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What to expect when you have a three- to five-year-old

Child development

Preschoolers come in all sorts – for example, the busy ‘artist’ with her pencils, or the sturdy ‘athlete’ scrambling over the climbing frame. Fine and gross motor skills, as well as areas like language and emotion, develop at different rates in different children.

There’s a lot you can do to nurture your child’s development during this important period.

Development: what your child needs

The first five years of a child’s life are critical for development, and the experiences your child has in these years help to shape the adult he or she will become.

In these years, your child’s brain develops more and faster than at any other time in her life. Your child’s early experiences – the things he or she sees, hears, touches, smells and tastes – stimulate her brain, creating millions of connections. This is when the foundations for learning, health and behaviour throughout life are laid down.


Children’s relationships affect all areas and stages of their development. This is because relationships are experiences.

In fact, relationships are the most important experiences in your child’s environment because they teach her the most about the world around her. Your child’s most important relationships are with you, other family members and carers, including early childhood educators. More than anything else, your relationship with your child shapes the way he or she learns and develops.

This is why a loving, nurturing relationship with you is so important.


In the early years, your child’s main way of learning and developing is through play. Play is fun for your child and gives them an opportunity to explore, observe, experiment, solve problems and learn from her mistakes.

Lots of time spent playing, talking, listening and interacting with you helps your child learn the skills he or she needs for life.

What to expect at 3-5 years old

As the person watching, listening to and being with your child every day, you’re in the best position to know whether they are happy and settled in the ever-expanding world. It’s useful to know what to expect, but take the following information as a guide only. And if you’re ever worried about your child, never hesitate to speak with a health professional like your GP or child and family health nurse.

At 3-4 years old

During this year your child really starts to understand that their body, mind and emotions – like happy, sad or angry – are their own. He or she understands the concept of ‘mine’ and ‘yours’, so sharing starts to get easier. They might start to play more cooperatively in small groups of other children.

Your preschooler will probably use their imagination more in play – for example, you might see them pretending to have a picnic with toys or playing at being a doctor. They might also be frightened of imaginary things, although they probably know the difference between real and fantasy.

Bodies – his or her own and other people’s– become interesting. Curiosity and a bit of role-playing is usually a normal part of childhood sexual behaviour.

Your child will show more interest in communicating and might like to tell stories and have conversations – probably involving a lot of ‘who’, ‘what’ and ‘why’ questions as he or she learns about the world.

Around three years, your child will use sentences of 3-5 words or even more. By four years, he or she will speak in longer sentences of around 5-6 words or more. He or she will understand adjectives like ‘long’ or ‘thin’, and use ‘feeling’ words like ‘happy’ or ‘sad’. They will follow instructions with 2-3 steps, as long as they’re about familiar things.

Your child’s physical skills are continually improving, as he or she gets better at walking upstairs, jumping and kicking balls, for example. He or she might be able to draw a circle or square and perhaps even copy some letters by four years. They can probably dress and undress themselves too. 

At 4-5 years

Your preschooler likes to be around people. As part of getting along with others, you might hear him or her saying sorry, agreeing to rules and being pleased when good things happen to other people. But he or she might hide the truth sometimes, or even start telling lies. This is a normal part of development.

Your child will start to tell you how they feel. They are still exploring and learning to express these emotions but by the time he or she is five years old, they'll probably have more control over her behaviour, so you’ll see fewer temper tantrums.

By five years, your child will speak more clearly, often using sentences of up to nine words. He or she will ask lots of questions and want to know the meaning of words.

New gross motor skills at this age might include skipping, jumping backwards or jumping while running. Your preschooler might also be able to write their first name and some letters and draw a triangle or a person with 8-10 body parts.

Dressing pretty easy for your child now. He or she can also use a fork, spoon and sometimes a knife. He or she can go to the toilet and bathe independently, although you still need to supervise them. 


Helping child development

Here are some simple things you can do to help your child’s development at this age:

  • Give your child lots of playtime. Play helps preschoolers express feelings like joy, excitement, anger or fear. Your child might like messy play – in mud or with paints – play with puppets or toys, or outdoor play with plenty of running, tumbling and rolling.
  • Make time for creative and artistic play. This might be painting, drawing or dress-up games. Musical play is another idea – your child might like to dance, jump around or make music with simple instruments.
  • Read with your preschooler. Reading together, telling stories, singing songs and reciting nursery rhymes all encourage your child’s talking, thinking and imagination.
  • Do some cooking with your child. This helps your preschooler to get interested in healthy food, learn new words and understand maths concepts like ‘half’, ‘1 teaspoon’ or ‘30 minutes’. You can give him or her simple things to do, like tossing a salad or putting together sandwiches.
  • Play games with your child that involve learning to share and taking turns. When you play, say things like, ‘Now it’s my turn to build the tower, then it’s your turn’, or ‘You share the red blocks with me, and I’ll share the green blocks with you’. Sharing is still hard for children at this age, so give your child lots of praise when he or she shares.

Worried about your child’s development?

Children grow and develop at different rates. If you’re wondering about whether your child’s development is ‘normal’, it might also help to know that ‘normal’ varies a lot.

If you really feel that something isn’t quite right with your child’s development, trust your instincts. See your child and family health nurse or GP.


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