3-Year-Old Child Development Milestones

Your child’s growth and development at age 3

3-year-olds are funny, thoughtful, creative, loving little creatures. Your child has moved past the baby and toddler stage and into the preschool stage, which is a super fun time. You will start to feel like you have a real little kid now, and you’ll be able to interact with your child in new and exciting ways.

Many parents feel relieved to move past the “terrible twos” phase, and hope that their child will become a little easier to manage and less prone to meltdowns. But 3-year-olds can still be difficult to parent at times, as they learn to control their emotions and sort through their big feelings. So if you are finding this phase challenging, you are not alone.

Let’s take a look at what developmental milestones to look forward to at 3-years-old, how to nurture your child and keep them safe, and when to be concerned about your child’s growth and development.

3 year old development milestones
Illustration by Emily Roberts, Verywell

3-Year-Old Language and Cognitive Milestones

When your child was 2, they began saying more words and stringing them into short sentences. At 3, your child’s speaking abilities should start to explode. They will be talking in longer sentences of about 4-5 words, and will be able to start having real conversations with you.

Your child should be able to ask for items by their name, understand simple instructions, and make eye contact with others, says Emily Rooker, speech language pathologist at Bright SpOT Pediatric Therapy. “If they are difficult to understand or appear frustrated over not being understood, an evaluation [by a speech language therapist] may be beneficial,” Rooker recommends.

As your child’s curiosity about the world around them increases, so will the kinds of things they want to talk about. You can expect a lot of “why” and “how” questions now, as your child soaks in everything there is to know about how the world works, and their place in it.

Language and Cognitive Checklist

  • Speaks well enough for most strangers to understand what they are saying
  • Says their own name and the names of their friends
  • Is learning correct use of pronouns (“I,” “me,” “we,” “you”) and how to pluralize words
  • Can do a puzzle with 3-4 pieces and can count about 3 objects
  • Can retell the story in a book they were read

3-Year-Old Movement, Hand, and Finger Milestones

If you are noticing that your 3-year-old just won’t stop moving, you are in good company. 3-year-olds have a ton of energy, and they are also learning new skills and new ways of moving their bodies.

There are a couple of key gross motor skills you might notice at this age, says Caitlin Sanschagrin, an occupational therapist at Bright SpOT Pediatric Therapy. These include pedaling a tricycle, walking up and down stairs one step at a time, and running and jumping more easily.

There are also some fine motor skills your child should start to master at this age, says Sanschagrin. They should be able to build a tower with about 6 or more blocks. You should notice their ability to draw, using a pencil, marker, or crayon. They should also be able to start copying vertical/horizontal lines and circles at this age, says Sanschagrin.

Physical Milestone Checklist

  • Is learning how to get dressed and undress themselves
  • Can wash and dry their hands
  • Is able to feed themselves with a spoon
  • Can throw a ball
  • Can balance on one foot for at least a second

3-Year-Old Emotional and Social Milestones

Again, don’t be surprised if your child is still having tantrums and meltdowns at times. This is totally normal for this age. This is partly because 3-year-olds often experience intense emotions, and are still learning to self-regulate.

“They have a wide range of emotions that they are learning to verbalize,” says Rooker. “3-year- olds may also get upset with big changes to routine.”

At this age, you’ll also start to notice changes in the way that your child plays. Their imagination is really starting to take off, Rooker says. “They enjoy playing house, and other simple make believe activities,” she describes.

Your child is also starting to learn how to play with others. This will sometimes be a bumpy ride. Your child is just learning about sharing and taking turns, but may also still be very possessive of their toys, which can lead to meltdowns during play.

At the same time, your child is starting to learn empathy. For instance, they may go to comfort their friend if they see them crying.

Other Milestones for Your 3-Year-Old

After 3 years of seemingly endless diaper changes, most parents of 3-year-olds are looking forward to their child being potty trained. Keep in mind, though, that potty training doesn’t have a specific end date, and all kids are different.

While most 3-year-olds are ready to begin the process of potty training, not all 3-year-olds will complete the process by their fourth birthday. While most 3-year-olds are able to stay dry all day, some still have accidents. Staying dry all night doesn’t usually happen until a child is 4, or even older.

