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Your child at three years olds: what to expect

You're probably referring to your child as a 'pre-schooler' rather than a 'toddler' by the age of three, and she may well be off to some sort of pre-school now – your first taste (and hers) of independence

By Mumsnet HQ | Last updated Mar 21, 2023

Three-year-old child

She's truly becoming her own person now, but she learns to do it by copying you. You'll hear her using your turn of phrase to talk to her toys in the way you speak to her, which can come as a shock. Try to treat it as useful feedback. You may also spot her 'going to work', 'talking to Grandma on the phone' and 'doing the gardening'.

This phase of copying is a milestone in itself. She's finding her own identity and role in the world by copying people who already know what they're about. It's how we learn how to interact with the world and gain independence.

As well as imitating you and others, she is full of questions right now – everything from 'what do clouds feel like?' to 'WHY HAS THAT MAN GOT NO HAIR ON HIS HEAD MUMMY?' Just cringe and bear it. This stage passes.

This is also the stage at which you'll encounter the Why Phase. 'Why is it cold?' Because it's winter. 'Why is winter cold?' Because we're further from the sun. 'Why are we further from the sun?' Because something about… erm… magnets. 'Why?' Because I said so…. 'Why did you say so, Mummy?' Irritating though it is, remember the Why Phase is a recognised milestone. She's doing what is expected of her and is learning about the world. Try and answer any questions as fully as you can without getting into complicated detail, and look forward to the day when you can direct her straight to Google. In the meantime, answer as much as you can and make sure that curious streak doesn't end in a visit to A&E by ensuring your house is as child-safe as it can be and anything dangerous is locked away from prying little fingers.

Physical development at three years old

She's pretty steady on her feet at three and can now hop, stand on one leg for a couple of seconds, walk backwards, climb well and bend over without toppling nose first into the carpet.

If you have high hopes for her as an Olympian, this is the age when you might spot early promise – she can throw, very occasionally catch, and kick a ball successfully.

She's also becoming much more dextrous and can now draw a person with between two and four body parts (particularly observant three-year-olds may even add 'willies' or 'boobies' – you can look forward to that masterpiece coming home from preschool for you…). And she's getting better at other fiddly tasks, such as doing up the zip on her coat, pouring water from a jug and using a knife and fork (with help). In societies where chopsticks are used (and in Wagamama) children are able to use these by three, too. Bring on the Pad Thai.

How can I encourage my child's physical development at three?

In terms of gross motor skills, ride-on toys - like a scooter or balance bike - will help her build strength in her legs but will also improve spatial awareness as she weaves in and out of things and works out how close she can get to something before hitting it. Games like hopscotch and football, which involve her standing on one leg, will improve her balance.

You can help bring on her fine motor skills by showing her how to do up zips and buttons (her school teacher of the future will thank you no end for this). In fact, the best toys for 3-year-olds include anything that helps to build muscles in her hands, wrists and fingers is a boon. Try some of the following:

  • Play Doh or clay modelling

  • Threading beads or pasta tubes onto string

  • Playing percussion instruments like drums or a xylophone

  • Using a whisk to make bubbles in the bath

Should my three-year-old be dry at night?

No, but if she is then great. Some children master it at the same time as staying dry in the daytime but many children wear pull-ups to bed for at least a year to come. Being continent when asleep is a developmental milestone that depends on the pituitary gland producing the hormone that enables this to happen. Some children experience this hormonal tip at two and some at six. If you're concerned, have a chat with your health visitor, but it's nothing to worry about at this stage. Consider investing in a few good pairs of potty training pants to help see you through this transition.

Cognitive development at three years old

Three marks a real leap forward in her becoming a social animal. You'll finally find that she plays 'with' other children and not just alongside them, so you're no longer wondering why you invited little Max round with his mother only for your children to ignore each other studiously for two hours while you make small talk. Playdates are a necessary part of her personal and social development. They give the opportunity for her to form closer bonds with children she knows from preschool or nursery as well as teaching her skills such as sharing and basic conflict resolution. Keep playdates to no more than an hour at the moment – or an hour of play followed by tea, maybe. From next year she'll be ready to cope with longer playdates.

Her cognitive ability is quite astounding and during this year she will get to grips with all sorts of complex ideas. She will start to understand sizes and amounts, such as 'small', 'big' and 'lots of' ('Lots of chocolate buttons, please, Grandma'). She will be able to cope with the concept of sequence now – realising that something that happened 'before' is in the past, although something that happens 'later' is an idea she'll struggle with a little longer. She'll find the idea of 'yesterday' and 'tomorrow' tricky, too. You can start introducing the concept of the days of the week to her to help get her head round this. Keep it simple, just telling her what day it is each morning and what day things happen on: 'We go swimming on Wednesdays'; 'Grandma comes to look after you on Thursdays'; 'Tomorrow is Saturday so there's no pre-school.' She can understand the difference between night and day now but may still have trouble working out how morning differs from afternoon.

