3-Year-Old Milestones and Development

Your little one might not be so little anymore, and witnessing your 3-year-old’s developmental milestones is an exciting part of parenting. As your child grows and explores the world around them, you may want to know more about how to foster their physical, emotional, social, and cognitive development at this age. Every child develops differently, but we’ve detailed the major milestones that 3-year-olds tend to reach as they move beyond toddlerhood.

3-Year-Old Physical Development

You’ve probably observed some changes and physical developments in your 3-year-old. Are they getting taller? Did you recently need to buy them new shoes? Are their facial features becoming more defined? A lot is going on physically regarding your 3-year-old’s milestones!

3-Year-Old Milestones: Growth and Appearance

As well as growing taller, your 3-year-old's physical development may include losing some baby fat and gaining a little muscle. Other physical changes you may notice include:

  • arms and legs becoming slimmer

  • upper body appearing narrower and tapered

  • gaining height without necessarily adding much weight.

At 36 months old or a little later, children often start to grow at a slower rate than before, though this doesn’t happen for every child. Some 3-year-olds add height more quickly than weight, leading to a slim or fragile-looking frame. If your child begins to look like this, it’s perfectly OK and healthy.

Generally, children from 3 to 6 years old will

  • grow about two to three inches per year

  • gain about four to five pounds per year.

Download our fillable toddler growth chart! Although your child’s healthcare provider will weigh and measure your little one at each checkup, it might be fun for you to keep your own record at home.

As for your toddler’s facial features, you may notice that they are starting to become more mature and distinct. One important area of physical development for 3-year-olds is the length of the skull, which usually increases at this age, while the lower jaw becomes more pronounced. Simultaneously, the upper jaw typically widens as your child starts to develop permanent teeth.

3-Year-Old Milestones: Movement

High levels of energy and nearly constant motion are hallmarks of your child's physical development when they’re 3 to 4 years old. Your child can now walk, run, and jump quite well at this age, without having to concentrate on the mechanics.

Other gross motor skills and physical development milestones for 3-year-olds include

  • hopping and standing on one foot for up to five seconds

  • walking up and down stairs independently

  • kicking a ball forward

  • throwing a ball overhand

  • catching bounced balls

  • riding a tricycle.

Your active 3-year-old may be more interested in structured play than they were at age 2. They may enjoy riding a tricycle, playing in a sandbox, or playing games such as tag or catch.

Watch the video below to see why a simple game with a ball can encourage your 3-year-old’s physical development:

Along with finding new ways to explore and have fun, your 3-year-old is still developing coordination, self-control, and judgment and will need adult attention and supervision at times. Minor bumps and bruises will occur along the way as your child learns about the physical limits of activity. Ensure you are nearby and watching out for them, especially if they’re playing with others or are close to traffic or machinery.

3-Year-Old Milestones: Fine Motor Skills

Fine motor skills, which involve precise hand and finger movements, are also important physical developments for your 3-year-old. Your child is learning how to move each of their fingers independently and together, creating opportunities for creativity and greater independence in their daily activities.

As you observe your child's progress, keep in mind that children develop at their own pace and try not to focus on what a 3-year-old “should” be doing. However, there are some particular hand and finger skills that your 3-year-old may master, many of which help them prepare for preschool and kindergarten. They include things like

  • copying square shapes

  • drawing squares and circles

  • using safety scissors

  • copying lines (such as when first writing capital letters)

  • drawing a person with two, three, or four body parts.

These fine motor skills typically develop in 3-year-olds as they build muscular control and improve their concentration. Once your little one can hold and control a writing utensil like an adult (positioning the thumb on one side and fingers on the other), their little world opens up! Three-year-olds can start to use and perfect their newfound skills and dexterity with activities like drawing, coloring, and painting; pouring water from a pitcher into a cup (with two hands); and using a fork to eat independently.

3-Year-Old Emotional Development

The toddler and preschooler years are full of ups and downs when it comes to feelings, and it helps to know some of the emotional development milestones your 3-year-old will most likely reach. There’s no such thing as “normal” behavior for 3-year-olds, but there are some typical emotional changes that many children experience.

