Vigorous physical activity will help your child develop muscle strength and self-confidence. We tell you the developmental norms for a 3-year-old.
mom teaching son to ride a bike
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Among the many skills you should encourage at this age are those pertaining to gross motor development—use of the larger muscles of the body. Parents who were awed by their baby's early efforts to crawl and stand lose interest in physical milestones once walking and running become commonplace.

Often, we're too fascinated by the child's social and intellectual strides to notice physical development, or perhaps too afraid of injury to encourage active play.

This is unfortunate—and it may even be harmful. Vigorous physical activity affects 3-year-olds in many positive, long-term ways: It builds up muscle function and strength, enhances the cardiovascular and respiratory systems, releases tension and stress, and, best of all, boosts self-confidence. If you don't encourage gross motor development now-through positive reinforcement, setting a good example, and providing the right space and equipment for safe play-it can lead to poor physical fitness and coordination later in your child's life.

This is not to say you should set your sights on training a future Olympian. All children really need right now is somebody to show them just how enjoyable, healthful, and painless regular exercise can be. The best way to do this is the lead by example and include your kids as you strive for those recommended 150 minutes of exercise a week. Keep up with this hefty number by using a fitness tracker, like a FitBit Inspire HR, to set fitness goals and count your steps and activity minutes.

But before you get your child involved, it helps to understand the developmental norms for 3- to 4-year-olds. Pushing a child to acquire skills beyond his limits or natural abilities can lead to serious harm—both to the body and to self-esteem.

Developmental Norms

  • walk in a straight line with head up, toes forward, arms swinging at his sides;
  • run without difficulty, turn sharp corners at high speed, and stop quickly; 
  • climb stairs by alternating his feet, step by step, while holding on to a banister or an adult's hand; climb playground ladders and age-appropriate jungle gyms with relative ease;
  • jump off an 8-inch-high step and land on two feet without falling, jump into the air from a standing position, and jump forward 12 inches without tumbling;
  • balance on one foot, with his arms stretched out, for two to four seconds, and walk 10 feet forward on a four-inch-wide balance beam set slightly above the ground;
  • hop forward on one foot for one to three steps;
  • gallop and skip (though not necessarily with grace);
  • do a somersault on a soft surface or floor mat (with adult supervision and instruction);
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  • kick a large ball forward with some force;
  • throw a small ball a distance of about four to six feet without losing his balance;
  • catch a large, well-aimed ball with his arms extended rigidly in front of his body; bounce a ball with two hands once or twice before catching it.

If your child hasn't yet mastered all of these skills, don't panic. Every kid develops at his own pace. The important things to keep in mind are not to expect too much from your child too soon and to provide plenty of opportunities for him to practice.

Look for playgrounds and other places in your neighborhood where your child can enjoy swings, slides, sandboxes, wading pools, playhouses, ride-on toys, tricycles, jungle gyms, balls, and other fun, fitness-oriented play equipment.

Have Fun with Baby's Development: Are Motor Skills Up To Speed?

No two kids develop motor skills at exactly the same pace. There are, however, certain norms that can help you gauge how well your child is progressing.

  • Gross motor skills Hand your child a medium-size ball and, standing five feet away, ask her to throw it overhand to you. Though their aim is not always accurate, most 3-year-olds can do this.
  • Fine motor skills On a blank sheet of paper, draw a stick figure of a person but leave out some features—an arm, a leg, hair, eyes, nose, mouth, or feet. Ask your child to fill in what's missing. Most kids, by 3 1/2, can add four body parts to a drawing of an incomplete person. The limbs may not be straight, nor the facial features perfect, but you should be able to tell that your child is aware of what parts are missing and is attempting to draw them in.