Important Milestones: By the End of 3 Years (36 Months)

As your child turns three years old, he or she may be climbing on objects or taking turns when playing with other children. You may also see your child playing make-believe. Use the “Learn the Signs. Act Early” fact sheet to find out what usually happens when a child is three years old. You can also use the information in the fact sheet to talk with your child's doctor about the growth and development milestones.

The following fact sheet is provided courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control’s "Learn the Signs. Act Early." Campaign.

Hand and Finger Skills
Developmental Health Watch

three yearsChildren develop at their own pace, so it's impossible to tell exactly when yours will learn a given skill. The developmental milestones below will give you a general idea of the changes you can expect as your child gets older, but don't be alarmed if your child takes a slightly different course.


  • Imitates adults and playmates
  • Spontaneously shows affection for familiar playmates
  • Can take turns in games
  • Understands concept of "mine" and "his/hers"


  • Expresses affection openly
  • Expresses a wide range of emotions
  • By 3, separates easily from parents
  • Objects to major changes in routine


  • Makes mechanical toys work
  • Matches an object in her hand or room to a picture in a book
  • Plays make-believe with dolls, animals, and people
  • Sorts objects by shape and color
  • Completes puzzles with three or four pieces
  • Understands concept of "two"


  • Follows a two- or three-part command
  • Recognizes and identifies almost all common objects and pictures
  • Understands most sentences
  • Understands placement in space ("on," "in," "under")
  • Uses 4- to 5-word sentences
  • Can say name, age, and sex
  • Uses pronouns (I, you, me, we, they) and some plurals (cars, dogs, cats)
  • Strangers can understand most of her words


  • Climbs well
  • Walks up and down stairs, alternating feet (one foot per stair step)
  • Kicks ball
  • Runs easily
  • Pedals tricycle
  • Bends over easily without falling

Hand and Finger Skills

  • Makes up-and-down, side-to-side, and circular lines with pencil or crayon
  • Turns book pages one at a time
  • Builds a tower of more than six blocks
  • Holds a pencil in writing position
  • Screws and unscrews jar lids, nuts, and bolts
  • Turns rotating handles

Developmental Health Watch
Alert your child's doctor or nurse if your child displays any of the following signs of possible developmental delay for this age range.

  • Frequent falling and difficulty with stairs
  • Persistent drooling or very unclear speech
  • Cannot build a tower of more than four blocks
  • Difficulty manipulating small objects
  • Cannot copy a circle by age 3
  • Cannot communicate in short phrases
  • No involvement in "pretend" play
  • Does not understand simple instructions
  • Little interest in other children
  • Extreme difficulty separating from mother or primary caregiver
  • Poor eye contact
  • Limited interest in toys
  • Experiences a dramatic loss of skills he or she once had

From CARING FOR YOUR BABY AND YOUNG CHILD: BIRTH TO AGE 5 by Steven Shelov, Robert E. Hannermann, © 1991, 1993, 1998, 2004 by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Used by permission of Bantam Books, a division of Random House, Inc.

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Last Reviewed: December 2010

Last Updated: September 5, 2014