Understanding the Process of Development: 36 to 48 months

Physical, cognitive, and social and emotional development and language acquisition and use change rapidly during the year between 36 and 48 months. Following guidelines for normal development will help parents know what to expect and when to worry.


At 36 months, children are a whirlwind of activity; movement and motor skills continue to develop and a child who was running and climbing at 36 months moves on to agile movement both forward and backward, throwing a ball overhand, and going up and down stairs without support. The ability to kick a ball continues to develop and evolves into being able to catch a bounced ball and to hop and stand on one foot. Fine motor skills develop, too: deliberate scribbling evolves into being able to draw a person with 2, 3, or 4 body parts and being able to copy some letters.


Thirty-six month-olds can match objects to pictures of them and complete 3 and 4 piece puzzles, which evolves into greater cognitive skills by age 4: beginning to have a sense of time, correctly naming some colors, and following 3-part commands. Ideas are starting to come together for children at this time, they are beginning to solve problems and to understand concepts such as “alike” and “different.” Make believe play continues, and children begin to engage in fantasy play around age 4.

Social and Emotional

Between the ages of 36 and 48 months, children develop more independence and a sense of self. By age 3, normally developing children separate easily from their parents and show affection for playmates. The concept of taking turns and of what is “mine” and “yours” is developing into the ability to cooperate with other children by the end of 48 months. Make believe play becomes fantasy play (children begin to pretend to be mom or dad, for example), and the difference between fantasy and reality may be blurred. The ability to negotiate solutions to problems and to express a wide range of emotions develops during this time.


Just as a child’s sense of self is developing, so is his or her ability to express that selfhood. Children in this stage move from using 4 to 5 word sentences around age 3 to mastering grammar around age 4. Gradually, speech becomes clear enough for a stranger to understand and sentence length grows to 5 to 6 words. By age 4, normally developing children are telling stories of their own.

Children develop rapidly, but no two will develop at the same rate. Use developmental milestones as guidelines, and be sure to check with your pediatrician if you have any questions or concerns about the rate at which your child is developing.

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