It’s important to muster up as much patience and compassion as you guide your child through the process. A healthy sense of humor helps immensely as well. Always check in with your pediatrician if you have any questions about how potty training is going.

How to Help Your 3-Year-Old Learn and Grow

3-year-olds are prone to having very big feelings, and they don’t always know how to manage them besides acting out or melting down. As a parent, you might not know what to do in those types of situations.

Besides trying to remain calm yourself, you can try helping your child conceptualize and better understand how they are feeling. You can do this by assisting your child in naming their feelings (“sad,” “mad,” “frustrated,” etc.) and reassuring them that these feelings are normal.

While your child is in the middle of a tantrum, there are a couple of methods you can consider to help manage the situation. You can try redirection, which is where you try to distract your child by suggesting a fun activity or offering them a favorite toy. You can also try giving your child options. For example, rather than saying, “No, you can’t climb up on the counter,” you can say, “Would you rather go outside and play on the slide, or have a dance party?”

Finally, it can be helpful to try and stay on top of your child’s meltdowns by making sure they get enough sleep and eat regular meals. A hungry, tired child is much more likely to have a meltdown than one who is fed and rested.

How to Keep Your 3-Year-Old Safe

While your 3-year-old isn’t growing quite as quickly as they did as an infant, there is still a lot of growing at this age. Your child will gain about 4-6 pounds this year, and grow about 2-3 inches. You can encourage healthy habits at this age by making sure your child gets adequate sleep (usually about 11-13 hours, including one nap), adequate exercise, and eats a healthy diet.

Children this age can be picky about what they eat, but as long as they eat regularly and are growing well, you can be assured they are fine. Contact your pediatrician if you have any questions about your child’s physical growth, overall health, or eating habits.

As your child becomes more independent, you may start to become more lax about supervising them while they play. But they are still too young to play unsupervised, especially outside. Now is a good time to teach your child important outside play tips, such as never running into the street to catch a ball, keeping away from streets while riding a tricycle, and the basics of stranger safety.

When to Be Concerned About Your 3-Year-Old

All children are different, and reach milestones at different rates. For example, Amy Graber PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Family Fit Physical Therapy, says that kids can vary considerably when it comes to mastering motor skills. While milestones are helpful ways to check on your child’s progress, they shouldn’t be thought of as “firm endpoints” for assessing your child’s development, she says.

“Exposure to certain skills, variability in size or stature, and general motivation for play may vary among kids and this can impact developmental progression,” Graber notes.

Still, there are certain warning signs for developmental delays you might want to take note of, Graber warns. “Major red flags would be loss or regression of any prior skills (unable to walk or jump as was previously able), frequent falls or injuries, any excessive delays (i.e. not running or jumping at all), and fatigue with activity that seems to limit participation in play or other social activities,” she describes.

If you notice any of these, or if you have any questions about your child’s development, speak to your pediatrician. If they think there may be an issue worth exploring, they will refer you to a specialist for a developmental screening.

A Word From Verywell

Many parents expect things to get easier after their kids exit toddlerhood, and may be taken aback when they find that 3-year-olds can still be quite a handful. You can be rest assured that this is normal, and that if your child seems to be testing limits more than ever and exhausting you on a daily basis, you haven’t done anything wrong as a parent.

Thankfully, many of these stressors are balanced out by the fact that 3-year-olds are inquisitive, energetic, and affectionate. There is never a dull moment when you have a 3-year-old, and there is plenty of joy mixed in with the hard stuff.

10 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Children’s Health of Orange County. Development Milestones for Your 3-Year-Old Child.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Important Milestones: Your Child By Three Years.

  4. Nemours KidsHealth. Your Child’s Development: 3 Years.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Important Milestones: Your Child By Three Years.

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  7. Stanford Children’s Health. Is It Time for Toilet Training?

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  9. American Academy of Pediatrics. Developmental Milestones: 3 to 4 Year Olds.

  10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Preschoolers (3-5 years of age).

Additional Reading

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.