By Raising Children Network
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Boys climbing at the playground credit Shutterstock/Felix Mizioznikov

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Even though her language skills might have improved a lot, your preschooler still relies on your facial expressions, tone of voice and gestures to help her understand things.
Preschoolers come in all shapes and sizes, but preschooler development at 4-5 years typically has a few things in common. Here’s what your preschooler might be doing, how you can help and when to see a child health professional.

Preschooler development at 4-5 years: what’s happening

Feelings and behaviour
At this age, your child is exploring and learning to express his emotions. He’ll do this in many ways – for example, by talking, using gestures and noises, painting and making things.

Your preschooler also likes to be around people. She might want to please and be like her preschool-age friends. Imaginary friends could be important to her too. As part of getting along with others, you might hear her saying sorry, agreeing to rules and being pleased when good things happen to other people.

When it comes to cooperating, your child is likely to be more helpful but sometimes he might still be demanding. By the time he’s five years old, he’ll probably have more control over his behaviour and have fewer temper tantrums.

Your child might feel anxious about starting school. Talking to her about this and even visiting the school together can help her feel less worried.

In this year, your child might hide the truth about things sometimes, or even start telling lies. For example, he might say ‘I didn’t do it’ even when he did. This is a normal part of your preschooler’s development.

Playing and learning
Play is important because it’s still how your child learns and explores feelings.

When it comes to play, your child likes to sing, dance and act. She also loves make-believe play and is learning the difference between fantasy and reality. She’s more aware of her gender and might want to play gender-based games – for examples, girls might want to play at being ‘Mum’. Your child might also try different roles and behaviour, like being a doctor or getting married.

Your preschooler might be very curious about bodies – his own and other people’s. For example, you might find your child looking at his own and other children’s genitals. A combination of natural curiosity and role-playing is usually a normal part of childhood sexual behaviour.

Although sex play is normal at this age, if you’re concerned about a child’s sexual behaviour, it’s a good idea to talk with a GP, a paediatrician or another qualified health professional.

Your preschooler will understand more about opposites – for example, high/low – know the names of letters and numbers out of order, and count to 10.

Your child’s language develops a lot this year, and you’ll notice that she loves telling stories and having conversations.

Your child will start to tell you how he feels, talk about his ideas and say words that rhyme. He’ll ask lots of questions and want to know the meaning of words. This is part of how he learns more about the world he lives in.

At four years, your preschooler knows hundreds of words and can use 5-6 words or more in sentences. You’ll be able to understand what she’s saying all the time.

By five years, your child will speak more clearly and will know, understand and use even more words, often in more complex sentences of about six words or more.

Daily life
Dressing himself is pretty easy for your child now. He can also use a fork, spoon and sometimes a knife – for example, to spread butter on bread. You still need to supervise him, but he can go to the toilet, bathe and brush his teeth by himself.

Your preschooler loves moving and being active. She’s better at walking down steps (maybe using the rail) with alternating feet, throwing, catching and kicking a ball, running, climbing, jumping, hopping and balancing on one foot.

Your child might also develop some new gross motor skills – for example, skipping, jumping backwards or jumping while running.

Your preschooler’s fine motor skills are improving too. He can put a paper clip on paper, cut with child-safe scissors, write his first name and some letters, and draw a triangle or a person with 8-10 body parts.

At this age, your child might also:

  • say her own name, address and telephone number
  • know her left from her right
  • explain how some objects work – for example, how to close the lid on a jar
  • work out which object is heavier
  • name four colours
  • talk about events in the past, present and future – for example, know the difference between things she has done, is doing and will do.

Helping preschooler development at 4-5 years

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

  • Give your child lots of playtime: play helps preschoolers express feelings like joy, excitement, anger or fear. Your child might like messy play – in sand or mud or with paints – play with puppets or toys, or outdoor play with plenty of running, tumbling and rolling.
  • Make time for creative and artistic play: this might be painting, drawing or dress-up games. Musical play is another idea – your child might like to dance, jump around or make music with simple instruments.
  • Read with your preschooler: reading together, telling stories, singing songs and reciting nursery rhymes all encourage your child’s talking, thinking and imagination.
  • Do some cooking with your child: this helps your preschooler to get interested in healthy food, learn new words and understand maths concepts like ‘half’, ‘1 teaspoon’ or ‘30 minutes’. You can give him simple things to do, like tossing a salad or putting together sandwiches.
  • 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 she shares.

Parenting a preschooler at 4-5 years

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 he 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 – often the ‘dumb’ questions are the best kind!

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.

Sometimes you might feel frustrated or upset. But if you feel overwhelmed, put your child in a safe place or ask someone else to hold her for a while. Take some time out until you feel calmer. You could also try going to another room to breathe deeply or calling a family member or friend to talk things through.

Never shake a young child. It can cause bleeding inside the brain and likely permanent brain damage.

It’s OK to ask for help. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your preschooler, call your local Parentline. Our coping toolkit has practical ideas to help you relax and feel calmer.

When to be concerned about child development

See your child and family health nurse or GP if you have any concerns or notice that your four-year-old has any of the following issues.

Seeing, hearing and communicating
Your child:

  • has trouble seeing or hearing things
  • doesn’t use sentences of more than three words.

Behavior and play
Your child:

  • can’t understand two-part commands like ‘Put the doll down, and pick up the ball’
  • doesn’t pretend during play – for example, doesn’t pretend to be mum or dad
  • has very challenging behaviour – for example, has big tantrums over very small things or still clings or cries when you leave
  • seems very afraid, unhappy or sad a lot of the time.

Movement and motor skills
Your child:

  • 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 eating, dressing or using the toilet.

See your child and family health nurse or GP if you notice your five-year-old has any of the following issues.

Seeing, hearing and communicating
Your child:

  • has trouble seeing or hearing things
  • isn’t developing conversational skills – for example, doesn’t understand how to talk, listen and respond.

Behavior and play
Your child:

  • can’t understand three-part commands like ‘Put the doll down, get the ball from under the chair and put it in the box’
  • doesn’t play with other children or acts in a very aggressive way
  • seems very afraid, unhappy or sad a lot of the time
  • is easily distracted and can’t concentrate on any single activity for more than a few minutes
  • doesn’t pretend during play – for example, doesn’t play doctors and nurses, construction in the sandpit or cooking.

Movement and motor skills
Your child:

  • is clumsy – for example, trips over a lot when walking or running
  • finds it hard to use small objects – for example, a pencil or crayon
  • has trouble drawing shapes – for example, a circle or square
  • has difficulty eating, dressing or using the toilet.

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

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 child and family health nurse or GP.
  • Last updated or reviewed 05-02-2016