Development and Milestones for 3 Year Olds

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Parenting a 3-Year-Old

Mixed race boy sitting on swing in park
Jasper Cole/Blend Images/Getty Images

Whoever said good things happen in threes must have been thinking of a three-year-old. No longer a baby but not quite yet a big kid (but certainly don't tell your child that!), a three-year-old is a fun jumble of creativity, stubbornness, intelligence, independence, laughter and more. Parenting a three-year-old isn't just something you do every day, it is more like every day is an adventure!

On so many different levels, your child is growing and changing all the time -- sometimes right before your eyes. They can communicate more and with greater ease, they are starting to gain better control of their bodies and their ever-present imagination is getting more and more creative by the day. So what can you expect? Certainly something different all the time, but there are some basic milestones and skills that your little one should be mastering and practicing. It's important to note though, that every child is unique and develops at their own pace. While these are common milestones, they are also simply guidelines. If you feel your child is lacking in a certain area, you may want to check in with your pediatrician.

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Social and Emotional Development in 3 Year Olds

Social and Emotional Development in 3 Year Olds
As your three-year-old continues to develop social skills, she'll start to develop friendships with other children. Remember though, every child goes at their own pace!. Photodisc

Social and emotional development is one of the most important parts of your child's growth, but also makes for some of the most trying aspects of it. Temper tantrums tend to peak around this age as your child learns to deal with stressful situations. And while there may still be a special adult in your child's life that she doesn't like to let out of her sight, three-year-olds are able to start to develop true friendships with new friends (and sometimes imaginary ones!).

It is important to really pay attention to your child's social and emotional development -- lots of groundwork is laid now that will help your child deal with more complex emotions as they get older.

Here's what else you can expect in terms of social and emotional development from your 3-year-old:

  • Starts to understand emotions -- his own and others. This may be through actually seeing someone express how they feel about something in person or on television or through reading a book. May use simple expressions -- "I'm mad!," "I'm sad!," "I'm happy!," to let you know how he feels.
  • May still not want to be separated from a parent or caregiver, even if they are at a place they are familiar with.
  • Instead of acting out physically (say by hitting) when she is frustrated, she uses her words.
  • Shows empathy when another person is hurt or upset and may even attempt to comfort the person.
  • Instead of engaging in parallel play (two or three children playing side-by-side rather than with each other) actually begins to play cooperatively with other children and develops friendships.
  • Starts to indicate preferences for things and understands what belongs to him.
  • May start to tattle if they feel they've been "wronged" by another child or sibling.
  • Can start to share and take turns, although they may not always like it.
  • Will copy the actions and behaviors of others, particularly children.

For more: Preschool Social Growth and Development

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Cognitive Development in 3 Year Olds

three year old cognitive development
The cognitive development of your three year old will allow her to stay focused and sit still for longer periods of time. Frank Rothe

Cognitive development in a three-year-old isn't just about a child learning the alphabet or how to count. It envelops the entire learning process -- absorbing information, yes, but also about asking questions, processing and understanding.

Three year olds are like sponges -- they absorb everything around them. It's our job as parents to help them know what to do with that information. A child this age is also able to sit still and focus for a longer period of time, allowing them to take more in. Kids this age are also very inquisitive -- expect lots of questions!

Here's what else you can expect in terms of cognitive development in your 3-year-old:

  • Should have a good grasp of language and can say and understand at least 300 words.
  • Doesn't give up easily -- if a game is challenging or if a block tower keeps falling, expect your little one to try to come up with a solution.
  • Asks many questions on a variety of subjects. As she matures, the questions will become more elaborate and indicate a real interest in the subject matter.
  • Will ask for and acceptance assistance if he needs it.
  • Remember events in the near past -- yesterday, the day before, even last week if the situation was "important" enough.
  • Engages in pretend play.
  • Can count up to five and will be able to assign numbers to specific items, for example, counting out three buttons. May not be able to identify numbers out of counting context.
  • Should be able to identify things by size -- small, medium and large for example -- demonstrating an increasing spatial awareness.
  • Complete simple (between 10-25 pieces) puzzles.
  • Identify simple shapes (circle, square, triangle, rectangle) and basic colors.
  • Say the alphabet, although she may not be able to identify individual letters.
  • Can sort and match objects in a variety of different ways -- shape, size, color, etc.
  • Is developing a sense of humor and will laugh at simple jokes. May even attempt to tell their own, although they most likely won't make sense.
  • Reasoning skills are developing although they are still very limited.