3-Year-Old Milestones: Imagination and Emotions

Thanks to your little one’s very vivid imagination, their emotional range may start to expand at this age. It's common for 3-year-olds to feel and express everything from love and dependency to fear and anger. You might notice that your 3-year-old may

  • consider something unfamiliar to be a “monster”

  • move back and forth between reality and fantasy, and often cannot tell the difference between the two

  • view themselves as an entire person (mind, body, and emotions).

At the ages of 3 and 4, sometimes considered to be the “magic years,” your child will combine fantasy and real-life experiences as they grow and explore. This makes a 3-year-old’s emotional development milestones quite varied and often a little tricky to navigate.

Some tips to help support your child’s emotional well-being include the following:

  • Choose your words carefully. An imaginative 3-year-old may take certain phrases literally and won't understand if you’re joking. If you say something like “We’ll leave you behind if you don’t hurry up,” your toddler may think you’re being serious, and that could be scary.

  • Participate in make-believe play. Now and then, try and participate in whatever your child is pretending or imagining. You'll both enjoy the experience, and you might catch glimpses of feelings that your child might not express otherwise.

  • Offer choices when feasible. Whenever possible, give your child a sense of control by offering a few choices, such as choosing clothes to wear or a game to play. By listening to their opinions and letting them choose, you help boost your child’s self-esteem and develop decision-making skills.

3-Year-Old Social Development

What do 3-year-olds like to do, and how do they interact with others? Your child’s social development will be highly individual, as much depends on their unique personality. Still, many children reach certain social developmental milestones that you can anticipate as they near 3 to 4 years old. Plus, most parents will breathe a sigh of relief when they realize that the “terrible twos” have come to an end.

Younger toddlers can sometimes appear selfish, which is normal, and this trait usually lessens over time. At age 3, as their confidence, independence, and self-awareness develop, your little one may want to actively play with others and begin to share toys. Socializing with others teaches all of us that not everyone thinks the same, and your child will gradually learn this, too, and possibly start to accept other opinions and ideas.

Some key 3-year-old milestones for social development include

  • pursuing new experiences

  • cooperating and sharing with other kids

  • becoming more inventive in fantasy play

  • negotiating with others to solve problems

  • assigning roles, such as “mom,” “dad,” or “fairy godmother” when playing

  • dressing and undressing self

  • eating independently.

You’ll probably be keeping a close eye on your child’s social development as your 3-year-old gets ready for preschool education. Going to school and sharing toys and attention can present challenges for some children, but these emerging social skills may help make it easier.

3-Year-Old Milestones: Dealing With Conflicts

Despite their improved skills, a 3-year-old will sometimes struggle in social situations. You may need to help your child learn how to share and play well with peers as conflicts naturally arise. A few helpful tactics for coping with conflict include the following:

  • Encourage your child to “use your words.” This phrase may seem overused, but that’s because it works! Your 3-year-old may react physically or cry when something upsetting occurs, such as not getting to play with a toy. Help them find and use words to express their feelings and solve problems, which in turn fosters sharing, compromise, and caring for others.

  • Lead by example. Children tend to mimic the emotions of adults, so try to resolve conflicts calmly. Teach your toddler words to use or show them how to reach a compromise peacefully and with reasoning. Maybe taking turns using a toy, drawing for turns, or using different toys can help. If you show that you’re frustrated or anxious, your child will most likely act that way too.

  • Try “remember when…” If your child starts to act out aggressively, remind them of a time they watched another child hit or scream. How did it make them feel? Then, turn the tables: How do you think your actions make your friends feel?

  • Restrain your child if they become physical. If your little one becomes physical and starts to hit or throw things, restrain them, so they don’t hurt other children. Hitting doesn’t mean your child is bad! It’s a behavior that, with the right tactics, will most likely pass. If needed, take your child out of the situation and talk calmly one-on-one. Allow them to return to play once they’ve settled down.

  • Consider a time-out. Try to give time-out warnings or briefly state why the offense warrants an immediate time-out (such as breaking an important family rule). Use time-outs for more serious conflicts or repeated offenses.

