Toddler Development

What to look out for in your toddler's development between the ages of 1-3 years

Toddler development can be a bit perplexing. 

On one hand you see before your very eyes that your baby is now a fully fledged little person- learning, exploring and making it hard to believe that just a year or 2 ago they were growing in your belly. 

But on the other hand it can feel a bit overwhelming trying to figure out what you should actually be teaching your toddler. Or what they are supposed to know. 

Toddler development

You hear that toddlers really need to be read to every day.

  • And also need social play
  • And constant love and support 
  • And they should be given independence 
  • And also they should be drawing shapes
  • And your mother-in-law suggests you start teaching ABCs
  • And you really want to make your toddler a pretend play pizza shop 
  • And make those cutsie insta-worthy crafts together
  • And do all those amazing sensory bins that you have been pinning
  • And also you need to shower at some point 

And, let’s be honest, you just want to have a handle on those toddler emotions because as it stands just getting out to the grocery store is a challenge so all of the above “teaching” goals for your toddlers development are on the back-burner. 

What is Child Development ? 

Child development is all the changes that happen in your toddler from birth until adulthood. 

All the growing 



areas of toddler development

Child Development Areas

Generally when we speak about toddler development there are 5 main areas that we look at 

  • Cognitive 
  • Motor
  • Speech and communication 
  • Social emotional 
  • Self Help skills 

Before we dive into each of these areas and what milestones should look out for in your toddlers development, a quick note on underpinning aspects of early childhood development. 

                  You may also like: 10 confusing terms you are hearing about your toddler’s development 

Underpinning Aspects of Early Childhood Development

As we all know, not all toddlers develop in the exact same sequence or meet developmental milestones at exactly the same time. 

However there are a few things that make us look at developmental sequences differently. 

  1. Structural differences: This means that one of the body systems or organs don’t operate according to the norm. For example: a child that is deaf will follow a different pattern of speech and communication development 
  2. Sensory processing: Sensory processing means the way in which the brain interprets sensory information. If a toddler has SPD (Sensory Processing Disorder) or on the other hand is in a seriously sensory-deprived environment (like being in hospital for a large chunk of time) it will impact each area of their early child development.  
  3. Muscle tone is the resting tension of a muscle (not to be confused with muscle strength). If there is a significant problem with muscle tone it will impact the postural control and movement of a baby and toddler and therefore overall development. 

Cognitive Development in Toddlers Aged 1, 2 and 3 Years Old

Cognitive skills are the skills you associate with thinking and intelligence.

  • Memory
  • Following instructions
  • Attention span
  • Basic concepts like shapes, numbers
  • Sequencing
  • Visual-spatial perception

From around 12-18 months you will start to notice that your toddler can follow simple instructions and reciprocal games

You may notice that they have favorites (songs, books, toys, clothes) and that they often through actions or pointing, request some of these favorites. This shows us that they remember

By the time your toddler is in his 3rd year, you can expect him to remember and explain things that happened in preschool as well as his age and where he lives. 

Young toddlers (aged 1 year +) may start engaging in a task (like building blocks) for a couple of minutes and each year that attention span expands. A 3 year old should be able to concentrate on an activity for around 10-15 minutes. 

Now despite what you have heard, when it comes to basic concepts with toddlers, less is more. There have been many studies conducted on the negative effects of pushing academic learning (like ABCs) too young.

What we want to see is a 3 year old knowing his colors, some basic shapes and prepositions (over, under, in etc.). .

And the best way to teach them that? By putting shapes and colors in their environment (hint: these are naturally in most of our homes anyway). Talking about the color of your tot’s shirt and the shape of a ball will direct your toddlers interest towards learning these concepts. No need for sitting them down at a toddler table with worksheets (in fact- please don’t!).

gross motor toddler development

Motor Skills Development in Toddlers Aged 1, 2 and 3 Years Old

Gross Motor development in toddlers

These are your big body movements like: 

  • Walking 
  • Running 
  • Riding a tricycle 
  • Kicking a ball 
  • Jumping 
  • Climbing stairs
  • Balance and coordination 

Between the ages of 1-3 years old you will see some big changes in your toddlers gross motor skills and mobility. From the first steps around 1 year, to running up stairs in their 3rd year, this development gives them a lot of freedom. 

Some things that you want to look out for are: 

  • That your toddler is running by age 2
  • Improved coordination of movement over time (seen in movements like dancing, throwing a ball and riding a tricycle). 
  • Improved balance skills (You will notice that they begin to fall less as their balance develops). 
  • That your toddler initiates and enjoys gross motor, full body play (like running, climbing and jumping)
  • That your tot is learning to walk up and down stairs 
  • That your toddler is getting lots of active play in their day (It is recommended that toddlers between the ages of 1-4 get at least 3 hours of physical play every day 

Why is gross motor development so important for toddlers? 

