6 activities for teaching a 3-year-old to follow instructions

Team Kindship
March 26, 2022
4 minutes

Oh, the frustration of telling your children to put their shoes on for the 134th time (slight exaggeration but it’s what it feels like sometimes). Often, it’s my eldest that needs multiple directions and my youngest that is more on the ball, but I put this down to those wonderful pre-teen selective hearing years.

Having the ability to competently follow instructions takes time and maturity (I mean my husband is 37 and he is still learning haha).

If you think you can say to 3-year-old “Eat your breakfast, then get dressed, put your pyjamas in the washing basket and make sure you put your doll away” and they will successfully do it, then you either have a superhuman as a toddler or you clearly aren’t thinking straight (probably due to lack of sleep from toddler in question). In this scenario you probably lost them at ‘eat your breakfast’ but then confused them with the rest and they already forgot the first instruction.

Usually, at around the age of three children can follow 2-3 step instructions. Let’s give emphasis on the word usually! What little Bobby can do might look completely different to what his mate Max can do.

Children develop at different rates and a lot of contributing factors can affect listening skills, in some cases children may seem to have an inability to follow instructions.

  • Children with an ADHD diagnosis have difficulty focusing and attaining attention.
  • Children with Autism can instantly feel overwhelmed when they have too many things to process and need extra time to think.
  • Other challenges could be due to auditory processing, delays in development, a different diagnosis or lack of receptive language skills.

Things to consider when teaching you child to follow instructions

It’s important that children can follow instructions so they can function effectively through different environments. It can help teach independence, assist with learning new skills, develop friendships and overall, it is simply an important life skill (not to mention makes parenting a hell of a lot easier!). Here are a few tips to keep in mind.

  • Gain their attention first. If they are captivated by a game they are playing and you’re giving them an instruction, chances are you’re wasting your breath.
  • Eliminate distractions. If your child struggles with following instructions and it’s a skill you are working on best not to try to expect amazing results if they have distractions around.
  • Maintain eye contact. This confirms that you have their attention.
  • Tell them don’t ask. Saying ‘Could you pick up your shoes?’ often won’t have the same effect as ‘You need to pick up your shoes’.
  • Ensure they have mastered 1 step instructions before moving to 2 step instructions.
  • Make sure directions are age appropriate.
  • Use simple language and be direct. Short and specific are simple instructions are key.
  • Incorporate the use of visual aids to assist if necessary.
  • Check for understanding and repeat instruction again.
  • A lot of positive praise for following through
  • Practice, practice, practice (with an extra side of patience!)

6 activities for teaching a 3-year-old how to follow instructions

1. Simon says – is the perfect game to teach your child simple instructions. You can just focus on the one step action to practice and show the action to further reinforce the words you are speaking. I like to mix it up a bit and say ‘mummy says’. As your child progresses you can begin to incorporate two actions.

“Mummy says put your hands on your head and shake your hips”

2. Coloured dots – This activity can be broken down into steps. All you need it some coloured paper and tape, cut the different colours into shapes and tape to the floor. To begin with simply call out one step instructions “Stand on the red dot”, “Walk to the blue dot” and so on. If it’s possible to extend on this start to incorporate two step instructions, “Go to the yellow dot and then jump up and down on it”, “Put one leg on the red dot and one leg on the blue dot”.

An alternative to using coloured paper could be to print out pictures of your child’s favourite characters, animals, food etc “Stand on the elephant and then jump to the monkey”.

3. Hiding objects – Hiding things is always sure to motivate children in the younger years and is an ideal following directions activity. For this activity all you need is some objects (toy cars, figurines) and something to hide them under (tea towel, container, cup). There can be many different strategies and ways to work on following instructions with this activity.

- “Check if the car is under the tea towel?”

-Have them hide the items “Put the block under the cup”, “Hide the car under a cushion” then play a game to see who remembers where each item was hidden.

4. Use visuals – Some children have difficulty with their receptive language and this in turn makes it trickier to follow instructions. A good way to assist with this is to incorporate the use of visuals to help them make sense of the language cognition required to follow instructions. Obviously, it would be impossible to have a visual to aid every instruction but a good place to start is by having pictures to show their morning routine. Print out images of actions such as putting on shoes, brushing teeth, eating breakfast. When you ask them to do any of these things you can also show the picture to give it further emphasis. A lot of children, particularly those with autism work well with visuals as it can help bring that extra clarity that is needed. Eventually the visuals could be toned down a bit.

5. Dances and songs - There are many wonderful children’s songs and dances that require the listeners to follow the words and directions from the song so that the appropriate action can be performed. Two great ones that come to mind it the old time favourite ‘The Hokey Pokey’ and my personal fav ‘Mr Clickety Cane’ (google it, your kiddos won’t be disappointed). This is a fun and playful way to practice following directions with a relaxed approached. Your child probably won’t get all the actions correct, especially if it’s a new song but it’s about giving them opportunities to have the chance to follow instructions.

6. Cooking – When in doubt, head to the kitchen. Three children and they have all loved to help in the kitchen. I often sneak in therapy for my daughter with cerebral palsy though cooking, works a treat. Involving them in cooking is a fantastic way to build on their ability to follow instructions, ask if they want to help make cupcakes and I’m sure they will be willing. Giving instructions such as “Pour the mixture in the bowl and then mix it”. It’s the perfect opportunity to motivate them to follow instructions through a hands-on activity.

Incorporating the use of following directions activities is great to work on receptive language skills and the development of attentive listening skills. Sometimes children struggle with more then one instruction and that is ok, continue to practice and break down more complexed instructions into chunks. Perhaps when they are older all the hard work will pay off and you will be able to say things such as “unpack all of the school bags, load up the dishwasher, then fold the washing, complete your homework, then make sure your rooms tidy and then get dinner started?” It’s good to dream big, right!