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Preschooler Development: 3-4 years


preschool girl playing in garden with older woman


Preschoolers come in all shapes and sizes, but preschooler development at 3-4 years typically has a few things in common. Here’s what your preschooler might be doing.

Preschooler development at 3-4 years: what’s happening

This is an important period in emotional development for your preschooler.

During this year your child really starts to understand that her body, mind and feelings are her own. She’s much better at recognizing her own feelings – such as happiness, sadness, fear or anger.

Your child also shows a wide range of feelings, including fear of imaginary things, concern about how others act and affection for familiar people. As his self-esteem develops, he’ll learn to reassure himself that things are OK and he’ll get better at handling his emotions. Your child will start to form real friendships now and develop more social skills.

Playing and learning
Play is important because it’s still how your child learns and explores feelings. She’s becoming more interested in playing with other children and might start to play more cooperatively in small groups. She understands the concept of “mine” and “his/hers” so sharing starts to get easier.

Preschool friends become more important, and it’s common for preschoolers to have imaginary friends too.

Your child is interested in new experiences and is becoming more creative during play - for example, he might play pretend games with imaginary friends or toys, such as having a tea party with his toys. At this age, he can probably tell the difference between real and fantasy.

Did you know?
By four, your child might enjoy tricking others and describing what happened - for example, “Mom thought I was asleep!” At the same time, she’ll also worry about being tricked by others.

Your preschooler might be very curious about bodies - his own and other people’s. He’ll try different roles and behaviour, and might play “doctor” or “mom and dad”. This combination of natural curiosity and role-playing sometimes leads to childhood sex play - for example, looking at his own and other children’s genitals.

Tip: Although sex play is normal at this age, if you’re worried about how your child behaves during sex play, it’s a good idea to talk with your doctor or another qualified health professional.

Your child’s language will develop a lot this year. She’ll show more interest in communicating and might show interest in telling stories and having conversations.

He’ll learn hundreds of new words this year. He learns words by listening to you and other adults and by guessing from context. He also learns from new experiences and from listening to stories read out loud. He’ll still understand many more words than he says.

Around three years, your child will understand hundreds of words and use sentences of 3-5 words, or even more. Other people will understand what she’s saying most of the time. She’ll point to parts of pictures - for example, the nose of a cow - and name common objects.

By four, he’ll speak in longer sentences of around 5-6 words or more. Other people will understand him all the time. He understands most things you say and will follow instructions with 2-3 steps, as long as they’re about familiar things - for example, “Close the book, and give it to Mom”. He’ll understand adjectives such as “long” or “thin”, and use “feeling” words like “happy” or “sad”.

Your preschooler is fascinated by the world around her and will ask “who”, “what” and “why” questions as she tries to understand more about her world.

Your child understands opposites like big/small and more/less and concepts like “on”, “in” and “under”. He loves telling stories and can remember and recite nursery rhymes. He’ll start to identify letters and numbers when you name them, and can count up to four objects and sort them by colour and shape.

Everyday skills
Your preschooler will love it when you eat family meals together. She understands your family routine and appreciates special events, like birthdays.

Your child can feed himself, put on shoes that don’t have laces, undo buttons and do a bit more for himself when he’s getting dressed.

She’ll probably be toilet trained and can do some daily hygiene tasks on her own, like going to the toilet alone, wiping her bottom and washing her hands and face. She’ll still need your help and supervision with tasks like brushing teeth.

Your preschooler loves moving and being active. He’s getting better at walking up stairs, pedaling a tricycle, throwing, catching and kicking a ball, running, climbing, jumping, hopping and balancing on one foot.

When it comes to using her hands, your preschooler might have the skills to draw a circle or square, build big towers of up to 10 blocks and use scissors. She’ll love using crayons, pencils and paintbrushes, which is great because drawing and painting fire up your child’s imagination.

Other things your preschooler might do at this age are:

  • unscrewing a lid from a jar
  • knowing his own gender and age
  • starting to understand time
  • knowing the names of some shapes and colours
  • holding a pencil in the writing position and by four years, copying some letters
  • dressing and undressing himself.

Helping preschooler development at 3-4 years

Here are some simple things you can do to help your child’s development at this age:

  • Give your child lots of playtime: messy play - in sand or mud or with paints - play with puppets or toys and outdoor play – with plenty of running, tumbling and rolling - are all great ways for preschoolers to express feelings, particularly if they’re upset or angry.
  • Make time for creative and artistic play: this might be craft, painting and drawing, or dress-up games. Musical play is another idea. Your child might like to dance, jump around and “act out” to music or make music with simple instruments. These activities help to develop children’s senses and also let them express feelings.
  • Read with your preschooler: you can encourage your child’s talking, thinking and imagination by reading together, telling stories, singing songs and reciting nursery rhymes.
  • Do some cooking with your child: helping to prepare a meal is a great way to get your preschooler interested in healthy food. Give her simple things to do, like tossing a salad or putting together meals like sandwiches or tacos.
  • Play games with your child that involve learning to share and taking turns. When you play, say things like, “Now it’s my turn to build the tower, then it’s your turn”, or “You share the red blocks with me, and I’ll share the green blocks with you”. Sharing is still hard for children at this age, so give your child lots of praise when you see him trying to share.

Being a parent
Every day you and your preschooler will learn a little more about each other. As your preschooler grows and develops, you’ll learn more about what she needs and how you can meet these needs.

In fact, as a parent, you’re always learning. Every parent makes mistakes and learns through experience. It’s OK to feel confident about what you know. And it’s also OK to admit you don’t know and ask questions.

Your own physical and mental health is an important part of being a parent. But with all the focus on looking after a child, lots of parents forget or run out of time to look after themselves. Looking after yourself will help you with the understanding, patience, imagination and energy you need to be a parent.

If you’re feeling frustrated, upset or like you can’t cope, put your preschooler somewhere safe and take some time out until you feel calmer. Or ask someone else to look after him for a while. Never shake a preschooler.

When to seek help
See a public health nurse or doctor if you have any concerns or notice that your three-year-old:

  • doesn’t look you in the eye
  • isn’t interested in other children
  • isn’t using three-word sentences
  • is often difficult to understand when talking to you, family or friends
  • doesn’t understand simple instructions - for example, “please give me the ball”
  • doesn’t pretend during play - for example, playing “shopping” or “riding on the bus”
  • finds it difficult to separate from his mother or primary caregiver
  • isn’t drawing
  • finds it hard to handle small objects - for example, a pencil or crayon
  • has trouble seeing or hearing things.

See a public health nurse or doctor if you have any concerns or notice that your four-year-old:

  • doesn’t use sentences of more than three words
  • can’t understand two-part commands such as, “Put the doll down, and pick up the ball”
  • doesn’t pretend during play - for example, playing “Mom and Dad”
  • has very challenging behaviour - for example, big tantrums over very small things or still clings or cries when her parents leave
  • is clumsy - for example, trips over a lot when walking or running
  • finds it hard to handle small objects - for example, a pencil or crayon
  • has trouble drawing shapes - for example, a circle or square
  • has difficulty dressing herself or using the toilet
  • has trouble seeing or hearing things.

You should see a child health professional if at any age your child experiences a noticeable and consistent loss of skills he once had.

Did you know?
Children grow and develop at different speeds. If you’re worried about whether your child’s development is “normal”, it might help to know that “normal” varies a lot. But if you still feel that something isn’t quite right, see your public health nurse or doctor.

© Raising Children Network Limited, reproduced with permission.

Resources & Links:

Health Link BC: Growth and Development: Ages 2 – 5 years 

Last Updated: November 30, 2014