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The Preschool Years: (ages four and five) Expectations and Challenges

by Anita Gurian, PhD

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The toddler entering the preschool years is growing and learning at a fast pace; he's excited and challenged by the new world he's discovering. Along with physical changes, toddler ways of thinking and interacting are also changing. The preschooler has a lot to say; he talks a great deal and curiosity leads him to ask many questions. During the fourth and fifth year, he becomes a more independent, more self-reliant, more socially adept child who is aware of himself as part of an expanding social circle of relatives, friends and peers at preschool. These abilities, however, are still in the process of developing, and the preschooler appears steadier than he really is; his behavior can give way to unpredictable emotional reactions. As he tries different roles and different ways to fit into the world and learns that the rules of behavior differ in different situations, he may test the limits and react negatively at times. Toward the end of this stage of development he will have better control of his emotions and behavior.

The milestones listed below are approximate times when certain abilities are observable. There is no fixed timetable for acquiring abilities or for confronting different challenges. There's a wide range of what's considered "normal." Every child grows and adjusts to the world at his or her own pace.

Emotional/Social Development—Understanding One's Self and Others

The friendly, talkative and curious preschooler explores ways of relating to people; her self-confidence expands and she likes to please others. She is learning to read the reactions of others, and she can be empathic and show sympathy and concern if a person is hurt or sad. She enjoys playing with other children, but her own needs may prevail and lead to problems in sharing and taking part in complex group play. Although she can still be cranky and stubborn at times, she is more responsive to reasoning.

The preschooler's pretend games become more involved and, for some children, may entail some form of violence in play. Fears (of the dark, of big dogs, for example) may persist and contribute to nightmares, but most children can generally calm down.

Between four and five years the child:

  • seeks out same-sex friends
  • prefers children over adults
  • enjoys performing for others
  • whispers and has secrets
  • responds to blame and praise
  • can be bossy
  • is becoming competitive
  • enjoys helping at home, with tasks such as watering plants, picking up toys

Cognitive Development—Making New Connections

The thinking of children at this age is still tied to the concrete; they are not yet aware of concepts such as change over time and have little idea of the true meaning of killing or dying. At times they will confuse fact and fantasy.

Between four and five years the child can:

  • learn to sort objects by shape, color and size; similarities and differences
  • count four objects
  • draw a square and some capital letters
  • draw a human figure with a head, body, arms, legs and perhaps five fingers
  • name three coins
  • know his age
  • know simple opposites
  • know about the seasons and related activities
  • know at least four colors

By five the child can:

  • understand a whole object or concept, but not always the relationship of the parts to the whole
  • use simple reasoning; begin to understand cause-and-effect relationships, but is sometimes misled by events occurring in sequence
  • memorize things but does not yet have strategies such as rehearsing lists
  • trace numbers and capital letters; may write some numbers and letters on her own.
  • count things

Motor Development—Moving is Exploration and Adventure

Between four and five the child actively explores his environment and enjoys moving and new ways of discharging physical energy.

Her coordination and control of her body are improving and she can:

  • jump in place
  • walk down stairs
  • balance on one foot for ten seconds
  • throw a ball purposely overhand
  • catch a ball with hands
  • gallop
  • jump over an object with both feet
  • walk backward toe/heel
  • climb stairs with one foot per step
  • put simple parts together
  • copy a circle
  • build a tower
  • build constructions using imagination
  • Fine motor abilities such as cutting with scissors and coloring within lines are improving

Language and Communication—Language is Power

Between four and five the child's ability and desire to communicate expand rapidly. He likes to experiment with new words and asks numerous questions.

By four years the child can:

  • use connected sentences
  • tell experiences or simple events in sequence
  • reproduce short verses, rhymes, songs from memory
  • speak clearly
  • argue with words
  • use jokes and silly language
  • use sentences of at least five words
  • act out simple stories
  • in conversation, can answer questions, give information, repeat, convey ideas
  • ask why, when, how, where questions
  • understand implications of key words such as because
  • follow three unrelated commands
  • understand comparatives such as pretty, prettier, and prettiest
  • listen to long stories, but may misinterpret the facts
  • understand sequencing of events
By five the child refines these skills and can:
  • use an expanded range of language and show more variability in speech
  • use words more precisely
  • use more complex grammar and use plurals and tense correctly
  • express herself in a varied tone of voice and inflection

Helping children establish self-control

With the explosion of new skills and experiences, preschoolers may appear to understand social rules and they can be reasoned with, but when overloaded may lose self-control. They may test the rules, refuse to cooperate with family routines, become aggressive. Some strategies are useful at this age.

Parents can use language to help solve problems. Help the child learn to use words, rather than actions, to express how she feels.

Negotiation, such as offering the child certain realistic choices, enables her to feel she has some control. Example: Rather than asking a four-year-old if she wants to go to the doctor, ask her what toy she wants to take with her.

