Healthy living

Child development 2–3 years

Toddlers between 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 toddlers are more grown up than they really are.
  • The most important thing to remember about your child at this age is that they are still babies.
  • ‘The Terrible Two’s’ is a well-known phrase that 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.

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn – please change to suit your child's sex.

Social and emotional development

Your 2 year old is learning about relationships.

  • He is sometimes able to imagine how other people feel, but most of the time his own feelings of jealousy and loving passion for the people in his family are so strong that he doesn’t have room for imagining other people’s feelings.
  • He is starting to try and keep his feelings inside and can feel very bad if he thinks he has done something wrong.
  • 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 himself as a separate person and therefore often wants to say ‘No’.
  • He knows what he wants and may appear quite bossy and become cross when he cannot do something or is stopped from doing something, because he hasn’t really learned to manage feelings yet. As a result, temper tantrums are quite common in this age group.
  • A 2 to 3 year old may play with other children for a short while but he cannot share. He acts in response to what he wants and may grab and push.
  • A 2 to 3 year old finds it hard to wait or make a choice.
  • He cannot yet understand reason or control his impulses. He may know what you want him to do but he can’t yet make himself do it if he wants to do something else.
  • Your child loves to copy what adults do and the way you look, such as making houses out of boxes and rugs, dressing up, digging in the garden.

Developing understanding

The world is a big and complicated place, and between 2 and 3 years children are trying to understand the ‘rules’ and how it all makes sense.

  • Because your child is only in a position to see a little bit of how the world works she fills in the rest with her imagination, so her understanding of the world around them is a mixture of ‘real’ and imagined.
  • She will be greatly helped by simple explanations of things, often in response to her questions ‘why?’.

Be careful about your adult talk around your toddler.

Her understanding of words is beyond her 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 her in bits that she can cope with.

  • A 2 year old does not know that her mind is separate from those of other people. She thinks that her parents know what she is thinking. At 3 she will have more of an understanding of herself as a separate person.
  • Your 2 year old has difficulty with reality and may blame the path if she falls over, or believe a vase fell because it wanted to.
  • She does not understand the difference between things that are alive and can think, and things that are not. For example, she may think of the sun and the moon and the wind in the same way that she thinks about people and pets.
  • Your child doesn’t yet understand that all of their body belongs to her, so may be frightened of losing part of herself when they see broken bodies, such as on TV.
  • A 2 year old has little understanding of what is real and what is not real, such as on television.
  • Before 2 or 3, your child thinks in ‘black and white’. For example, she thinks of herself as good or bad, not as a child who is sometimes good in some ways and sometimes bad in others.
  • Your 3 year old has difficulty in seeing a situation from others’ point of view – this is not selfishness, it is because she still thinks that everyone thinks and feels the same as she does.
  • She will enjoy some make believe play and be able to play out little stories such as bath the doll, then feed it and put it to bed.
  • Three year olds 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 his physical abilities but he 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.

He loves to run (often in the opposite direction from you), swing and climb and ride on toys he can push with their feet (he cannot manage pedals yet), but he can easily get it wrong and bumps and minor falls are common.

Don’t let him run too far or climb too high without bringing him back. Three year olds are unable to understand safety concepts so it is important that you provide safe limits for them.

You can help him develop his skills by providing chances for him to play on safe equipment, in sandpits and parks. As he can’t be left to play unsupervised, but has lots of energy, it may be very demanding and tiring helping your 2 to 3 year old develop his physical skills.

Between 2 and 3

  • Your child 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.
  • He 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 develops very quickly between 2 and 3.

  • You start to get some idea of what is going on in your child’s world inside her head. You are 2 separate people who are beginning to communicate through a conversation and this can be very exciting.
  • Often her words or sentences don’t make sense to you, but clearly the more she is successful in getting her message across, the more 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 herself 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. She will develop her use of positive or negative words from what she hears from you.

By 2 many children are naming lots of things such as dog, ball, drink, and by the end of this year most are saying short sentences (such as ‘look mummy dog’).

  • Around 2 many children are able to follow an instruction such as ‘bring your shoes here’ and by 3 most children can follow more complex instructions such as ‘go and get your shoes from your bedroom and bring them here’.
  • She will still get ‘you’ and ‘me’ mixed up sometimes.
  • 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 her, repeat what she said clearly, then answer her. She needs to hear her words clearly, but she will get cross if you try to make her say things clearly.

