Social and emotional development
Four-year-olds can usually play happily with other children. Your child is learning to understand about the feelings and needs of others, and can feel sympathy for others.
At this age, your child will be organising games and making friends. He can share toys and take turns at least some of the time. But four-year-olds can also be quite bossy, so he might still have a few tantrums when he doesn’t get what he wants.
Your child will enjoy lots of physical games, as well as more quiet activities, such as reading stories. She might have some favourite games that let her try out adult roles, like ‘mummies and daddies’ or ‘superheroes’.
Your four-year-old might occasionally lie or tell untrue stories. He’s not doing it to be naughty – he’s still learning what’s reality and what’s fantasy, and might be just trying to please you.
The world can still seem a bit scary to your child, so you’ll need to provide a routine that makes her feel safe. For example, she needs to know what happens at breakfast, what she’ll be doing during the day, and what special things happen at bedtime. She also needs to know that you’ll set safe limits for her.
Your four-year-old might sometimes feel jealous of your relationship with your partner. You can help by letting your child know that your relationship with him is important, and by spending special one-on-one time with him.
Some four-year-olds have imaginary friends
– in fact, two out of every three children have one. It's perfectly normal and is nothing to worry about.
Four-year-olds often ask lots of questions about the world and why it is the way it is. Try to answer your child’s questions as simply and honestly as you can without telling her too much more than she asks.
Sometimes your child’s questions can be embarrassing or difficult to answer – for example, questions about death or sex. Your child might be interested in where babies come from, and might experiment by looking at other children’s bodies. You can read more about this in our articles on childhood sex play and talking about sexuality with children.
Your four-year-old can probably:
- understand two or three simple things to do at once – for example, ‘Please get a cup of water, take it to Daddy, then put the cup back on the table’
- understand what ‘three’ means – for example, ‘There are three motor bikes’
- sort objects by size, and by what sort of thing they are – for example, by animals, colours or shapes
- compare two weights to work out which is heavier
- understand taller, smaller and shorter, but won’t be able to arrange a group of things in order of smallest to biggest
- copy his name
- draw a person with a head, body, legs and arms
- tell the difference between morning and afternoon
- say numbers up to 20, and begin to count a few objects by touching them
- hold a pencil well
- cut on a line
- name and match four colours
- recognise some words he sees a lot – for example, ‘Stop’ on road signs
- tell you his name, age and address if asked (provided he’s been taught these) by the time he’s five
- copy a square, a cross and a triangle by the time he’s five.
Four-year-olds are developing confidence in their physical ability, but can still be too bold or too timid and need to be supervised in physical play.
Your four-year-old can probably:
- walk easily up and down steps, one foot to a step
- throw, catch, bounce and kick a ball
- climb ladders and trees
- stand on tiptoe, and walk and run on tiptoe
- run quite fast
- jump over small objects
- walk along a line for a short distance
- ride a tricycle very well, and might try a bicycle (with or without training wheels)
- stand on one foot for a few seconds (most can also hop)
- thread beads to make necklaces
- swing herself on a swing
- dress herself, providing the fastenings aren’t too difficult
- manage her own toilet needs during the day, but still might not be dry at night.
In Australia, children aged 3-5 years are entitled to a Healthy Kids
Check, a basic check to see if they’re fit and ready to learn when
they start school. It includes assessments of your child’s height and
weight, eyesight, hearing and oral health, and a discussion about
toilet habits and allergies. For more details, you can read the Healthy Kids Check Fact Sheet for Parents
or talk to your GP.
Speech and language development
Four-year-olds are often great conversationalists and love to talk about the details of all sorts of subjects. Talking about things is a very important way of understanding how the world works.
Your four-year-old can probably:
- speak clearly on the whole, but still might not use some sounds correctly – for example, say ‘th’ for ‘s’, or ‘w’ for ‘r’
- ask ‘why’, ‘when’ and ‘how’ questions, and ask what words mean
- tell long stories that might be partly true and partly made-up
- show interest in questions, and can argue and give his own ideas about things
- talk about what might happen or what he would like to have happen
- know a few nursery rhymes he can say, repeat or sing.
What children aged 4-5 years enjoy
Your child will have her own unique personality and things she enjoys, and it’s important to support her in these interests.
These are some things that many four-year-olds enjoy:
- jokes (especially toilet jokes), and laughing at and saying nonsense or silly words
- books and stories with interesting rhymes and words – your child might make up his own rhymes
- playing with other children
- physical activities
- simple computer games.
Ignoring toilet jokes – or giving your child an alternative word if she’s using words you don’t like – can be one way of dealing with this stage. For example, your child might say to everyone she meets, ‘You’re a poo’. So you could say, ‘Here’s another way of saying that: “You’re a banana!” Try it!’ If you suggest another interesting word, your child is quite likely to enjoy that just as much.
What you can do
The best way to play with your child is by providing an interesting environment, having the time to play, and by following your child’s lead. It’s important not to turn play into ‘lessons’. The main thing your child needs from playing with you is to have fun.
Here are some ways you can spend time with your child:
- Talk to your child about what he does and where he’s been. Ask him what he did and what he saw, and show that you’re listening when he talks to you.
Read together – you can talk about what’s happening in the pictures, or let your child act out the story.
- Tell stories about when you were a child.
- Sort things into groups – for example, sort spare buttons into shapes and colours, or play animal lotto.
- Give your child the chance to learn how to ride a three-wheeled bike, or two-wheeled bike with training wheels. Some four-year-olds might even be ready for a two-wheeled bike without training wheels.
- Make time for lots of outdoor physical activity, such as walks in the park, ball games and visiting playgrounds.
- Give your child materials and space for craft activities, painting and drawing.
Your child might be starting kindergarten in this year. It might just be like an extension of child care for both of you, or it might be the first time you’ve been separated. Different personalities respond very differently to separation – it can also depend on what separations you’ve had in the past, and how well they went.
It will help your child if you:
- celebrate her entry into the formal education system in some small way
- go with her to the kindergarten on at least two occasions before she starts (if it’s not where she’s been going for child care)
- stay for a while if you have the time
- buy her a new bag or lunch box, even if she doesn’t need one
- listen to her stories about the experience.
When to seek help
You should have your child checked by a health professional if your four-year-old:
- doesn’t speak clearly enough to be understood by other people
- doesn’t take an interest in other children and what’s happening around him
- is very much behind other children of the same age in some areas
- screws up his eyes or seems to have trouble seeing some things, or if the pupils in his eyes don’t always seem to be looking the same way.
It’s also a good idea to see your GP if your child’s understanding and skills go backward for more than a brief time.
The information in this article is a guide only, because children develop at different rates and in different ways. If you’re worried about your child’s development or if your child’s development is very different from other children of the same age, have a talk with a health professional. If there’s a problem, getting in early will help. If there isn’t a problem, the reassurance will save you some worry.