Memory is much improved and she will be able to recall things that have happened over the past two or three months and tell you about them (again and again). She loves to tell stories (real ones and made-up ones) and might also notice inaccuracies in stories other people tell. Be prepared to be outed as a pedlar of Fake News if she hears you claiming she's under three to get her into the soft play for free. Her enjoyment of all things factually correct means she is also able to 'categorise' now – she'll understand that red is a colour, while cat is an animal, and four is a number.

Speech at three years old

Unfortunately for you, she now understands about 60-80% of what adults say. So if you're badmouthing Uncle Will in the front of the car with your partner, be prepared for her to report back to him next time she sees him. What goes on tour no longer stays on tour. On the plus side, she can understand a two-part request, such as 'pick up the paintbrush and paint a flower'. Or, for lazier parents, 'pass me the Radio Times and the remote control, please.'

As well as understanding more, she's also speaking much more. She now has a vocabulary of between 800 and 1,000 words and can tell stories as well as recite nursery rhymes and songs.

She can also form sentences of four words, using surprisingly good grammar. She will start to crack the difference between 'me', 'I' and 'mine' this year and you'll begin to hear her growl 'That's MINE' with alarming frequency.

Perhaps most charmingly, at age three she will make up words. You might hear her call a butterfly a 'fly fairy' or similar. Don't correct her – she's experimenting with language, an important stage in her development. Join in with some made-up words of your own if you like and play along with guessing what she means. It might sound like nonsense but at this stage, making up words makes her practically Noam Chomsky.

Reading and writing at three years old

Some children of three will start to show an interest in reading at this age, but it's really not worth pushing it. Firstly because there is little to be gained and even if they start school reading Black Beauty and are very impressive, there's nothing to say they will be ploughing their way through Tolstoy by Year Five – and, of course, you have to ask yourself: would you want them to be? But secondly, you could easily put them right off the idea altogether.

What is definitely worth doing is sharing lots of books together, reading to her and encouraging her to join in with rhymes, actions and enthusiastic discussion about the illustrations.

She may recognise some letters – particularly the letters in her own name and you can point out familiar letters on shop signs, menus and generally when you're out and about.

Writing is probably still a way off, though she may start writing her name this year.

Related: Best books for 3-year-olds, as recommended by Mumsnetters

Counting at three years old

Three-year-olds can both count and, crucially, understand the concept of counting. About two-thirds of three-year-olds can count from one to five and will decide correctly four out of six times which tower is taller when comparing towers of three and five blocks.

She will be able to tell people how old she is and is also able to count three objects and repeat three numbers after you.

Dealing with childhood fears

Three-year-olds have a lot to take in and the world can seem a scary place to them, which often manifests itself in fear of the unknown – and sometimes fear of the completely made up. Being scared of 'monsters' in her room is her way of giving her fear a face and making it into something she can deal with. Tempting though it is to say there's no such thing as monsters, you might be better advised to 'play along', which to her means you have taken her seriously and will try to help. Work out strategies to deal with the fear rather than deny its existence. You might want to shine a torch round the room and say loudly 'We know you're not a real monster so go away!' or even round up the monsters with a dramatic flourish and 'put them in the bin. Lavender 'monster' sprays and fairy 'glitter' dust often help reassure a frightened three-year-old, too.

Perhaps more difficult to deal with are the fears that involve difficult questions. At three, your child may start to ask questions about death, particularly if a person or animal they know dies. It's difficult to know how to respond when she asks anxiously if she, or worse – you – will one day die. A chirpy 'Not for a very, very, very long time' is usually the best answer. Best not to get too far into the whys and wherefores of ageing and death or you might find she asks Grandma some rather pointed questions about her demise at some stage.

How can I help my three-year-old get used to a new baby?

One of the big things lots of children this age have to deal with is the arrival of a sibling. Introducing a new baby to your three-year-old is a tricky path to tread. No matter how excited they are and how much they love the new addition, it's undeniably an enormous change to their life, and it often isn't all plain sailing.

If you spot sibling rivalry or other problems brewing, it's worth investing some time and attention in them. Try to give your older child a special role in helping with the new baby – maybe fetching nappies or similar, but if they aren't interested in being the hired help, don't push it. They might just want space to readjust. After all, if someone you'd never met turned up in your house uninvited and screamed for several hours a day, you'd be pretty cheesed off, too. Give it time and remember there are very few adults who still hate their younger sibling (or if they do it's for different reasons, at least).

Why does my three-year-old tell fibs?