    • Time-outs simply require removing your toddler from where the bad behavior occurred and putting them in a quiet place for a couple of minutes. Whether that means sending them to their bedroom or sitting them in the corner of a room, just make sure they aren’t distracted by anything (like friends or toys).

3-Year-Old Cognitive Development

What should a 3-year-old know academically or educationally? It might seem odd to ask yourself this question since your little one is still so young. However, 3-year-olds tend to reach many important cognitive milestones that support their future academics. Perhaps your child is already enrolled in preschool, or maybe it’s not too far off.

A good indication of a 36-month-old’s cognitive development is asking questions morning, noon, and night. It might get old after a while, but your child’s constant “why,” “what,” and “how” is all a part of the learning process.

Here are some tips for responding to your child's questions while encouraging their curiosity and expanding their knowledge:

  • Keep it simple. When your child asks “why” they have to do something, give a brief, straightforward answer, such as “this keeps you safe.” Avoid offering long, detailed explanations, as your child won’t be interested and may not pay attention to what you say.

  • Search for answers together. Abstract “why” questions, such as why the sky is blue, are trickier to answer, but one approach is to suggest that the two of you look for the answer together. For example, you can suggest going to the library and looking at a book about the sky. Another idea is to ask “why” back.

Typical 3-Year-Old Cognitive Milestones

Watching children soak up knowledge and hone their thinking skills can be exciting. Learning takes place in so many ways for 3-year-olds. Some of the cognitive development milestones you might observe at this age include

  • naming colors

  • initiating fantasy play

  • recalling parts of stories

  • having a clearer sense of time

  • following three-part commands

  • understanding the idea of counting (they may even know a few numbers).

There are several activities you can do at home that can be fun for the whole family while supporting a 3-year-old’s learning milestones. Check out the following lists:

3-Year-Old Language Development

A 3-year-old’s language development is astonishing. Your child has come so far, especially when you think back to your baby’s first words not that long ago. As with other areas of children's development, language and speech are highly variable in terms of timing. That said, many parents are amazed at their 3-year-old's vocabulary, which may include as many as 300 words or so.

Language and speech milestones for 3-year-olds include imitating sounds and words from adults and speaking in sentences with multiple words. These relatively short sentences might not stop your little one from constantly chatting—and that’s a good thing! As your 3-year-old works on developing language skills, they'll get better at pronouncing words and using them correctly. Before long, you’ll probably understand about 75 percent of what your little one says!

Other language and speech milestones for 3-year-olds include

  • understanding the concepts of same and different

  • understanding basic grammar

  • speaking clearly

  • telling stories.

Encouraging Language Development

When it comes to language development milestones, what a 3-year-old “should” know isn’t too helpful, as your child may develop speech and language comprehension at a different pace when compared to another child of the same age. It's best to focus on your child as an individual and support speech and language skills by simply conversing. There are a few specific strategies you can use:

  • Add descriptions. If your child says, “red car,” comment back and add to the narrative. Even a simple response such as “Yes, it’s a big red car; look, and it has four black wheels” will help your toddler’s language skills grow.

  • Ask questions. When your little one is telling a story, ask questions that avoid “yes” and “no” responses. If they’re describing a monster in a fairy tale, ask something like “What does the monster look like?” or “What is the monster wearing?” This technique helps boost vocabulary and narrative skills.

  • Use pronouns. Three-year-olds haven’t quite mastered the art of using pronouns, so try to use these words as much as you can to help. Instead of calling yourself mommy or daddy, use “I” for yourself and “you” for your toddler.

  • Avoid overcorrecting. Particular language and speech milestones may come later for your 3-year-old. For example, it’s very common for young children to mispronounce letters, such as using the w sound for r words or the d sound for th. Instead of correcting your child, just be sure to pronounce the letters and sounds correctly yourself, and your child will most likely correct themselves over time.

