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Development guide from 18 months to 3 years

How your child will develop

The first 3 years of a child’s life is a period of rapid development. All children develop at their own pace.

The importance of the senses

Children learn through their senses. As well as touch, taste, sight, smell and hearing, the senses include ‘proprioception’ (body awareness) and ‘vestibular’ (balance and movement).

Your child’s development will benefit from lots of opportunity to experience a wide range of sensations.

Social and emotional development

At about 18 months, toddlers become more independent and can get angry, especially when adults stop them from moving somewhere.  They may hit, kick or struggle if an adult tries to control them. They need their parent or carer to tell them what is right and wrong.

By the age of two, children regularly have tantrums (crying, kicking and biting). they also:

  • begin to show feelings of pride, pity and sympathy
  • fear noises, for example thunder, trains, hand dryers or flushing toilets
  • play alone or alongside others, but they will not be able to share.

Separation and attention

Between 2 and 3 years, confidence grows and children can be separated from their parents and carers more easily, but will still need reassurance.  They can find it difficult to wait for adult attention as they live for the moment.


Children begin to put words to their emotions in a very simple way and use language to comment on and explain their feelings.  They can be very affectionate as they start to realise that those around them have feelings too.  Moods can change very rapidly and dramatically. Children often laugh one minute and cry the next, often for no apparent reason.

Activities and play

Between 2 and 3, children mostly engage in their own activities but will do this alongside other children. They may participate in simple group activities such as singing or dancing. As they move towards age 3, they begin to take turns as they start to learn about sharing.  They begin to recognise danger and know who to turn to for help.

By 3 years, children:

  • are still self-centred.  They are magical in thinking, believing that wishes can make things come true
  • often have imaginary friends who they can blame if things go wrong
  • do not get so frustrated and angry when an adult stops them from doing what they want.

Behaviour management

Between 18 months and 2 years, toddlers have a short attention span and move between activities quickly. You can usually manage challenging behaviours by distracting them with another activity.

Between 2 and 3 years of age, children can show extreme behaviour.  They can swing between being very dependent or independent, very aggressive or calm and both helpful and stubborn.

At this age, you can help children put their feelings into words and understand what’ss happening.  Distraction and bargaining still works but reasoning does not work at this age.

Managing your child’s behaviour can be difficult, but evidence shows that harsh parenting and smacking can get in the way of a child’s emotional development.

What to expect

Find out more about the changes you can expect from your child below at each age milestone. Do not worry if your child takes a slightly different course.

Big muscles and movement skills (gross motor skills)


What to expect

By the age of two, most children can:

  • walk alone and are beginning to run
  • pull toys behind while walking
  • carry a large toy or several toys  while walking
  • stand on tiptoe
  • kick a ball
  •  climb onto and down from furniture unassisted
  • walk up and down stairs holding on to support.

How you can help your child develop their big muscles and movement skills

Make sure your child has lots of movement opportunities. Provide large, safe spaces for moving about and exercising arms and legs.

Show your child how to get down from furniture and up and down the stairs. Offer them push-and-pull toys, which will help them to develop their balance.

Large, soft balls can help rolling, throwing and kicking at first.  You can then introduce balls of different sizes.  You can also use balloons and scarves for throwing and catching – they are slower moving they are easier to catch.

What to expect

Children at this age can run, kick, climb and jump.

How you can help your child develop

Continue with activities for the 18 months to 2 years range (see above).

As your child gets older, allow them to get involved in rough-and-tumble play in a safe environment. Make sure they have lots of opportunity for regular outdoor play, such as trips to the local park.



What to expect

By 3 years, most children can:

  • climb well
  • walk up and down stairs with alternating feet (one foot per stair)
  • ride a tricycle
  • bend over easily without falling
  • throw a ball overhand.

How you can help your child develop

Continue with the activities for the 2 to 2.5 years age range.

Introduce a tricycle. Many children have difficulty pedalling at first so you could try a trike without pedals, or take the pedals off. This will help them get their balance and get used to the movement while still being able to have their feet on the ground.

Hand and finger skills (fine motor skills)


What to expect

By 2 years, most children can:

  • scribble on their own
  • turn a container over to pour out its contents
  • build a tower of three or four blocks
  • turn the pages in cardboard book
  • use one hand more often than the other.

How you can help your child develop their hand and finger skills

Encourage your child to do things that require one hand to ‘hold’ and the other to ‘do’, including:

  • threading beads or pasta on a string
  • playing with construction toys and building blocks
  • using tweezers or tongs to pick up small play pieces.

Provide lots of opportunities for making marks using chalks, crayons, felt tips, soap crayons, finger paint and paint brushes.


What to expect

By 2.5 years, most children can:

  • manipulate small objects with their hands more skilfully
  • build a tower of up to 6 blocks
  • scribble on paper
  • eat easily with a spoon
  • help to get themselves dressed.

How you can help your child develop

As your child gets better at manipulating smaller objects, do lots of activities that let them use their fingers, for example:

  • clay or Play-Doh
  • blocks
  • finger-paint
  • pick-up and stacking objects
  • scribbling
  • dressing games.


What to expect

By 3 years, most children can:

  • make up-and-down, side-to-side, and circular lines with a pencil or crayon
  • turn book pages one at a time
  • build a tower of more than six blocks
  • screw and unscrew jar lids, nuts and bolts
  • turn rotating handles for example on a musical toy.

How you can help your child develop

Continue with the activities for the 2 to 2.5 year age range above.

Try to involve different sensations, for example drawing in sand, in gloop (a mixture of corn flour and water), on sand paper, on a tray covered in lentils, and rolling out lines with Play-Doh.

Begin to include activities such as playing with money/coins and snipping with scissors.

Visual perception


What to expect

By 2 years, most children can:

  • find objects even when hidden under two or three covers
  • begin sorting by shape and colour
  • point to an object or picture when it is named for them
  • recognise the names of familiar people, objects, and body parts.

How you can help your child develop their visual perception skills

Play games where you hide toys and your child has to find them, for example under a box or blanket. You could also try hiding a toy under one of two cups. Move the cups around, asking the child to watch carefully and tell you which cup hides the toy.

Encourage sorting activities by size, colour and shape.

Read and look at books together, pointing to and naming familiar objects.

Play with insert puzzles and toys

For example, with holes and shapes to match. Help your child to start with by giving them one shape and covering the other holes (start with the circle).  Help the child insert the shape then do the same with more difficult shapes.

Once the child can do this by themselves, make it harder by leaving more than one hole uncovered and then give them more than one shape at a time.


What to expect

By this age, children can match an object they hold in their hand or see in a room to a picture in a book.

How you can help your child develop

Continue with the activities for the 18 month to 2 year age range above.

You could also hide small toys in a sand box or tray and ask your child to identify the objects by feeling for them.


What to expect

By 3 years, most children can:

  • make mechanical toys work
  • sort objects by shape and colour
  • complete puzzles with three or four pieces
  • name at least one colour correctly.

How you can help your child develop

Continue with activities for the 2 to 2.5 year age range above.

Gradually make insert boards harder by uncovering more holes and shapes at once, and by placing the shapes in a random order, instead of placing them next to the corresponding holes.

Encourage simple two-piece, three-piece or four-piece jigsaws as appropriate.