Your child at three years

painting, colouring, three, year, old, girl, toddler, child, colouring, developmentThree is the age at which your child will throw herself into being like you. You will hear her talking to her toys just as you talk to her. Treat it as useful feedback and modify your behaviour accordingly.

Now is the time she may outgrow her afternoon nap (although you might not have outgrown yours).


She now laughs at verbal jokes, not so much the traditional 'you should see my mother-in-law' but when you repeat well-known phrases that sound funny to her.

She will devote her days to trying to be like you, copying how you go to work or look after the house or talk to your friends on the phone.

This is the process of identification by which she will pick up all your bad habits and retain them until she gets to be a mother, so your inadequacies can be revisited on the next generation.

  • Asking questions

She will be incredibly curious (a rude person would say nosy) wanting to know everything: What's that? Will I ever go to the moon? What are clouds made of? The degree of difficulty reached by these questions can make University Challenge seem a doddle.

She will make up stories that aren't exactly true but may have a shred of reality in them - mixed up with a healthy dollop of wishful thinking. You don't have to point out the holes in her stories; she is trying to work out the difference between reality and unreality.

  • Tantrums

On the downside, around a fifth of three-year-olds have one or more tantrum a day still, so it's not all 'Marry me, I love you Daddy'. But she will be affectionate and want to please you.

On the one hand she wants to conform and she's not big on change, but on the other she has a personal identity that is now well established and is beginning to be more adventurous in her interactions with the world.

Cognitive development

  • Imaginary fears

She may have imaginary fears, which can be really upsetting for you, as you can't immediately make them better. You'll be too wise, of course, to laugh at her and tell her she's a silly billy to think there's a monster behind her curtain that will run off with her - being told to stop being silly isn't a psychologically approved way of dealing with anyone's fears.

Instead, let her talk about her fears (which she is now able to do) and you can work out strategies to cope with them. For example, while not saying there is a monster, you can give her a torch to shine round the room and tell her to say out loud "You are not a real monster, go away".

  • Worrying about death

At some stage she will hear about dying and anxiously ask if this condition will apply to her one day? Death is a truly terrifying concept for kids and a "not for a very, very long time etc" can be helpful. Most of us can't cope with talking about death and so it's tricky to address the topic with a chirpy child.

  • Time, age and numbers

She will understand time now, but only in terms of the past. She knows there's a night and day but cannot work out morning from afternoon. About two-thirds of three year olds can count from two to five and will decide correctly four out of six times which is the highest tower when comparing towers of three and five blocks.

She will know how old she is and be able to count three objects correctly and repeat three numbers. This girl is clever.

She also knows what sex she is, but not necessarily that she will always be a girl.


Unfortunately, she now understands 60-80% of adult speech. Do not slag off her Uncle Harry as she may well report back to him with childlike innocence. She can make sentences of three to four words with surprisingly good grammar.

  • Vocabulary

She knows between 800-1,000 words and can tell simple stories. She will recite nursery rhymes and may sing recognisable songs depending on whether tone deafness runs in your family. She will also carry out two-part requests, such as "pick up the paintbrush and do a big picture". Lazy parents can use this to their advantage, with "pass me the Radio Times and the remote control".

  • Sense of self and others

Importantly, she can say "me", "I" and "mine". This leads her on to say "this is mine, get off it", sometimes with a degree of aggression. She also understands the concepts of big, small and lots (of sweets). Although she recognises who is a stranger to her, she may talk to anyone, just because she can.

  • Memory

She can remember things over the past two to three months that have happened to her and can tell you about them. She also notices inaccuracies in stories other people tell and will correct and argue with you. She can also begin to categorise, as in a cat is an animal.


She loves being told stories and will make up words and songs of her own which are sometimes unbearable to listen to as they go on and on and on. She will do jigsaws, play on toy musical instruments and generally spend a little concentrated activity on some things before getting bored.

Where do babies come from?
Now is the time for sons and daughters to develop romantic feelings for the parent of the opposite sex, love that is wistful and means that three (ie you or your partner) is a crowd. They also want to know where babies come from, although they won't hang around for a proper explanation. They don't really believe the mechanics, as it seems far too implausible. This is a subject they will return to later.

She enjoys messy play with sand, dough, water and paints and, joy of joy, will start watching children's television (but do be a responsible parent). She will also love clambering on climbing frames and bouncing on trampolines.

  • Playing and sharing

She will now interact more in play with other children by talking and sharing activities, but it remains a Herculean task for her to share her favourite toy - best not to ask her.

Physical development

She can go up the stairs alternating her feet, stand for a moment on one foot (and who can do it for longer?) and ride a tricycle.

  • Drawing and building

She will be able to copy a cross on a piece of paper and build a tower of nine bricks. If you ask her what she is drawing she may well tell you, although it is doubtful you will recognise her interpretation of a bus.

She may be dry at night but this varies a lot - some children catch on much quicker than others but there are always wet sheets for a while.

  • Dressing and eating

She will do quite a lot of getting dressed herself and will eat pretty confidently with a fork and spoon, unless you're still feeding her yourself to stop mess going on the floor.

She can pour water from a jug without spilling (although, strangely, children seem to lose this ability later). In societies in which chopsticks are used, this is the age when children can use them.

A word about our development calendar

Please remember, not all babies and children develop at the same time and in the same way, so our development calendar may not always match your child. Development milestones vary widely. It's not uncommon to have isolated pockets of late development, such as late walkers and talkers, and some babies are slower to develop because they were born prematurely or because they're twins (or triplets). But a minority of babies and children do have delays in development that may need specialist help. If you are at all concerned, go and see your GP. No health professional should ever trivialise a worry you have about your child. If your child has special needs, you can get advice from other parents in our special needs Talk forum. We've also got pages with advice about diagnosis, support and benefits, plus our Special needs webguide.

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Last updated: almost 2 years ago