For learning activities you can do with your preschooler: Preschool Intellectual Growth

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Physical Development in 3 Year Olds

physical development in 3 year olds
The physical development in 3 year olds includes the ongoing maturation of gross and fine motor skills. Compassionate Eye Foundation

The physical development of a 3-year-old encompasses quite a bit. Not only just how they are growing in height and weight, but the fine tuning of 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, he is learning about his own body and how to control it. His balance will get better and with practice, will be able to do things he hadn't been able to before.

Here's what else you can expect in terms of physical development in your 3-year-old:

Gross Motor Skills

  • Has an overall better sense of balance in everything she does -- walking, running, jumping, etc.
  • Can jump with two feet, may be able to stand or even hop on one foot.
  • Can roll on his side, may even be able to turn a somersault.
  • Can catch a large ball thrown slowly with her hands.
  • Can kick a ball a fair distance (at least five feet).
  • Can pedal a tricycle.
  • Can walk a line, balance on a low balance beam, skip or gallop and walk backwards.

Fine Motor Skills

  • Is developing fine motor skills -- can string a chunky bead, butter bread with a dull knife and can turn the pages of a book without ripping them.
  • Should be able to pour liquid from one container to another (with spills).
  • Drawings may not include "people" -- large heads with arms and legs. As your child gets older, more details (glasses, hair, clothing) will be added.
  • With practice, may be able to use chunky safety scissors.
  • Holds a writing instrument with his fingers, not his fist.
  • May start to show a preference for using the right or left hand.
  • Can build a block tower.

Overall Physical Development

For more advice on health, safety and feeding your preschooler: Health, Safety, Feeding and Hygiene

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Language Development in 3 Year Olds

three year old speech development
As your three-year-old grows, so will her language skills, making it easier for her to communicate with you and others. Barry Rosenthal

Ever had your ear talked off? Get ready, because as the parent to a 3-year-old, it's likely you aren't going to get a word in edgewise for a while. Your little one should now have about 300 words in his verbal arsenal and it is likely he understands much more than that. Not only should your child be speaking in simple sentences, her comprehension is booming and getting stronger every day.

To help him keep talking and understanding, the best thing you can do is to engage in your child in conversations all the time. Answer her questions and ask a few of your own. Read, read, read, all the time and always take the conversation to the next level. If you see a dog, talk about what noise it makes, where it lives, what color it is, etc.

Here's what else you can expect in terms of language and verbal development in your 3-year-old:

  • Can understand upwards of 1,000 words by her third birthday. On average, learns four new words a day. By her fourth birthday, she should understand nearly 3,000 - 4,000 new words. (The number of words that a child understands is always greater than the number of words they use in conversation.)
  • Can remember the meaning of a word when you explain it to him, but can also infer the meaning through context cues.
  • Listening skills increase dramatically. Can understand and follow multi-step directions such as, "Go to your room, get your shoes and bring them to me."
  • Enjoys listening to books and may even attempt to "read" it on his own.
  • May have trouble waiting their turn in conversation, particularly in a group setting. Interrupts often.
  • Starts conversations.
  • Can keep the conversation relevant to what is being discussed, although may sometimes go off on a tangent.
  • For the most part, a 3-year-old can be understood by a person who isn't with them every day.
  • Can use pronouns correctly.
  • Has names or nicknames for all the important people in her life.
  • Asks many questions and will respond with an answer when you ask him a question.

For more tips on increasing your child's language development, check out our Word Play series.

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Creative Development in 3 Year Olds

three year old creative development
Your three-year-old has a big imagination and creative side. Michael Hitoshi

Want to see imagination at work? Spend some time with a bunch of (or even just one!) three year olds. Three year olds have a wonderful combination enthusiasm and natural curiosity that lends really well to their creative development.

The key is to encourage your little one as he or she engages in creative thinking. Creativity and imagination will help your child as they learn to problem solve and predict what will happen next. Also note, that creativity won't just come through in coloring or arts and crafts. Creativity appears just about everywhere, including play, how your child chooses their clothes, even how they eat their food. Obviously there are boundaries that you will need to set, but creativity in little ones really show up in unexpected places sometimes. 

Here's what to expect as your child explores this creative side of their personality:

  • Understands that they can create something, whether it is drawing a picture of an object or building something with blocks or other materials, that represents something else.
  • Fine motor skills are developing, so kids could get frustrated at first while their skills lag behind what they are picturing in their heads. 
  • Are enthusiastic about learning new things and will often take them as a jumping off point for asking questions.
  • Can be very messy as they create. (Read more about creating arts and crafts with your preschooler.)
  • May sometimes have trouble distinguishing between reality and fiction (this will change as the child gets older).
  • Will be influenced by what is important to the child. For example, if the preschooler loves to watch Mickey Mouse, a lot of their creative ventures will be around that same theme.

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