Gross Motor Skills (and More) for 3-Year-Olds

A Guide to Developmental Milestones

Gross motor skills are one of many of the amazing milestones for your 3 year old. While your child's physical rate of growth will likely slow down this year, each week may bring a change in what she can do and what she understands.

In other words, you'll likely see the development of the following:

  • Gross motor skills
  • Fine motor skills
  • Intellectual or cognitive skills
  • Verbal skills
  • Social and emotional skills

That said, don't be alarmed if your child isn't able to accomplish all of the skills listed below. Every child develops at his or her own rate.  

Gross Motor Skills 

Motor skills are related to how your child uses his body. Gross motor skills use large muscle groups and are related to active play. Milestones at this age may include:

  • Run several yards without falling
  • Climb up low furniture and jungle gyms with ease
  • Walk on tiptoes
  • Walk a straight line
  • Walk up and down stairs alternating feet
  • Kick a ball
  • Jump up with both feet
  • Pedal a tricycle
  • Throw a large ball

Yes, all that running, climbing, jumping and non-stop moving is hard to keep up with. It may be tempting to tell your 3 year old to "stay still." But allowing him the freedom to move is essential. Given the time and space to practice his physical skills, he will develop better balance and confidence. While he will inevitably suffer some spills and scrapes, this phase can help him avoid major falls and injuries in the coming years.

Fine Motor Skills 

Tasks that rely on fine motor skills are those that use the hands and small muscle groups. Fine motor skills milestones you can expect your child to achieve by age 3 include:

  • Feed self (although, you can still expect messes)
  • Turn pages in a book
  • Hold and write with a crayon 
  • Wash and dry hands
  • Put on shoes (but not tie laces)
  • Dress self with some help
  • Build a balanced block tower
  • Open and close twistable lids

One of your child's major accomplishments this year will be learning to "draw," although pictures will mostly be scribbles and lines on the page. To encourage your budding writer and artist, provide lots of paper and age-appropriate writing tools (crayons, washable markers, finger paints). Show her how to use the tools by coloring and drawing with her. Teach her what is ok to draw on (paper) and what is not (the white couch), but you might also want to invest in washable paint just in case it gets on the walls and furniture for the inevitable mishaps.

Intellectual or Cognitive Skills 

Your child’s mind and imagination will blossom this year. As he develops his memory and starts to understand more about the world around him, he'll be filled with questions. 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 can expect him to achieve by the end of the year:

  • Identify basic colors
  • Count to five
  • Say the alphabet (but may not be able to identify each written letter)
  • Play make-believe with dolls, toys or other people
  • Sort objects by shape and color
  • Identify basic shapes
  • Match objects
  • Complete simple puzzles
  • Understand the concept of two
  • Recognize everyday sounds
  • Understand "before," "after," "now," "soon" and "later"
  • Remember what happened yesterday
  • Know where playthings belong
  • Laugh at silly ideas or jokes
  • Understand some important safety rules (don’t touch the hot stove; stay away from the window)
  • Follow one- or two-step commands
  • Pay attention for about three minutes

At this age, it's important to also understand your child's intellectual limitations. He hasn't learned to separate fantasy from reality, so he may believe what he sees on television or in books is real and may not understand hyperbole such as statements: "If you eat more carrots you’ll turn orange." He also believes that everything is related to something he has done. For this reason, if something "bad" happens he may blame himself or ask what he did wrong.

Even though he's come a long way, his reasoning skills are very limited. Sticking with clear-cut facts will help you manage behavior ("put the trucks in the box and you can eat your snack" versus "be good and we’ll get something").

Verbal Skills 

In many ways the development of speech marks a significant change for your entire family. As your little one is able to express her needs and wants, you may be able to avoid those behavior meltdowns that often occurred because she couldn't tell you want she wanted. Some of the advances in language you may see this year include:

  • Follow one- or two-part commands
  • Use names for family and friends
  • Name common objects
  • Understand most of what you say (everyday conversation)
  • Speak five word sentences
  • Uses pronouns (I , you, me, we, they ) and some plurals
  • Speaks clear enough for strangers to understand most words
  • Begin to enjoy rhymes and silly plays on language (putting wrong words into favorite songs
  • Understand "mine"
  • Use "me" and "you" appropriately
  • Tell stories
  • Carry on a conversation of two to three sentences
  • Enjoy books and stories
  • Ask simple questions

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, there is greater variation in language development among children of this age than in any other area of development. There is a wide range of "normal" and some common variations. For instance, girls' language skills often develop earlier than boys. Some young children are also naturally chatty while others are quiet. A child may have extremely well-developed language skills, but she may choose not to speak much. While being aware of language delays to watch out for, try not to compare your child's verbal skills to others.

Social Skills 

Around your child's third birthday you may notice a change in how he interacts with other children. This is the point where many children begin moving away from parallel play (where kids play near each other) to group or interactive play (where he actually cooperates and plays with others). This means he'll begin needing to learn how to navigate those relationships. It's a period when he will develop essential skills such as:

  • Take turns in games
  • Become more independent
  • Show interest in trying new things
  • Invent fantasy games
  • Cooperate with other children
  • Show a range of emotions
  • Copy other people’s behavior (adults and peers)
  • Show affection for others on his own (without you suggesting he give a friend a hug)
  • Know first and last name
  • Realize when some actions are wrong and feel sorry
  • Try to make others laugh
  • Play with a group of children
  • Show interest in potty training

Although your child is looking for independence and new experiences, he may get upset when separated from you. While it's hard for parents to see a child upset, providing opportunities for your child to socialize without you is important for his development. This also means that you should try not to hover when your child is playing with others and not to interfere in conflicts unless you're truly needed.

Someone gets upset because a toy was grabbed or another child didn't get a turn? A simple "let’s share and play together" followed by an encouraging nudge to return to each other can be more effective than stepping in to resolve the situation. Keep in mind, your child and his friends need to learn to play with each other, not with each other's parents.

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