Child development: 2-3 years


Children between the ages of 2 and 3 really want to find out about themselves, and what they want and don't want.

  • Because they are beginning to talk in sentences, and sometimes say things in a big and definite voice, we can be tricked into thinking that our children are more grown up than they really are.
  • The most important thing to remember about your children, at this age, is that they are still infantile.
  • "The Terrible Two's" is a well-known phrase, which is often used, because of their ability to sometimes do a good imitation of a grown-up bully.
  • They can wait a little while, but not for long.
  • They can hold their strong feelings inside a little bit, but their feelings can easily burst out in a rush of excitement, fear and frustration. Losing control of such big feelings can be very frightening for them, and they need lots of physical contact, and reassurance that they are lovable.

Social and emotional development

Your 2 year old is learning about relationships.

  • They are sometimes able to imagine how other people feel, but most of the time their own feelings of jealousy and loving passion, for the people in their family, are so strong that they don't have room for imagining other people's feelings.
  • They are starting to try and keep their feelings inside, and can feel very bad if they think they have done a wrong thing.

They can often play together for short periods, but easily get upset and cross with each other.

  • A 2 year old is still learning to see themself as a separate person, and therefore often wants to say "No".
  • Your child knows what he/she wants, and may appear quite bossy, and become cross when he/she cannot do something or is stopped from doing something, because he/she hasn't really learned to manage feelings yet. As a result temper tantrums are quite common in this age group.
  • A 2-3 year old, may play with other children for a short while but, he/she cannot share. Your child acts in response to what he/she wants, and may grab and push.
  • A 2-3 year old finds it hard to wait, or make a choice.
  • A 2-3 year old cannot yet understand reason, or control their impulses. Your child may know what you want them to do, but can't yet make themselves do it if he/she wants to do something else.
  • Your child loves to copy what adults do, and the way you look, e.g. making houses out of boxes and rugs, dressing up, digging in the garden.

Developing understanding

The world is a big and complicated place. Between the ages of 2 and 3, children are trying to understand the 'rules', and how it all makes sense.

  • Because they are only in a position to see a little bit of how it works, they fill in the rest with their imagination, so their understanding of the world around them is a mixture of 'real' and imagined.
  • They will be greatly helped by simple explanations of things, often in response to their questions why.
  • Be careful about your adult talk around your toddler. Their understanding of words is beyond their understanding of the world, and overhearing adult conversations about relationships, themselves or people they know, can be easily misunderstood, and can be very worrying for them. It is important to introduce the world to them in bits that they can cope with.
  • A 2 year old does not know that their mind is separate from those of other people. Your child thinks that their parents know what he/she is thinking. At 3 years of age, your child will have more of an understanding of themselves as a separate person.
  • 2 year olds have difficulty with reality, and may blame the path if they fall over, or believe a vase fell because it wanted to.
  • Your child does not understand the difference between things that are alive and can think, and things that are not, e.g. she may think of the sun, and the moon, and the wind, in the same way that she thinks about people and pets.
  • 2 year olds don't yet understand that all of their body belongs to them, so may be frightened of losing part of themselves when they see broken bodies, e.g. what may be seen on TV.
  • A 2 year old has little understanding of what is real, and what is not real, e.g. what may be seen on TV programs.
  • Before 2 or 3, children think in "black and white" e.g. they think of themselves as good or bad, not as a child who is sometimes good in some ways, and sometimes bad in other ways.
  • 3 year olds have difficulty in seeing a situation from others' point of view - this is not selfishness, it is because they still think that everyone thinks, and feels, the same as they do.
  • Your child will enjoy some make believe play, and be able to play out little stories e.g. bath the doll, then feed it and put it to bed.
  • At 3 years your child can usually do some scribbling, lots of lines, dots and circles, but not yet a picture.

Physical skills

Your child is much more confident now with their physical abilities, but doesn't have a very good idea about "when to stop". Some toddlers are shy and careful, but it is common for them at this age to test the limits. They love to run [often in the opposite direction from you!], swing and climb, and ride on toys they can push with their feet (they cannot manage pedals yet), but they can easily get it wrong, and bumps and minor falls are common. Don't let them run too far, or climb too high, without bringing them back. They need to know that you know the limits of what is safe, even if they don't! They cannot keep themselves safe, even if they can say what they can, or cannot do.