This is such a common phase it's practically an accepted milestone, and there's definitely no need to worry if your child is being economical with the truth at her age.

Some of her fibs aren't really fibs at all – they're just made-up stories, and form part of her cognitive development as she starts to sort out reality from make-believe. Children of this age are quite literal so think carefully about the words you use as that line between reality and fiction is still blurred for her. If you say you were 'scared to death' she might actually think you're going to die, and she'll be amused but confused by expressions like 'raining cats and dogs'. You can see how in her world, made-up things might still be real, so indulge her stories as much as you can.

Where proper fibs are concerned, she will usually use them to get herself out of trouble, but again, go gently. In her mind, don't forget, it's quite possible she's completely forgotten spilling her juice all over your carpet already. Even if she does remember, she might simply be saying she didn't spill the juice in order to 'wish the spill away'. She's aware that she did something wrong, and now hopes she can undo it by saying it didn't happen. (We never said three-year-olds made any sense). Try not to get angry about fibs but do point out that telling the truth is really important and shower her with praise if she actually fesses up to something.

How can I encourage my child's cognitive development at three?

She's an information-seeking-missile at this age, so you can help her get to grips with the world around her simply by passing on useful tips as you go about your daily life. Point out numbers and letters she might recognise, sneak things like colours into everyday instructions – 'Put your red coat on, we're going out' – and give her plenty of opportunity to make conversation with you and ask questions.

Help her develop her social skills by taking her to play groups and other places where she can meet other children. If she's at pre-school she'll already be doing that but meeting children in different environments will only broaden her social circle and help make her more able in social situations.

Play and activities at three years old

Pre-schoolers love being told stories and making up their own – some of which will give Gone With The Wind a run for its money in terms of length and scope.

Your three-year-old has better concentration and a longer attention span now so will spend a good little while engaged in one activity before moving on. She's also beginning to be able to share (with some gentle nudging). Don't feel you have to make her share everything though. If her playdate wants a cuddle of her best doll or teddy bear, it's fine to explain that 'that's a special one she takes to bed with her so she prefers other people not to use it' and distract them with something large, bright and plastic.

Messy play continues to be popular at this age and as she becomes more dextrous, she'll also become more creative with her messy play, which adds another dimension to her games. She may also enjoy making recipes and baking with you – a more structured form of messy play.

And – good news if you fancy a quiet 10 minutes to yourself, three is about the age when they start enjoying a bit of telly. Go easy though – an episode of Bing or two is fine but stick them in front of it hour after hour and you'll be in danger of getting a babysitting bill from Mr Tumble.

What toys are good at three years old?

The best toys for a 3-year-old include things that she can scramble and bounce on, like climbing frames and trampolines, as well as trikes, balance bikes and anything she can whizz around the garden on. Indoors, jigsaws will still be popular, and she may well be ready for some simple board games such as Snakes and Ladders, as well as things like matching pairs and picture dominoes.

Small-world play like DUPLO or train sets come into their own around this age, and 3-year-olds also love a play kitchen - as well as it's messier, outdoor cousin, the mud kitchen, for playing pretend. If your child has a best doll or teddy bear, a doll's pram can also be a fun addition to their toy collection.

Developmental milestones at three years old

By this age, your child will probably be able to do some of the following:

  • Speak in longer sentences of a few words and be understood

  • Tell people her name and age

  • Play with friends, not just alongside them

  • Hop and balance on one leg

  • Throw, catch a bounced ball and kick

  • Walk backwards

She may also be able to:

  • Write some letters and numbers

  • Recognise some letters and numbers

What else happens when my child is three years old?

This is the year when the government-funded early years education kicks in so your child can start going to a preschool if she doesn't already. Children of three and four receive at least 15 and up to 30 hours a week of free childcare. So if your child has been at home with you until now, this will probably be the year she starts at a playgroup or preschool. There are lots of different settings to choose from so go and look round a few to find the one that will suit your child best.

Should my three-year-old-drop her nap?

Most children of three are slowly dropping their naps, but your child might have dropped hers a year or more ago (the little sweetheart) or may be going strong right up until they start school. Go with the flow if you can, but if it seems like she is sleeping less at night you might want to start 'pushing her through' the afternoon with no nap and just making bedtime a bit earlier. Be prepared for her to fall asleep in her tea for a couple of nights, though.

Mumsnetters say…

"Basically, Reception is a melting pot. Children arrive with all sorts of abilities and varying levels of social skills. Don’t stress about it too much."

"Enjoy teaching her about everyday things. They're amazing little sponges at this age and pick up so much. If you don’t have a garden, try to get out most days to the park – stimulation is key."

"If you have an emotional child, one thing that always worked well for me was joking about. I goofed around an awful lot with my son at this age because it distracted him from his need to be oppositional."