dinosaur with a snack
what to look out for and encourage?

As parents, we are often so focused on the developmental stages in the first year or so of our child’s life, that we often forget that even at 3 years old, they are still developing rapidly and working on achieving milestones. In fact, this is such a critical age for cognitive, social and physical growth that it will affect and shape your child’s personality for the rest of their lives!

So, what developmental stages can you look out for at 3 years old and beyond, and how can you encourage them?

It will be of no great surprise to you that your 3+ year old is pursuing more and more independence. In fact, this can often lead to some of our biggest struggles as parents, as we seek to increase our children’s freedom while keeping them safe.

Allowing your child the independence they crave, while maintaining boundaries is something that is easier than you may think. As our children grow, they naturally seek decision-making opportunities. These allow them to feel grown-up and in control of their own lives. You can give your child these opportunities in simple ways that will satisfy their urge to choose, while making sure behaviour boundaries are still in place. Why not try:

  • Letting your child choose their outfit for the day.
  • Allowing your child to set the table at mealtimes and choose the cups, plates and cutlery they want to use.
  • Letting your child choose where you go on your outing.
  • Giving the opportunity to choose what you eat for lunch.

The trick with all of these is to limit the options and give an ‘either/or’ choice. For example: “Would you like to go to the park or to the swimming pool?” or “Which top would you like to wear? The blue or the red?” This means that you’re ultimately still in control of the outcome and your child feels independent without becoming overwhelmed by options.

physical development

At the age of 3, your child’s gross and fine motor skills – their control of both big and small bodily movements – will be rapidly developing. You may notice that your child can now jump with two feet, catch a large ball and move confidently in a variety of different ways such as running and skipping.

While gross motor (big movements) like these are often easier to spot, your child’s fine motor skills will be developing just as quickly. These might involve: holding a paintbrush or pencil with their fingers (rather than their whole hand), mastering zips or poppers when getting dressed or completing fiddly tasks using their fingers like peeling an orange or a banana.

Gross and fine motor development is so important as it helps children to become more coordinated and balanced, as well as setting the stage for better writing and letter formation as they get a little older. Here are some fun fine motor games you can implement at home:

Tweezer pom pom pick-up

Use a pair of children’s tweezers or even a tea bag strainer and task your child with picking up the pom poms and moving them from one container to another. You can also use this game to practise counting and colour recognition too!

Party tea

This is a firm favourite in our house! A no-cutlery-needed meal that will encourage your child to use their finger skills to pick up, open and eat different foods. You could include: fruit that needs peeling, cereal or blueberries that are tricky to pick up, a packet of popped hoops or veggie buttons for them to open themselves, babybel cheese with the rind left on.

Scissor snakes

Draw a set of 3 lines on a piece of paper from one end to the other. Make one line straight, one squiggly and one zig zagged. Challenge your child to use a pair of scissors to cut from one end of the paper to the other, following the line as they go.

Playdough play

While playing with the playdough, ask your child if they can squeeze, press, roll, pinch and twist the playdough with their hands and fingers. These activities will build your child’s hand and finger strength and are the perfect precursor to writing practice!

It is around this age that you may notice that your child begins to take a greater interest in playing with other children and talking and creating games together, rather than simply playing alongside them. This increased social interaction will also mean that your child will start to navigate their emotions and experiment with how their actions affect other children.

You might notice that your child:

  • Starts to form more definite friendships and finds a ‘best friend’.
  • Shows caring and empathy towards other children by checking they are ok and giving them a hug without prompting.
  • Begins to argue with other children or ‘tell tales’ as they learn about social rules, boundaries and acceptable behaviour.
  • Becomes upset when they see other children are upset, and tries to comfort them.

One of the very best things you can do to encourage these skills and to help your child learn about social interaction is through playing together at home. Role-playing in particular is a wonderful tool for developing personal and social skills, as well as encouraging creativity, language development and just about every other area of learning you can think of!

Role-playing can take many different forms depending on your child’s interests. They may enjoy playing ‘shops’ or cooking in their play kitchen. It might be that they love to play with their cars and ‘take them to the car wash’. Whatever your child’s special interest is, you can aid their development by playing together with them and modelling the language and behaviour that they need to learn. You are your child’s best teacher after all!

social play in a berry silhouette
expressing emotions

Everyone talks about the stage between 2 and 3 years old as being challenging, but it is often that when children reach the age of 3 that their new-found independence and desire to test the boundaries can challenge even the most patient and laid-back parents!

This can be a hard phase but remember that tantrums, saying ‘no’ and challenging behaviour are your child’s way of finding the boundaries and they are looking to you to establish the rules in a loving and gentle way.

If you find that your child is a little angel for everyone apart from you, remember that this is completely normal (and actually a huge compliment). Children tend to bond most strongly with one primary caregiver – normally mum or dad, and it is with that person that they feel safe to be their authentic selves. You are their safe place, meaning they save all their feelings – good and bad –  for you. Try to approach tantrums with love and understanding and remember that a calm voice, patience and a big hug is often enough to diffuse even the biggest of meltdowns.

Remember that each child is unique and will reach these developmental stages at different times. If you are concerned about any aspect of your child’s development, talk to the health visitor, your GP or their key person at nursery or preschool, and they will be able to help and advise you.