What are 3 year olds called?

Three-year-olds are typically referred to as toddlers or preschoolers. The terms “toddler” and “preschooler” are often used interchangeably for children ages 3-5 years old.


The term “toddler” refers to a young child who is just learning to walk. The word comes from “toddle”, which means to walk unsteadily. Toddlers are in the developmental stage between infancy and preschool. They are learning independence and autonomy but still require a lot of support and supervision from caregivers.

Some key characteristics of the toddler years:

  • Age range: 1-3 years old
  • Developing mobility – learning to walk steadily and even run.
  • Beginning toilet training.
  • Learning to feed themselves.
  • Developing language skills – from babbling to forming short sentences.
  • Displaying strong emotions and difficulties with self-regulation.
  • Playing alongside other children with minimal interaction.
  • Testing limits and boundaries.
  • Learning through exploration of their environment.

The toddler years are full of huge developmental milestones and lots of fun as little ones gain independence. But it can also be challenging for parents as toddlers test limits and have frequent emotional outbursts. Extra patience and supervision are required during this active stage.

Common Toddler Behaviors

Here are some common behaviors that are typical for the toddler developmental stage:

  • Unsteady walking – Toddlers are still getting the hang of walking and balancing. They walk with a “toddling” gait and often lose balance.
  • Frequent falls – Falls and tumbles are part of the learning process as they improve coordination.
  • Exploring surroundings – Toddlers learn by touching, tasting, and examining objects in their environment.
  • Constant motion – Toddlers seem to be in constant motion, running, climbing, and moving from one thing to the next.
  • Short attention span – They are easily distracted and have difficulty focusing for long.
  • Mimicking adults – Toddlers learn by copying the words and actions of parents and caregivers.
  • Learning to use utensils – They are developing the motor skills to use a spoon, fork, and open containers.
  • Toilet training – Most toddlers will show signs of readiness for toilet training around ages 2-3.
  • Tantrums – Emotional outbursts are common as toddlers experience big feelings they cannot regulate.
  • Testing limits – Toddlers are curious about boundaries and will push to see how parents respond.

These behaviors are all a natural part of development. With patient teaching and guidance from caring adults, toddlers build new skills and learn to navigate the world.

Toddler Developmental Milestones

While each child develops at their own pace, there are developmental milestones that most toddlers reach between 1-3 years old. These include milestones in the key domains of physical development, cognition, and social-emotional growth.

Here are some typical developmental milestones for toddlers:

Age Physical Milestones Cognitive Milestones Social-Emotional Milestones
12 months
  • Walking independently
  • Climbing stairs
  • Running
  • Exploring objects
  • Looking for hidden objects
  • Imitating actions
  • Playing peek-a-boo
  • Playing with toys
  • Separation anxiety
18 months
  • Kicking a ball
  • Turning pages
  • Using utensils
  • Identifying body parts
  • Following 1-step directions
  • Sorting by shape/color
  • Engaging in pretend play
  • Hugging friends
  • Greater separation anxiety
24 months
  • Jumping
  • Throwing a ball
  • Climbing playground equipment
  • Identifying pictures by name
  • Matching like objects
  • Creating mental images
  • Taking turns
  • Cooperating with play
  • Expressing emotions
36 months
  • Pedaling tricycle
  • Balancing on 1 foot
  • Copying shapes/letters
  • Playing make-believe
  • Understanding concepts (big vs small)
  • Speaking in sentences
  • Initiating play with others
  • Taking turns in games
  • Dressing self

It’s important to note that these milestones are general guidelines and each child masters skills at their own pace. Monitoring milestones helps identify any potential delays that may require early intervention.


The term “preschooler” refers to a young child between 3-5 years old who has not yet started formal schooling. Preschoolers have moved past the baby and toddler stage but are still too young for kindergarten. Some distinguishing characteristics of the preschool stage:

  • Age range: 3-5 years old
  • Growth has slowed from infant and toddler years.
  • Developing greater independence in self-care like dressing and feeding.
  • Learning through imagination and make-believe.
  • Interacting more with other children.
  • Refining fine motor skills.
  • Showing more interest in pre-academic skills like letters, numbers, colors.

Preschool is an important transitional stage that fosters development before formal education begins. Children attend nursery school or preschool programs that nurture early learning skills through play. Socialization with peers becomes an important part of learning.

Common Preschooler Behaviors

Here are some common behaviors typical of children in the preschool developmental period:

  • Imaginative play – Preschoolers engage in elaborate pretend play and make-believe scenarios.
  • Greater independence – They can complete self-care tasks and follow routines with less help.
  • Insatiable curiosity – Preschoolers ask endless questions to figure out how the world works.
  • Short attention span – They still have trouble focusing for long periods and are easily distracted.
  • Peer interaction – Learning how to share, take turns, cooperate and play in groups.
  • Seeking approval – Looking to adults for praise, reassurance and encouragement.
  • Testing limits – Continuing to experiment with boundaries as they build autonomy.
  • Fears – Developing fears of things like the dark, monsters, separation.
  • Excitement – Preschoolers approach new experiences with enthusiasm and curiosity.
  • Meltdowns – Emotional control is still limited resulting in emotional outbursts.

Play is vitally important at this age as preschoolers use it to make sense of the world and practice skills. They also learn by observing and imitating adult behavior through dramatic play.

Preschool Developmental Milestones

Preschoolers attain key milestones that build on the skills learned in toddlerhood and prepare them for school. Milestones typically reached between 3-5 years include:

Age Physical Milestones Cognitive Milestones Social-Emotional Milestones
3 years
  • Hops on 1 foot
  • Pedals tricycle
  • Catches bouncing ball
  • Recognizes colors
  • Completes puzzles
  • Understands concept of “two”
  • Dresses with little help
  • Plays make-believe
  • Separates easily from parents
4 years
  • Catches ball from 5 feet
  • Jumps forward several times
  • Balances on 1 foot
  • Names colors and counts to 10
  • Recognizes triangles/rectangles
  • Recalls parts of a story
  • Engages in cooperative play
  • More independent
  • Dresses without assistance
5 years
  • Stands on 1 foot for 10+ seconds
  • Uses scissors
  • Draws shapes
  • Speaks clearly
  • Identifies letters and numbers
  • Retells stories
  • Distinguishes real vs pretend
  • Cooperates/shares with playmates
  • Likes to please friends

It’s normal for preschoolers to develop some skills faster than others. Maintaining realistic expectations and providing a nurturing learning environment sets them up for success.

Transition to School

The preschool years culminate with the major transition to formal schooling which marks the end of early childhood. Starting kindergarten is a big milestone that comes with new challenges and opportunities.

Here are some ways that parents can support preschoolers through this transition:

  • Read books and talk positively about starting school.
  • Normalize new routines like riding the school bus.
  • Arrange for playdates with classmates to build familiarity.
  • Do practice runs of the morning school routine.
  • Emphasize the fun activities and opportunities starting school brings.
  • Reassure children that parents will be there at the end of the school day.
  • Meet the new teacher and tour the school ahead of time.
  • Make sure required school supplies and clothes are purchased.
  • Set reasonable expectations for behavior and performance.
  • Give lots of encouragement and celebrate this major milestone!

Each child will adjust to the transition in their own way. Remaining positive while allowing time to adapt can make the change smoother.


The developmental period spanning ages 3-5 years is an exciting one full of growth. Toddlers build independence in mobility, language and self-care. Preschoolers expand socialization and early academic skills through imaginative play. With the support of caring adults, the three-year-old child progresses by leaps and bounds, reaching critical milestones that pave the way for the school years ahead.

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