3-Year-Old Development and Milestones

Your child’s growth and development at age 3

As your 3-year-old's attention span grows and more verbal skills develop, they will be better able to follow instructions and express their own needs and thoughts. The transition from toddler to preschooler, though, can often be a bit bumpy. Expect a fair share of meltdowns and tantrums, but know they come in tandem with a silliness and creative spirit that will bring plenty of joy, too.

Physical Development

Not only are 3-year-olds growing in height and weight, but they are also fine tuning gross and fine motor skills. Like everything else, mastery of these skills will vary by child and by their ability and size.

As your 3-year-old grows, they are learning more about their own body and how to control it. Balance will get better and, with practice, your child will be able to do things they hadn't been able to before.

Key Milestones

  • Gross motor skills: Most 3-year-olds are able to walk a line, balance on a low balance beam, skip or gallop, and walk backward. They can usually pedal a tricycle, catch a large ball, and jump with two feet.
  • Fine motor skills: By age 3, kids can usually wash and dry their hands, dress themselves with a little assistance, and turn pages in a book. Most preschoolers can hold a writing instrument with their fingers, not their fist.
  • Major highlights: Some 3-year-olds are also ready to be potty-trained.

Parenting Tip

Yes, all that running, climbing, jumping, and non-stop moving can be hard to keep up with. It may be tempting to tell your 3-year-old to "stay still,” but allowing kids the freedom to run, climb, and jump is essential. Preschoolers need to practice their physical skills so they can develop better balance and coordination.  

Emotional Development

Temper tantrums tend to peak around this age as your child learns to deal with stressful situations. So even though your 3-year-old may insist on independence, they’ll struggle to deal with frustration when given the opportunity to try something on their own.

Some 3-year-olds have a hard time being separated from their caregivers. So your child may cry when you drop them off at preschool or may express sadness about going to daycare, even if they like it there.

Key Milestones

  • Starts to understand emotions, both their own and others. Your child may use simple expressions such as "I'm mad!," "I'm sad!," or "I'm happy!" to let you know how they feel.
  • ​​Learns to share and take turns, but may not always like it.

Parenting Tip

Use feeling words in your everyday conversations with your child, such as sad, mad, and happy. Building your child’s emotional vocabulary makes it easier for your child to learn how to use their own words to express themselves.

Social Development

Around your child's third birthday, you may notice a change in how they interact with other children. This is often the point where many children start to move away from parallel play (where kids play near each other) to group or interactive play (where they actually cooperate and play with others). This means they'll also need some help learning how to navigate those relationships.

And, while there may still be a special adult in your child's life that they don't like to let out of sight, 3-year-olds are able to start developing true friendships with new friends (and sometimes imaginary ones). Preschoolers are influenced by the things they love. So it’s common for them to copy their favorite characters from TV or books, too.

 Key Milestones

  • Begins to show empathy when another person is hurt or upset and may even attempt to comfort the person.
  • May start to tattle if they feel they've been "wronged" by another child or sibling.
  • Shows affection for others on their own (without you suggesting they give a friend a hug).

Parenting Tip

Your child will begin to understand the difference between “mine” and “yours,” so you might see your child struggle to share with friends. Rather than intervene and police who gets to play with what item, it can be helpful to encourage your child to figure it out on their own. If someone gets aggressive, step in and address the situation.

Cognitive Development

Cognitive development in a 3-year-old isn't just about learning the alphabet or how to count. It envelops the entire learning process of absorbing information, which includes asking questions, and processing and understanding information.

Most 3-year-olds are like sponges and they absorb everything around them. As a parent, help them know what to do with that information. Because they are now able to sit still and focus for a longer period of time, they can take in even more around them.

Your child’s mind and imagination will blossom this year. As they develop their memory and start to understand more about the world around him, you should expect lots of questions. You might find there are times when you don’t know how to answer. Try to be patient with your child’s constant questions because it’s their way of learning more about the world.

It can be a challenge to know what your child actually does understand and what still needs to be learned, but these are some of the milestones you look for them to achieve by the end of the year.

Speech & Language

Your little one should now have about 300 words in their verbal arsenal and it is likely they understand much more than that. Not only should your child be speaking in simple sentences, their comprehension is booming and getting stronger every day.

Play

As noted above, instead of engaging in parallel play, your 3-year-old may begin to play cooperatively with other children and develop friendships. Kids can begin to take turns at this age so you may see your child begin to engage in simple games or activities that require them to practice patience.

 Key Milestones

  • Enjoys listening to books and may even attempt to "read" it on their own.
  • Identifies basic shapes and colors.
  • Says the alphabet.

Parenting Tip

To help your child continue to improve their language development, engage your child in conversations all the time. Answer their questions (there will be a lot!) and ask a few of your own. Read books and talk about the characters and the story.  

When to Be Concerned

All 3-year-olds develop at slightly different rates. And often, kids who are a little behind will catch up with their peers at some point in the near future. But, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends talking to your child’s doctor if your 3-year-old exhibits any of these signs:

  • Drools or has very unclear speech
  • Can’t work simple toys (such as peg boards, simple puzzles, turning handle)
  • Doesn’t speak in full sentences
  • Doesn’t understand simple instructions
  • Doesn’t engage in pretend play
  • Doesn’t want to play with other children or with toys
  • Doesn’t make eye contact
  • Falls down a lot or has trouble with stairs
  • Loses skills they once had

A Word From Verywell

Keep in mind that these developmental milestones are not set in stone. Every child is unique and your little one may not reach all of these by the age of 3, or they might develop faster. If you have any concerns about your child talk with your child’s pediatrician or preschool teacher.

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