Every child's development is unique and complex. Although children develop through a generally predictable sequence of steps and milestones, they may not proceed through these steps in the same way or at the same time. A child's development is also greatly influenced by factors in his or her environment and the experiences he or she has. The information in this guide explains what child development experts consider to be "widely-held expectations" for what an average child might achieve within a given year. Please consider what you read in the context of your child's unique development.
Below is a snapshot of this year. For more in-depth information click on the specific areas of development in the menu at the left.
Three-year-olds learn primarily through exploring, using all the senses. While playing, they are better able to ignore distractions and focus on the task at hand. They will even persist in completing something that is a bit difficult and can think more creatively and methodically when solving problems.
Language for three-year-olds is taking off. They learn lots of new words and make major improvements in pronunciation. They communicate in simple sentences and are refining their use of grammar. Children this age begin to initiate conversations, want to talk about areas of interest and can relate personal experiences to others with the support of some prompting from grown-ups.
Three-year-olds are also able to listen to and understand conversations, stories, songs and poems. They are learning their letters, but may also refer to numbers as "letters." They notice print in the environment and may ask what it means. They also realize that print in books tells a reader what to say. During the year, scribbles begin to appear more like letters and children may string several of these "letters" together to form mock words. They become aware of the uses for writing and may dictate words for adults to write down.
Children this age develop their logical reasoning skills as they play. They can put together simple puzzles and understand that a whole object can be separated into parts. They are able to classify and sort objects, but usually by only one characteristic at a time. Three-year-olds identify and describe objects that are the "same" or "different." They can count up to "five," and begin to recognize written numerals "0" through "9." When counting items in a collection, they can now label each object with just one number word to determine the total ("one to one correspondence").
Physically, three-year-olds are less top-heavy than toddlers and move with greater sureness. They have improved their abilities to run, climb and perform other large-muscle activities. They can ride a tricycle or pump a swing. They can catch a large ball using two hands and their bodies. Improved finger dexterity allows them to put together simple puzzles, use tools, hold crayons with fingers instead of fists, make balls and snakes out of clay and undress without assistance.
Emotionally, three-year-olds need familiar adults nearby for security as they explore and play. As they develop more independence, children this age begin to have real friendships with other children. When conflicts arise with peers, three-year-olds will typically seek adult assistance. They are learning to recognize the causes of feelings and will give simple help, such as a hug, to those who are upset. Three-year-olds can better manage their emotions, but may still fall apart under stress.
Three-year-olds build on their abilities in the creative arts by developing greater control over their voices and by recognizing, naming and singing their favorite songs. They can play simple rhythm instruments with a developing ability to control beat, tempo and pitch. Their art also begins to include recognizable subjects. Three-year-olds love dramatic play and will sometimes get so involved in their imagined scenarios that they continue their roles even after the play stops. They also prefer to use real objects and costumes in their pretend play.