Children reach a number of milestones by the time they turn 3.

3-Year-Old Learning Milestones & Classroom Expectations

by Jennifer Brozak

Three is a magical time in a child’s life – and not just because an entire new category of toys opens up to him at the toy store. Rather, his intellectual, social and behavioral development is charging forward at lightning speed. Three year olds are now able to handle and participate in more complex activities; they are starting to understand and respond to reason; and they are starting to forge real friendships. They’ve also graduated from “toddler” to “preschooler,” and with this transition comes a new set of rules, requirements and expectations -- both at home and in school.

Puzzles, Buttons and Moving Parts

Around age 3, children begin to understand that a whole object can be separated into parts – and sometimes can be put back together. They begin to understand how puzzles work and actually begin to enjoy working on them. Batten down the hatches! They're beginning to understand how to screw and unscrew jar lids, unhinge locks and latches, and button and unbutton clothes. They’ll also become more interested in learning about how things work -- so prepare yourself for on onslaught of “whys,” “whats” and “hows” -- as your child enters his third year.

Imaginary Play

If your little man insists on wearing his superhero costume to breakfast, lunch, the grocery store -- and even to bed -- rest assured, this is normal. At this age, children thrive on imaginary play. They love props, costumes and performing. They may even assume the role of a fictional character, and continue to assume that role, long after the playdate has ended. Although it seems silly to us, pretend play actually helps develop your tot’s social skills.


By the age of 3, your child should know around 300 words. This includes his favorite (and your least favorite) words like “Mine!” and “No!” As he inches closer to age 4, his vocabulary development will race along at breakneck speed. He'll begin to understand how to use pronouns properly, form simple sentences and how to improve his pronunciation. Experts estimate that by 3, parents should be able to understand approximately 75 percent of their child's language, which means you’ll still be translating, periodically.

Classroom Expectation: Follow Directions

By age 3 or sooner, a child should be able to follow simple, one-step directions. This type of learned behavior should begin, however, way before your child enters preschool. If you begin practicing this behavior early -- say, at around 18 months -- your will be more likely to be able to follow directions when he enters preschool. The key is to keep the directions simple: You don’t want to say, “OK, now go clean up your room and wash your hands, and then come back down here because we’re going to go get ice cream" because the only two words your child will hear are “ice cream.” And, if he’s like most 3 year olds, he’ll want ice cream. Now. Not after he has cleaned up his toys or washed his hands. And what was supposed to be a fun-filled excursion has just turned onto a battle of wills.

Classroom Expectation: Maintain Focus

Put yourself in the shoes of an amped up, wired 3-year-old who is surrounded by a classroom full of toys and friends. Just like an adult who is stuck listening to a long lecture, If he's bored, overtired, or frustrated, his attention span is going to be about as long as that of a goldfish. Preschool teachers say that your child should be expected to focus on a given activity for about 10 minutes at a time; any longer than that, and it's not unusual for them to get squirrely. If your child can play with one toy or color quietly for about that length of time, he should be able to handle a typical preschool structure. If your child’s attention span seems limited or if your child’s teacher tells you that he's having trouble focusing on activities, consult a medical professional to rule out any underlying causes.

About the Author

As a mother, wife and recovering English teacher, Jennifer Brozak is passionate about all things parenting and education. A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and St. Vincent College, Jennifer writes features for the IN Community magazine network and shares her daily escapades on her blog, One Committed Mama.

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