37 - 39 Months

5 fun games that help your 3-year-old practice impulse control

Mother and child playing the Turtle Hatch Game by Lovevery

You probably don’t have to guess what your 3-year-old is feeling 🙃

On impulse, children this age tend to act on any emotion they experience. They don’t think first—they just react, no matter where they are or what’s happening around them. If they’re sad, they may cry or wail; if they’re excited, they may shriek and jump up and down; if they’re angry, they may hit or kick. 

Impulse control is a part of self-regulation and refers to our ability to think through an action before doing it. This complex emotional skill requires both self-awareness and the ability to consider how one’s mood, actions, and words impact other people.

Impulse control is a lifelong skill, and its development begins in early childhood. Giving your child fun and engaging ways of working on it now can help them gain confidence, succeed in school, and make friends in both the short- and long-term.

Here are 5 games to help your child practice impulse control:

Turtle Hatch Game

Taking turns is difficult for young children, as it requires patience and self-control. A collaborative board game such as the Turtle Hatch Game from The Problem Solver Play Kit allows your 3-year-old to practice with your help as you both work toward a common goal. A few things to keep in mind as you play:

  • Your child may want to claim a turtle as their own game piece. Remind them that all players are working together to get each turtle to the water (and it’s OK if they only want to move their favorite turtle 😉).
  • Encourage your child to cheer on their teammates when it’s not their turn, which can help ease the anxiety of waiting.
  • Losing—even if it happens to everyone—can be hard for your child, but the game only takes a few minutes to complete. Reassure your child that they can try again.

Don’t pop the bubbles!

Bubbles can be used in a variety of ways to practice impulse control. With either hand-held bubbles or a machine, you can try the following activities:

  • First, invite your child to pop the bubbles once they start floating. Vary the amount of time they have to wait before you make bubbles go.
  • Next, blow a few bubbles toward your child and invite them to walk among the bubbles without popping them. This takes a lot of willpower, and the desire to pop the bubbles may be too strong for your child at first. With practice (and some modeling from you), they can learn to avoid them.
  • Give your child a wet bubble wand. Challenge them to use the wand to catch a bubble before it hits the ground without popping it. This requires slow, careful movements and precise timing. 

Red Light, Green Light

This childhood classic is another exciting way to practice impulse control with large, whole-body movements. Read about the game (and various extension activities) here.

Freeze Dance

A big part of self-regulation is learning how to control your body. Freeze Dance is a classic because it’s fun, burns energy, and gives participants opportunities to start and stop big movements quickly. Here’s how to play:

  • Play your favorite dance music. Explain to your child that when the music stops, they stop. Once they get the hang of it, invite them to make a funny face each time they freeze.
  • You can vary the tempo of the music and invite your child to match the speed of the tune: slow music = slow dancing; fast music = fast dancing 🙂
  • For an extra challenge, try Reverse Freeze Dance: when the music plays, you freeze; when the music stops, you dance!

Self-control with Simon Says

Now that your child has enough self-control to participate successfully, at least some of the time, it’s a perfect time to play Simon Says. Here’s what to expect with a 3-year-old:

  • If you say “touch your nose,” give a quick reminder right afterwards: “don’t touch your nose!” If you say “Simon says ‘touch your nose,’” touch yours right away to encourage your child to follow.
  • Once your child gets the hang of it, try adding two-part commands: jump and then touch your head; run to the tree and run back; touch your nose then touch your feet.
  • Your child may enjoy the feeling of being in charge, so offer them a turn giving the commands 😉

New tips for hide-and-seek

Your 3-year-old can play a simplified version of hide-and-seek that supports delayed gratification, a self-regulation skill. Here’s what to expect at this age:

  • Start in one room where hiding places are limited, and invite your child to hide. Tell them you’re going to count to 10 and then try to find them. You can say, “try hard not to move or make any noises so it’s hard for me to find you!”
  • Count slowly and loud enough for them to hear. Even if you spot them immediately, narrate your search: “Are you behind the door? No! Are you under the couch? Let me check. Where could you be?”
  • When it’s your turn to hide, start with someplace fairly obvious—some children get a little anxious if they haven’t played much before. You can even call out clues, which will help your child locate you by sound as well as sight.
  • When it’s their turn again, don’t be surprised if they hide in the last spot you did 🙃


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Posted in: 37 - 39 Months, Executive Function, Self-control, Games, Child Development

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