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Developmental milestones: Ages 3 through 5

Knowing what to expect as your child grows can reassure you that your child is on track with his peers or alert you to potential concerns. Below are some milestones to watch for during the preschool years.

By Joyce Destefanis, M.A. , Nancy Firchow, M.L.S.

Since birth, you've watched your child grow and develop. You've noted his height and weight, when he crawled, stood, and walked, even when he spoke his first words — and perhaps compared all of these milestones of his infant and toddler years to the "norms." The preschool and early school years are also full of changes. From three to five your child's motor skills, language, thinking, and social development change dramatically.

Knowing what to expect as your child grows can reassure you that your child is on track with his peers or alert you to potential concerns. Below are some milestones to watch for during the preschool years.

Milestones: 3-Year-Olds

Motor Development: Gross Motor Skills

  • walks with an agile, almost adult style
  • runs around obstacles
  • catches large balls and throws overhead
  • climbs ladders; uses slide independently
  • rides a tricycle
  • alternates feet when climbing stairs

Motor Development: Fine Motor Skills

  • assembles simple puzzles
  • manipulates clay; finger paints
  • copies simple shapes, such as a cross or circle
  • stacks blocks up to nine high

Language and Thinking Development

  • understands most of what is said and 75 percent of speech is understandable
  • speaks in complete sentences of three to five words
  • matches pictures to objects
  • learns by doing and through the senses
  • understands concepts of "now," "soon," and "later"
  • begins to recognize cause-and-effect relationships

Social and Emotional Development

  • follows simple directions; enjoys helping with household tasks
  • begins to recognize own limits — asks for help
  • likes to play alone, but near other children
  • does not cooperate or share well
  • able to make choices between two things
  • begins to notice other people's moods and feelings

Tips for Parenting 3-Year-Olds

No longer a toddler, your 3-year-old takes in knowledge about himself and the world around him.

  • Transitions are difficult at this age. Provide warning of changes so your child has time to shift gears: "We're leaving in 10 minutes."
  • Rituals are important. Household routines and schedules give your 3-year-old a sense of security.
  • Point out colors and numbers in the course of everyday conversation: "You're wearing your blue shirt" or "We made six cupcakes."
  • Encourage independent activity to build self-reliance.
  • Provide lots of sensory experiences for learning and developing coordination — sand, mud, finger paints, puzzles.

Milestones: 4-Year-Olds

Motor Development: Gross Motor Skills

  • running is more controlled; can start, stop, and turn
  • turns somersaults; hops on one foot; gallops
  • can easily catch, throw, and bounce a ball
  • can brush teeth, comb hair, wash, and dress with little assistance

Motor Development: Fine Motor Skills

  • copies crosses and squares
  • prints some letters
  • uses table utensils skillfully
  • cuts on a line

Language and Thinking Development

  • uses a 1,500-word vocabulary; speaks in relatively complex sentences ("Mommy opened the door and the dog ran out.")
  • understands words that relate one idea to another — if, why, when
  • continues to learn through experience and the senses
  • understands, mostly, the difference between fantasy and reality
  • understands number and space concepts — more, less, bigger, in, under, behind
  • thinks literally; starting to develop logical thinking
  • begins to grasp that pictures and symbols can represent real objects
  • starts to recognize patterns among objects — round things, soft things, animals
  • grasps the concepts of past, present, and future but does not understand the duration of time

Social and Emotional Development

  • takes turns, shares, and cooperates
  • expresses anger verbally rather than physically
  • can feel jealousy
  • may sometimes lie to protect herself, but understands the concept of lying
  • enjoys pretending and has a vivid imagination

