three year old
At three, toddlers can not only speak in short sentences but also express a wider range of emotions. Picture used for illustrative purposes only Image Credit: Tatiana Syrikova/

Going to playschool is when most toddlers are first faced with the overwhelming prospect of separation from family. Some will be crying their heart out, pained and frightened at being wrenched away from the loving comfort of home and parents to fend for themselves, while others may be quieter, clutching their favourite toy and making their way on their own to explore this new territory.

Nevertheless, at this age they can not only speak in short sentences but also express a wider range of emotions, show empathy for loved ones and perform simple physical tasks on their own. Dr Afra Jamal Ahli, Specialist in Family Medicine and Fellow in Maternal and Child Health at Dubai Health Authority, tells us more about these milestones that you should keep track of for your pre-schooler.

If they can’t work with simple toys, like simple puzzles or turning and handling stuff, that is a concern.

- Dr Afra Jamal Ahli, Specialist in Family Medicine and Fellow in Maternal and Child Health at Dubai Health Authority

Social and emotional development milestones for a three-year-old

1. Showing concern for crying loved ones

Dr Afra says, “If a friend cries, they show concern – they feel that there is something that they need to do or tell someone about. “

2. Understanding possession

“They better understand the idea of having things that are mine, his or hers”, says Dr Afra.

This is evident in how toddlers become attached to their favourite toys and games, crying when they are taken away.

3. Showing a wide-range of emotions

A painstakingly built Lego tower gets knocked over? Sullen at leaving their grandparents’ place? Whether it’s frustration, joy or sorrow, your toddler will be able to express a much wider range of emotions at this age.

Dr Afra says, “Temper tantrums at this age tends to be at the highest.”

They may also get upset with major changes in their daily routine, as per reports from the US Centers for Disease Control.

4. Taking turns in activities

In interactive play with others, your toddler will be able to understand taking turns in games like playing catch, simple card games and more.

5. Dressing self

At three years old, your child can carry out most simple tasks for dressing up such as putting on their favourite matching comic t-shirts and pants, but may still need help with buttons and zips.

6. Separating from caregivers and family easily

With entering and becoming familiar with playschool or nursery, your child will soon be able to leave family more easily to be on their own.

7. Copying familiar people

Notice your child beginning to scale the toddler climbing frame just as their friends or siblings do? At this age, you will often find them imitating the actions of loved ones.

As a toddler myself, fascinated by how my elder brother would count out sums on his fingers for his mathematics homework, I remember copying those motions to join in on the excitement.

8. Showing affection

At this age, your toddler will be expressing their fondness for their friends by their own choice. For example, they may make drawings to gift or start sharing their belongings.

Language and communication milestones for a three-year-old

1. Understanding 2- to 3-step instructions

“At three years, they should be able to understand 2- to 3-step requests,” says Dr Afra. For instance, you can ask your child to put on their socks and shoes, and then come to the living room.

2. Naming most familiar things and people

From beloved members of the family to objects around the house that they see every day, they should know the names of most of these at this age.

3. Understanding words like ‘in’, ‘on’, ‘under’

Sentences like, “Darling, your chocolate is in the drawer” or “Your teddy bear is under the bed”, will be clearer as your toddler begins to comprehend spatial relationships and prepositions.

4. Saying their own and their friends’ first names, age, sex

Most endearingly, toddlers are expected to introduce themselves briefly at three years old, and even tell you about their new friends from preschool.

5. Saying words like ‘I’, “me’, ‘we’, ‘you’ and using plurals

With developments in speech complexity, your child should be able to use simple pronouns correctly and also refer to plurals – for example, toys and chocolates.

6. Talking clearly enough for a stranger to understand

While parents learn to decipher the emphatic babbles of their children from a few months old, at this age, their speech will be mostly understandable to strangers as well.

7. Carries on a conversation using 2 to 3 sentences

Dr Afra says, “At this age, they are supposed to make conversation using 2 to 3 sentences at a time. If they are not able to talk in sentences, then that is a red flag.”

Cognitive milestones for a three-year-old

1. Working with simple toys

At three, your child should be able to play with toys with levers, moving parts and buttons that for example, move parts up and down or play music.

Dr Afra says, “If they can’t work with simple toys, like simple puzzles or turning and handling stuff, that is a concern.”

2. Playing pretend with toys, animals and people

Playing at being an adorably intent cook hosting a family dinner for you, or trying to fly along as their toy pigeon soars beside them in their hands? This is an important milestone to watch out for as multiple studies have indicated that early pretend play can have many benefits.

These include enhanced capacity for cognitive flexibility and learning social skills such as empathy, communication and problem solving. In fact, a 2009 study by US-based researchers Sandra Russ and Astrida Kaugaras published in the Indonesia-based Early Education and Development journal also showed a positive correlation between pretend play and divergent thinking – thinking that creatively comes up with various original solutions for a problem.

3. Building towers of more than six blocks and arranging simple puzzles

At this age, your child should be able to use building blocks to build towers of more than six blocks, and solve simple puzzles with three or four pieces.

A 2015 study published in the Psychological Science journal, a journal by the international Association of Psychological Science, by US-based researchers Jamie Jirout and Nora Newcombe showed that children who spent more time playing with puzzles and building blocks score higher on tests on spatial ability at their age.

4. Screwing and unscrewing jar lids and turning door handles

Whether it’s opening jars of their favourite cookies or opening doors to use the washroom, your child is expected to do this on their own.

5. Understanding the concept of ‘two’

Ask your child to put two of the same things in a box, for example, cracker biscuits or cookies. If they are able to, they will have hit this important cognitive milestone.

6. Copying circle and lines

At this age, your child will be able to imitate your drawing of vertical or horizontal lines and circles.

7. Turning book pages one at a time

Seeing your children with their noses buried seriously in a book is always a delightful sight. As your little reader grows and explores new stories on their own, they will now be able to turn pages one by one easily.

Physical development milestones for a three-year-old

1. Riding a tricycle

Dr Afra says, “At this age, for movement and physical development – they should use a tricycle.”

Tricycles help with coordination and balance, and are a great way for your little one to get some fresh air and play with friends.

2. Climbing

Though it can sometimes be nerve-wracking for parents, your toddler is now expected to be able to use designated climbing frames at playgrounds and nurseries.

3. Running easily

Your three-year-old should be running easily, playing football or catch with their friends at the park.

4. Walking up and down stairs easily

“If they are not able to use the stairs, there should be a concern,” says Dr Afra.

Signs of autism to watch out for

According to Dr Afra, autism is very clear at the age of three years because of some behaviours that children exhibit.

She says, “They will be lonely, not playing with others, avoiding loud voices and noises. They also tend to play with their own closets, drawers – opening and closing them, for example. They tend to get aggressive and shout if they don’t like something.”

An internationally used autism screening test (The M-CHAT or Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers) is however usually administered earlier at 18 months for babies as per the Dubai Health Authority.

How can a parent support baby development to ensure these milestones are reached?

Dr Afra says, "At three years old, for example, I can give them an activity box – with paper, crayons, colouring books and puzzles, to let them support their hand-grip, colour coordination and cognitive development.”

She recommends that parents play matching games with their children – for example, counting body parts, pointing to them and naming them one by one to show the child.

“It’s also important at this age group to understand feelings - like I show a picture and they tell me what the feeling is,” says Dr Afra

For physical development, she adds that parents should guide their child by holding the child’s hand and teaching them how to go up and down the stairs, and how to use a tricycle well at this age group.

- The writer is an intern with Gulf News.