How to Support Your 3-Year-Old’s Development

What should I be teaching my 3-year-old? This is a question that many parents ask themselves. There’s a lot you can do to support your child’s unique developmental journey and encourage their natural curiosity as they learn and grow. It’s not as much about teaching them specific things as creating a supportive and safe environment for them to explore their world.

We've suggested many ways you can support your 3-year-old’s development already, but here are a few more general guidelines:

  • Nurture independence. Physical, emotional, social, language, and cognitive developmental milestones for 3-year-olds all have something in common: independence. Children at this age generally thrive when trying new things on their own, with their parent or guardian providing appropriate reassurance and supervision for safety.

  • Keep talking. One person’s babble is another tiny human’s conversation! Help your child reach social, emotional, and language development milestones by constantly talking to your 3-year-old. Your voice, responses, and attention inspire speech development, emotional expression, and self-esteem.

  • Encourage play. Playing indoors or outdoors, alone or with others, can support physical development in your 3-year-old and help your child reach social and emotional developmental milestones. Truly, play is the same as learning in a kids’ world.

  • Set up play dates. These are fun for your child and can also be fun for you! You can either use that time to relax and chat with another parent as you watch your kids, or you can switch houses and have some free time for yourself. Spending time with other children (and with siblings and adults, too) fosters social development and helps prepare your child for preschool and kindergarten.

  • Read often. To help your toddler learn new vocabulary and concepts, read! Help your child love reading by reading to them every day or having them read to you (even if they just make up a story along the way!).

Developmental Delays in 3-Year-Olds

Every child is different, so if your 3-year-old has yet to reach some of the above developmental milestones, it’s usually no cause for concern. Some children simply grow and develop at a slower pace, and that’s OK. However, speak with your child’s healthcare provider if you notice any of the following developmental delays in your 3-year-old:

  • Physical developmental delays

    • Not able to throw a ball overhead

    • Not able to jump in one place

    • Not able to ride a tricycle

    • Can't hold a crayon between thumb and fingers

    • Difficulty scribbling or stacking blocks

    • Not able to copy a circle

  • Emotional and social developmental delays

    • Still cries or clings when parents leave

    • Shows no interest in interactive games or fantasy play

    • Ignores other children

    • Lashes out when upset, lacking self-control

    • Resisting dressing, sleeping, or using the toilet

    • Doesn’t respond to anyone outside of the family

  • Language developmental delays

    • Doesn’t use sentences with more than three words

    • Cannot use “me” and “you” properly.

Much of this guide offers a general idea of how children may develop at 3 years old. In most cases, delays in a 3-year-old's developmental milestones do not indicate anything serious. However, your child’s healthcare provider can help pinpoint and tackle any issues early on. Talk to their healthcare provider if you have any questions about the pace of development.

Because every child is different and develops at a unique pace, using a 3-year-old milestones checklist isn’t very helpful. Instead, talk to your child’s healthcare provider about the milestones your little one is reaching. You can create your own checklist of sorts for your 3-year-old’s milestones to keep track of what they’re doing as they grow, but it’s best to look at your child as an individual and consult their healthcare provider with any questions or concerns.

The Bottom Line

Your 3-year-old is in for a busy year with so many physical, emotional, social, cognitive, and language developmental milestones to look forward to! For example, your child may start to

  • socialize and build friendships

  • be more sensitive to others

  • grow taller and stronger

  • development distinct facial features

  • ask a million questions

  • draw, color, paint, and scribble

  • identify shapes, numbers, and colors

  • use longer sentences

  • try new things

  • enjoy fantasy play

  • and much, much more.

As children enter the “magic years” of 3 and 4 years old, parents can proudly watch their little ones grow and rack up lots of fun developmental milestones. Encourage your child's progress by nurturing their emerging independence, skills, and interests. Talk and read to them, ask questions, participate in fantasy play, coordinate playdates with new friends, and encourage outdoor and indoor playtime.

Along the way, don't hesitate to consult your child’s healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns about your child's development.

How We Wrote This Article The information in this article is based on the expert advice found in trusted medical and government sources, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. You can find a full list of sources used for this article below. The content on this page should not replace professional medical advice. Always consult medical professionals for full diagnosis and treatment.