Children’s motor abilities have been directly linked to mental health development as well as problems in motor coordination being directly linked to distress in young adults 

OT Tip:

Often (Honestly really really often- in my home too) when a toddler seems whiny, irritable and needy it’s because they haven’t used their bodies enough. Think of that 3 hours of physical play like food. We all know what a hangry toddler is like, and it’s the same when their body NEEDS movement. Here are some great indoor ideas for physical play on rainy days. 

You may also like: Running for Toddler Development: How, when and why

fine motor toddler development

Fine Motor Development in Toddlers

Fine motor skills are all the skills and activities done by your toddlers hands (the use of small intrinsic muscle of the hand, fingers and wrists). 

Between the ages of 1-3 you should look out for the following in your toddler development: 

  • That your tot is using their thumb and index finger to lift small things (think: peas, rocks, sticks, crayons). This is known as pincer grasp as is a precursor for good pencil grip. 
  • Better coordination in eating with utensils (in other words: less mess for mama to clean up)
  • That your toddler is using their hands in many different ways throughout the day (think: holding a ball, lifting a sticker, holding a crayon, poking playdoh, cutting with scissors)
  • That your toddler is beginning to use both hands in a coordinated way during play (like holding the paper down while painting ,  or stabilizing the bowl while eating soup).
smiling toddler with clean teeth

Speech and communication Development in Toddlers Aged 1, 2 and 3 Years Old

When we talk about speech and communication skills we are not only looking at the amount of words a child says 

But rather: expressive and receptive communication skills, as well as non verbal communication like gestural language

You can expect your toddler to go from seeming like they understand you or know the name or sounds of certain animals or toys in the first year to knowing how to tell stories at the end of their third year. 

Look out for: 

  • Amount of words spoken (by 2 years old it should be around 60, and at the end of 3 we are looking at least 250 words)
  • Sentences: how many words they string together. By the end of 3 years old it should be around 5-6 word sentences. 
  • Non verbal communication and effort to communicate needs 

Speech and communication are critical skills in opening up a door for socialising, and friendship. 

      You may also like: Developmental Delay? 10 Red flags that you should not ignore in toddlers aged 1-3 years

toddler development social and emotional

Social emotional Development in Toddlers Aged 1, 2 and 3 Years Old

Social and emotional toddler development can be broken up into two components: 

  1. Social skills which are skills like sharing, greeting, social play 
  2. Emotional Development which is the development of expression of emotions, naming of emotions and learning coping strategies 

When it comes to toddler development, social and emotional skills are always a hot topic. 

Did you, like me, have a mental list of all the things “my child will never do”? And then they do them ALL! And everywhere you look says this behaviour is NORMAL

Yip, I hear you!

Social and emotional development is definitely one of the more challenging aspects of toddler development for every parent

So above the tantrums, biting and grabbing toys some signs of good development in your toddler are: 

  1. They have a consistent attachment figure/s
  2. Your tot shows interest in other kids 
  3. Your toddler is able to follow simple rules or sequences of game
  4. That your kid is expressing some range of emotions
  5. That your toddler progresses from solitary to parallel and also imaginative play. 

It’s important to remember that your toddler’s expression of emotions and the way they interact with other kids and adults is also very dependant on their temperament as well as what they see modeled by adults and siblings. 

practical lufe skills for toddler development washing up

Self Help Skills in Toddlers Aged 1, 2 and 3 Years Old

Self help skills also known as skills of daily living or in montessori- practical life skills are all the skills that a child need to cope independently. 

Like your toddler being able to eat by themselves or dress themselves. 

Personally, I think this is one of the most overlooked aspects of toddler development and arguably one of the most important. 

Why are practical life skills so important for toddlers?

  1. Firstly they give your toddler what they are craving: a sense of independence and power. 
  2. While doing these activities your toddler naturally “works” on all other areas of development. Think about getting dressed: balancing on one leg while putting on pants (gross motor), doing up buttons (fine motor), picking out the items of clothing needed (cognitive), and having a sense of self achievement at the end (emotional) as well as asking for help when needed (social). 
  3. Although the “learning” stage does take extra time, the payoff is one less thing for mama to do once your child has mastered this skill. 
  4. Buy in! I see again and again in therapy and with my own toddlers that if they are part of the process, they are much more willing to eat the food or wear the clothes. That buy in really helps lessen some of the daily frustrations. 

Some things you might want to include in your toddlers day  (from age 1 and up): 

  1. Feeding themselves
  2. Basic food preparation (spreading PB on bread, mashing potatoes etc.)
  3. Drinking from a cup 
  4. Pouring from a jug
  5. Dressing and undressing selves (including shoes and socks)
  6. Wiping surfaces
  7. Washing own hands and face
  8. Brushing teeth 
  9. Packing away toys 
  10.  Basic chores (like clothes to the washing or making bed)


Got questions? Leave me a comment below!