What you can do

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

Your 2 to 3 year old loves simple picture books with familiar things and simple stories. Read aloud to him and talk about the pictures. He usually want the same book over and over. This helps him to learn that some things stay the same.

  • Talk with your child and ask questions about what he is doing. Answer his questions. Show a real interest in what he is doing and saying and in this way you will help him to be confident about talking.
  • Play is important for your child’s development as he learns to experiment, create new things and gain skills such as sharing and waiting.
  • Your child will enjoy copying household tasks, such as using the telephone, sweeping, ‘playing house’ and digging in the garden.
  • Provide toys for stacking, things for pulling apart, blocks, simple jigsaws, toy cars, animals, dolls etc.
  • He will begin to enjoy playground equipment, such as the slippery dip, sand pit, paddle pools (under supervision).
  • Encourage his skills in dressing, eating and washing himself.
  • Your child may enjoy watching a suitable television program for his own age group and during this year may start to sing along with the presenters, especially if you sing along too.
  • Music can help him with rhythm and sounds.
  • Don’t expect him to do all of the things you ask him to do, especially if he is doing something he enjoys.
  • He will need to have a warning that he will need to stop something he likes soon, but he 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 he 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, such as we are going home to see daddy.

What to watch out for

Children by 3 usually can:

  • 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 be 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 3 year old child cannot do these things, check with your family doctor or child health nurse.


It is usually in this year that your child shows you that 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 or they may want to return to their nappies if a new baby has come into the family.

Try to go with her at her own pace and encourage her to take responsibility for whatever she feels comfortable doing. For instance, if she wants to use her nappy to do a poo, she 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 she is a bit older and try again. She may just not be old enough to manage.

If you start to feel angry that she can’t do what you want her to do and there is tension between you and your toddler over using the toilet, ask for support from a health professional because being tense, anxious or cross makes it harder to let wee or poo go into the potty or toilet. Although it is a great relief to be finished with nappies, and for some of us that day can’t come soon enough, it will definitely happen in its own time.


Social and emotional development

By 2 and a half, 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.

Talk with your doctor or child health nurse if your child:

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

By 3, children are usually:

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

Talk with your doctor or child health nurse if your child:

  • is not playing imagination games (using toys the way they are ‘meant’ to be used, such as 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 2 and a half children are usually able to:

  • climb 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.

Talk with your doctor or child health nurse if your child:

  • cannot run smoothly, especially if he has a limp
  • cannot safely climb stairs or onto low furniture.

By 3 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 on extended arms.

Talk with your doctor or child health nurse if your child:

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

Daily activities

By 2 and a half, 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.
  • Talk with your doctor or child health nurse if your child:
  • is far more active or less active than other children of the same age
  • is not yet managing to feed herself most of the time.

By 3, children are usually:

  • able to undress and put on some easy-to-use clothes
  • able to eat with a spoon and 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.

Speech and language

By 2 and a half, children are usually able to:

  • use well over 100 recognisable words, but many of the words will be unclear as they cannot 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 they want using words.

Talk with your doctor or child health nurse if your child:

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

By 3, children are usually able to:

  • talk clearly enough that strangers are able to understand at least some of what they are saying
  • using words such as ‘me’ and ‘you’ correctly
  • ask many questions starting with ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘why’
  • listen to stories, demanding favourite stories repeatedly
  • making up long stories while playing.

Talk with your doctor or child health nurse if your child:

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

Children are different and may develop at different rates.

If your child does not do all the things in this topic, it may be because your child is working on some different area of his learning and development at present.

Children usually follow the same pattern of development and it is good to have reassurance that your child is developing normally in their own unique way.

If your child is very different from other children, you are worried about your child's development, or if your child’s development seems to go backwards, you should talk with a health professional about your concerns. If there is a problem, getting help and ideas early will help. Remember that what matters is to support your child in moving forward from where they are now.

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

Kidsafe WA

  • 8.30am – 5.00pm (Monday to Friday)
  • Phone: (08) 9340 8509
  • Outside metro area – Free call 1800 802 244 (free from land line only)
  • Visit the Kidsafe WA website (external site)

Red Nose

  • 9.00am – 5.00pm (Monday to Friday)
  • Phone: (08) 9474 3544
  • Outside metro area – Free call 1800 199 466 (free from land line only)
  • Visit the Red Nose (external site)


© Women’s and Children’s Health Network, reproduced with permission. The South Australian Government does not accept responsibility for the accuracy of this reproduction.

Child and Adolescent Community Health

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