Last updated on Feb 3rd, 2021 at 10:35 am

It’s been just a little over 3 months since your toddler last went to day care. You’ve probably tried your best to keep her entertained and educated at home, but you might be wondering if her development is on track?

While all kids develop at different rates, there are certain milestones your child should be reaching at specific times.

Here’s a useful development checklist from occupational therapist Maxine McClean from TheraPaeds Occupational Therapy for you:

Your toddler’s speech development

A 3-year-old should have a vocabulary of around 900 words. They should be using short sentences and should be able to express themselves (for example, “I am hungry”, “I don’t want to”). They’re also at the stage where they ask many why and /how questions. The “r” sound might still be difficult for them. In terms of comprehension, they should understand some opposites (for example, hot and cold), longer sentences and basic instructions by this age.

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Tips to help your toddler:

  • Include your child in discussions, such as when you go out to the shops.
  • Try ask questions in a way that encourages a longer answer – not just a “yes” or “no”.
  • Talk to your child through daily routines and activities to help build their vocabulary and make them aware of things in their environment. Describe things you are doing and objects around them.
  • Encourage your child to ask for things instead of just pointing at them or using a gesture – even if you know what they’re asking for.
  • Teach rhymes and songs, and tell stories.

If there’s a significant delay in your toddler’s speech and language, it’s best to see a speech therapist, says Maxine. She also recommends a hearing evaluation. “If the ears are blocked or there are hearing problems then speech development would be affected,” she adds.

ALSO SEE: Does your baby have a hearing problem? Look out for these signs  

Your toddler’s learning

  • At 3 years, your toddler has a better awareness of her body and can name/identify parts of her face and body.
  • She starts to learn the functions of the body, for example, I see with my eyes, I listen with my ears.
  • When she draws a person, the body will be basic but it should have around 4 parts, for example, a head, eyes and legs.
  • She starts to identify basic shapes (circle, square, triangle) but may still name them in relation to objects like a ball or block.
  • She should be able to match basic shapes and colours, and can usually name at least one colour.
  • She also starts to learn numbers and can count to 5 and show you her age using her fingers.
  • She starts to learn concepts of position like under, next to, on top. She can do a puzzle of up to 10 pieces and learns to copy basic block patterns.
  • A 3-year-old enjoys stories, knows functions of familiar objects (for example, the car drives) and can concentrate for up to 10 minutes.
  • Her memory is developing and she can remember where she put objects away and recognise familiar people and names.
  • She can remember up to 3 numbers said to her and 2-3 objects shown to her.

Your toddler’s motor skills

Gross motor skills

  • Your 3-year-old should be able to walk in different directions, including forwards, backwards and sideways.
  • Her balance is developing and she should start walking up and down stairs, and jump forward or down a step on both feet.
  • She also learns to stand on tip-toes and starts to walk on tip-toe.
  • She can catch a larger ball but may still catch against her chest.
  • She also starts to run and kick a ball, without losing her balance.

ALSO SEE: Is my child’s walking style normal?

Tips to encourage gross motor skills

  • Get her running and jumping, climbing and crawling, and playing with balls outside.
  • She can practise jumping down small steps, on a trampoline, and over obstacles.
  • Build an obstacle course with household items (chairs, tables, couches) and make a path for your toddler through the obstacle course to go under, around and over objects. This will help to develop balance and muscle strength.
  • Play copying games like Simon Says to encourage different body positions and movements.
  • Yoga poses and animal walks work well for stretching and strengthening the muscles.
  • Change up positions in tasks. Instead of sitting at a table, let your child lie on their tummy and work on the floor, let her stand and work against a wall, or let her lie on her back and work under a table. You can do this for puzzles, games and drawing tasks.
  • Play balloon volleyball to help strengthen her upper body and improve coordination.
  • Change up positions in ball/balloon games: start the game by standing, then try it on your knees, then a half kneeling position, and finally standing on a soft surface (like a mattress or trampoline) or on a line drawn on the ground. This will challenge balance while playing.

