3-year-old Behaviour and Development

3-year-olds are fascinating creatures. Fantasy, imagination, and their attempts to really be in charge of their lives make them very special. You may find yourself wondering how you can best foster their physical, emotional, social, cognitive and language development at this age. Every child develops at their own rate, but we’ve compiled this article to provide information on some of the key milestones your little one will reach around this age.

3-Year-Old Physical Development

You’ve probably noticed your 3-year-old changing and physically developing right before your very eyes. Perhaps they’ve shot up in height? Or a trip to the shoe shop is on the cards? Their facial features are starting to gain more definition? At the age of 3, your child could experience a number of physical changes!

3-Year-Old Milestones: Growth and Appearance

Along with growing taller, your 3-year-old may start to lose some baby fat and develop a little muscle at this age. At the same time, their arms and legs may become slimmer, the upper body may appear narrower and they may gain height without necessarily adding much weight.

At round 3 years old, your child will likely start to grow at a slower rate than before. However, children come in all shapes and sizes. Some 3 year-olds keep growing in height at a faster rate than they gain weight, which can cause them to look slim or fragile. However, there’s no need to worry – this is perfectly healthy! Still, if you do feel concerned, feel free to discuss this with your child’s doctor. They will be able to rule out any health issues or manage them in good time.

If you’d like to keep track of your child’s growth, you can download our fillable toddler growth chart. This will provide you with an at-home memento of your child’s development to track things now and look back on in the future.

You may have also noticed that your child’s facial features are starting to become more mature and distinct. One of the key developmental milestones your little one will experience when they turn three is skull development, with the lower jaw becoming more pronounced. Your 3-year old will likely also have all 20 of their milk teeth at this age.

3-Year-Old Milestones: Movement

As you are probably aware, at the age of 3, children are usually constantly on the go and brimming with energy. All children develop at their own pace, but here are some things your little adventurer may be getting the hang of at around 3 years old:

  • Walk on tip toes when shown

  • Walk upstairs with alternative feet, putting both feet on each step when coming down

  • Catch a large ball

  • Pedal a tricycle

You may notice your little one is more interested in structured play than they were at the age of 2. Some of their newfound fun and games may involve riding a tricycle, playing in a sandpit or playing games such as tag or catch.


Keep in mind that while your little one is keen to explore new ways to have fun at this age, they are still developing coordination, self-control and judgement. As a result, they still require adult attention and supervision at times. Minor bumps and bruises are par for the course at the point in your child’s development and help your child to learn their physical limits. Be sure to stay close and watch them when playing, particularly if they’re with others or close to traffic or machinery.


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3-Year-Old Milestones: Fine Motor Skills

Fine motor skills are crucial for a number of everyday tasks like writing and drawing, tying shoelaces, using scissors and during play. They require the small muscles in the hand and wrist to make small movements – a skill that children often master around at the age of 3. Try not to compare your child’s development to their peers. Everyone moves at their own pace, so certain things may happen a little sooner or later than with other toddlers. That being said, there are some key hand and finger skills your child may start to master at this age. These include:

  • Copying square shapes

  • Drawing squares and circles

  • Using safety scissors

  • Copying lines

  • Drawing a person with two, three or four body parts

Your 3-year-old may start to develop these motor skills when they build muscular control and improve their concentration. Once your little one is able to hold a pencil like an adult, the world is their oyster! Now, they can use this skill to draw, colour and paint; pour water from a jug into a cup and use a fork to eat independently.


Want to distract your little one for a few minutes while you enjoy some downtime? Try some low-key activities such as building with blocks, scrapbooking, colouring and doing simple jigsaw puzzles.


3-Year-Old Emotional Development

Young children often experience ups and downs. You may find these experiences easier to manage if you are aware of the emotional developmental milestones your 3-year-old will likely reach. It’s important that there is no such thing as ‘normal’ behaviour, but there are typical emotional changes that many children will experience around this age.

3-Year-Old Milestones: Imagination and Emotions

You might find that your 3-year-old now makes up little stories to explain events in their life and they have discovered the power of words to make things happen. Imaginary friends, who are completely at their beck and call, are very normal and healthy household additions.

Your 3-year-old can't lie at this age, but may creatively reconstruct reality so it matches the way they would like things to be. They think their words can create a preferable reality and that reality can be truly denied. This can make navigating a 3-year-old’s emotional development a little tricky.

