Preschooler development

This article describes the normal social and physical development of children ages 3 to 6 years old.


  • Gross motor development milestones       o Skilled at running, jumping, early throwing and kicking       o Able to catch a bounced ball       o At 3 years, is able to pedal a tricycle but may not steer well; at 4 able to steer quite well       o Around 4, able to hop on 1 foot followed with balancing on 1 foot up to 5 seconds       o May be able to perform a heel-to-toe walk  
  • Fine motor development milestones       o Able to draw a circle upon request at about 3 years       o Draws person with 2 or 3 facial features       o Beginning use of children’s blunt-nose scissors       o Can dress self with supervision       o At about 4, able to draw a square       o Use of scissors progresses to cutting a straight line       o Able to put clothes on properly       o Manages spoon and fork neatly while eating       o At about 5, can spread with a knife       o Able to draw a triangle


  • At about 3, uses pronouns and prepositions appropriately  
  • At about 4, begins to understand size relationships  
  • Enjoys rhymes and word play  
  • At about 5, early understanding of time concepts  
  • Able to follow 3 simple commands

Stuttering may commonly occur in the normal language development of toddlers 3 to 4 years of age. It occurs because ideas are able to come to mind faster than the toddler’s limited ability to express them. It more commonly occurs if the toddler is stressed or excited.

Give the child your full, prompt attention as she speaks, and do not comment on the stuttering. If the stuttering is accompanied with other signs, such as tics, grimacing, extreme self-consciousness, or if the stuttering persists longer than 6 months, consider having the child evaluated by speech pathologist.

The preschooler learns the social skills necessary to play and work with other children. As age progresses, the child’s ability to cooperate with a larger number of peers increases. Although 4- to 5-year olds may be able to start participating in games that have rules, the rules are apt to change frequently at the whim of the more dominant child.

It is common, within a small group of preschoolers, to see a dominant child emerge who tends to “boss” the others around without much resistance from the other children.

It is normal for preschoolers to test their limits in terms of physical abilities, behaviors, expressions of emotion, and thinking abilities. Having a safe, structured environment within which to explore and face new challenges is important, but well-defined limits must be included.

The child should display initiative, curiosity, the desire to explore, and enjoyment without feeling guilty or inhibited.

Early morality develops as egocentrism gives way to the desire to please parents and others of importance. This is commonly known as the “good boy” or “good girl” stage.

Elaborate story telling may progress into lying, a behavior that if not addressed during the preschool years, will probably continue into the adult years. Mouthing off or back talk in the preschooler is usually a means of getting attention and attempting to elicit a reaction from the adult it is directed toward.

Safety is extremely important for preschoolers.

  • The preschooler is highly mobile and able to quickly get into dangerous situations. Parental supervision at this age is essential, just as during earlier years.  
  • Car safety is critical. The preschooler should be in a seat belt each time he rides in a car. At this age children may be riding with other children’s parents. It is important to review with others, who may be supervising your child, your rules for car safety.  
  • Falls are a major mechanism of injury for the preschooler. Climbing to new and adventurous heights, the preschooler may fall off playground equipment, bikes, down stairs, from trees, out windows, and off roofs. Lock doors that access dangerous areas (such as roofs, attic windows, and steep staircases) and provide strict rules for the preschooler to understand areas that are off limits.  
  • Kitchens are a prime area for a preschooler to incur burns, either trying to help cook or coming in contact with appliances left to “cool off.” Encourage the child to help cook or learn cooking skills with safe, cool recipes. Maintain alternate activities for the child to enjoy in an adjoining room while cooking, keeping the child away from the stove, hot foods, and other appliances.  
  • Keep all household products and medicines safely locked out of the reach of preschoolers. Know the number for your local poison control center and have Ipecac syrup available in the event of a poisoning if directed to use it by the poison control center.


  • Because sex role development is based in the toddler years, it is important for the child to have appropriate role models of both sexes. Single parents should assure that the child has the opportunity to spend significant time with a relative or friend who is the opposite sex as the parent. It is important for divorced parents to not be openly critical or make degrading comments about the other parent. When the child exhibits sexual play or exploration with peers, the play should be redirected and the child informed that it is inappropriate without “shaming” the child for this natural, innate curiosity.  
  • Because language skills develop at a rapid rate in the preschooler, it is important for parents to read to the child regularly and talk with the child frequently throughout the day.  
  • Discipline measures for the preschooler should provide opportunities for making choices and facing new challenges while maintaining clear limits. Structure is important for the preschooler, and having a daily routine (including age-appropriate chores) can help a child feel an important part of the family unit and enhance self esteem. Reminders and supervision may be necessary for such chores to be accomplished. Recognizing and acknowledging good behavior or a chore performed correctly or without extra reminders are extremely important. Take the time to note and reward the “good” behaviors.  
  • From age 4 to 5, “mouthiness” or back talk frequently occurs. Parents are encouraged to address such behaviors without reacting to the words or attitudes presented by the preschooler. If the child feels such words provide power over the parent, the behavior will continue. This is one of the hardest areas for parents to remain calm while they try to address the behavior.  
  • When anticipating a child’s entry into school, it is important for parents to keep in mind the wide diversity between children at 5 to 6 years in terms of attention span, reading readiness, and even fine motor skills. Both the overly anxious parent, concerned about the slower child’s abilities, and the overly ambitious parent, pushing skills to make the child “advanced,” can be detrimental to the child’s normal progression into the academic setting.


Johns Hopkins patient information

Last revised: December 7, 2012
by Mamikon Bozoyan, M.D.

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