Keep in mind that prevention goes a long way. As parents get to know their child's trouble spots, preparing children in advance for what's going to occur can help them manage the situation. And remember, praise and rewards trump punishment.

Preschoolers and Lying—Telling a Tall Tale From a Lie

At times it may seem as though the preschooler is lying. Many children of this age love to exaggerate and they may make up tall tales. A tall tale is an expression of the child's imagination, not a lie. When challenged in a playful way, she will show that she knows the real situation and is having fun with embellishing it. Respect and praise her imagination, but help her identify what's real and what's fantasy.

Why do some kids lie? To try and correct the situation, first try and find out what the motive for the lie is. One possible motive may be the use of lying to avoid punishment. Perhaps he broke a rule, or was too rough in play, or accidentally broke something. The child may think that the lie will cover up the offense and is less serious. Make it clear that you think lying is a bigger problem than the actual offense. If he acknowledges that he lied, make the punishment less severe than if he insisted on the lie.

Children of this age don't really understand the concept of a white lie, which is usually an attempt to be tactful, since their thinking is all-or-nothing. It's best, if possible, to avoid telling white lies, since to the preschooler the distinction is not clear.

Let child know you won't tolerate lies. Set clear limits and be consistent with consequences.

Making Friends

Friendships, even for young children, are important. Research has shown that children with friends have a better sense of themselves. They are more likely to have better self-esteem, fewer social problems, and they do better in school.

Kids need lots of practice, so invite other kids over; set up play groups, but don't expect that young children will have long-term relationships.

Don't force sharing, and expect some conflict. Put a time limit on a game. Present toys that both children can use together. When you see conflict brewing, take a break for a story, song, or juice.

Consider your child's temperament. Some children form friendships eagerly and easily while others need more time to observe a situation before becoming involved. Some children become aggressive with playmates or peers. For the aggressive child, here are some points to keep in mind:

Some Do's

  • Help children avoid punishment by using an early warning system. "Raisins are not for throwing." If he continues, "I'll have to take the box of raisins away. They're not for throwing." Be sure to follow through on your warning.
  • Decide on a punishment that's a logical consequence of the behavior; it should be related to the offense. If the child is disruptive, removal from the group until he can control himself is a logical action.

Some Don'ts

  • The penalty shouldn't be too harsh in relation to the offense. Harsh penalties make the child angry and resentful, and he isn't likely to make the connection between the crime and the punishment.
  • Avoid drawn-out lecturing, scolding or explanation, which may, in fact, represent the attention the child is seeking. If attention-seeking is indeed at the root of the trouble, ask yourself why this might be so and try to provide attention in other ways.

Some preschoolers may be withdrawn, shy or anxious. A certain amount of reticence is appropriate in all new social situations. Many shy and inhibited children may later develop positive social skills. If the child persists in anxious and shy behavior, let her know you know she's upset. For the shy child, here are some points to keep in mind:

Some Do's

  • Remind her there's no rush, that she has control over what she does or does not do.
  • Remind her of previous successes in similar situations.
  • Expose her to other children who are non-aggressive.
  • Encourage her to play with a younger child. This may relieve pressure and offer an opportunity for her to practice new ways of relating she might be hesitant to try with an older child.

Some Don'ts

  • Push her to interact before she's ready.
  • Compare her negatively to a more outgoing child.
  • Laugh at or belittle her fears.
  • Label her as shy; this sets up expectations for her behavior and the label may stick.

Keeping Curiosity Alive

Parents should create an atmosphere that encourages the child to ask questions, knowing he'll be taken seriously and will receive direct answers. The curiosity of the preschooler usually includes an interest in sexuality, both his own and that of the opposite sex. He may ask where babies come from and about the organs involved in reproduction and elimination. Answers should be simple and honest. He won't benefit from long explanations and doesn't need details. Short answers and a matter-of-fact attitude are appropriate at this age.

The preschooler may play with his or her own genitals and show an interest in genitals of other children. These are signs of normal curiosity and scolding or punishment are likely to foster attitudes of secrecy and shame. Help him learn what's socially appropriate. Emphasize that no other person, including close friends and relatives, may touch his "private parts." Exceptions are doctors and nurses and his own parents during appropriate caregiving.

Day Care or Preschool

To make the separation from home and family a good experience, it is recommended that parents consider the following factors in selecting a care facility or preschool:

  • Trained, experienced teachers who enjoy, understand and can lead children
  • Enough teachers and assistants--ideally, at least one for every five children, and small rather than large groups, if possible. (Studies have shown that five children with one caregiver is better than 20 children with four caregivers)
  • Staff that has been there for a long period of time
  • Opportunities for creative work, imaginative play, and physical activity
  • Space to move indoors and out
  • Lots of drawing and coloring materials and toys, as well as equipment such as swings, wagons, jungle gym, etc.

(from Facts for Families, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatrists, 2004)