You can help them develop their skills, by providing chances for them to play on safe equipment, in sandpits and parks. As they can't be left to play unsupervised, but have lots of energy, it can be very demanding and tiring helping your 2-3yr old develop their physical skills.

Between 2 to 3 years:

  • Children will learn how to climb up stairs, and down them, learn to kick a ball (but not usually in the 'right' direction), start to be able to jump off a step.
  • They can start being able to get undressed, and can often start to be able to get some clothes back on.

Language development

Your toddler's language is probably developing very quickly between the ages 2 and 3.

  • You start to get some idea of what is going on in your child's world (inside their head). You are two separate people who are beginning to communicate through a conversation, and this can be very exciting.
  • Often your child's words or sentences won't make sense to you, but clearly the more he/she is successful in getting their message across, the more he/she will want to communicate with you.

Try to watch your own use of language, particularly the use of negative words like "no" and "don't", as it will have a powerful effect on your toddler's view of themselves and the world. You don't want to paint a picture of a world where nothing is allowed, but rather a positive picture where many things are possible.

So in guiding behaviour, try to suggest alternatives and explain dangers, as simply as you can. You will know the words you use most to them, and whether those are positive or negative words, because those are the words you will hear most often when they are speaking to you!

  • By 2 years old, many children are naming lots of things, such as dog, ball, drink, and by the time they are 3, most are saying short sentences (e.g. 'look mummy dog').
  • Around 2 years of age, many children are able to follow an instruction, such as 'bring your shoes here' and by 3 years of age, most children can follow more complex instructions, such as, 'go and get your shoes from your bedroom and bring them here'.
  • They will still get 'you' and 'me' mixed up some times.
  • Most children of this age, will not be able to say all of their words clearly. Some sounds are much harder to say than others.
  • If you are able to understand your child, repeat what he/she said clearly, then answer him/her. Your child needs to hear their words clearly, but will get cross if you try to make him/her say things clearly.

What you can do

Encourage your 2-3 year old in their attempts to explore the world, while keeping a firm eye on what is safe for him/her. Remember that they are only little, offer them alternatives, talk about feelings, and give them individual attention for some time every day. If we want children to believe that the world is a positive place to live in, and they can live in it successfully, we need to create small opportunities for their success and notice when they achieve - no matter how small these achievements might be.

Most 2- 3 year olds love simple picture books, with familiar things and simple stories. Read aloud to them and talk about the pictures. They usually want the same book over and over. This helps them to learn that some things stay the same. There is more about this in the topic.

  • Talk with your child and ask questions about what he/she is doing. Answer their questions. Show a real interest in what he/she is doing and saying, and in this way you will help him/her to be confident about talking.
  • Play is important for your child's development, as he/she learns to experiment, create new things, and gain skills such as sharing and waiting.
  • Your child will enjoy copying household tasks, e.g. using the telephone, sweeping, "playing house" and digging in the garden.
  • Provide toys for stacking, things for pulling apart, blocks, simple jigsaws, toy cars, etc.
  • Your child will begin to enjoy playground equipment, e.g. slippery dip, sand pit, paddle pools (under supervision).
  • Encourage his skills in dressing, eating and washing themself.
  • Your child may enjoy watching a suitable television program for their own age group and, during this year, may start to sing along with the presenters, especially if you sing along too.
  • Music can help your child with rhythm and sounds.
  • Don't expect your child to do all of the things you ask him/her to do, especially if he/she is doing something enjoyable (to them).
  • Your child will need to have a warning to stop something he/she likes soon, and will usually protest.
  • Many children cry and shout when they have to leave a playground for example. This is normal for a child, and distressing for parents.
  • Try to remember that your child was having fun doing things with you, so don't stay away from playgrounds. They are fun and good places to learn skills, such as climbing and running.
  • Sometimes it helps to entice with something else interesting, e.g. we are going home to see daddy.

What to watch out for

Children by 3 years, can usually:

  • run fast and stop, without falling over
  • name many objects and show they understand the words (either with words or by making sounds or using signs)
  • say many words that you can understand, even if the words are not clear
  • be having less tantrums, and able to accept that they cannot have everything that they want.
  • play imagination games, such as pushing cars around, giving you a 'drink', playing with dolls or getting dressed up to be 'mum or 'dad'.

If your child cannot yet do these things, check with your family doctor or child health nurse.


