I have tools to deal with meltdowns and ideas like this one to encourage their growing brain.


Amber has an Industrial Engineering degree from Penn State and worked in software in 10 years before becoming a stay at home mom who homeschools her 3 children. She has been documenting the developmental stages that children go through. Most of all she hopes the information helps others on their parenting journey.


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