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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.
Boys climbing at the playground credit Shutterstock/Felix Mizioznikov

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Even though her language skills might have improved dramatically, your preschooler still relies on your facial expressions, tone of voice and gestures to help her understand things.
 

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

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

He loves make-believe play and is learning the difference between fantasy and reality. He’s starting to identify his gender and might play ‘Mum’ or ‘Dad’. He likes to sing, dance and act.

Your preschooler might be very curious about bodies – her own and other people’s. She’ll try different roles and behaviour, and might play ‘doctors’ or ‘marriage’. This combination of natural curiosity and role-playing sometimes leads to childhood sex play – for example, looking at her own and other children’s genitals.

Although sex play is normal, if you’re worried about how your child behaves during sex play it’s a good idea to talk with your GP, a paediatrician or another qualified health professional.

Feelings
Play helps your child to explore his feelings. He’ll express himself through constant chatter, body language (he’ll still use gestures and noises to communicate), painting and making things.

Your child is likely to shift between being demanding and cooperative, but will probably have more control over her behaviour and fewer temper tantrums by five years.

Your child might feel anxious about starting school and will probably settle with some reassurance.

Your preschooler is a social person. He might have a group of preschool-age friends, whom he wants to please and be like. Imaginary friends could be important to him too. As part of getting along with others, you might notice him saying sorry, agreeing to rules and being pleased when good things happen to other people.

Thinking
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.

Talking
Your child’s language ‘explodes’ this year, and she’ll start to tell you how she feels, talk about her ideas and say words that rhyme.

Your child will love telling stories and having conversations, and will want to know more about his world by asking lots of questions, often about the meaning of words.

At four, your preschooler will use hundreds of words in sentences of 5-6 words, or even more, and you’ll be able to understand what she’s saying all the time. By five, she’ll speak more clearly and have an even wider range of words that she can understand and use, often in more complex sentences of about six words or more.

Daily life and behaviour
Dressing himself is pretty easy for your child now, and he can also use a fork, spoon and sometimes a knife – for example, to spread butter on bread. He’ll go to the toilet, bathe and brush his teeth (with your supervision) by himself.

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

Moving
Your preschooler loves moving and being active. He’ll get better at walking down stairs (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. She can put a paper clip on paper, cut with child-safe scissors, write her first name and some letters, and draw a triangle or a person with 8-10 body parts.

Other things your preschooler might do at this age are:

  • saying his own name, address and telephone number
  • knowing his left from his right
  • explaining how some objects work
  • working out which object is heavier
  • naming four colours
  • understanding time
  • talking about events in the past, present and future.

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: 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 good food. Give her simple things to do, like tossing a salad or putting together meals like sandwiches or tacos. She’ll also learn new words – for example, ‘peel’, ‘egg beater’ and ‘grater’ – maths concepts – for example, ‘half’, ‘1 teaspoon’, ‘30 minutes’ – how to do things step by step, and how to be patient as she waits for that cake to rise!
  • Play games with your child that involve learning to share and take 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 – 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 or baby, 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. It can cause bleeding inside the brain and likely permanent brain damage.
It’s OK to ask for help. If you’re having trouble coping with your preschooler, call your local Parentline.

When to seek help

See your child and family health nurse or GP 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 ‘Mums and Dads’
  • has very challenging behaviours – 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.
See your child and family health nurse or GP if you notice your five-year-old:
  • isn’t developing conversational skills
  • can’t understand three-part commands such as, ‘Put the doll down, get the ball from under the chair and put it in the box’
  • doesn’t play with other children
  • seems very afraid, unhappy or sad a lot of the time
  • acts in a very aggressive way
  • is easily distracted and can’t concentrate on any single activity for more than a few minutes
  • doesn’t pretend during play – for example, playing ‘doctors and nurses’, ‘construction’ in the sandpit or ‘cooking’
  • 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 difficulty eating, dressing 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.

You should also see a health professional if you notice any symptoms of depression in yourself or your partner. Some symptoms of depression include feeling sad and crying for no apparent reason, feeling irritable, having difficulty coping and feeling very anxious. If you notice that you or your partner have these symptoms, seek help from a health professional.

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.
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  • Last Updated 10-05-2013
  • Last Reviewed 13-04-2013
  • Bochenek, C. (2012). Learning to speak and listen: What to expect in the first five years. Mebourne: Speech Pathology Australia. Retrieved October 2, 2012, from http://www.speechpathologyaustralia.org.au/library/2.2_Learning_to_speak_and_listen.pdf.

    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2012). Developmental milestones. Atlanta, GA: CDC. Retrieved October 8, 2012, from http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/actearly/milestones/index.html.

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    Feigelman, S. (2011). The preschool years. In R. Kliegman, R. Behrman, H. Jenson & B. Stanton (Eds), Nelson textbook of pediatrics (19th edn, pp. 31-33). Philadelphia: Saunders Elsevier.

    Feigelman, S. (2011). The second year. In R. Kliegman, R. Behrman, H. Jenson & B. Stanton (Eds), Nelson textbook of pediatrics (19th edn, pp. 33-36). Philadelphia: Saunders Elsevier.

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