Grandparenting Preschoolers

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

grandmother and granddaughter blowing bubbles
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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

Grandparents will be amazed at the changes in the physical abilities of their grandchildren during the preschool years .

It seems as if they are learning something new each day! They will grow about three inches in a year. 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. 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.

The challenge for grandparents who are hanging out with preschool grandchildren is keeping up with them physically. They can keep going for hours! Of course, physical activity is essential for the development of motor skills, so grandparents shouldn't try to slow them down. Grandparents can take their grandchildren to the playground, teach them simple outdoor games and take them on walks.

Large soft balls lend themselves to all kinds of games. Dancing is a good outlet for them on bad weather days. 

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 since the time when most grandparents were parents.

Due to the prevalence of childhood obesity in this country, many pediatricians advise parents to watch the portion sizes and calories they give to their preschoolers. Healthy drinks are crucial, too. 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.

Many grandparents remember an earlier time when parents worked hard to get their children to eat, and when children were urged to drink their milk. It may be hard for them to make the transition to limiting foods. Grandparents who are caring for grandchildren should make mealtimes as low-key as possible and should resist pushing more food on their grandchildren, especially if they tend to be picky eaters already.

Another struggle for some grandparents is breaking the habit of giving grandchildren 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, yogurt and other healthful foods.  

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 grandparents may have trouble answering! 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. 

Preschool grandchildren 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. Activities that enhance these skills are not only fun, but are also great brain boosters. Grandparents make a game out of counting household objects or playing “I Spy” to teach color recognition. Grandchildren can be encouraged to help with very simple household chores, such as setting the table with unbreakable dishes, which requires counting and arranging.


Grandchildren who go to preschool will 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

It can be challenging to manage the behavior of preschool children. Preschoolers need clear rules with specific consequences, but the consequences need not be harsh. They also need a lot of attention and praise. Grandparents who take care of their grandchildren, either regularly or occasionally, should discuss the topic of discipline with the parents, so that the grandparents will understand and reinforce the parents' expectations. When a grandchild is upset, it’s natural for grandparents to want to make the child feel better, but children have to learn to handle disappointment and frustration. 

At 3 and 4, children are just learning to share. If you have more than one grandchild at a time, there may be pitched battles over some toy or other object. Grandparents, just like parents, should let children work out their own disagreements as much as possible. 

Most preschoolers occasionally have tantrums or meltdowns, but these will occur most often when a child is overtired or stressed. 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 possible for very young children to feel stress. Grandparents can help with stress by providing a calm environment and emphasizing non-competitive activities. Many grandchildren also enjoy comforting rituals at a grandparent's house.  

Favorite Activities for Preschoolers and Grandparents

The best activity to do with a grandchild is the one that he or she really wants to do.

Grandparents can help by having lots of stimulating play materials around. Here are some favorite activities:

  • 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.

More Ages and Stages: