Child development at 5-6 years: what’s happening
Your child’s pretend play is more complex now, filled with lots of fantasy and drama. You might also notice that your child can play with others to achieve a common goal – for example, working together to build one big sandcastle. Your child might also be able to work things out if another child doesn’t want to play a particular game.
Games with rules sometimes challenge your six-year-old, and your child might even accuse others of cheating sometimes.
At this age, children can express feelings, although they might need help and time to identify and talk about tricky emotions like frustration or jealousy. They often have much better control over feelings too and might have fewer unexpected outbursts of anger and sadness.
You might see more patience, and your child might even be open to reasoning with you. This means there could be fewer disagreements in the future.
Although your six-year-old loves to be independent, they still need your love and attention. Connecting with you and family is the most important thing in your child’s life. Your child is proud of their own achievements, wants your approval – and probably doesn’t take well to criticism or discipline.
Your child’s growing understanding of the world around might lead to some fears. For example, some children might be afraid of supernatural things (like ghosts), criticism, tests, failure, or physical harm or threat.
School-age children can pay attention for longer now.
Your child understands simple concepts like time (today, tomorrow, yesterday), knows the seasons, recognises some words by sight and tries to sound out words. Your child might even read on their own.
Your child is better at seeing other people’s points of view, which helps your child to make friends and meet new people.
Talking and communicating
At this age children talk a lot, sometimes even when nobody is in the room.
You’ll hear your child using full and complex sentences and having adult-like conversations, although they might still find it hard to describe complex ideas or events. Your child understands jokes and riddles – jokes about poos and wees are particularly funny. Your child also enjoys the opportunity to do ‘show and tell’ at school.
Your child understands more words than they can say, and they’re learning as many as 5-10 new words each day. Vocabulary growth is so rapid at this age that your child’s brain often thinks faster than your child can speak.
Five-year-olds are more coordinated and love to show off new physical skills – you’ll often hear shouts of ‘Look at me!’
Your child can learn how to ride a bike, jump rope, balance on one foot for a short period of time, walk downstairs without needing to hold your hand, skip and catch a large ball. Many six-year-olds will also be interested in playing team sports like soccer.
Does it seem like your six-year-old can’t ever keep still? Wriggling while watching TV, at the dinner table or even while sleeping is pretty normal.
Your child’s fine motor skills are improving, which leads to more independence with things like tying shoelaces, using zips and buttons, and brushing hair. Your child might still find it hard to cut up food with a knife but enjoys the chance to practise.
Daily life and behaviour
At this age, children are becoming more independent and love making small decisions, like what clothes to wear or what to eat for lunch.
Starting school opens up a whole new social world, which comes with a new set of rules. This might be demanding or challenging for your child. School can be tiring so don’t be surprised if your child is easily upset, especially after a long day. On these days you might want to keep your child quiet at home after school and aim for an early bedtime.
Whether your child is feeling worried about starting school or bursting with excitement, a bit of planning and preparation can ease the transition.
At this age, your child might also:
- copy simple shapes with a pencil
- copy letters and write their own name
- say their full name, address, age and birthday
- draw more realistic pictures – for example, a person with a head with eyes, mouth and nose, and a body with arms and legs
- read simple picture books
- understand the importance of rules, and the simple reasons behind rules.
Helping child development at 5-6 years
Here are some simple things you can do to help your child’s development at this age:
- Encourage moving: play different sports and do recreational activities together or with others. These teach social skills like taking turns, cooperating, negotiating, playing fairly and being a good sport.
- Include your child in simple household chores: setting the table or helping you to put clean clothes away develops moving and thinking skills, while also teaching cooperation and responsibility. These skills are important for school.
- Set aside some time for free play: even if your child has started school and other structured activities, play is still very important at this age. Let your child choose how to spend this free playtime.
- Play with your child each day, even if it’s just for 10 minutes. Playing together gives you the chance to enter your child’s world and find out about their thoughts and feelings. It also shows your child that you care about them and want to spend time together.
- Practise classroom behaviour: for example, you could give your child small tasks that need attention or involve following simple rules or instructions. Have conversations about your child’s favourite animal or sport and encourage your child to listen, respond and question. This all helps your child get ready for school.
- Arrange playdates: spending time with other children, especially if they go to the same school, helps with social skills and gets your child used to being apart from you.
- Talk about feelings: you can help your child work out why they’re feeling something and help them put words to these feelings. This will help your child form friendships and show empathy.
- Talk with your child about treating boys and girls equally and respecting girls and women.
Parenting a school-age child
As a parent, you’re always learning. It’s OK to feel confident about what you know. And it’s also OK to admit you don’t know something and ask questions or get help.
When you’re focusing on looking after a child, you might forget or run out of time to look after yourself. But looking after yourself physically, mentally and emotionally will help your child grow and thrive.
Sometimes you might feel frustrated, upset or overwhelmed. It’s OK to take some time out until you feel calmer. Put your child in a safe place, or ask someone else to look after your child for a while. Try going to another room to breathe deeply, or call a family member or friend to talk things through.
Never shake, hit or verbally abuse a child. You risk harming your child, even if you don’t mean to.
It’s OK to ask for help. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the demands of caring for your child, call your local Parentline. You might also like to try our ideas for dealing with anger, anxiety and stress.
When to be concerned about child development at 5-6 years
See your GP if you have any concerns or notice that your child has any of the following issues at 5-6 years.
Communicating and understanding
- is difficult to understand or isn’t speaking in full sentences
- has trouble following simple directions like ‘Please put your pyjamas on your bed after you’ve put your clothes on’.
Behaviour and play
- uses lots of inappropriate or challenging behaviour – for example, has a tantrum whenever they don’t get their own way
- shows no interest in letters or trying to write their own name
- is very withdrawn, worried or depressed or gets very upset when separating from you
- doesn’t interact well with others – for example, is aggressive or shows no interest in interacting with other children or adults.
- still wets or soils their pants during the day, but note that night-time wetting is typical up until the age of 6-7 years, especially for boys
- has difficulty falling asleep at night or staying asleep.
You should see a child health professional if at any age your child experiences a noticeable and consistent loss of skills.
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 GP.