By Raising Children Network
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Even though his language skills might have improved a lot, your preschooler still relies on your facial expressions, tone of voice and gestures to help him understand things.
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, how you can help and when to see a child health professional.

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

This is an important time in your preschooler’s emotional development.

During this year your child really starts to understand that her body, mind and emotions are her own. She knows the difference between feeling happy, sad, afraid or angry.

Your child also shows fear of imaginary things, care about how others act and affection for familiar people. And as he gets more confident, he’ll also get better at handling his emotions.

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

Your child is now more interested in playing and making friends with other children. She might start to play more cooperatively in small groups. She understands the concept of ‘mine’ and ‘his/hers’, so sharing starts to get easier.

Your child is becoming more imaginative during play – for example, he might play pretend games with imaginary friends or toys, like having a tea party with his toys. He’ll try different roles and behaviour – for example, he might pretend to be a doctor or a dad. And at this age, it’s common for preschoolers to have imaginary friends, although your child can probably tell the difference between real and fantasy.

By four, your child might enjoy tricking others and describing what happened – for example, ‘Mum 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. 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 child’s language will develop a lot this year.

Your child will learn lots of new words by listening to you and other adults, as well as from her own experiences and from listening to stories. She’ll show more interest in communicating and might like to tell stories and have conversations.

Your child will understand most of what you say and might guess the words he doesn’t know. Generally, he’ll understand many more words than he can say.

Around three years, your child will 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 Mum’. He’ll understand adjectives like ‘long’ or ‘thin’, and use ‘feeling’ words like ‘happy’ or ‘sad’.

Your preschooler is fascinated by the world around her and will ask lots of ‘who’, ‘what’ and ‘why’ questions. When it comes to understanding, your child knows about opposites like big/small and more/less and concepts like ‘on’, ‘in’ and ‘under’.

Your child’s memory is developing – for example, he can remember nursery rhymes and might even repeat them back to you. He’ll also start to point out letters and numbers that he remembers and name them, and can count up to four objects and sort them by colour and shape.

Everyday skills
Your preschooler loves eating family meals together. She understands your family routine and appreciates special events, like birthdays.

Your child is also becoming more independent – for example, he 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.

Your child is probably toilet trained, and she might be able to do some daily hygiene tasks on her own, like going to the toilet, wiping poo from her bottom and washing her hands and face. But she’ll still need your help and supervision with tasks like brushing teeth.

Your preschooler loves moving and being active. He’s better at walking up steps, riding 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 be able to draw a circle or square, build big towers using blocks and use child-safe scissors. She’ll love using crayons, pencils and paintbrushes, which is great because drawing and painting build your child’s imagination.

At this age, your child might also:

  • unscrew a lid from a jar
  • know his own gender and age
  • know the names of some shapes and colours
  • hold a pencil to write and by four years, copy some letters
  • dress and undress himself.

Helping child 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: 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 her 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 he shares.

Parenting a preschooler at 3-4 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 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, 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 him 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 three-year-old has any of the following issues.

Seeing, hearing and communication
Your child:

  • doesn’t look you in the eye
  • has trouble seeing or hearing things
  • isn’t using three-word sentences
  • is often difficult to understand when talking to you, family or friends.

Behaviour and play
Your child:

  • doesn’t understand simple instructions – for example, ‘Please give me the ball’
  • is difficult to separate from her primary caregiver
  • isn’t interested in other children
  • doesn’t pretend during play – for example, doesn’t pretend to go shopping or ride on the bus.

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
  • isn’t drawing simple shapes.

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.

Behaviour and play
Your child:

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

You should also see your child and family health nurse or GP if you notice the signs of postnatal depression in women or postnatal depression in men in yourself or your partner. Symptoms of postnatal depression include feeling sad and crying for no obvious reason, feeling irritable, having difficulty coping and feeling very anxious.

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 04-02-2016