Try some of the following tips to help foster your child’s emotional well-being at this age:

  • Think before you speak. A highly imaginative 3-year-old may take some things you say literally and be incapable of understanding that you’re joking. For example, if you tell them ‘We’ll leave you behind if you don’t hurry up’, they may think you’re being serious and get scared.

  • Offer choices when you can. It’s important your child feels listened to and valued. By letting them choose things from time to time, like which outfit to wear, you can help boost their self-esteem while developing their decision-making skills.

  • Join their imaginary world. When you get a moment, take the time to delve into your child’s imaginary world of play. You’ll both have a great time and you may end up learning something about your little one that they might not otherwise express.


While offering choices can be a helpful approach at this age, too many choices may overwhelm your little one. Instead of leaving a question open, try to provide two or three options to make the process a little easier.


3-Year-Old Social Development

As with adults, every child reacts differently to social situations. In this sense, your child’s social development will most likely be highly personal as it all depends on their unique personality. However, there are certain social development milestones you can expect your little one to reach once they’re around 3 to 4 years old. We’re sure you won’t be sad to wave goodbye to the terrible twos once and for all!

One thing that’s often observed among 3-year-olds is a certain level of selfishness. But don’t worry too much, this typically lessens over time. By the age of three, your child may start to feel confident, independent and self-aware enough to play with others and share toys. In doing so, your little one will start to learn that not everyone thinks the same and start accepting other opinions and ideas.

Here are some things your little one may be getting the hang of at around 3 years old:

  • Say their own name, age and sex

  • Say numbers up to 10

  • Engage in more vivid pretend play

  • Play with other children and take turns

  • Understand and use ‘You’, ‘Me’ and ‘I’

You’ll most likely be keeping a close eye on your little one’s social development as your tiny explorer gets ready for preschool education. Some children may find it challenging to go to school and share toys and attention among their classmates, but the skills they develop at 3 can help make this new phase easier.

In Summary

At the age of 3, your child’s development is often a truly gratifying thing to watch. They’ve now started to share, build friendships and cooperate well with others. You may even notice your child starting to ask permission more, take turns, consider others’ feelings and negotiate in order to solve problems.


3-Year-Old Milestones: Dealing with Conflicts

Your 3-year-old may have come on leaps and bounds over the past year, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be the odd hiccup along the way. Social situations can still be stressful for many children and you may need to help your toddler to share and handle conflicts. We’ve compiled a list of handy tips that may help you navigate this task:

  • Encourage your child to ‘use their words’. You may have heard this time and again, but not without reason: it works! Often, 3-year-olds will resort to tears if they are upset. Help them find to words to express their feelings and solve the problem, which can also help your little one learn to share, compromise, and care for others.

  • Lead by example. Children tend to mimic the emotions of the adults around them, so do your best to resolve conflicts calmly. Show your conflict how to peacefully reach a compromise with reasoning by teaching them certain words to use. You can practice by taking turns using a toy or using different toys. Keep in mind that if you exhibit frustration or anger, your child may pick up on it and act that way too.

  • Try ‘remember when…’ We all get frustrated from time to time. If your child starts to act aggressively, tell them to remember a time they watched another child hit or scream. Ask them how it made them feel? Then it’s time to turn the tables: ask them how they think their actions make their friends feel?

The key to handling anger is to work together and find out what has triggered it. It’s important to discuss helpful strategies for managing anger.

You may encourage your child to:

  • Count to 10

  • Walk away from the situation

  • Breathe slowly and deeply

  • Clench and unclench their fists to ease tension

  • Talk to a trusted person

  • Go to a private place to calm down


Sharing is hard, and children often have a favourite toy that they don’t want others to play with. In order to avoid future conflicts, before hosting a playdate, ask your child if there are any toys they don’t want to share. You can then put these toys away until after the playdate so your child’s playmate will be none the wiser.


3-Year-Old Cognitive Development

Once your little one turns 3 years old, you may start asking what they should know academically or educationally? You may think your child is perhaps a little too young to ponder these things, but it’s important to realise that 3-year-olds often reach many important cognitive milestones at this age to support their future academic success. At this age, your child may already be enrolled in nursery, or maybe it’s just around the corner.

