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Child Development Characteristics of 2- and 3-Year-Olds

By Matthew Giobbi, Ph.D. ; Updated June 13, 2017

The second and third years of life are marked by rapid changes in physical, cognitive, personality and social characteristics. Developmental psychologists do not view these changes as separate and discrete but as interdependent influences on the child's development as a whole. Most models of child development understand the cognitive, personality and social changes as emerging from, and later influencing, the physical changes of maturation. For example, a child's newly found mobility might result in increased curiosity, which motivates further strength and dexterity in her physical development.

Growing in Leaps and Bounds

A child's physical maturation in the second year results in the ability to run, kick a ball, walk on tip-toes and jump. Fine motor skills, such as turning book pages, holding a crayon and drawing circles, are also present. By the end of the third year, most children can ride a tricycle, push and pull toys, balance on one foot and throw a ball. Fine motor skill milestones include placing pegs into holes, making clay figures and drawing various shapes with a crayon.

Cognitive Development

Child psychologist Jean Piaget described toddlers in the second and third year of life as having preoperational cognitive abilities. In this stage of development, a child begins to use linguistic representation for abstract images, such as the words "Mommy" and "Daddy" for the primary caregivers. Symbolic representation is also seen in pretend play, as when the child's dolls represent certain family members. Children of this age are unable to see the world from another's point of view, a phenomenon that Piaget called "egocentrism".

Personality Comes Through

During the second and third year of childhood, a toddler manifests a sense of individual self, purpose and volition. Child psychologist Erik Erikson described the personality changes accompanying the physical and cognitive transitions that the child is experiencing. As her legs become strong enough to support and mobilize the child, she develops a new sense of independence and initiative. With the cognitive development of representational language, the child begins to develop a sense of self and other, represented in words such as "me," "mine" and "no".

Early Social Exploration

Dr. T. Berry Brazelton described the social life of the toddler as one of exploration and social manipulation. In this period, a child largely interacts with adults, whom he depends on to fulfill certain needs. As the child's autonomy increases, his dependency on adults decreases. However, the caregiver remains the authority who governs the child's developing independence. At this time, the child masters behavioral and emotional techniques that successfully fulfill his desires, while learning to deal with the frustration of unfulfilled desire.

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