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Developmental milestones: Ages 3 through 5

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

Tips for Parenting 4-Year-Olds

Silly, imaginative, and energetic, your child loves to try new words and new activities.

  • 4-year-olds crave adult approval. Provide lots of positive encouragement.
  • Display calendars and analog clocks to help your child visualize the concept of time.
  • Play word games to develop his growing vocabulary; overlook his fascination with bad words.
  • Offer opportunities for sorting, matching, counting, and comparing.
  • Provide lots of play space and occasions to play with other kids.

Milestones: 5-Year-Olds

Motor Development: Gross Motor Skills

  • runs in an adult manner
  • walks on tiptoe, broad jumps
  • walks on a balance beam
  • skates and jumps rope

Motor Development: Fine Motor Skills

  • hand preference is established
  • laces (but cannot tie) shoes
  • grasps pencil like an adult
  • colors within lines
  • cuts and pastes simple shapes

Language and Thinking Development

  • speaks fluently; correctly uses plurals, pronouns, tenses
  • very interested in words and language; seeks knowledge
  • understands and names opposites
  • uses complex language
  • still confuses fantasy and reality at times
  • thinking is still naïve; doesn't use adult logic

Social and Emotional Development

  • distinguishes right from wrong, honest from dishonest, but does not recognize intent
  • plays make-believe and dresses up
  • mimics adults and seeks praise
  • seeks to play rather than be alone; friends are important
  • plays with both boys and girls but prefers the same sex
  • wants to conform; may criticize those who do not

Tips for Parenting 5-Year-Olds

Your cooperative, easy-going 5-year-old loves to play and that's how he learns.

  • Join in activities that develop coordination and balance — skipping and hopping, walking on the curb or crack in the sidewalk, or climbing trees.
  • Encourage fine motor skills by letting your child cut pictures out of magazines, string beads, or play with take-apart, put-together toys.
  • Take advantage of his interest in numbers by counting anything and everything; teach simple addition and subtraction by using objects, not numerals.
  • Let your child know what to expect from an upcoming event or activity so he can prepare. Avoid springing things on him.
  • Help him recognize his emotions by using words to describe them: "I see you're angry at me right now."

A "Snapshot" of Two 5-Year-Olds

This story of Jimmy and Maria illustrates the range of skills, interests, and abilities considered typical development for this age.

Jimmy pressed his forehead against the window as he watched his neighbor Maria drive away in the car with her mother on their way to her first day of kindergarten. He sighed and waved. He hoped Maria would see him, yet he didn't want to go outside to make sure.

Jimmy felt sad and disappointed that he was't going, too. At the same time he was glad that he could stay home.

Motor Activity

Jimmy had asked his mother why he wasn't going to school. He was going to be five soon, just like Maria. And he could do all kinds of things. He was good at running, jumping, and climbing. He could roller skate and ride a tricycle. Maria could do some of those things, too, but not like Jimmy.

Maria couldn't really climb a tree, but Jimmy was the best tree climber ever. He didn't tell his mom, but he had climbed the tall tree in Maria's back yard. She didn't even try to climb it. She just yelled at him to come down. She thought he was going to hurt himself.

"Girls! Maybe it's a good thing that Maria is going to school," Jimmy thought. "It's better to play with boys anyway. Boys do more fun things. Girls like to sit and color and write and play house and cut out paper dolls and all those yucky things." But Jimmy had to admit that Maria liked to play ball and chase and run, too.

If only Billy lived closer! But mom said he's too young to walk all the way over to Billy's by himself.

Comments from readers

"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. "
"This has helped with my child study! And lots of my class!! Thank you!! "
"Very helpful with my child study. :) "
"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. "
"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. "
"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 "
"this has really helped me with my college childcare assignments. thankks!!"
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"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! :-) "
"very helpful for my child study coure work"
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"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"
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"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."
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"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!"
"Thank you. Gives a quick glance at the child's insight. Very useful article!"
"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?"