Fine motor skills

  • By 3 years of age, your child should be using a preferred hand when doing tasks.
  • Her pencil grasp is developing and she uses an inferior/modified pencil grasp (she starts to hold the pencil with her thumb, index and middle finger but her fingers are still kept fairly straight when writing). She should be able to copy basic lines and a circle, and will start to colour simple pictures although she’ll still colour over the lines.
  • Her scissor grasp is developing and she would be able to cut pieces, but cannot yet cut along a line. She should be threading beads onto a string and can build a block tower, holding the blocks with her thumb and index fingers.

Tips to encourage fine motor skills

  • Playdough/putty is a great tool for strengthening the muscles in the fingers and hand. Encourage your toddler to roll balls with her fingers, make different pictures with the dough, squash the dough with her hand and fingers, or roll it out into a snake.
  • Use tweezers, pegs and tongs to further develop hand and finger strength. Let your child explore with these, using them to pick up and move different objects.
  • Encourage drawing and writing. This can be practised in different ways and with different mediums, for example, drawing upright on a chalkboard or finger painting.
  • Work on tearing strips of paper/foil and rolling them into balls.
  • Practise cutting skills by cutting different items and textures, for example,cutting playdough, corrugated card, kinetic sand, leaves and branches. You can also punch holes into a paper and let your child try cut along the holes. This gives tactile feedback when cutting.
  • Get her to put small items like beads into a container.
  • Get her to practise manipulating tubs and bottles, for example, by opening and closing lids and unscrewing bottle caps.

 ALSO SEE: The benefits of drawing a picture for kids

Your toddler’s social and emotional skills

  • A 3-year-old may prefer to play alone, but will play near others and start to play with others.
  • Your toddler may still struggle to share toys, but is more open to learning about turn taking.
  • She begins to understand what is and is not allowed, and starts to develop sensitivity to how others feel (she may be more aware if another child is hurt).
  • Your 3-year-old is becoming more independent and may want to do more things for herself.
  • She’s also better at separating from you without crying.

Tips to encourage your toddler’s social and emotional skills

  • Introduce sharing, waiting and turn taking in games. Also introduce games that follow rules.
  • Provide opportunities for role play/fantasy play with props and clothing to dress up in.
  • Model positive behaviour.
  • Explore emotions by drawing out happy/sad/angry faces, copying facial expressions for different emotions or acting out different emotions, and talk about what they mean and what we can do when we feel a certain way.
  • Give your child chores and responsibilities at home, such as packing away her toys, getting her own shoes, helping to clean/pack away after meals. Chores will help provide structure and guide your toddler to following rules/routines.

ALSO SEE: Age-appropriate chores for kids

When to seek help?

“Pay attention to what your child should be able to achieve at their age and encourage games and activities that will promote this development, such as outdoor play, social games and fine motor activities,” says Maxine.

She adds that if you find your child has a significant delay in one or more areas, or if you have concerns about her skills or behaviours, it’s best to consult a practitioner/therapist. “Be open with your paediatrician on visits/check-ups and let them know about any concerns you might have.”

She encourages parents to be open to the idea of consulting a speech therapist or occupational therapist. “Younger minds are more adaptable so it’s always better to get help sooner rather than later,” she says.

Watch out for these red flags:

  • Avoids using words to communicate wants and needs
  • Avoids eye contact, is anxious or aggressive around others, doesn’t want to play with others
  • Avoids gross/fine motor play, dislikes new toys and games (plays only with familiar toys that he/she knows how to use), or prefers sedentary play
  • Seems overly clumsy and seems to have ‘floppy’ or weak muscles
  • Avoids heights or being upside down (fearful of movement)
  • Avoids tactile input (dislikes being barefoot, struggles with dressing and grooming tasks, is a picky eater and has a preference for food textures)
  • Is scared by loud or unexpected sounds and covers her ears.

More about the expert:

Maxine McClean completed her Bachelor’s Degree in Occupational Therapy at the University of Pretoria in 2014. She opened her own private practice in 2019 – TheraPaeds Occupational Therapy. She sees a variety of children, from toddlers to teenagers, and works with various conditions including ADHD, autism, Down Syndrome and sensory processing disorders. Learn more about Maxine McClean here.

*Additional resources: Enhancing Your Child’s Development by  Sonja Whitthaus