Developmental milestones for 3-year-olds

By Amanda Morin

At a glance

  • As kids get close to preschool age, they gain new skills in different areas.

  • Kids don’t develop all of the skills at once, or at the same rate.

  • If your child doesn’t meet many of the milestones, it’s a good idea to look into why.

During this year, kids suddenly go from being toddlers to being old enough for preschool. But they don’t gain all the preschool skills at once — or even at the same rate. If you have a 3-year-old, you may wonder what most kids are able to do at this age.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a list of milestones, which it updated with many changes in 2022. The agency moved some of the milestones to different age ranges, which some experts question.

The CDC milestones below can help you know what to expect. If your child isn’t meeting a fair number of them, it can point to possible developmental delays

You can also learn more about: 

Social/emotional milestones

  • Calms down within 10 minutes after you leave (if they have separation anxiety)
  • Notices other children and joins them to play

Language/communication milestones

  • Talks with you in conversation using at least two back-and-forth exchanges
  • Asks “who,” “what,” “where,” or “why” questions, like “Where is Mommy/Daddy?”
  • Says what action is happening in a picture or book when asked, like “running,” “eating,” or “playing”
  • Says first name, when asked by a familiar person
  • Talks well enough for others to understand, most of the time

Cognitive milestones (learning, thinking, problem-solving)

  • Copies a circle when you show them how
  • Avoids touching hot objects, like a stove, when warned

Movement/physical development milestones

  • Strings items together, like large beads or macaroni
  • Puts on some clothes without help, like loose pants or a jacket
  • Uses a fork

All kids develop on their own timetable. But if after turning 3, your child isn’t able to do many of these things, it’s important to look into why. Talk with your child’s health care provider about evaluation options for special education support from your local school.

Key takeaways

  • By the end of this year, kids are usually asking many “why” questions.

  • By the time they’re 4, kids usually speak clearly enough that strangers can understand what they say.

  • If your child doesn’t meet many milestones, it could point to developmental delays.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Amanda Morin is the director of thought leadership at Understood and author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.” She worked as a classroom teacher and early intervention specialist for more than a decade.