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Do 3 Year Olds Understand What Birthdays Are?


If you have ever watched a three-year-old at their birthday party, they sometimes look more confused than excited. Have you ever wondered if they understand why there is a party in their honor?

Three-year-olds have a hard time understanding birthdays because they do not grasp the relationship between birthday parties and aging. Children in this age group can get excited at the prospect of a birthday party, but most won’t understand the significance of the celebrations.

Let’s look at why a three-year-old won’t understand the concept of birthdays and whether or not you should still throw a party for them. I will also touch on some developmental stages you can expect from a growing toddler. 

Three year old birthday - do they understand?

A 3-Year-Old’s Concept of Age

Children take time to understand the world around them and themselves as they age. Combining the idea of aging with birthday celebrations can be confusing for a young child. While a three-year-old child enjoys the fun and excitement of a party, they may not comprehend why birthdays are a social occasion. 

According to a team of Israeli researchers, for a child to fully understand the concept behind birthdays, they must grasp the connection between these three elements: 

  • The social occasion (i.e., birthday party)
  • The irreversibility of biological growth
  • The cyclical nature of the calendar 

The researchers also found that the children involved in the study thought that a person’s age depends on how many birthday parties they have had (source).

In a separate study, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin found that not all children knew birthdays were a cultural practice unrelated to the aging process (source). Two-fifths of the 99 children in the study believed birthday parties were the reason you get older — no party meant that you would remain the same age. 

The conclusions of the studies above demonstrate how young children attempt to find causal explanations for events in their lives. So while they are having fun at birthday parties, they think that their friend is only getting older because there is a party. 

Interestingly, children as young as three do understand the concept of aging. Earlier studies found children realize that living things can grow and get bigger, but inanimate objects do not (source).

So separating birthday parties from aging is a stumbling block for most three-year-olds, but they can still enjoy the celebrations.  

Should I Celebrate My 3-Year-Old Child’s Birthday?

Since young kids have trouble grasping the concept of age, should you still celebrate them getting a year older? 

You should celebrate your 3-year-old child’s birthday. Celebrating birthdays positively impacts a child’s social, mental, and emotional well-being. Annual parties can help them with their perception of time and growth. Birthdays also allow the child to feel important, which boosts their self-esteem.

Additionally, being celebrated just makes a person – no matter how young that person is – feel loved and special. 

So yes, even though a growing toddler might not understand the concept behind birthdays, celebrating their life is good for cognitive development.     

Additionally, a child will start to socialize with other children their age at this stage.

Throwing a party provides lots of playtime with their friends, creating positive childhood memories. Play memories allow children to build emotional connections with their peers and learn how to develop social relationships (source).

Planning a Birthday Party for a 3-Year-Old Child

If you’re looking to plan a party for a three-year-old, it doesn’t have to be too complicated. At three, the kid begins understanding what parties are and can handle larger social gatherings. They will also enjoy lots of play with children of the same age. 

However, at this age, a child will also begin to know what they like and dislike, so consider this when planning their big day. 

Here are some tips for you if you are planning a birthday party for a three-year-old: 

  • Invite friends from daycare or preschool.
  • Plan games that don’t require too much focus or attention — free play and simple games work best. 
  • Have some singing and dancing activities. 
  • Keep the party under two hours, as children this age tire out quickly from excitement. 

Final Thoughts

A three-year-old child will enjoy the excitement of a party, but they won’t understand the concept of a birthday. For the most part, they cannot separate the aging process from the event. Three-year-olds think birthdays are why they become a year older each time there is a party. 

However, you should still celebrate a child’s birthday because it promotes their social and emotional well-being. As the child grows past age three, their understanding of the world around them will improve, and they will eventually understand what birthdays are.

Author Notes:
Teresa is a Registered Nurse in the State of Texas and the mother of two. Opinions and insights on childcare are based on professional knowledge, academic research, and personal experience.

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