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
    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 more 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 the distinction to the preschooler 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 some positive 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 which 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 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 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.

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, 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)

Related Web sites:

National Parent Information Network

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry

American Academy of Pediatrics

About the NYU Child Study Center

The New York University Child Study Center is dedicated to increasing the awareness of child and adolescent psychiatric disorders and improving the research necessary to advance the prevention, identification, and treatment of these disorders on a national scale. The Center offers expert psychiatric services for children, adolescents, young adults, and families with emphasis on early diagnosis and intervention. The Center's mission is to bridge the gap between science and practice, integrating the finest research with patient care and state-of-the-art training utilizing the resources of the New York University School of Medicine. The Child Study Center was founded in 1997 and established as the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry within the NYU School of Medicine in 2006. For more information, please call us at (212) 263-6622 or visit us at