Wondering how you can tell how far along your child’s cognitive development has come? One of the key indications is asking questions around the clock. You may find it gets old pretty quick, but asking ‘why’, ‘what’ and ‘how’ is all part of the learning process.

When responding to your child’s newfound curiosity and expanding their knowledge, use the following tips to help them nurture their development:

  • Keep it simple. When your child wants to know ‘why’ they need to do something, give a brief, straightforward answer. Anything too long and detailed may lose your child’s attention and interest.

  • Work together to find answers. More abstract ‘why’ questions, such as why grass is green can be harder to answer. Help your child’s cognitive development by searching for answers together. This may involve taking a trip to the local library and finding a book on the subject.


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3-Year-Old Milestones: Expanding knowledge

There’s nothing quite like watching your little one discover the world and honing their thinking skills. 3-year-olds learn in a multitude of ways. By this age, your child might be able to:

  • know where things belong to help tidy up after play.

  • tell you what is happening when looking at a picture, e.g. the dog is chasing the cat’.

  • tell you what’s shown in a picture they’ve drawn, even if it just looks like a scribble to you.

If you’re looking for more inspiration on how to support your 3-year-old’s cognitive development, try some activities you can do at home. Here are a few lists for inspiration:

3-Year-Old Language Development

Your child has come a long way since they uttered their first words not so long ago. As with every aspect of development, the speed at which language and speech skills develop varies among each child. Every child works at their own pace. That said, you may be amazed by the size of your child’s vocabulary at this age, which may feature as many as 300 words.

At the age of three, your child will be learning to say and understand more and more words. They should be able to:

  • Ask questions like ‘what’s that?’

  • Use ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘you

  • Describe things using words like ‘big’ or ‘little’

  • Talk about past and future events

Encouraging Language Development

You may want to help foster your child’s speech development at this point, luckily there are a number of ways you can help your child use more words:

  • When they say ‘car’, you could respond with ‘yes, it’s a red car’

  • When you’re playing together, talk about what your child is doing

  • Discuss feelings and memories with your child

  • Encourage your child to talk about future events, like ‘we’re going to the park tomorrow with Grandma’

  • Look at picture books together and talk about the things you see and how they are used, for example ‘a chair is something we sit on’

Developmental Delays in 3-Year-Olds

Every child is different, and they all develop at their own pace. This may mean your child is yet to reach some of the development milestones we’ve explored above. This is usually no reason to worry – some children simply grow and develop at a slightly slower pace. That said, if you notice your child struggling with some of the following, it may be worth speaking to your child’s GP:

  • Physical

    • Playground activities such as hopping, jumping, running, and catching or kicking a ball

    • Walking up and down stairs

    • Writing, drawing and using scissors

    • Getting dressed, doing up buttons and tying shoelaces

    • Keeping still – they may swing or move their arms and legs a lot

  • Emotional and social

    • Still cries or clings when parents leave

    • Demonstrates no interest in interactive games or fantasy play

    • Ignores other children

    • Lashes out when upset with low self-control

    • Doesn’t respond to anyone outside of the family

  • Language

    • Doesn’t use sentences longer than three words

    • Unable to use ‘me’ and ‘you’ properly

This list only offers a rough guide of how lots of children tend to develop at 3 years old. In the vast majority of cases, a few delays here and there do not indicate anything serious. However, speaking to your child’s GP about any concerns early on will help them to pinpoint and tackle any potential issues.


There is no set rule as every child develops at their own pace. However, once your child turns three you can expect to see them:

  • Naming colours
  • Engaging in pretend and imaginative play
  • Recalling parts of stories
  • Following commands
  • Counting up to 10
  • Copying lines
  • Drawing people with up to four body parts
  • Using safety scissors

The Bottom Line

Being 3 is a busy time in your child’s development with plenty of physical, emotional, social, cognitive and language developmental milestones to look forward to! From the seemingly endless stream of questions to learning how to share, your child is starting to explore the world and people around them.

You can encourage your little one’s development by getting involved. Delve into their fantasy world to see what they’re thinking inside and organise play dates to help them socialise. There are a wide range of activities you can do with your 3-year-old to help them grow. Most of all, enjoy the magic of three and marvel at the hard work it takes to put the world in order.

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 National Health Service (NHS).The content on this page should not replace professional medical advice. Always consult medical professionals for full diagnosis and treatment.

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