The Preschool Years (Ages 4 and 5): What Happens Developmentally?

By — NYU Child Study Center
Updated on Jul 9, 2010

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
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