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

04/10/2012:
"I printed this out to take into my granddaughters preschool. They wanted her tested for autism. Her mother was hysterical! She is very bright, creative and loves to sing......she isn't austic.....she is three, she will be four in July. She has a 6 year old sister. "
03/26/2012:
"This has helped with my child study! And lots of my class!! Thank you!! "
03/14/2012:
"Very helpful with my child study. :) "
02/15/2012:
"This was an AWESOME article for me (a Mother of two children) to read. My Son's almost 15yrs. old and my Daughter is 3.5yrs old. Needless to say, but the 11 year difference in their ages can be very trying for Mama and Papa!! Not only that, but when my Son was a baby I read everything I could get my hands on to help me be a great 1st time Mother. Now, this amazing article helped me become more informed about knowing what my 3yrs old is thinking. Thank you! Sincerley, Heather B. "
02/15/2012:
"My daughter is 2.5 years old and can read a bit, do simple arithmetic and speaks in sentences like these: "Mommy, I am about to lose my patience! I said I wanted to watch TV BEFORE breakfast not after!". She has been potty trained since she was 15 months old. This article has made me realize that I need to ensure my little girl is properly stimulated and not bored. Thank you. "
08/22/2011:
"I think it is time for me to talk to the pediatrician to see what is wrong with my son. He will be 6 in December and only exhibits some of these traits. He starts kindergarten in the fall, and I am afraid that he is going to be labeled "remedial" from the beginning. Teachers in a small area like this give up on those kids very quickly, and school becomes a chore. I am concerned that he's going to end up hating school because it is difficult, or because he is behind the other children "
06/9/2011:
"this has really helped me with my college childcare assignments. thankks!!"
04/6/2011:
"This website helped me so much with a research assignment for my Child Care class, thankyou!!"
07/19/2010:
"Thanks for this. I'm a Filipina mom of 4year 10mos old boy, he's already in kindergarten or preparatory in the philippines. we've been told that he's younger for his grade level. but most of the 4year olds to 5year olds milestones are already exhibited by him. I'm initially worried that he will have a hard time in the writing and reading part in school, but he is a very eloquent speaker though! This is definitely a great read! :-) "
07/19/2010:
"very helpful for my child study coure work"
04/22/2010:
"very helpful for my childcare class"
03/15/2010:
"are you kidding me?!??!!?!??! veryyyy helpful :)))"
03/3/2010:
"i think this article is important in the sense of many parents do no tknow the stages their child should be going through what is normal and what needs work.This article helped me know the social and emotional norms for the ages 3-5 years of age.very well done thanks for the help"
11/24/2009:
"i used this site to do a research paper at school.it help remarkably so thank you!!!"
08/19/2009:
"This site has helped me a lot with a two-page paper I had to write. I knew most of this, but somethings I hadn't learned yet, and it was very useful! I'm going to be a in a special program at my highschool to be a pre-school teacher this year, and this gives me greater insight to what to look forward to. Thanks so much."
07/27/2009:
"well i am a school counselor and articles like this genuinely help in understanding children in better way and help me to guide parents and teachers."
06/12/2009:
"This site is fully sick, The makers should be proud. GreatSchools helps me to do my schoolwork in no time at all and it is so easy to use. My Brain Development Project is done thanks to GreatSchools"
05/18/2009:
"I am studying Certificate 111 In Children's Services at TAFE and this has helped a lot with one of my assignments which is a developmental profile of a focus child. Thank you!"
01/22/2009:
"Thank you. Gives a quick glance at the child's insight. Very useful article!"
01/15/2009:
"I am really concerned for my son and his development at school. He's in Pre-school because his birthday is November 9th. At the parent-teacher conference we were told that he's doing great but as far as the curriculum there was nothing left for him to learn. I was also advised by a teacher to stop pushing him to learn mor which i don't push. He has an older brother who reads and does homework and he wanst to do the same things. I have Pre-school & Kindergarten workbooks, and he has mastered the Pre-school and thinks there boring. He even did the work independently and finished the pages correctly. A close friend in his class turned 5 in mid-October and was moved to a kindergarten class and my son was so upset that he didn't go and he keeps talking about it. I don't know what to do because I as told that there are no exceptions made to move a child to another class but it was done for the girl. He is beginning to read by sounding out letters, can right his first & last name, ! does simple adding up to 10 fingers, ties his shoes, rote count, identifies and writes all 26 alphabets,writes numbers, knows his colors and shapes, knows opposites, big & small, patterns, story order sequence ( 1ST, 2ND, Last) and cuts weel to be a lefty. I'm TRULY STUCK. Now he's becoming disinterested in school except for the days he just feels like playing. I don't know what else to do? I'm not going to 'Slow Him Down' as was reccommended. Do you have any suggestions?"
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