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Grandparenting Preschoolers

3-Year-Olds and 4-Year-Olds Provide Challenges


Grandmother and little boy playing on beach
Leren Lu/Stone/Getty Images

Grandparenting preschoolers can be quite a challenge as their imaginations burgeon and their physical agility skyrockets. No longer toddlers, 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds may require that grandparents move quickly and think even more quickly to keep up with them. Thank goodness, they will still need some quiet times and cuddling.

Physical Development

This is a period when you will be amazed in the changes in the physical abilities of your grandchildren. It seems as if they are learning something new each day! During this period of time they will learn to skip, hop, gallop and propel themselves in a swing. Their small muscle control also increases as they learn to draw recognizable objects and letters. They can stack blocks, put together simple puzzles, and dress themselves, for the most part. They should be able to ride a tricycle and catch a large ball. They will grow about three inches in a year.

The Challenge for Grandparents

Preschool children need a lot of exercise. You will be amazed at how long they can keep going! Grandparents can supervise outdoor games, but the grandchildren probably won’t be happy if you are sitting in a lawn chair. They don’t understand that grandparents may not be willing or able to jump, skip and climb as they do. Taking walks is a good compromise; the grandchildren can ride their tricycles if they want. Dancing is a good outlet for them on bad weather days. Their attention span for one activity is usually short, but sometimes they will latch on to one activity and want to do it over and over again.

Care and Feeding

One of the biggest concern with preschoolers is making sure that they get the proper nutrition, and those guidelines have changed somewhat due to the prevalence of childhood obesity in this country. The American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends that preschoolers be given no more than 6 ounces of pure fruit juice in a day, and they should have been put on low-fat milk around the age of two.

The Challenge for Grandparents

Perhaps it is natural for grandparents to want to indulge their grandchildren by giving them sweet treats. This practice was perhaps not so bad back when treats were given once a day or less, and children were more active. It is wiser for grandparents today to indulge the grands with nuts, fresh fruit or low-fat dairy treats. There are numerous nonperishable but nutritious foods that can be kept in the pantry for surprise visits. Grandparents should also make mealtimes as low-key as possible and should resist pushing more food on their grandchildren.

Intellectual Development

Most preschoolers can express themselves well enough to ask for what they need. They will also ask lots of questions, including some that Grandma and Grandpa may not be able to answer! They should be learning the basic concepts of number, color and size, while beginning to have a grasp of less concrete concepts such as time and distance.

The Challenge for Grandparents

Although parents usually learn quickly to decipher their children’s less-than-perfectly enunciated speech, grandparents may have more difficulty. The more you are around your grandchildren, the better you will understand their speech. Occasionally, however, you may have to ask a parent or older sibling to interpret. Grandparents can enhance preschoolers’ learning by making a game out of counting household objects or playing “I Spy” with colors. Grandchildren can be encouraged to help with very simple household chores, such as setting the table with unbreakable dishes, which also involves skills of counting and arranging. If they go to preschool, they’ll enjoy showing grandparents their classrooms and playgrounds. If they bring home papers from school, it’s tempting to use them to teach them something, such as explaining something that they got wrong. Resist the temptation. Most of the time what they want to do is teach you what they have learned, and they will probably learn more by explaining it to you.

Behavior and Discipline

At 3 and 4, children are just learning to share, and there will still be pitched battles over some toy or other object. They may still have tantrums or meltdowns, but these will occur most often when a child is overtired or stressed. They need a lot of attention and praise. They need clear rules with specific consequences, but the consequences need not be harsh.

The Challenge for Grandparents

Grandparents, just like parents, need to let children work out their own problems as much as possible. If a tantrum is clearly brewing, sometimes it can be averted through distracting the child. If it hits, it is best to ignore the tantrum. After it seems to be mostly over, make some overture to the child to help him get over the tantrum gracefully without losing face. You do not, of course, give in to the child’s demands, whatever they are. It’s natural for grandparents to want to make the child feel better, but children have to learn to handle disappointment and frustration. When preschoolers behave well, it is important to praise them. One situation that is likely to occur is when the grandchildren are with their grandparents, they may misrepresent what their parents let them do. Most grandparents are canny enough not to fall for that old trick!

Favorite Activities for Preschoolers and Grandparents

  • Draw, paint or color together
  • Read books
  • Build things with blocks or simpler building toys
  • Use play kitchens, utensils and food
  • Go to a playground
  • Go for a walk
  • Put together simple puzzles
  • Play in a sprinkler or kiddie pool
  • Blow bubbles
  • Play dress-up
  • Toss around a big, soft ball
  • Engage in imaginative play

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