Let’s look at some basics about three year-olds:
1. Threes don’t understand the flow of time.
For a three year old, the time from one Sunday to the next seems like an eternity. This age child doesn’t string together, in time order, the Bible stories told from week to week. When you say, “A long time ago, there was a man named Abraham,” the preschool mind interprets it as yesterday. To them, yesterday was a long time ago. So I suggest you tell very simple Bible stories which support a weekly age-appropriate theme. The three year old wrestles with his will versus God’s will (most often in the form of parent or teacher authority), so themes focus on God’s ways: obeying, helping, sharing, and making wise choices.
2. Threes are self-focused and independent.
Threes are usually somewhat more compliant than twos, and many threes have a desire to please. However, threes are still quite self-focused. They still assert their independence. So threes may have a hard time relating with others.
3. Threes learn by doing, imitating, and repeating.
Threes often imitate the significant adults in their lives. If they see parents and caregivers pray and read their Bibles, they will usually imitate them. If they hear words, rhymes, and songs over and over again, threes often will repeat these words, rhymes, and songs themselves. Threes also learn by touching and doing. So lots of teacher interaction is good. Teachers can model and repeat the important themes of the lessons and guide the children into experiences that enrich their understanding of God’s ways.
4. Threes are sensitive to music: melody and rhythm.
A preschooler’s short attention span can often be held and strengthened by songs when the child seems oblivious to spoken words. The simple melodies and rhythms repeated in childhood stay in the heart and mind for a lifetime. So key truths, themes, and verses can be presented not only in spoken words, but also in song.
5. Threes are attracted to sensory experiences and action.
Threes will gravitate toward any place where there is something going on that’s interesting, active, musical, colorful, tasty, or fun to touch or hold. But occasionally they need someone to draw their attention to these activities. Teachers may find that when they themselves engage in the desired activity and have fun doing it, threes will be drawn in naturally.
6. Threes need supervision and help.
Threes need help and/or close supervision as they learn. A teacher-child ratio of one teacher for every five or six three year olds is very important for quality care-giving. When recruiting helpers and teachers, remember that grandparents and teenagers are often overlooked, but can be valuable members of a teaching team.
7. Threes have a very short attention span.
While some children are more distractible than others, most threes move quickly from one interest to another. They live in the immediate present and will pursue whatever catches their attention. In order to present and guide activities and stories to young children, teachers must catch and hold their attention. Teachers must also be ready to move to a new activity when the children are ready to move on.