It is usually in this year, that your child shows you that he/she is ready to use the toilet and finish using nappies. However this is not always the case, and some toddlers will still be clinging to their nappies at the end of this year. They may even want to return to their nappies, if a new baby has come into the family.

Try to walk with them at their own pace, and encourage them to take responsibility for whatever they feel comfortable doing. For instance if they want to use their nappy to do a poo, they might be happy to help you put it in the toilet, which is where it will always go one day. Children who are "fussy" and like to have things perfect, are sometimes anxious about using the toilet in case it all "goes wrong".

If you do not make progress with helping your child to learn about using the potty, or toilet, stop for a while until he/she is a bit older and try again. Your child may just not be mature enough to manage.

If you start to feel angry that your child can't do what you want him/her to do, and there is tension between you and your toddler over using the toilet, get help from a health professional because being tense, anxious or cross, makes it difficult for muscles to relax and bowel movement to happen. Although it is a great relief to be finished with the nappy phase (and for some of us that day can't come soon enough), we can promise you that it will definitely happen in its own time.


Social emotional development.

By 2½ years, children are usually:

  • trying hard to be independent, saying no a lot, or 'me do' (but they are still very dependent on their parents)
  • unable to control their feelings, tantrums are common especially when tired or frustrated
  • unable to share with others
  • starting to play imagination games, such as putting a doll to bed or driving a car around on the floor.

There may be a problem if the child:

  • is having tantrums very often
  • does not play with adults or older children.

By 3 years, children are usually:

  • trying to copy adults, and may be able to be helpful (e.g. help with putting toys away)
  • playing lots of imagination games, and starting to join in with other children's play.

There may be a problem if the child:

  • is not playing imagination games (using toys the way they are 'meant' to be used, e.g. pushing a car along a 'road' rather than mostly focusing on the wheels).
  • is mostly 'in his own world' rather than interacting with others.

Motor Development

By 2½ years, children are usually able to:

  • get on and off furniture
  • run smoothly, and climb on some play equipment
  • kick a large ball gently, but not usually in the 'right' direction
  • climb up stairs
  • throw a ball in approximately the right direction.

There may be problems if a child cannot:

  • run smoothly, especially if the child has a limp.
  • a child is not able to safely climb stairs or get onto low furniture.

By 3 years children are usually able to:

  • push or pull large toys around, to where they want them
  • walk alone up and down stairs
  • use the pedals on a pedal toy
  • stand and walk on tiptoe
  • kick a ball forcefully
  • throw a ball, and catch one with extended arms.

There may be a problem if a child:

  • is not able to run as smoothly as other children of the same age
  • is not climbing skilfully.

Daily activities

By 2½ years, children are usually:

  • able to feed themselves with a spoon and cup
  • able to help to dress and undress
  • very active, resisting attempts to stop them doing things, and have no idea about danger (even if they can say that something is dangerous)
  • many, but not all, develop to the stage that they can manage toilet training

There may be a problem if a child:

  • is far more active, or less active, than other children of the same age.
  • is not yet managing to feed themself most of the time.

By 3 years children are usually:

  • able to undress and put on some easy-to-use clothes
  • able to eat with a spoon or fork
  • most, but not all, have reached the stage where they can manage toilet training. Some children will not manage this until they are nearly 4 years old.

Speech and Language

By 2½ years, children are usually able to:

  • use well over 100 recognisable words, but many of the words will be unclear, as at that age are unable to say all of the sounds in the words
  • put the words into short sentences
  • follow simple instructions
  • talk during play, with more of the words understandable
  • let people know what is wanted, using words.

There may be a problem if the child:

  • is not using words to let others know what is wanted
  • is not talking clearly enough for the primary caregiver to know what he/she wants, some of the time
  • seems to be in a 'world of their own', not responding to the talk of others.

By 3 years children are usually able to:

  • talk clearly enough so strangers are able to understand at least some of what is being said
  • using words such as "me" and "you" correctly
  • ask many questions starting with "what", "where", "why"
  • listen to stories, demanding favourite stories repeatedly
  • make up long stories while playing.

There may be a problem if the child:

  • is not using words to let others know what he/she wants
  • is not talking clearly enough for the primary caregiver to know what he/she wants, most of the time
  • seems to be in a 'world of their own', not responding to the talk of others.

The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care.
If you have a particular problem, consult a doctor.

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