Healthy living

Child development 2–3 years

Children between 2 and 3 years really want to find out about themselves – what they want and don’t want.

Because they are beginning to talk in sentences, and sometimes say things in a big confident voice, it’s easy to think that your toddler is more grown up than they really are. The most important thing to remember is that your toddler, even at this age, is still a baby. They can wait a little while, but not for long.

Your toddler can hold strong feelings inside them for a little bit, but these feelings can easily burst out in a rush of excitement, fear or frustration. It can be very frightening when they lose control of such big feelings – you need to be there to hold and reassure them that they are loved.

Social and emotional
Developing understanding

The world is a big and complicated place – your toddler is trying to understand the ‘rules’ and how it all makes sense.

  • Because they can only see a little bit of how it works, they fill in the rest with their imagination, so their understanding of the world is a mixture of ‘real’ and imagined.
  • You can help them with simple explanations of things, particularly when they ask questions.
  • Be careful with your adult talk around them – they understand words better than they understand the world. Your toddler can easily misunderstand adult conversations about relationships, themselves, or people they know, which can be very worrying for them. It’s important to introduce the world to them in small bits, in ways that they can deal with.
  • A 2 year old does not know that their mind is separate from those of other people. They think that you know what they are thinking.
  • At 3, they’ll better understand that they’re a separate person.
  • A 2 year old doesn’t yet understand what is real and what is not real, including what they see on TV. 
  • They might blame the path if they fall over, or believe a cup 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. For example, they may think of the sun, moon and wind in the same way that they think about people and pets.
  • Toddlers think in ‘black and white’, with nothing between. Your child might think they are either good or bad, not that they’re good in some ways, and that this changes.
  • They can’t see things from another person’s point of view. This is not selfishness – they still think that everyone thinks and feels the same way that they do.
Physical development

Your child is much more confident now with their physical abilities, but they don’t always know when to stop.

Some toddlers are shy and careful, but many will test the limits. They love to run (often away from you), swing and climb, and ride on toys. Bumps and minor falls are common too. 

Don’t let your toddler run too far or climb too high without bringing them back. Your child can’t understand safety yet, so you need to keep them safe. Provide lots of chances to play on safe equipment in sandpits and parks.

Helping your 2 to 3 year old develop their physical skills can be hard work, but is really important.

  • They’re starting to learn to climb up and down stairs, kick a ball (but not usually in the right direction), and to jump off a step.
  • They’re starting to undress themselves and are even able to put on some clothes.
Speech and language

Your toddler’s language will develop very quickly between 2 and 3.

  • You’ll start to get an idea of what’s going on inside their head. Both of you are beginning to communicate through conversation and this can be very exciting.
  • Their words or sentences might not always make sense to you, but the more they succeed in getting their message across, the more they will want to communicate with you.

Remember to watch your own language, especially negative words like ‘no’ and ‘don’t’, as it will affect how they see themselves and the world.

  • Paint a picture of a world where lots of things are possible – not where things aren’t allowed.
  • Try to suggest alternatives and explain dangers as simply as you can. The way they use positive or negative words will come from what they’ve heard from you.
  • By 2, your toddler will be naming lots of things dog, ball, drink.
  • By 3, they’ll be saying short sentences – ‘look mummy dog’.
  • Around 2, they can follow instructions like ‘bring your shoes here’.
  • By 3, more complex instructions – ‘get your shoes from your bedroom and bring them here’.
  • They’ll still get ‘you’ and ‘me’ mixed up sometimes.

At this age, most toddlers can’t say all their words clearly– some sounds are hard to say.

If you can understand, try repeating what they just said, then answer them. They need to hear their words clearly, but they will get cross if you try to make them say things clearly.

What you can do

Encourage your 2 to 3 year old in their attempts to explore the world, while keeping an eye on safety. 

Remember that they’re only little – offer alternatives, talk about feelings, and give them some individual attention every day.

Be positive

To help them believe that the world is a positive place, help them succeed. Focus on their achievements, however small, rather than their mistakes.

Books and reading

At this age, toddlers love simple picture books with familiar things and simple stories.

Read aloud and talk about the pictures. They’ll probably want the same book over and over. This helps them to learn that some things stay the same.
Talk with your child and ask questions about what they are doing. 

Answer their questions. Show a real interest in what they are doing and saying – this helps them to be confident about talking.

Play

  • Play is important for development as they learn to experiment, create new things, and gain skills such as sharing and waiting.
  • Your toddler will enjoy copying household jobs like using the phone, sweeping, ‘playing house’ and digging in the garden.
  • Provide toys for stacking, things for pulling apart, blocks, simple jigsaws, toy cars, animals and dolls.
  • They’ll begin to enjoy playground equipment like slides, sand pits and paddle pools.
  • Always supervise children around water.
  • Encourage them to dress, feed and wash themselves.
  • A little bit of TV is OK at this age – programs for their own age group. They might even start to sing and dance along, especially if you join in too.
  • Music can help your child with rhythm and sounds.

Don’t expect them to do everything you ask, especially while they’re doing something they enjoys. Warn them a few minutes before they need to stop doing something they like. 

For example, they may cry and shout when they have to leave a playground. This might upset you, but remember that they were having fun there, so don’t stay away from playgrounds. They are fun, and good places to learn skills such as climbing and running. In time, they’ll learn that even though they have to leave, they will come back for another play. 

Sometimes it helps to offer something else interesting, like ‘we’re going home to see daddy’.

Toilet training

It is usually at this age that your child shows you that they’re ready to use the toilet and finish with nappies, but some children will still prefer their nappies.

If you have another baby, your child may even want to go back to using nappies.

  • Let them set their own pace and do whatever they feels 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 afterwards.
  • Children who are fussy about getting things right are sometimes anxious about using the toilet in case it all ‘goes wrong’.
  • If you’re not getting anywhere, stop and wait a while until they are a bit older, then try again.
  • Although you’re probably looking forward to no more nappies, don’t rush – let it happen in its own time.
  • If you feel angry or there is tension between you and your toddler over using the toilet, talk to your child health nurse or doctor.
  • Being tense, anxious or cross makes it harder to let wee or poo go into the potty or toilet.

If you are worried at all about toilet training, please talk to your child health nurse or doctor.

Your child is unique

Every child is different and may develop at different rates. So, if your child does not do some of these things, they may be ‘working’ on a different area of learning and development.

However, children usually follow the same pattern of development, and it’s good to feel that your child is developing normally, in their own unique way.

If you are worried about your child’s development, or if they are very different from other children, talk with your doctor or child health nurse. If there is a problem, it’s better to get help early.

What to watch out for

By 3, children 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
  • have fewer tantrums and be able to accept that they can’t have everything 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 do these things yet, check with your family doctor or child health nurse.

Safety

Safety is a big issue as toddlers are curious and very mobile, but still too young to understand danger.

  • Make sure all dangerous items, including medicines, are locked away up high.
  • Secure furniture, including bookshelves and TVs, to a wall.
  • Check that the hot water is set to 50 degrees or less.
  • Always supervise children around water.

More information

Local community, school or child health nurse

  • See inside your baby's purple All About Me book
  • Look in the service finder for child health centres
  • Visit your nearest child health centre

Local family doctor

Ngala Helpline

  • 8.00am – 8.00pm 7 days a week
  • Phone: (08) 9368 9368
  • Outside metro area – Free call 1800 111 546 (free from land line only)
  • Visit the Ngala website (external site)

Raising Children Network


Last reviewed: 22-05-2019
Acknowledgements

Child and Adolescent Health Service – Community Health (CAHS CH)


This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

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