Child development - milestones for 3 year olds

Child running down the pavement

The aim of this article is to provide insight into the developmental milestones that parents can anticipate when a child is three years old; and provide some information on what delays may be a reason to speak to a pediatrician.


Your child has turned three! Not only have they officially exited the terrible twos, but they’ve also learned a myriad of skills and abilities during the early years of their life. At three years old, your child will start showing incredible growth across all developmental domains. It’s important to remember that it’s not necessarily an immediate cause for concern, though, if they’re delayed in attaining or reaching a milestone. Children all develop at a different pace, so it’s impossible to pinpoint exactly when your child will learn to walk up the stairs without help or count up to 10.

If you do have an instinct that your child is truly struggling, or if your child has missed more than a few milestones, then it might be time to consult your pediatrician or family doctor for help and advice.

What are developmental milestones?

Developmental milestones are simply the skills or abilities that a child will have generally acquired by a certain age, as compared to other healthy or typically-developing children. These markers are sometimes classified by what are known as developmental domains. Each of these domains corresponds to a different type of skill or ability. For example, motor skills are abilities that involve children planning and carrying out movements.

Motor skills

So, just what are motor skills? When we swim across our favorite pond in the summer or hit a tennis ball at our opponent during a friendly match, we’re using an assortment of abilities that allow us to plan and carry out our movements. These are also known as motor skills; and like most other things, children pick these skills up incrementally as they grow.

By age three, children typically can:

Gross motor skills

  • Walk upstairs and downstairs without support, one foot on each step
  • Run and climb well (without tripping over their own feet)
  • Jump on the spot
  • Move forward and backward with agility
  • Kick a ball in front of them
  • Catch a big ball most of the time
  • Pedal a tricycle

Fine motor skills

  • Hold pens and pencils using thumb and forefinger
  • Draw or copy circles and squares with a crayon or pencil
  • Turn the pages of a book one at a time
  • Use a cup, fork and spoon with ease
  • Get dressed, though they usually still need some help managing buttons, zippers, and snaps
  • Get undressed (e.g. remove socks and shoes)


Cognition relates to processes, like thinking and memorizing, that allow children to learn new things and understand the world around them.

By age three, children typically can:

  • Grasp the concept of “two” and over the year may know a few numbers
  • Name some colours
  • Complete puzzles that have 3 or 4 pieces
  • Build towers of more than 6 blocks
  • Play make-believe with dolls, animals, and people
  • Play with toys that have small moving parts, buttons, levers etc.
  • Follow three-part commands (e.g. “bring me the ball, go brush your teeth and put on your pajamas”)

Language and communication

From babbling to carrying on a conversation, a child’s language ability will also continue to progress as they grow. Learning to listen and make themselves heard intelligibly are pivotal parts of this skillset.

By age three, children typically can:

  • Understand the concepts of “same” and “different”
  • Speak well enough for strangers to understand most of the time
  • Know how to use pronouns like “I”, “you” and “we,” and use some plural words like “cats” and “cars”
  • Understand comparison or location-based words like like “in”, “on,” and “under”
  • Have conversations speaking 2-3 sentences at a time
  • Say their first name, age and gender
  • Name friends
  • Name common objects
  • Apply the basic rules of grammar, but make mistakes with words that don’t follow the rules, like saying “mouses” instead of “mice”
  • Ask “wh__” questions like “why”, “what” and “where” to get more information about things
  • Choose words to indicate tense: “I walked with daddy” instead of “I walk with daddy”
  • Use words or sentences that show an awareness of concepts such as time, size and how things work
  • Learn new words quickly
  • Understand most of what they hear

Social and emotional skills

By age three, children typically can:

  • Take turns when playing with other children,
  • Understand the concept of “mine,” “his,” and “hers”
  • Display affection for friends
  • Show concern for a crying friend
  • Engage in inventive, fantasy play
  • Play “real life” with toys like play kitchens
  • Show more independence, part with parents without becoming too upset
  • Dress and undress without help
  • Be potty-trained
  • Find simple ways to solve arguments and disagreements
  • View themselves as a whole person involving body, mind, and feelings
  • Copy what adults and friends do
  • Enjoy helping with tasks around the house
  • Show affection for friends and family without prompting
  • Enjoy routine and get upset with big changes
  • Show (but maybe not name) a range of emotions (beyond happy, sad, and mad)
  • Imagine that many unfamiliar images may be “monsters”

What if I’m concerned about my child?

It’s natural to be a vigilant parent and to be concerned if your child does not meet a milestone. However, it’s crucial to understand that children all develop at a different pace; and so if a child is delayed in attaining a given milestone, it usually should not be a major cause for concern. If you notice your child really seems to be struggling, or if they have missed more than one milestone, it may be time to consult a professional.

Speak to your pediatrician or family doctor if your child:

  • Misses milestones
  • Loses skills they once had (developmental regression)

Gross motor

  • Cannot jump in place
  • Cannot balance on one foot
  • Falls down frequently or has trouble walking up/down stairs
  • Cannot throw a ball overhand
  • Cannot ride a tricycle

Fine motor

  • Cannot grasp a crayon between thumb and fingers
  • Has difficulty scribbling
  • Cannot copy a circle
  • Can’t draw a simple line or cross, use cutlery or undo buttons


  • Cannot stack four blocks
  • Cannot work simple toys (such as peg boards, simple puzzles, turning handle)

Language and communication

  • Drools or has very unclear speech
  • Does not speak in sentences (of more than three words)
  • Does not use “me” and “you” appropriately

Social and emotional

  • Does not make eye contact
  • Does not respond to people outside the family
  • Does not seem to understand simple or 2-3 step instructions
  • Does not want to play with other children or with toys
  • Does not play pretend or make-believe with other children or toys
  • Shows no interest in interactive games
  • Resists dressing, sleeping and using the toilet
  • Lashes out without any self-control when angry or upset
  • Still clings to you or cries whenever you or another parent leaves